Gerard Butler's Wild Ride
Credit: Photograph by Sam Jones
We're sitting at a picnic table overlooking the lake. You get the sense that sitting is a struggle for Butler. Anytime he's stationary, his knees start bouncing up and down like a kid in detention just dying for recess. He channels the energy by scarfing down a tuna fish sandwich and another Diet Coke.

As long as he's got his phone out, Butler has some more photos he wants to share. This time it's an album of all his on-set injuries. "I can show you some that are just crazy," he says, starting to scroll. "This is when I fell out of a car onto a bridge. This one's where I got hit in the eye by a bullet casing. That's an explosion that hit my arm – see all the flying debris?" He goes on for a couple of minutes.

Butler says injuries happen a lot. "Filming is a bloody dangerous business," he says. "You're not supposed to talk about it because it's not very sexy. And I don't want to sound like a whiner, because it is fun. But you take a beating." And that's on top of the injuries he gets from training – like the strained rotator cuff and tendinitis he got from lifting weights six hours a day for 300. He says in 15 years of working, he's missed only three days on set. "And that's when you start going, OK, I can do with a bit of extra help," he says.

Butler started taking painkillers after an injury five years ago. He'd been working on a movie called Shattered, doing a scene where the SUV he's riding in fake-crashes into a concrete wall. But when the cable that was supposed to catch the car before impact failed, Butler plowed into the wall for real. (You can see it in the movie; it's the take they used.) "I had bruised ribs for months," he says. "I had a headache every second of the day. I still have bulging disks from that fucking thing."

A few years went by with some mild discomfort, but when Butler filmed an intense fight scene in an adaptation of Shakespeare's 'Coriolanus,' his back went out again, worse than before. "It was like somebody sticking a spear in there," he says. "It would get bad, and I'd take something. But I would always stop."

After the Mavericks accident, though, things got bad fast. "I started taking more," Butler says of the pills. "And I started taking them very quickly." He says it never got to the point of full-blown addiction. But he knew it could. Which is partly why in February he checked himself into Betty Ford and enrolled in a pain-management program. "I was actually taking a minimal amount [of pills] when I went in," he says. "It was more about becoming a mental warrior and not letting pain bother you. The [instructor] would say, 'I don't want to hear about your fucking MRIs or your fucking X-rays. Let's go do kung fu, let's meditate, and let's learn how to say to the pain, Fuck you.'"

Butler's rehab lasted about three weeks. He says it wasn't easy. "They really do rip you apart," he says. "But it's like spring cleaning, you know? You get rid of a bunch of shit, realize a bunch more shit, and you make a plan."

At the time, there were rumors that he may have been struggling with harder drugs, or that he'd started drinking again. "That really pissed me off," Butler says. "I haven't had a drink in 15 years." Still, just a month after a near-death experience, a drug problem wouldn't be the most shocking thing in the world. After all, once you've been up to the edge like that, it's probably only natural to look for other ways to feel outside of yourself. Right?

Butler is quiet for a minute. "I'll just say that it put my mind in a place I didn't want it to be," he says. "I knew I needed to address some things. I just felt like I came so close to dying – and in some ways it was profound and scary, but in other ways it was just so normal. I thought, 'Here I am, close to the edge – but it's still me, still Gerry, thinking normally about my imminent demise.' And that freaked me out."

He sought out other help as well. "I went to a therapist to try and relive it, to get the energy out," he says. "Even that didn't completely take. I don't want to be a drama queen, but it's almost like a bit of PTSD." Sometimes he still has flashbacks when he sees big waves – in fact, he had one just the day before, watching a video on YouTube. "I remembered that feeling of being trapped, going under, and that complete lack of control. . . . " He trails off. "It's just . . . it's visceral."

In the end, he knows he made the right move in going to the Ford clinic. "Maybe a stronger person wouldn't have needed to go," he says. "When you hear the word rehab, you think, 'He's a mess, he's fucked up.' But I'm glad I did it. I've made a shitload of wrong decisions in my life. But I know I've made some right ones as well."