Gerard Butler in Playing for KeepsAs an actor there are often opportunities that arise whereby you can fulfil your lifelong ambitions, or at least to pretend to. Whether that be to fly to the moon, or wield a pistol in a Southern American desert, it’s a profession where actors can fulfil those dreams they had as young children. And for Gerard Butler he has done just that, playing as a professional footballer for his boyhood club Celtic in Gabriele Muccino’s Playing for Keeps.

Playing for Keeps follows the tale of George Dryer, a former footballer who, following a career-ending injury, is now washed up with little money nor prospects. However, when he takes over his sons’ football team, he hopes for the opportunity to finally form a bond between the two and start afresh – until the soccer moms start throwing themselves at him.

Butler discusses with us what it was like to pretend to be a Celtic player, while analysing his own footballing abilities (complete with a first-hand demonstration no less). The Scot also tells us of meeting his idol Henrik Larsson, playing a Leprechaun in upcoming project Movie 43, and of his near-death experience while on the set of Chasing Mavericks…

So did you see the script, see that football was involved, you had the chance to play for Celtic and just think… “Yep”.

No, believe it or not this script, when I saw it, was a baseball movie. It was called “Slide” and I thought, I can’t fucking play baseball [laughs]. I still have a rotator cuff injury from a movie I did years ago – another soccer movie about England playing the US – and in it I was supposed to do a baseball scene and I trained for months and hurt my rotator cuff and we ended up cutting the scene anyway, and I thought, baseball is a lot harder than it looks! Plus, we thought there wasn’t really an international market for baseball and it would be fun where I do a movie where I get to play football and then, for me being a Scotsman, we went to Celtic and said “Listen I’d love to play for Celtic and Liverpool, let’s make it a Kenny Dalglish thing”, so we went to both their clubs and they said we could use their footage and that’s where it went from. It felt like a nice transition, for a guy going from Glasgow to Liverpool [laughs] to DC United, to where am I? I’m in Virginia, a Scotsman in Virginia, trying to start a new life. The whole idea is kind of sweet, and yet, a little bit pathetic.

So how are your football skills? Did you really knock that bottle off the top of the crossbar like we see in the movie?

I did, I did do that. It took three days [laughs]. No, it didn’t take three days, I’ll tell you what happened – I had been practising a lot, just so I didn’t look like an idiot, and one night I had been taking shots from the right hand side, back behind the centre half spot and I hit the crossbar twice – once with the outside of my foot – and I thought “Oh my God, this is amazing” and then suddenly you’re there and there’s a crowd and you’re really close and it goes too low, or too high and then I realised the ball was flat, and to hit the crossbar you want the ball fully pumped, and at first I didn’t realise that. But after missing it twice, I decided to step up and kick it, and this wasn’t part of the movie, I was fucking up so I thought I may as well pretend I don’t give a shit. So I walked up and did this [stands up to give demonstration]. And I hit the crossbar – that’s the shot that you see in the movie – and that was a special moment for me.

That’s a pretty special skill.

It needs work and I practised it. It wasn’t really part of the scene, I was just supposed to hit the bar, but anyway in the end I did it, but my favourite moment was without a doubt the back-flick, because that wasn’t supposed to happen.

Have you ever played in one of those charity football games that actors take part in?

I played for Hollywood United a couple of times, many years ago, but I played in a charity game for Celtic after this movie and it got me back into it a little bit, and it was against Manchester United at Parkhead, in front of 60 odd thousand people. Which was maybe the most incredible moment of my life. I had a chance after about two minutes and I’m up there with Henrik Larsson and I’m playing Man. United and the ball comes to me, open goal, and although I was at the edge of the 18 yard box, it still wasn’t a bad chance, and all I’m thinking is [laughs] “I might be about to score against Manchester United. I might be about to score against Manchester United. I might be about to score against Manchester United”, then I hit it with my left foot and I’m not a left footed player, and I almost hit the corner flag, and that was about it for my chances during the game. I also played for the Rest of the World against England in a charity game at Old Trafford, it’s just fun to get out there and do it for a good cause, it makes it all the more exciting. I tell you, when you make movies you don’t get to disappear in that being in the moment, like you do with theatre or in sports games, so it takes you back, it was really exhilarating and terrifying.

You’ve worked with some huge stars, but when you meet footballers are you then a starry-eyed fan?

Absolutely. Like when I played in that Celtic game and Martin O’Neill was the manager for that game, he said, [laughs] “Gerry, okay, Gerry Butler I want you up front with Henrik Larsson” and I’m just sitting there thinking, I can’t believe I’m hearing this right now. So I went up and said to Martin, “What should I do?” and he said “Just go talk to Henrik”, so I went up to him and “ What should I do?” and Henrik said “Just hang off to my left or my right and I’ll knock it on to you”. And I didn’t expect even a year ago that I would be having these conversations with my absolute hero and so these are great moments in your life and without a doubt I’m as big a fan of… even other actors, but when it’s in a different field, like sports it’s different. I was at the LA Galaxy game when they won the MLS, I was at the game and I was standing next to Kobe Bryant and we chatted for ages, and he’s a really good dude. But at the same time you’re going, this is Kobe Bryant. I’m speaking to one of the best athletes of all time and he’s actually advising me on how to heal injuries and how he takes two ice baths every day. And I’m like, fuck, like I’m going to do that. I might be from Scotland… But yeah there are a lot of privileges and opportunities that come with this, and sometimes you take them for granted and when you sit back and realise, you think, wow, I did play in a charity game for Celtic against Man. United, I played at Old Trafford against England, I’m hanging out at those games, and you think, it’s a good life, you know?

Your next movie is Movie 43…

I keep forgetting that I did that [laughs]. Seriously, it was one days work and it looks like it’s going to be very funny, but when people bring it up I go, oh shit, there’s that…

And you’re playing a Leprechaun?

Well, it made that Irish part of me very proud. Have you seen the trailer for that? Do I say anything?

You do, you say something like “I’ll rip your balls off” or something.

Oh you’ve got that? Okay. Because this is one of my lines when he takes the tape off my mouth and I go, “When all this is over, I’m going to climb up your mother’s c**t and start a fucking camp fire”. That’s my typical line in this movie. At one point me and Colin Farrell were going to do it, we were going to play brothers, but he couldn’t make it [laughs] He conveniently couldn’t make it! “Oh wait, I need to cut my toe nails…” But I did both brothers, shit, why not? I’m making a fool of myself once so I may as well do it twice. This is a movie full of the most outrageous, sick, ideas, that people will either just deplore, or really dig, or at least appreciate, and I cannot believe the pool of talent, and what they got them to do from Halle Berry, to Hugh Jackman to Kate Winslet… Hugh Jackman has testicles coming out of his neck. This is part of the course with this movie, it’s one that won’t be easily forgotten, but for me it was one days work. A bloody long day, 18 hours, but still one day’s work.

Coming back to Playing for Keeps…

Yeah, why not.

Could you empathise with your character? Because your biggest role first came in 300 and you were old enough to take it all on board, but footballers get it all very young, and have all the money they could ever wish for… Are there any similarities to being famous as an actor?

Yeah I think that the similarities are pretty glaring of somebody who has tasted success and has tried to hold their centre throughout that success but it’s very hard when you’re in the spotlight all the time you’re getting money thrown money at you, fans throwing themselves at you, and you’re constantly being praised, and it’s hard to stay grounded, as an actor or sportsman. And it doesn’t really matter what age you are, it’s a lesson you’ll have to learn whenever success hits, but without a doubt for sportsmen it’s more difficult because in a sense you do stop developing as much when you are thrown into the limelight in such a big way, and it’s hard to mature and for certain parts of your character to develop as they would normally if that wasn’t your life. I could emphasise with this guy, you know, he’s a good dude. He’s not a nasty guy, he’s always tried his best, he’s just been living that life where it’s made it very hard for him to work out exactly who he is and what the most important things in life are, and he’s only now learning this at a later age when unfortunately those plaudits, and those highlights have gone from his life and he has to sit back and say “Who am I? And what do I really want?” and there’s something very sweet and kind of sad about that. I remember someone said to me once “You’ve got to give up the good for the better” and I kind of understood that.

Judy Greer described Muccino’s films as being about “the redemption of the common man”, is that how you approached this role?

You would say that, except George is not your typical common man, but when it comes down to it, he is. He’s an everyman. Listen he could have been a sports star, he could have been anybody, he could have been a lawyer, a garbage collector, but the fact is he’s come to that crossroads in his life where he says “What is important? What is it I really want in life?” everything is new to him right now, he’s in a new career, a new town and new people… And he is struggling and at some point he has to make some changes within himself, some sacrifices if he wants to move on to that next phase of development, whether spiritually or emotionally and that applies in this respect given the career that he’s had, but I think everybody identifies with that, because as we move through different ages as we go from high school, to university, to our careers, or out of our careers and start thinking about family, you always come to these crossroads where you have to evaluate where you should really be right now, and identify that with your peers. Well George looks around and everybody that he knows is a kid, the adults all have kids and are still married and a lot more going on in a more dynamic way than he does anyway.

George’s life changes when he picks up an injury and you yourself have picked up several injuries over the course of your career – how does that change your mindset when it comes to approaching stunts? Do you look to protect yourself more now?

I should do, but I don’t. I always go in saying “This time I’m going to be more careful” and then in my last movie – I wish you guys had been there – because if you had seen me I was like “I can do this, I can run and fly back and land on the ground” and that’s fine if you do it once, but after the fifteenth take and you’re cut to shreds and your elbows and all swollen up, I mean at one point my arm went black and blue all the way round because I was doing this kung fu move. I must have done it three hundred times, easily. By the next day my arm was black and blue and swollen all round, because when I’m doing it I’m not thinking about it, I’m just like “Let’s do this! Let’s make it look bad-ass!” and then two movies later when you still get a chip in your bone you think, why the fuck did I do that? When am I ever going to learn? But I do think it’s probably time to start using stuntmen more or just being a little more careful. But it’s hard because it’s part of what I love about this, you want to get in there, you want to do it. You want to be on that chopper, you want to be surfing that wave, you want to be in that fight, you want to be holding that gun. You want to be doing the shit that boys do.

You had a near-death experience on Chasing Mavericks didn’t you?

Yeah, I did [laughs]. That’s when I really though, alright, this is getting stupid…

What was going through your mind at that point?

It was very painful, not being able to breath for a long time… I’ve surfed a lot of different waves and this wave was probably 30 or 40 times more powerful than normal, it’s like you’re in an avalanche and you don’t know if you’re ever coming up and you can’t breathe and there is nothing you can do about it and it’s holding you down and you’ve lost your board and you’re spinning and spinning… Nobody can do anything for you because they’re miles away. And then you think, why did I do this? What was I thinking? But it’s too late. I remember other surfers talking about that and one saying “I could surfing two foot waves with my son in Hawaii right now” and I know there’s a lot of people who had those thoughts who never made it back up, who just thought why? Why am I doing this? The thing is, I did make it back up but it all started over again, nobody could get to me, so I went down again, twice. Without a doubt that put the fear of God into me. A lot of people get injured. If you speak to any actor there is always shit that goes wrong. I was in a car crash that drove straight into a wall with Pierce Brosnan driving the car. We smashed right into it, it was three feet high. The cable was supposed to hold us and it didn’t. I don’t know what happened but we were on the roof, looking over the edge of a car park, in a range rover, driving full speed towards the edge of this roof. This shit happens all the time, when you go, “Oh it’s fine, we’ve checked it,” but mistakes happen and the cable didn’t hold us and we smashed into the wall, came back, my neck went out, my ribs went out, I had bruised ribs for months. That’s the game you choose and that’s the fun of it, but then again sometimes ten years later when you’re still ribs cracked in… It’s fun!

Does that mean you’re in or out of the 300 sequel…?

I think they filmed it already, so I don’t think I’m in it. They offered it to me but it wasn’t really… I do wish them the best and I liked the script, but it wasn’t for me. I couldn’t quite understand what I was doing there in the movie, you know, except, you know, giving a political speech in it. It felt better for me not to be there.