How do true movie stars respond in the face of a bomb threat?
The show must go on, bien sur. Two hours after an anonymous phone call forced the evacuation of a Beverly Hills hotel, thrusting “The Ugly Truth” stars Katherine Heigl and Gerard Butler, along with a posse of journalists, onto the cozy median of the street and then across to a nearby Italian restaurant, Butler is back relaxing in his room, ready to laugh off the morning’s events.
“Now we’re sitting in the hotel where the bomb was about to go off,” the 39-year-old Scottish star says mockingly. “I’ve sent [my publicist] to check the vents.”
It’s been that kind of 48 hours for the bleary-eyed Butler, who finished a day of shooting in New York on his new action-comedy, “The Bounty,” with Jennifer Aniston, hopped the last flight to L.A., went on to tape Conan O’Brien’s and Craig Ferguson’s shows, attended an impromptu script meeting, walked the red carpet at his “Ugly Truth” premiere and then hosted a screening of a film he produced and stars in, “Law Abiding Citizen,” for a hundred of his closest friends, visiting with them until 2 a.m.
This said, no one can accuse Butler of not rallying. Stretching out on a couch, he’s musing on his own personal take on the perennial male-female divide, which is the leitmotif of “The Ugly Truth,” his new and somewhat raunchy R-rated comedy, as well as an obsession for the various female-laden Gerry Butler fan clubs that have been sprouting up around the globe.
In the film, in theaters Friday, Butler plays the unrepentantly macho Mike Chadway, who becomes an unlikely media sensation after airing his retrograde opinions about the differences between men and women in a TV bit called “The Ugly Truth.” His soaring popularity appalls the show’s producer, played by Katherine Heigl, who nonetheless draws on Chadway’s insights for help in snagging her dream man. Not surprisingly, sensitivity lurks under Chadway’s shield of id, and the film draws beats from such classic sources as “The Taming of the Shrew,” “Cyrano de Bergerac” and “When Harry Met Sally.”
Butler’s not-so-gentle advice to the opposite sex? “Pretty girls, lose the attitude,” says the single, 6-foot-2 Los Angeles transplant. “Who needs it? Life’s too short. You’re not a brain surgeon. In Los Angeles and New York, where there’s definitely a high concentration of beautiful women . . . a lot of them take themselves way too seriously. Their beauty feels like it’s become a weapon. There’s nothing more attractive to a guy than a beautiful woman who has her defenses down.”
He stops, and takes a second to edit himself. “Well, maybe not that. That sounds animalistic, like you’re on the prowl.” He then clarifies. What he finds most alluring is “a beautiful woman who seems unaware of it.”
It’s been a long time since a real man’s man -- one who reeks of brutish carnality and uninhibited good times -- has strode through a romantic comedy. Has one of the unintended consequences of women’s liberation, at least in movies, been the ultra-sensitizing of men, at least in the one genre in which women often play top dog? Butler himself has turned down a bunch of those roles, he says, mostly because the men “are normally these cookie-cutter characters. Very saccharine and sweet. The guys are often more like chicks.”
There’s no one on the planet who’d ever mistake Butler for what Gov. Arnold Schwarzenegger has famously termed a “girlie man.” He is handsome but not beautiful like so many American movie stars -- the Cruises, Pitts, DiCaprios and Efrons of the world. He has a physique like a soccer player, a slightly mashed-in face, mischievous blue eyes, an air of cheekiness, a dash of palpable decency and a kind of crackly, electric energy that hums almost obsessively, even though, on this particular day, he’s clearly exhausted. In his relative youth, this onetime lawyer (yes, you read right, a lawyer) was addicted to carousing and brawling -- now his drug of choice appears to be work; he has five movies rolling into theaters over the next year.
For many women, “The Ugly Truth” will be their first introduction to Butler, who’s primarily earned his Hollywood chops playing heroes and kings, most notably in his breakout role as Spartan King Leonidas in “300,” the visually spectacular film of Frank Miller’s graphic novel about the battle of Thermopylae. For the record, he’s also played Attila the Hun and Beowulf, plus an early panoply of men of action in such B-grade testosterone films as “Lara Croft Tomb Raider: The Cradle of Life,” “Timeline” and “Reign of Fire,” as well as the Phantom in the derided movie version of Andrew Lloyd Webber’s musical “Phantom of the Opera.”
Asked why he’s often cast as heroes of yore, Butler deadpans: “I think it’s because of my incredible power and charisma as a person.”
“I don’t know,” he adds with a laugh, though he notes that he’s something of a history buff. “I’m fascinated with history in a dreamy way. . . . To take on these roles, when you dress up and go on these locations. . . . I find it exciting and incredibly profound.”
And that crack about charisma? Only partly a joke.
“He’s the Bill Clinton of movie stars,” says screenwriter Kirsten Smith in a separate interview. Smith, who penned “Legally Blonde” and reunited with that movie’s creative team, including writing partner Karen McCullah Lutz and director Robert Luketic, for “The Ugly Truth,” adds that at the movie’s premiere “there were several men who said to me, ‘Gee, he’s really attractive.’ Heterosexuals find themselves oddly drawn into his orbit.”
“Having a strong male character provides a good counterbalance for a [tough] woman,” adds Lutz. “Gerry is the guy who will call you on your . . .. Every strong woman needs that. Gerry will definitely give you . . . when he feels you need it -- in a friendly big brother way. He’ll be like, ‘What’s up with your hair?’ ”
For Butler, part of the appeal of playing Chadway turned out to be Heigl, whom he met only two days before the start of principal photography. He says she is a sharp blond not overly enchanted with her own loveliness. “From the second we met, I was bowled over. I always felt that Katie keeps me on my toes. I had to be on my game all the time.
“Your nerve endings,” he says, relishing the memory, “they bristle a little more.”
“To be honest, I think I have chemistry with everybody,” he adds waggishly.
That statement, the actor says, wasn’t meant to come across as arrogant.
For Butler, the key to chemistry is making it work no matter what. Failure is not an option, he says. This is the guy who personally called Alan Horn, head of Warner Bros., to lobby for the lead role in “300.”
“There are times when you have less chemistry” with a woman, or even a male star, Butler says. “There are a couple of movies that I had to put extra effort into making the friendship work. You have to push it a little harder to make sure it works.
“Then again, that is probably balanced out by many areas where I lacked,” he adds, with a laugh. “And the other actors had to make up for my misfirings.”