Gerard Butler narrowly escaped being a lawyer twice over.
Before he began his acting career in earnest, Butler spent years studying to be a lawyer in his native Scotland and landed a job as a civil solicitor that lasted long enough to convince him he had no passion for the profession. Devoting less time to his apprenticeship than to the drink he has since sworn off, he was fired before he had a chance to practice and moved to London the next day, where he landed the part of Renton in the stage version of “Trainspotting.”
Years later, after “300" had made him one of the hottest stars in the movie industry -- and his roles in movies as wide-ranging as “RocknRolla” and “Dear Frankie” had shown he had chops to match his clout -- Butler and his manager, Alan Siegel, settled on “Law Abiding Citizen” as the inaugural project for their production company, Evil Twin. There was just one catch:
The leading role, the part toward which Butler would seem to naturally gravitate, was that of Nick Rice, an ambitious Philadelphia district attorney whose callous treatment of home invasion victim Clyde Smith touches off a murderous rampage directed at the justice system’s purported inequities. But as the project grew closer to fruition, Butler found himself reluctant to don a lawyer’s garb, even if only fictionally.
“Seven years of studying and training to be a lawyer,” he said with a rueful laugh on the movie’s set in February. “That’s what made me not want to be the DA.”
In fact, an overview of Butler’s career shows he’s never been much for traditional leading-man roles, and the more he sat with the script, the more he found himself gravitating toward Clyde, whose grief over the murder of his wife and daughter has driven him to construct an elaborate and largely self-propelled vengeance machine that continues to dispose of the people involved in cutting a deal for his family’s killers even after he is behind bars.
The desire to play a psychotic mastermind rather than a champion of justice did not sit well with Butler’s representatives. “I had been saying to my guys for a while that I was interested in playing Clyde,” he recalled, “and my agent and my manager were like, ‘That’s interesting, but just shut up.’ ” As the part was rewritten to make Clyde more human and less Hannibal Lecter, they began to come around. “The more I talked to them, it was like, ‘You know, you haven’t really done this before.’ ” Butler grins, his forehead smeared with ash from the explosions being filmed a few dozen yards from his trailer. “Also, they were having a hard time, crazily enough, finding a successful leading man who they felt could take Clyde on. They were worried about the effects of playing a character like that.”
Butler’s flipflop cleared the way for Jamie Foxx, who saw Nick as an equally compromised character whose ambition overrides any qualms he might have about the system he controls.
“My character is [Rudy] Giuliani coming up in the ‘70s,” Foxx says. “The people he was putting away were all bad guys, but he was moving up the ladder. He had his sights set on being mayor someday.”
To prepare for the role, Foxx spent time with a black DA in Louisiana, a state that incarcerates a higher percentage of its black population than any other. “Eighty percent of the people he has to put away are African American,” Foxx says. “How does he do that? It’s like, ‘I have to do my job.’ So basically that’s my thing. I have to do my job.”
“Nick’s been applying the letter of the law,” Butler says. “It’s just questionable as to the morality and as to the sensitivity of how that’s been applied, because it doesn’t always provide justice, and it doesn’t always provide any support or comfort to the victims. In that way, it’s very much a true comment to what happens today. And I think that my purpose is to come along and teach him that and teach him that people have to be accountable for their actions, whatever profession it is they’re carrying out.”
While stressing that the movie, which opens Oct. 16, is primarily a high-stakes chess match, both actors talked up the film’s political undercurrents.
Butler touched on the ethical compromises of criminal defense, which he calls “a disgusting way to live,” and Foxx invoked the Harrison Act, the anti-drug laws pushed through by invoking the specter of black men driven into a lustful frenzy by cocaine use. But director F. Gary Gray, who stepped in after original director Frank Darabont left the production, downplayed any deeper resonance.
“I’m not looking to change the world necessarily,” he said. “If they want a message, they can go to church.”