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By all accounts, Gerard Butler is a wild man.

He stopped drinking at 27. This followed his stint as a law student at Glasgow University – where he gulped his way through a degree, smashed bottles over his own head at pubs, ran in front of cars, and even once woke up in Paris, miles from where he’d been at a party, covered in gashes and blood, and, years later, still couldn’t tell an interviewer what happened (because he honestly doesn’t recall). Upon graduation, he drank his way through his first job as a civil lawyer trainee in Edinburgh until he was sacked, a week before he was due to progress.

Butler moved to London to become an actor; penniless and chasing a dream he’d had since watching American movies as a kid. Shortly thereafter, he was approached in a coffee shop by Steven Berkoff, who gave him a role in a production of Shakespeare’s tragedy Coriolanus. This was just one of many stage parts wherein Butler honed his craft, including playing heroin junkie Mark “Rent Boy” Renton in the theater adaptation of Danny Boyle’s Trainspotting (’96).

Butler owns a beefy allure – green-eyed and barrel-chested; smile bright, but his handsome face weathered – miles upon miles of international road showing on his 48-year-old mug. He’s the sort of “man’s man” performer we don’t really see much of anymore – forged in the flames of old school genre movie icons like Rod Taylor, and should they ever remake Dark of the Sun (’68), one hopes whoever’s producing has Butler’s agent on speed dial. Because he would make one hell of a Captain Curry, leading a band of mercenaries through the Congo as he seeks to steal $50 million in diamonds.

Or perhaps the lines on Butler’s face are a result of the numerous reinventions he’s already undergone during his 20-year career. While those who live and breathe DTV action movies trekked out this past weekend for Den of Thieves the sleazy-looking directorial debut from London Has Fallen (’16) screenwriter Christian Gudegast – Butler’s transformation from rom-com leading man to burly B-Movie action freak appears bizarre and laughable to most. Yet beneath all the foul language, bloody violence and bellowing laughter is a legitimate commitment to persona, which Butler has cultivated while traversing a rather rocky road to Hollywood stardom.

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The Early Years (and Dracula 2000)

It began with Mrs. Brown (’97) – a costume drama in which Queen Victoria (Judi Dench) falls for a servant (Billy Connolly) following the death of her royal companion. Butler plays Archie Brown, the younger brother and confidant to the Queen’s new lover, who’s quick to warn his sibling of the dangers of this new relationship. It’s a solid screen debut, as Butler gets to spit wisdom in his Scottish brogue, sounding experienced beyond his years. This turn would be followed by a bit part in Pierce Brosnan’s second (and arguably worst) appearance as James Bond in Tomorrow Never Dies (’97), where Butler plays a radio operator on the HMS Devonshire – a ship in the Royal Navy intentionally sent off-course into Chinese-held waters.

After the single series stint on the ill-fated Young Person’s Guide to Becoming a Rock Star (’98), Butler had his first brush with B-Movie acting in Tale of the Mummy (’98) – Highlander (’86) director Russell Mulcahy’s schlocky stab at updating the old Hammer Films formula for the direct-to-video crowd (complete with a Christopher Lee appearance). Butler portrays a member of an excavation team who gets a little too fascinated by one of the monster’s ancient relics, thus leading his character to plunge down a seemingly bottomless cavern. It’s a role that adds up to roughly nine minutes of screen time, yet stands as the first mile marker on Butler’s highway toward the most memorable segment of his resume.

If someone were to ask you how to define the output of Miramax’s genre arm Dimension Films during the ‘90s, the easiest way might be to simply show them a copy of Patrick Lussier’s Dracula 2000 (’00). Luke Mulcahy’s The Mummy, it’s another Hammer riff – only this time on the contemporary updates the British studio pulled during the last gasp of their glory years (think: Dracula A.D. 1972 [‘72]). It’s still the Dracula you know and love – right down to the last voyage of the Demeter, the Count’s sexy brides (played here by Jennifer Esposito, pop star Vitamin C, and Jeri Ryan), and his adversary being a descendant of Van Helsing (Christopher Plummer) – only now there are Virgin Records stores and Omar Epps plays one of the thieves who accidentally steal the Prince of Darkness’ coffin during an elaborate heist.

Something tells this writer that Butler’s roles in forgettable UK productions like Fast Food (’99) and One More Kiss (’99) weren’t considered when producers cast the budding heartthrob as the most famous vampire of all time. In fact, Butler’s barely allowed to say a word for half the movie’s runtime, instead looking menacingly sexy (not to mention slim) while stalking about a popping Mardi Gras setting. But there’s something undeniably magnetic about this new Count, with his flowing grunge band locks and piercing eyes. The movie might not be that great (or even good, for that matter), but Butler’s certainly having the time of his life wearing all that black, and embracing a different sort of vamp in his heart. It’d still be a little while before his true destiny would come calling, but there’s certainly a spark in the star’s step that’s infectious.

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Gerard, Lord of Adventure

Butler returned to television for a string of overlooked projects, such as starring (alongside mentor Berkoff) as the eponymous conqueror in the USA Network’s Attila (2001) mini-series, and playing an adjudicator in the Masterpiece Theater courtroom drama The Jury (’02) before pure pulp came calling again. This time, it was Rob Bowman’s post-apocalyptic men vs. dragons opus, Reign of Fire (’02), where Butler’s everyman discovers allegiance with Christian Bale’s peaceful London colonist looking to take a stand against Matthew McConaughey’s bald, marauding general. It’s nothing flashy – though, to be fair, little is when compared to McConaughey’s scenery chewing – but again showed Butler gravitating toward a genre work with an odd narrative hook.

Reign of Fire also marks the beginning of the next way Hollywood producers and casting agents tried to utilize the actor’s roguish screen persona. Butler’s biggest role up to this point came the very next year in Jan de Bont’s sequel to the video game cinema hit Tomb Raider (’01). In The Cradle of Life (’03), Butler is Terry Sheridan – old flame of chronic spelunker Lara Croft (Angelina Jolie) – who helps lead her to the mythical Pandora’s Box. Tomb Raider: The Cradle of Life is an awful motion picture, but Butler’s certainly straining to really cement his place as Hollywood’s next dangerously appealing leading man. However, The Cradle of Life tanked at the box office, sending the performer packing from the tentpole stage.

Richard Donner’s piss poor adaptation of Michael Crichton’s Timeline (’03) saw Butler teaming up with a group of time-traveling archaeologists to try and retrieve one’s father (Billy Connolly again) from Medieval France. Joel Schumacher’s The Phantom of the Opera (’04) was a lavish attempt at bringing Andrew Lloyd Webber’s iconic musical to the big screen, with Butler behind the mask. The Game of Their Lives (’05) made Butler the captain of a US soccer team, who went on to defeat England in a 1950 exhibition match. To wit, Butler was game to traverse not only the world, but history itself, sing his heart out, and even jump into a sports uniform, if it meant bringing his Scottish visage to a wider audience.

However, the strangest role Butler tackled came from Canadian filmmaker Sturla Gunnarsson, who transformed the classic poem Beowulf (’05) into a live-action Danish epic, with our man in the title role. This came just a year before Zack Snyder’s 300 (’06), which launched Butler and his washboard abs into another stratosphere of superstardom. Joined by Stellan Skarsgård, Beowulf is a blood-splattered adaptation that only grossed $4,000 in the United States, and less than $100,000 worldwide. This was the lowest point of Butler’s attempts at becoming a movie star, pigeonholed as this thickset, period piece king that seemingly no one wanted to watch. He was another Sam Worthington; an interchangeable handsome face that could easily be replaced.

Obviously, Beowulf was not a proper gauge of Butler’s potential popularity, as he soon screamed “THIS IS SPARTA!” to the tune of $450 million worldwide. Snyder’s green-screened, hyper-violent epic was the vehicle Butler needed to become a household name, his impossibly perfect body and gruff voice now echoing through the dreams of guys and girls all over the globe. Additionally, his turn as King Leonidas was a precursor to what would become his bargain bin action identity – this husky hero who’d put down his sword and pick up a slew of automatic weapons, firing off countless rounds at his adversaries.

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