On a sunny day out along the Pacific Coast Highway, heading up past Malibu in a dark SUV, destination a biker-boozer-surfer roadhouse called Neptune's Net, Gerard Butler – Gerry to his friends – has his eye cast out to the sparkling blue sea and just for a moment seems lost deep in thought. He has been in this neck of the woods before, but a long time ago, under far different circumstances. Now he's a movie star, a Scottish transplant with a killer crooked smile who slayed as King Leonidas in the epic Spartans vs. Persians bloodfest '300,' then went the way of rom-coms and high-octane action films. In the past few years, he's also had the good fortune to be linked to everyone from Lindsay Lohan to Jennifer Aniston; in fact, he can't say hello to a woman without it being said they're a hot-and-bothered item. Plus, he owns houses in New York and L.A., vacations in India and Brazil, usually drives a BMW Z8, and no longer has to do his own grocery shopping. Sweet stuff. Everything's roses. Right now, as well, he's got a Coca-Cola in hand and is loving every minute of it.

"It's my first one in three days," he's saying, happily taking a big swig. "There are times, though, when I'll have six in a day. It depends on the mood I'm in, whether I'm Gerry the addict, or Gerry the saint, or Gerry the whatever it may be. Yes, there are way more Gerrys than I would like. There really are."

Which brings him back to the last time he was in these surroundings, in the mid-1990s, before he even became an actor. He was midway through law school in Scotland, had come to Venice Beach for an apprenticeship that never materialized and stuck around for a year. He was Gerry the addict then, a big-time drinker and party maniac. "I actually can't remember those times so well," he says, squinting with the effort. "The good old days. I once drove from L.A. to Chicago in this horrible whiteout of a snowstorm – you could not see one foot in front of you – and the car, this little Pontiac, was sliding all over the place, making funny noises. It would have been scary if I hadn't been smashed out of my head. I didn't say that. I'm kidding! I wasn't. I really wasn't. But sometimes I would leave L.A. and wake up in Florida and think, 'How did this happen?'"

While he was in California, lots of other stuff happened too. For instance, he got arrested a number of times, usually because he was drunk and disorderly. At one point, he ended up in a Los Angeles jail, shackled to eight other evildoers, real bad guys with no saint sides to them whatsoever, thinking, "I'm going to die! I'm going to die!" – at a time when, back home, he was still president of the University of Glasgow Law Society.

But that's the old Gerry. The new Gerry, at the age of 40, hasn't had a drink in 13 years. The new Gerry still might get in scrapes with the law. Last year, he was arrested for punching out a paparazzo. But this Gerry does not suffer unduly. He was acquitted.

And so down the road he moves, closer to Neptune's Net. It's a place he says he's never seen before. But he's heard about it. He's heard tales. It has a reputation. He wants to go.

Pulling in, he scratches at the stubble on his chin and looks around. The motorcycles. The battered picnic tables. The seagulls and seagull crap. The ocean over there. The Porta-Potties right here. "Oh, yeah," he says, a lightbulb going on somewhere in his head, an old memory illuminated. "I never went in, but I did stop here once before." He smiles that crazy fractured smile of his, then jumps out of the car and heads toward this place he's never seen before for the second time in his life.Let's not be coy here. according to the nation's movie critics, with the exception of '300' and maybe 'RocknRolla,' Butler's recent movies have generally sucked the big one. Here are some of the adjectives used to describe his three 2009 movies ('Gamer,' 'The Ugly Truth,' and 'Law Abiding Citizen'): "ghastly," "lackluster," "sexually crude," "insipid," "utterly mechanical," "loathsome," "preposterous," "relentlessly ugly," "very nasty," "cacophonous mess," "outlandishly crass," "miasmic upchuck." To top things off, early word had it that Butler was going to be nominated for a Golden Raspberry Award, a Razzie, in the always-heated worst actor category (though in the end, mercifully, he wasn't). But as far as Butler and his career are concerned, here's the outlandishly preposterous and relentlessly beautiful part: Those movies didn't flop. In fact, 'Law Abiding Citizen' and 'The Ugly Truth' were outright hits, grossing more than $300 million combined, worldwide. Rarely has the disparity between critical reception and audience response been so pronounced. Even if his newest movie, 'The Bounty Hunter', an action rom-com co-starring Jennifer Aniston, is another stinker, chances are that Butler will come out of it looking good.

There's only one explanation for this, of course: Butler himself.But what, exactly, is his appeal?

Today, inside Neptune's Net, all is revealed in a matter of seconds. He's standing in line, looking at the menu, when a nice-looking middle-aged woman and her man friend come up to him.

"Excuse me," the woman says, "I don't mean to interrupt you–"

Butler wheels on her. "Well, don't, then. I just learned that I could be up for a Razzie. This is an important moment for me as an actor. I almost feel like crying. I feel like I just won an Oscar but the other way around.
Should I kill myself? Should I kill everyone else? What?"

The woman blinks furiously, trying to piece all this together. His words, his snorting laughter, his dancing blue-green eyes, the Scottish burr compounding everything. He's a big guy, too, more than six feet tall, and thick. Blithely, she goes on, "I'm very impressed with you! P.S. I Love You is our favorite!" (2007 rom-com: "grating," "excruciating"). She nods at her man friend. "Well, not his, mine. And did you do all of the singing in Phantom of the Opera?" (2004 musical: "bloated," "tedious"). "Oh, that's where I fell in love with you. And, well, Dear Frankie, I love you in that, too" (2004 drama: "heartwarming," "touching," "solid storytelling and subdued acting," "undeniably sweet," "a lasting love letter," "terrific performances" – let's give credit where credit is due). "You were fabulous!" She shoves a wine bottle in his direction. "Would you sign this?"

"Absolutely, of course," says Butler. Then he lowers his voice and says, "I'm doing an interview right now, but if I wasn't, I'd be like, 'Fuck off, fuck off, fuck off, fuck all of you!'"

Butler's kidding again, but the woman takes a step back.

He scrawls on the wine bottle, returns it.

The woman frowns. "That's awesome," she says, "but what does it say?"

"It says, 'Gerry Butler,';" Butler says, pointing. "I'm signing a fucking wine bottle, it's not the easiest thing in the world, all right?"

That noted, he gives her a great big hug, wrapping his arms around her, and you can see her melt into him. And there it is in a nutshell, the key to Butler's appeal. He's a take-charge, foul-mouthed joker with a willingness to hug. "That's the way he is in person, and that's the way he comes across in his movies," says '300' director Zack Snyder.

And he's just so many other damned things besides. He's athletic, loves his mountain biking, his skiing, and his surfing, his latest new pastime. (He used to be a ferocious badminton player, too.) He's the kind of fellow who likes to pee in the shower and says that sometimes, while visiting friends, he'll take a crap in a pot and hide it for them to find later. (He's kidding about that, he says, but the way he says it, you never know.) Finally, if he puts on a few pounds, develops a gut and guy boobs, he does not keep his shirt on and stay off the beach, out of the paparazzi's sight. He lets it all hang out. Now that's a man. And that's why, despite certain of his movies, he is currently being called "everyone's favorite Scottish hunk," not to mention general-purpose all-around-town bon vivant and ladies' man of a very high order.

He is sitting at a table now, over fish-and-chips and another Coke, legs jangling as he looks at a list of names on a sheet of paper that has been slid in front of him. Jennifer Aniston, Cameron Diaz, Naomi Campbell, Jessica Simpson, Cheryl Burke, Lindsay Lohan, and Shanna Moakler, all names that have been appended to his in one way or another. It would be churlish to ask him to name names, but how about a number – of those seven, how many has he in fact slept with?

He barks out a laugh, takes up a pen, makes a mark, pushes the paper back across the table. The number is one.

This is, of course, terribly disappointing. It's a travesty is what it is. He's single, they're (mostly) single. He should be out there making hay.

"Yeah," he says almost sheepishly. "I think I get laid less now than I used to, because I'm way more paranoid now. Look at fucking Tiger Woods! I mean, I'm nowhere near as naughty as I used to be, partly because I did a lot of that when I was drinking. I'm not saying I've cut that part out. I'm certainly no angel. There's no smoke without fire. But here's the thing: While they're accusing me of that, I've probably been off somewhere else doing damage with someone else. I'm pretty smart like that. I know how to get away with these things."Given where he comes from, and what he's been through, he's probably right about that. His father, Edward, was a bookie and a scoundrel in his hometown of Paisley, a run-down cotton-mill community a few miles west of Glasgow on the northern edge of the Gleniffer Braes, and while Butler was still in utero, his father fled to Canada, having bankrupted the family by taking on too many risky bets. He, his mom, Margaret, and his two older siblings, Brian and Lynn, eventually joined him there; but after two years living in a failed marriage, his mom gathered the kids up and returned to Paisley, $4 in her pocket, where she put herself through secretarial school and raised them herself. "I was born into a world of anxiety," Butler says. He spent most of his early years avoiding trouble in the streets by pretending he was in the army and out on maneuvers. "I was a very, very feeling boy," he recalls. "I know that sounds weird. But my memories are mostly of feeling the intensity of things, especially in sports – football, badminton, or volleyball – and thinking I was going to explode."

Meanwhile, he was an excellent student and in his senior year at high school became "head boy," an elected position in which he was supposed to act as primary role model for the younger boys. By that time, he was already drinking and trying to figure out what to do next. Briefly, he thought about medicine but then realized, "I'd be the surgeon who would do 10 great operations, then manage to stab somebody in the brain while they were getting their tonsils out. I was the kind of person who could do great things but also come up with some fuckup of ginormous proportions."

Naturally, it only made sense for him to become a lawyer, which is what he set about doing, earning an honor's degree from Glasgow University. Around this time, his father, with whom he'd been reunited since the age of 16, died of cancer, sending Butler into a tailspin that led to his long, hard-core partying break in California. That out of his system, he returned to Edinburgh to join a law-trainee program at the buttoned-down firm of Morton, Fraser & Milligan. He couldn't stand it, hated it, stayed drunk most of the time, skipped work whenever it suited him, and kept wondering to himself, "What the fuck happened?" leaving the partners no choice but to fire him – with only one week left in the program. And with that, he jettisoned seven years of work and preparation, with no thought as to what he would do next, other than to go out and down his next pint.

He was quite the carouser. "I was kind of crazy when I was drunk," he says. "It was never really brawling – I mean, if it was, it was with myself. 'Check this out, this is funny,' and I'd hit myself in the head with a bottle and wake up with lumps everywhere. Or I'd want to climb up a building, or jump off something, or play chicken with cars. And whatever I say I used to do is probably only 5 percent of what I really used to do."

A few days before getting canned, however, Butler saw a stage production of 'Trainspotting' at the Edinburgh Fringe Festival and now decided, just like that, that he was going to become an actor. He'd done a bit of acting as a kid, as a myrrh-carrying king in a Christmas pageant and a street urchin in 'Oliver!,' and during a five-week drama course at the Scottish Youth Theatre, but other than that, not much. Nonetheless, at the age of 25, he moved to London, worked odd jobs, and eventually found his way into the theater (first play, 'Coriolanus,' 1996: "stylized," "filmic," "visually rewarding"), then into British movies (his first, 'Mrs. Brown,' 1997: "highly resonant," "extremely well acted"), then into Hollywood movies (his first biggie, 'Lara Croft Tomb Raider,' 2003, with Angelina Jolie: "no reason to exist," "shoddy," "egregiously insipid").

And then, in 2007, came '300.'

He first met '300' director Zack Snyder at a Peet's coffee shop on Ventura Boulevard, and he arrived prepared, with a copy of the graphic novel and a head full of ideas for how King Leonidas should be played. Snyder remembers it well: "He got superexcited. He stood up – he's not shy – and he was showing me exactly what it would be like and did not hold back. He didn't quite jump on the table, but he was close to it, and everyone's looking at him like, Oh, jeez." Says Butler, "You talk about the different Gerrys. I walked into that meeting a monster, really a warrior. I was totally into that sense of flow, jumping around, raving on, where there's no self-image, no thinking about who's looking, no worrying about anything."

In the beginning, Warner Bros. wanted a bigger name for the part. "They didn't say Tobey Maguire," says Snyder, "but it's like that, right? He's awesome, but he's not Leonidas. Leonidas has to be a man. I was like, 'This is the king we're talking about.' And then they were cool with Gerry. He's a big guy. He's got a deep voice. He's scrappy. I believe he was perfect in that part." So he got the job, firmed up his abs, donned a toga, lifted a sword, and made mincemeat out of the Persians, to a gross of more than $450 million – and his immediate arrival as a movie star and gossip-column regular.As it happens, butler has a good bit of endearing weirdness to him. He's always saying outrageous things, then thinking better of them, and trying to pull them back, full of regret. For instance, did he become friends with Jennifer Aniston during the making of 'The Bounty Hunter'? "Very much so," he says. "Over Christmas, she had a tree-trimming party that I went to. Yeah, I trimmed her bush. Shit. Please don't put that in." Iced tea – he hates it ("I hate iced tea!").

Sleeping on his left side – he loves it ("I love sleeping on my left side!"). Biting his toenails – he used to, but he can no longer get his foot up to his mouth. Heroics – he's your man. While on a picnic once with his mom in Scotland, he heard the screams of a young boy about to drown in the River Tay; he jumped in, rescued the lad, and was later awarded a certificate of bravery from the Royal Humane Society. And he wasn't even famous yet.
Sensitive? Sure. Just ask Aniston. "You don't get more of a full-blown guy than Gerry," she says. "But what makes him so appealing is that he's also really vulnerable. And without pretense. He'll be the first person to joke about the fact that he's been on a cleanse for five days and a cupcake just went by and he just couldn't help himself. He's unbelievably likable."

Fielding intrusive questions? Yup, he can do that, too, albeit with a yelp.

Is he comfortable with the size of his penis?

"What the fucking Christ kind of thing is that to ask?" he barks. But then he warms to the question nicely. "I am, actually, yeah. It's maybe the one area of my life where my confidence surpasses the reason to be so. I remember at school the joking about penis size: 'Oh, I have to wrap it around my waist and stick it in my pocket!' I'd joke about mine being tiny, because I knew mine wasn't tiny, but I knew theirs didn't go to the moon either. So when we all turned up in the showers, they'd be looking down at theirs – 'Maybe I can't wrap it around my waist; maybe it won't even reach my hip' – while I'm like, 'This is just fine.';"

And then there's his smile. His smile is totally weird, this off-slant, half-downward-sloping slash without which it'd be hard to imagine him. And yet he wasn't born with it. It came later, some time after his 10th year, when he developed an ear infection that led to surgery, a case of tinnitus (which he still suffers from, minorly), and the loss of half the hearing in his right ear. The episode had two other consequences. One he didn't find out about until he was filming 'Tomb Raider'. "I was born with two sticking-out ears, and after the operation one ear was really thrown back in, but I didn't realize it until I had to shave my head for that movie. Everybody went, 'Holy fuck, one ear sticks out way more than the other one!' And we literally had to glue it back." The other consequence was his smile. "I know a couple of other people with crooked smiles, and it turns out they're hard of hearing in one ear." That's his most current explanation for it. He's had others. "When I was younger, I looked like I had a stroke – I mean, you never know – and because my mind sometimes feels like it's melted down, I'd think, 'Maybe I did have a stroke!' That would sure explain a lot of things."

Butler is surprisingly open about this sometimes melted-down-feeling mind of his. Late in the day at Neptune's Net, he says, "I am slightly addicted to anxiety. When I'm feeling anxious, I'll create more anxiety for myself. Like I might call all these people about what's fun to do tonight and end up with four different options, which in itself would put me into a blind panic; but then I'll make another four calls just to make it 10 times more anxiety-ridden."

He looks at his watch. In 20 minutes, he has a business appointment that will take him an hour to get to. It's with Marc Foster, the director of his next movie, 'Machine Gun Preacher', which actually sounds like a good one, the true story of a former drug-dealing biker type who found God and went on the war path to save Sudan's child soldiers. Butler really should get up and get the heck out of here. Instead, he continues talking.

"That I got through all that I got through to be where I am, it doesn't make sense – this kind of lost soul studying law in Scotland and then moving to London with no experience as an actor, and with his morals not about him, who couldn't keep his shit together, who couldn't even feed himself properly, and to get ahead in a career like this, which is probably one of if not the most difficult professions to get ahead in – nothing else makes sense except to think that I was being guided and all this was meant to be, the same way you see the crooked smile as a blemish or imperfection, or being fired as a lawyer horrific, when those are the very things that end up helping you.

"My thing now is to appreciate the cosmic beauty of everything that's happened. But then again, do I spend a lot of time in my own head judging myself? Absolutely. Have I ever thought I was a fraud? Maybe 18 hours a day. Do I spend more time damning myself than promoting myself? Absolutely. In the last five years since coming out here, I've had two relationships. I'm not a big relationship guy. One of my vices is, I'm too wrapped up in myself and not always in a good way. It's not like I walk around going, 'Hey, I'm amazing; I'm Gerry Butler!' But I am too caught up in my own shit, good and bad. The whole banging-the-bottle-against-my-head thing that I did as a kid – it's a metaphor for how I've loved to cause myself pain. I've spent a lot of time taking the path of most resistance instead of least.

"Maybe I have an important meeting," he continues. "I don't consciously turn up late, but I will find that I subconsciously create circumstances that'll make me so late that on the way I'm going, 'Why would you do this? This is so fucked!' And by the time you're in the meeting, you're in negative land and you have to try to fight yourself into positive land. I'm always battling that."

Outside Neptune's Net, it's dark, and a million lights glow in the distance. Having talked himself silly without taking a break, Butler heads off to the Porta-Potties, where a guy lurking about gets him to sign his shirt. The minutes are ticking by. He hasn't even looked at his watch. He is so fucked. And he doesn't even know it. But here's the great thing about being Butler. It won't matter how late he is. It'll all work out fine, and soon enough he'll have yet another good reason to sit back and once again appreciate the cosmic beauty of everything that's happened.