Gerard Butler's Wild Ride
Credit: Photograph by Sam Jones

Gerard Butler is cruising through Shreveport in his blacked-out Range Rover – plaid shirt half unbuttoned, aviators on, A/C going full blast in the Louisiana heat, lost in another story about flying in a Russian MiG or mountain climbing in Scotland – when he's struck by the realization that he's taken a wrong turn. This is not an uncommon occurrence: Between his storytelling and a mild case of ADD, Butler gets lost quite a bit. (Once, at home in L.A., he was trying to drive from Hollywood to Santa Monica and somehow wound up in Pasadena.) "I apologize," he says, punching buttons on the GPS. "I'm a little scattered." He cuts across two lanes of traffic, doubles back across a bridge. "Fuck it," he finally says, laughing his big Scottish laugh. "Let's just go for a drive."

It's classic Butler – a glimpse of that why-the-hell-not optimism that makes him utterly, lovably up for anything. It's the same impulse that got the 42-year-old actor his first big break, when he ignored Tinseltown protocol and phoned the head of Warner Bros. directly to lobby for the role of 'roided-up King Leonidas in the Spartan splatterfest 300, which vaulted him onto the A-list at age 37. ("Faint heart never won the fair lady," Butler says, quoting what I can only imagine is a 14th-century Scottish proverb. Nope. "I got that from a nature program about a male shrimp trying to fuck a female shrimp.") It's that same gusto that propels many of Butler's real-life adventures – like the motorcycle trip he took from Rishikesh, India, up into the Himalayas – a journey that ended early when he drank some water from the Ganges and wound up puking his guts out at 14,000 feet. And it's the same mix of enthusiasm and self-confidence that, on the set of his newest movie, a surfing drama called 'Chasing Mavericks,' almost got Butler killed.

He'll get to that story in a bit. But first, Butler has some fun planned – and damned if he'll let a little thing like getting lost slow him down. He pulls onto I-20 and punches the gas. He was pulled over for speeding here the other day. "I was literally doing about 100," he says. "I went flying past the police car." The cop was angry, but when he walked up and saw the guy from that movie with Jamie Foxx (that would be 'Law Abiding Citizen'), Butler got off with a warning. "That," he grins, "is definitely one of the upsides."

From the passenger's seat, it sort of all looks like upside. Butler is one of those regular-dude movie stars who got famous relatively late in life and thus seems about 10,000 times more appreciative of it. Back in his twenties, after he'd graduated from law school in Glasgow and was taking a break in L.A., he appeared as an extra in 'The Bodyguard.' It wasn't until he got fired from his legal job, at age 25, that he seriously considered giving acting a try.

Butler's been in Shreveport since July, filming a movie called 'Olympus Has Fallen,' in which he plays a Secret Service agent trying to recapture the White House from North Korean terrorists. A lot of actors would have been less than thrilled to spend two months in Louisiana during the steamiest time of the year, but Butler loves it: the bayous, the cypress trees, the way the light looks at sunset. Last year, he shot another movie here – a soccer-themed rom-com called 'Playing for Keeps,' a title he can't even say aloud without laughing – and he rented a house on a big lake. The production was headquartered at a park nearby, and a lot of mornings, he'd kayak to work. "I'd go out at 6 am, and the whole lake would just be covered in mist," he says. "It was so cool."

The thematic distance between a White House–saving badass and a Jessica Biel–wooing soccer dad pretty much sums up Butler's work. Ever since '300,' he's had two parallel careers: one as the gruff, surly action star of such aggro dude candy as 'RocknRolla' and 'Gamer' and the other as the gruff, surly anti-heartthrob of rom-coms like 'The Bounty Hunter' and 'The Ugly Truth.' The duality has won Butler a fan base that cuts across genders and age groups while simultaneously earning him pretty much zero critical props.

That could change this fall with 'Chasing Mavericks,' a surfing biopic co-directed by 'L.A. Confidential''s Curtis Hanson. The movie tells the story of Jay Moriarity, a Santa Cruz surf prodigy who, at 16, was believed to be the youngest person to ride the legendarily huge Northern California break known as Mavericks. Butler, in acid-washed jeans and a beat-up VW van, plays Moriarity's mentor, real-life surf guru Rick "Frosty" Hesson, who teaches his young charge about surfing and life while training him to tackle the deadly wave. Butler's performance is a genuine tearjerker, one that's already garnered at least one early rave; says the real Frosty Hesson: "I think it's an awful lot like me."

But either way, Butler won't sweat it. He's not a guy who takes himself too seriously. He makes no bones about admitting when his movies suck ("Some of them do turn out like shit. I look back and go, 'What was I thinking?'") and jokingly refers to the ridiculously campy 'Dracula 2000' as "probably my best piece of work." This afternoon, he tells a story about a hotel in town that recently named its screening room after him – the Gerry Butler Theater. "Now, I'm not a guy who's going to have monuments named after me, so I was proud of that," he says. But then he was bragging about it just the other day to his 'Olympus' co-star Angela Bassett, who's staying there now. "I went on and on," Butler says. "And she didn't have the heart to tell me that they'd renamed it the Angela Bassett Theater instead."