Scottish action hero Gerard Butler lives out boyhood dream

Gerard Butler says the intense sword-fighting scenes he needed to film in Gods Of Egypt forced him to get into shape.
Gerard Butler says the intense sword-fighting scenes he needed to film in Gods Of Egypt forced him to get into shape.PHOTO: REUTERS

Gerard Butler, who plays a god in Gods Of Egypt, has always had a soft spot for escapist fantasy flicks

If a fortune-teller had come to Gerard Butler at the start of his acting career and predicted he would end up wearing a leather skirt and brandishing a sword in some of the biggest films of his career, the star says his response would have been "Yes, please!"

His role as Spartan king Leonidas in 300 (2007) and 300: Rise Of An Empire (2014) - a historical fantasy set in ancient Greece - has given the 46-year-old Scottish performer a bit of a taste for swords-and- sandals movies.

Speaking to The Straits Times in Los Angeles, the Hollywood star reveals he has always had a soft spot for escapist fantasy flicks, which is why he was happy to revisit the genre in his new film Gods Of Egypt, where he plays the power-hungry Egyptian god Set.

"I love to do different kinds of movies, but there definitely is a kind of eternal temptation to  dive back into these worlds that, ever since I was a kid, I've been entranced with - the ideals, the mythology, the escapism," says Butler, who is also a star of romantic comedies (The Ugly Truth, 2000) and action movies (Olympus Has Fallen, 2013).

"And those feelings - those classic kind of primal values, almost - that they bring up in you are very powerful to me."

He was bitten by the fantasy bug because of a crazy dream he had about 1983's Krull, a B-grade fantastical science-fiction movie about a prince on an epic quest.

In the dream, I was half living in this world and half making a movie, and two things came out of that: One, I have to live in and escape to those worlds and, two, I have to be an actor.

GERARD BUTLER on dreaming he was in 1983 science-fiction movie Krull when he was 15 years old

"I had a dream when I was  15 that I was in Krull, which is not a particularly great movie, but when you're dreaming, it becomes the best movie ever. And I was standing there with the princess, and the power of her love was so all-encompassing, and there were wizards  and kings standing at the top of the valley looking down…

"In the dream, I was half living in this world and half making a movie, and two things came out of that: One, I have to live in and escape to those worlds and, two, I have to be an actor," says the Scottish star, whose first big Hollywood movie was also an escapist adventure, Lara Croft Tomb Raider: The Cradle Of Life (2003), with Angelina Jolie.

In Gods Of Egypt, which opens in Singapore tomorrow, Butler is Set, the ancient Egyptian god of the desert and of darkness, who becomes locked in a power struggle with his nephew Horus, played by Game Of Thrones star Nikolai Coster-Waldau.

The intense sword-fighting and other action scenes forced Butler to whip himself into shape and get back the buff bod that made him a cinematic heart-throb.

But the actor - a noted Hollywood Lothario who has dated an impressive line-up of models and actresses including Jessica Biel and Ashley Greene - confesses that he did not quite manage to get as ripped as he was for the graphic novel-inspired 300 movies, which featured highly stylised action scenes.

"I got in pretty good shape, but I don't think I'll ever be the shape that I was in for 300. It was a while ago," he says, grinning.

Without these roles, he probably would not hit the gym all that much, either.

"I get a lot of things done in my life, sadly, because of movies," says the jovial star. "I go, 'Oh okay, I need to learn to surf, I need to learn to sing, I need to learn to fight, or I need to get my body back," says Butler, who sang in the 2004 film adaptation of The Phantom Of The Opera and says he had a near-death experience learning to surf for the movie Chasing Mavericks (2012).

"If I wasn't an actor, I dread to think what I would be doing with my life or my shape or whatever," he chuckles. So tackling the usual diet-and-exercise preparations for Gods Of Egypt inspired in him "part dread and part inspiration".

As fit as he got for his new film, however, he did not anticipate that one of the biggest physical challenges would be the footwear - specifically, the skin-chafing sandals he and Coster-Waldau had to wear for the story set in ancient Egypt.

Actors often get "knocks and bruises" during sword-fighting and other action scenes, but nothing compared to the pain of having to slip those sandals on day after day.

"I've never experienced blisters like this and I've done a few swords-and-sandals movies," he says.

He and Coster-Waldau "had blisters within blisters within blisters, to the point where they were becoming ulcerated" and never had any time to heal because the actors had the footwear on every day, once for nine straight days of shooting fight sequences.

"Literally the second you put them on, you'd go, 'Oh Christ, here we go.' And you hadn't even taken a step."

Directed by Alex Proyas (The Crow, 1994 and I, Robot, 2003), the film relies heavily on computer- generated visual effects to fill out those fight sequences and convey Set's and Horus' god-like qualities and special powers.

Even so, Butler says he got a rush of blood to the head filming them.

"The first fight we had, at the coronation scene, was in front of a lot of people and it was a fight we put a lot of work into - after months and months of preparing your body, you finally feel the right to wear that skirt, and not feel like you're skimping or cheating.

"So you feel very powerful and strong, and you've worked on this choreography and now you're really feeling it. It's all led to this one moment and it's adrenaline- filled and exciting and nerve- racking because you've got to pull it off and not kill somebody or yourself.

"And you know you're making something that's going to be pretty memorable."

While Gods Of Egypt is far more visually sophisticated than the original swords-and-sandals films of the 1950s and 1960s, the actor says he "envies those movies sometimes" because the absence of computer-generated effects made it easier for performers to immerse themselves in these fantastical worlds.

"They physically had everything there - they actually shot them on location, they had thousands of extras, they had horses and carriages and castles, and we don't get that now.

"I've worked with elements of that before in my career and I love having them. Because you feel you're right there."

Butler will next appear in London Has Fallen, which opens in Singapore next month, and sees him reprise his role as Secret Service Agent Mike Banning from Olympus Has Fallen.

There are no swords or sandals here, but Butler promises that the story and action - which has Banning trying to protect the American president (Aaron Eckhart) from an assassination plot in London - will be just as thrilling.

Again, the make-believe elements are part of the appeal for the actor. "It's better than the first movie - it's non-stop action and definitely a thrill ride because it's a ridiculously over-the-top concept like the first one, but, at the same time, there's a lot of reality to it as well and it's pretty gritty," he says enthusiastically.

"I get to take the president on a road trip through London - this is the most powerful man in the world and suddenly we're on the road and don't know where the hell to go.

"That makes for a great idea for a movie because you don't know what's coming to you next."

•Gods Of Egypt opens in Singapore tomorrow.

A version of this article appeared in the print edition of The Straits Times on February 24, 2016, with the headline 'Bitten by fantasy bug in a dream'. Print Edition | Subscribe