King Of The Fans

Gerry Butler is so popular in Japan that when he arrived in Tokyo in 2005, 2,000 swooning fans met him at the airport. Those are more screaming Japanese than have ever bothered to greet Tom Cruise--at least according to Tamara Halstead, who runs, one of several Web sites dedicated to the brooding Scottish heartthrob. Halstead says her site averages about 30,000 visits a day and has received almost 7 million hits since its launch in 2001. Some of these fans meet up at annual conventions to deconstruct what it is that they love about the 37-year-old actor: his self-effacing charm, as well as his rippling muscles, entrancing eyes and sexy chin. This summer 400 fans will converge for a convention in Butler's hometown of Glasgow. They're the lucky ones; the event sold out within 24 hours and 300 hopefuls remain on the waiting list. Yet few mainstream moviegoers have ever heard of him.

That's about to change. This week his latest film, "300"--a historic epic about the Battle of Thermopylae, based on a graphic novel by Frank Miller--will debut to eager anticipation at the Berlin Film Festival. Playing Leonidas, the king of the Spartans, Butler leads a tiny army of 300 against Xerxes' massive Persian forces. Warner Bros., the film's producer, has high hopes for the box office--in part because it has generated so much Internet buzz. "Gerry carries the movie," says the film's director, Zack Snyder. "There was a concern that if we had an actor who people did not know, they wouldn't know who to follow in this tale. But Gerry has such powerful charisma and presence, you just want to be led into battle." And "300" isn't the only Butler vehicle on tap; the thriller "Butterfly on a Wheel," in which he costars with Pierce Brosnan, will also be screened in Berlin this week. His love story "P.S. I Love You," with Hilary Swank, comes out later this year.

Butler is no doubt as surprised as anyone by his turn in the limelight. Growing up mostly in Glasgow, he was a good student and a hard-core Celtic Football Club fan who dreamed not of Hollywood stardom but of the scales of justice. He served as president of the University of Glasgow Law Society and graduated with honors; his focus was on European Community law. But one week shy of qualifying as a lawyer, he was fired from his traineeship at an Edinburgh firm. "That day I got fired was the worst day of my life," Butler says. "They were so nice but they said, 'Let's face it, this is not for you. Your dreams lie elsewhere; go and sort yourself out'." And so the next day he moved to London and got a job as an assistant to a stage director. Before long, Butler himself was treading the boards.

Small television roles led to parts in films like "Mrs. Brown" and Michael Crichton's "Timeline." Though Butler has appeared in leading roles before, he has not registered with a wider audience because he's been either eclipsed by his leading ladies (Angelina Jolie in "Tomb Raider") or literally covered up (he played the title role in "The Phantom of the Opera"). Staying below the radar screen suits him just fine. "I want to still be able to sit on my arse in a New York café without anyone taking notice of me," he says. But "300" may soon make that impossible: Butler fairly bursts from the screen with a physical energy that is stunningly compelling.

What seems to attract fans, apart from his seductive swagger, is his devotion to them. When members of gerard raised $6,000 for a cancer charity (his father died of the disease), the actor matched their donations. He has been known to make phone calls or send notes to fans. Halstead considers him a friend, and vice versa; "I was one of his guests at the 'Phantom' premiere," she says. The number of fans clamoring for his attention is only going to grow. One project Butler hopes to take on next year is a biopic of the Scottish poet Robert Burns. "It is a project I am passionate about, and though it has been a struggle to get financing, it is my full intention to make it," he says. After the premiere of "300," King Leonidas is more likely than ever to get his way.