Gerard Butler Talks About "Dear Frankie"

Gerard Butler stars in Dear Frankie
Gerard Butler and Jack McElhone in "Dear Frankie". © Miramax Films
Mar 2, 2005 - What I considered to be one of the best movies of 2004 is finally getting released in 2005. Way back in December 2004 I went to a screening of “Dear Frankie,” starring Emily Mortimer, Gerard Butler, and Jack McElhone, just a few weeks before it was scheduled to hit theaters. Then right before its release date, the film was pulled from the schedule and moved to 2005.

To be honest, that’s not usually a good sign.

Studios release films they want to push and show a little extra support for during the last quarter of the year, not in the first few months of the year. Fortunately, “Dear Frankie,” a film that was on my list of the Top 10 Best Films of 2004 until it got bumped, isn’t one of those throw-away efforts delayed from theatrical release and then allowed to quietly slip into theaters without any expectations. This is a film which deserves support and will hopefully find the right audience now that the Oscars and other award show contenders are finished grabbing the attention of moviegoers.

“Dear Frankie” is an absorbing, emotionally moving story filled with characters the audience can relate to, and told without any pretensions. The story follows 9 year-old Frankie (McElhone) and his single mother, Lizzie (Mortimer). Lizzie’s a good mother who is very protective of her deaf son and who tries to keep from him the real story of the father he doesn’t know.

Instead of telling him the truth about his missing dad, Lizzie invents a story that Frankie’s dad is a sailor who is off on adventures around the globe aboard the HMS Accra. Lizzie even goes as far as writing letters pretending to be the missing dad. When the HMS Accra turns up in port, Lizzie’s forced to call on the services of a stranger (Butler) to play the role of Frankie’s dad.

After speaking to Gerard Butler about his role in “Dear Frankie,” I’ve settled on the opinion there ought to be a law requiring Scottish actors to always use their natural accents in roles. So what if it doesn’t fit the character? Butler, with his talent and charm, could pull it off. Butler’s as pleasant an interview as you’d expect, answering questions that ranged from relating to his character in “Dear Frankie,” to inspiring an extremely dedicated group of fans on the Internet, to starring in “The Phantom of the Opera” and the upcoming “Beowulf and Grendel” and “Burns” movies.

A note of warning: There is one “Dear Frankie” spoiler tucked away at the very end of the interview on page five. If you haven’t yet seen the movie, don’t read the answer to the question marked “Spoiler.” You’ve been warned.

INTERVIEW WITH GERARD BUTLER (‘The Stranger’):

“Dear Frankie” was filmed a couple of years ago. How tough is it to get passionate about a movie you worked on a couple of years back?
It takes a little bit of getting back into again. But then again this movie, I think, is so special to Emily [Mortimer] and I. We’re so proud of it, everybody involved actually, that I think out of all the movie’s I’ve done, I think it’s the easiest one to muster up the passion and belief again.

What made it so special for you?
Well, to start off with it was a beautiful script and I just found it so gorgeously crafted. And I found the story so unusual and fresh and original. I found it moving whilst also being funny. It was full of twists. It was sweet and yet melancholy and uplifting. It was so many things and told to me in a very different style of storytelling.

I always felt that if we could all go in and throw it all away and be so understated, then it could really come across as just a truthful little fairy tale, if you could say that. The experience of being back in Scotland, of working with Emily who I already respected so much, of working with Shona [Auerbach, the director] and Andrea [Gibb, screenwriter] – people who believed in it so much.

There was always something very special attached to this project.

It was a passion project for so many people and to see it come and be a movie, and to see the reaction that it had and has had all around the world at all these different festivals from so many people, for them to be so kind of profoundly affected by it and feel so strongly about it, it has just been great. For all the more reason because it’s just a little movie. But it’s something in a way that you feel you helped discover.

Page 2: On Working with Kids and Bonding with the Cast

This movie was scheduled to come out late last year. Why did it get pushed back to 2005? Had it been released in 2004, it would have been on my Top 10 movies of last year.
I know! For many reasons, but I think they decided they wanted to bring it out after “The Phantom,” figuring that would help. There was certainly a beautiful buzz going on last year and now it feels like, as you say, we’re having to kind of get that momentum going again.

This is one of the few movies I’ve sat through where the audience at the end has been left wanting at least another ½ hour with these characters. Is there any chance you’d revisit these characters?
Oh, I doubt it.

Never been discussed. I would have no problem with doing it. Now generally I don’t like doing remakes but I think that’s more in the cynical world of Hollywood where normally remakes are purely for commercial reasons. I think that actually it would be quite fascinating to discover those characters again because so much is left unresolved and still an issue with the audience. (Laughing) They come out and say, “What happened to them?” And, “What do you think happened after this?” And that’s great to see. But it would be nice to open up some of those issues but then still create yet more unresolved problems.

Your "Dear Frankie" co-star, Jack McElhone, is just a kid. Do you find it easy to work with young actors?
Hmm, yeah… I mean, you have certain problems and certain issues just by the nature of them being kids, as you would have had if you would have worked with me when I was a kid. I’m sure far more so, you know?

Jack [McElhone] has so much energy and so many things going on in his life, that at times you had to remind him that he was making a movie. He did work really hard and is fantastic in the movie, but sometimes you felt he would rather be off playing football or video games (laughing). And yet he always turned in a stellar performance and did his homework and was there.

So there are times, yeah, that it could get to you. But more often than not, I find the process more of an inspiration than anything.

Did you do anything special to bond as a cast?
No, we just really hung out. We had like a two week rehearsal process and we spent a lot of time together. We kicked the ball about together. We talked a lot and had fun. Our real bonding was actually kicking the shit out of each other. We had this thing where literally we would attack me from behind. He’d kick me in the ass, punch me in the stomach, and then I kind of started doing it to him (laughing). So we would fight a lot but… There was a lot of fighting, you know? I was amazed what a great bonding experience that was. But he’s such a great little kid. It’s kind of easy to bond with him and have fun with him. He has the most incredible imagination and he’s so much fun to hang out with. It was lovely.

This movie could have been overly sentimental. It could have turned into just one of those romantic movies but it never does. How tough was it to walk that line, to make a truly emotionally touching movie without getting sappy?
It was something that we really had to play through in rehearsals, and we really had to focus on.

I think that Shona [Auerbach] really was careful in her choice of actors for the roles. And we always had to remember that at every moment. It was like, “No, don’t choose those moments. Don’t understand the power that you have in those moments.”

I think the pressure was especially on little Jack [McElhone] to play that character as not some cute little boy who you feel so sorry for because he’s deaf. He was a spunky kid. His deafness is just a fact of life. We didn’t focus on it. You dealt with him more as just a normal human being who had issues at school, who had issues with his mom and his father and his friends at school, etc. Just living his life, you know? And one of those other issues was that he was deaf. But that wasn’t the whole point of the movie. And I guess those things were seriously considered and thought about.

That’s what I love about this. If you just tell the story of what the story’s about, then it sparks curiosity but I think it also arouses suspicion, as you say, that it could be overly sentimental. But it so isn’t. And I think it was all about doing the inner work and then underplaying everything. And so I know for me, that’s what I was constantly thinking was just, “Bring it down. Give it truth. Give it realism.” Because if you can do that and an audience can relate to you as a human being who’s not purely good or purely bad, but he just is who he is, then that’s what sucks you in. In a way, that’s what sucks you in to this beautiful little fairy tale.

Page 3: On Indie Films, "Phantom of the Opera," and His Fans

Did you find much in your character in "Dear Frankie" that you could relate to?
Oh, I always find stuff in my characters to relate to. But ‘The Stranger’ especially. There was very much the loner side of him, which I know I have within myself, a side of solitude. I think people who know me can see, but people who just meet me can’t because I’m generally very fun and gregarious. But I love to spend a lot of time on my own.

I can seriously go into my own head and often love to let myself travel where I don’t know where I’m going. I always felt that that was his kind of form of escape, in a way. And then my own history. I spent many years not knowing where my dad was so it had an immediate [connection]. Not knowing if my dad was alive even. He turned up when I was 16 out of the blue. So the scene when Frankie is confronted with this man who he thinks is his dad, I mean that destroyed me when I read it.

That must have really hit home. How do you play past a scene like that?
Well, you understand those feelings but you don’t necessarily play them because that was Frankie’s role, not mine. Frankie was me, I was my dad. So I can’t take on too many of those feelings. But it was what I allowed to be pulled out of me when I came to understand Frankie’s plight. It’s what made me care about the movie so much, in a way.

Why don’t we learn your character’s name?
I think because that’s what is so enigmatic about that role. It’s a man with no past, present or future. She didn’t want to know anything more about him. It was just simply somebody to step in and perform a function, and the less known about him, the better. And I think that’s kind of what helps suck the audience in again, you know?

Who is this man and where does he come from? Why don’t we know more about him? Again, I think it’s unusual. And as soon as a name becomes involved, there’s more identification. It grounds things a little more, which is probably what we didn’t want to do.

Is it important for you to mix up the big studio roles with independent films?
Oh absolutely. I mean, I made “The Phantom” although “The Phantom” was, believe it or not, an independent film. It was just a very large, expensive independent film.

You don’t think of it that way.
(Laughing) No, you don’t, but it was. And, actually, you could see such a difference in how it was made. You were still working with large sets but you had that more kind of informal feeling. There was a more direct relationship simply with your director and one hands-on producer, than when you’re involved in large studio movies where there are so many cooks in the broth. So believe it or not, you could sense the independent nature of “Phantom.” But absolutely, I love to do films of all shapes and sizes and feelings and genres. So for me to go from “Tomb Raider” straight into “Dear Frankie,” there’s nothing that excites me more than to keep mixing it up.

Speaking of “The Phantom of the Opera,” I have never encountered fans as passionate as yours are. I wrote a review of the movie and I have never had a response to a review like I did to that one…
Did you write a good review?

I wrote a very glowing review. In fact, it was on my Top 10 list of the best movies of 2004. I love that movie. It was beautifully done [said while just realizing I would have in fact had two Gerard Butler movies in my Top 10 list if "Dear Frankie" hadn't been yanked from release].
Well thank you. I’m so glad you liked it. It’s funny because when I do interviews and people say, “What were your top 10 movies of last year,” I actually want to say, “Well, ‘Phantom’ and ‘Dear Frankie’.” (Laughing) You can’t really say that but now that you’re talking about it…

Feel free to say it.
So that means two of my movies were on your Top 10 list?

Yes, but "Dear Frankie" didn’t get released so I had to take it off. Back to the responses I received to my review of "The Phantom of the Opera," how does it feel to inspire fans, total strangers, that way?
I know, I know.

I think that’s beautiful. Some people say, “Don’t you think that that’s weird?” And actually, no. Maybe I look at it too naively but I think that the fact that I have touched those people as opposed to another actor or person... Because when I choose my roles and very often when I play them, you imagine that if you connect with something like this, then there surely are going to be a few other people out there who are going to feel those feelings. I know that when I play roles I often feel those feeling so intensely I can’t describe it. And they are often exceptionally poignant or life-changing feelings, and I think that just some other people get that. And when they get that, they feel it strongly about it. And how can you not be happy at that?

I think it’s one of the nicest privileges as an actor is to know that you can move people in one moment, make them think about their lives, or make them laugh or make them cry or make them understand something. Or just make them feel something because I think so many of us, including myself, spend too much time not feeling enough, you know?

Page 4: On Playing The Phantom and "Beowulf and Grendel"

Aside from your character in “Dear Frankie,” is there a character you’ve played that has really remained with you and stands out from your other roles?
The Phantom. I think The Phantom, as well as being backed up by that music, it just so was a role that I identified with so powerfully. From the first second that I walked on to perform, despite being very nervous about taking on that iconic role, my first big day filming was “Past the Point of No Return.” And from the second I started, it just all came alive and I felt the electricity running through me, you know? And every take we did… There were so many moments in that movie where I just thought - the power and attachment and feeling that I had while I was performing felt so immense – and I thought, “I wonder if I’ll ever have this again as an actor?”

You put so much into it, does it matter to you how it’s received by the public?
It really does, yeah. I mean, I care so much and there’s a point where I have to push it away and say I can’t let this drag me down. Because at the end of the day what matters is that you do your best in every job you do. But of course you would rather your movie does well (laughing). You want it to be as critically well-received as possible and you want it to do as well with the public as possible, because it means that they’re getting what you’re doing, or what you’re trying to say, or appreciating your work. So yeah, it does. But then if think the movie’s not going to turn out, I quickly try and disassociate those feelings and push myself away and say, “Oh well.”

And you just completed work on “Beowulf and Grendel?”
It was amazing. Again, it grabbed me because it was so unusual. Everything about the structure of the script, the depth of the characters, was just what you wouldn’t expect in a Hollywood period piece movie about warriors. It’s deeply psychological and deeply spiritual, and very weird and profound.

When I sat there and talked to the director he said, “I want you to listen to this music and I want you to look at these locations.” And I said, “I’m only doing this movie if you’ll do it in widescreen.” He went, “Okay, I’ll demand that.” And then I listened to some of the most incredible, stirring, moving music. Even that didn’t conform to any kind of formula.

I looked at these landscapes and I knew the story in my head by this point, which I think is ten times the depth of the actual poem of “Beowulf.” And then I thought, “You know what? I need to do this.” But again, that’s an independent movie. That, I think, is the chance to be both artistically appreciated and commercially appreciated. That’s what you hope for.

It sounds like it's more character-driven than you might expect.
I think there’s a lot of action in it but I don’t think that’s what it is about. That’s not what the poem is about. They’re both about the life and maturity and development and death of a great warrior. I think the poem is far more about Christian ideals. The movie steps outside that and shows Christianity washing over those Vikings. But in actual fact deals with who is to say what is good and what is evil.

The poem is much more about pure good versus pure evil.

Whereas the movie, Beowulf goes to take on this troll who they all perceive as a demon and filthy and ignorant and sadistic, only to discover that that’s not actually the case. It’s just something that nobody had ever taken the time to understand because it’s different. And yet at the same time, he knows he’s on this kind of inevitable path towards conflict just because he’s a human and it’s a troll. But in some ways it is more pure than half of the people that he associates with (laughing).

Page 5: On the Possibility of Starring in a Movie About Robert Burns

Is it true you are planning on starring in a movie about the life of Robert Burns?
Well, that’s the plan. We have a script, which is magnificent. Julia Stiles wants to do it. Brian Cox wants to do it. We’re going to fill that with the best cast of actors, and one of my best friends is directing it – Vadim Jean. I’m so excited about it.

You look at “Million Dollar Baby” that just won all the Oscars. They couldn’t get that financed for love nor money, you know?

“Ray” – they couldn’t get it financed and then even when they made it, they couldn’t get distribution. So this is a movie about a Scottish poet which could be wonderful, but is obviously difficult just to finalize all the pieces of financing. But I hope to do that by sometime this summer.

Does playing a man who is so beloved worry you at all? It seems there would be added pressure to get it right.
Yes, but I’ve dealt with a few of these now having played Attila and Dracula and Phantom. You quickly learn to kind of, in some ways, let yourself off the hook in that respect. As long as you do the best work that you can and not make it bland because you’re going down a lane that is trying to make everybody happy. You have to take an angle on these things. That’s what we did with “Beowulf.” That’s how I approached the role of The Phantom. I took a specific lane knowing that as for as much as this was going to make some people appreciate it all the more, others just wouldn’t get it.

And that, to me, is a more exciting way to go about acting than giving a performance that you think will just kind of keep everybody generally happy (laughing). So we had to take an angle on Burns, and I love the angle that we’ve taken.

I’m sure, at the end, you can never keep everybody happy, especially the Scots - I hate to say this - if you’re dealing with one of their national heroes.

No matter what way you do it, there’s no way you’ll keep everybody happy. So I’ll expect some praise and I’m sure I’ll get a lot of abuse (laughing).

******”DEAR FRANKIE” SPOILER ALERT*******

[Don’t’ read this answer unless you’ve seen “Dear Frankie”]

What do you think happens after the film ends? What does your character do?
Well, the old romantic, optimistic part of me would like to think I came back and started a relationship with the boy. And you know, I would think he came back more frequently, simply because of what I did. That I actually took on the mantle of that role that he had, of the father who’s a sailor who writes letters and really loves the boy – and then eventually came back and settled. That’s the optimistic part of me. There’s also the part that likes to think that maybe he did just leave and that maybe that was it. That it was just a beautiful moment in time.

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Murray, Rebecca. "Gerard Butler Talks About "Dear Frankie"." ThoughtCo, Aug. 30, 2016, thoughtco.com/gerard-butler-discusses-dear-frankie-2422916. Murray, Rebecca. (2016, August 30). Gerard Butler Talks About "Dear Frankie". Retrieved from https://www.thoughtco.com/gerard-butler-discusses-dear-frankie-2422916 Murray, Rebecca. "Gerard Butler Talks About "Dear Frankie"." ThoughtCo. https://www.thoughtco.com/gerard-butler-discusses-dear-frankie-2422916 (accessed November 18, 2017).