Someone has set out a table of food, which Butler sets to work demolishing. Cheese, crackers, cookies, grapes – all of it shoveled into his mouth. He washes it down with the rest of his double latte, and then a Diet Coke for good measure. He drinks a lot of Diet Cokes; they've sort of replaced cigarettes for him. He smoked for years, at one point sucking down 60 a day. He tried to quit 40 times, in ways that sound like a torture scene from one of his movies: hypnosis, lasers, sodium pentothal. At one point he prayed for the strength to quit in the Church of the Holy Sepulchre, the Jerusalem site where Jesus is said to have been buried. "If this guy can die for mankind," he thought, "the least I can do is quit smoking." He felt an epiphany, saw a bright light – and four hours later, bought a pack of Marlboro Reds.
"I think, on a basic level, I have a pretty addictive personality," Butler says. "Both good and bad." In his twenties the bad could get pretty heavy, when he'd drink too much and do something stupid, like smash a beer bottle over his head, or play chicken with a car, or hang off the railing of a cruise ship at 5 am, belting out Rod Stewart's "Sailing." He often looks back on those days and is genuinely surprised he's still alive.
Butler doesn't miss that, but he does enjoy the stories. Butler loves telling stories – and he's got a lot. There's the time he got to play in a charity match for his favorite football club, Celtic, in front of 50,000 fans ("It was, honestly, maybe the high point of my life"). The time he got himself and two friends stranded on a glacier in Iceland at 2 am because he forgot to turn his headlights off ("Because I'm an idiot"). The time he and a different friend were riding motorcycles through Arkansas, and Butler lost his key and had to be rescued by some Harley-riding evangelicals ("I was very close to joining a Christian biker gang").
Butler is curious, a searcher. When he's attracted to something new, he attacks it all-out. Take meditation: For years people had been telling him to try it because they thought it would calm him down. So finally, in true movie-star fashion, he made a pilgrimage to a Hindu temple in India and did. "I learned to meditate and give blessings," he says. "It sounds crazy, but I came back and literally felt like I had fucking fire coming out of my hand. I'm walking around thinking, 'Shit, I'm Jesus Christ.'" He went just as all-out when he was introduced to his girlfriend, a Romanian lingerie model named Madalina Ghenea. The night they met, Butler invited her to go to Iceland. "I've been impulsive," he says, "but not that impulsive. I just had a good feeling."
When he took the job on 'Mavericks,' Butler also dove in headfirst, schooling himself on surfing the way Frosty schools Jay in the film. He started in Hawaii with Laird Hamilton, who taught him about the philosophy of big waves and did his best to scare the shit out of him. Then he got a house in Malibu, where he surfed with a coach every day. He had trouble at first, like the time he got dragged 40 yards by a 12-foot wave. "I hadn't learned to take on whitewater yet, so I just got clobbered," he says. "By the time I got back to the beach, all I could think was, 'It's really going to hurt my career, but there's no way I'm doing this movie.'" But he was back in the water the very next day. "That fear," Butler says, "is very addictive."
Butler was awed by the big-wave surfers. "Going out there, being at Mavericks with those guys – it was heaven to me," he says. "When the sun's going down, and you're out there in the water, I thought, 'This is another life.'" He's the first to admit that he felt like an "imposter" and a "poseur" in such revered company; he even had a room at the hotel reserved for his boards. ("They were sleeping in beds," chuckles Grant Washburn, a real-life veteran of Mavericks who consulted on the movie. In Butler's defense, he says it was more about having access to them 24-7 than a diva move.)
"At the end of the day, what I was doing was really basic," Butler says. Still, when he caught his first wave at Mavericks, he couldn't help but be proud. "It was like the first fight I did in 300," he says. "I felt like, wow, I'm really kicking ass." The only downside was that when he was back in the water the following week, filming some final paddling scenes, he'd been lulled into a false sense of security.
"Big-wave surfing is a cat-and-mouse game," Washburn says. "You're constantly trying to get as close as you can, and it's really just a matter of time." The last day out at Mavericks, "I kept trying to pull Gerry back – and he kept moving over. And sure enough, a big one came and got him."
"We saw it coming half a mile away," Butler says of the wave, which he says was as loud as a volcano. "But there was nothing you could do." Surfer Greg Long, who was in the water with Butler, started shouting at him to paddle away: "Go, Gerry! Fucking go!" But it was too late. When he realized Butler wasn't going to make it, another surfer named Zach Wormhoudt yelled at Butler to take two deep breaths. He managed one, and then the wave hit.
Butler says he pretty much got caught in what surfers call a two-wave hold-down, where a wave forces you so deep so fast that you can't get back to the surface before the second one hits. He was trapped underwater for nearly a minute. "It just went on and on," Butler says. "It was absolutely terrifying."
Butler was pretty sure he was going to die. "You know how people say you get a sense of peace?" he says. "I didn't experience that. It was violent." Washburn managed to reach him on a Jet Ski, and eventually an ambulance took him to the hospital. "You're lucky," the paramedics told him. "The last surfer we picked up here was dead."
Sitting in the sun today, Butler pulls out his iPhone. "I have footage," he says. "You probably don't want me to show it to you, but I'm going to – because it looks pretty cool, and because I'm fucking proud of it." He fires up a video. "So this is me here in the red," he says. A Butler-like figure is on his stomach paddling furiously when all of a sudden a huge wave fills the screen, and he just disappears. The cameraman pans around for a second, and then shuts the tape off. When the next clip starts, Butler is behind Washburn on the Jet Ski, his face completely drained. "That's me trying to throw up," he says as he coughs up water in the video. "I thought my head was going to explode. Crazy, huh?"
Butler had already won the approval of the surfers, but that afternoon, he won a little more. "He earned a lot of respect that day," says Hesson. Washburn agrees: "Some guys have an experience like that and they don't want to take a bath for a month, but Gerry really wanted to keep playing." After the accident, Washburn recalls telling him, "You're a big-wave surfer now!" Butler's response: "I don't know if I want to be!"
After that, the insurance company wouldn't let Butler back in the water. "Probably a wise decision on their part," he says, "but I was bummed. I would have gone back in a second."