Gerry the Sinner, Gerry the Saint (Gerard Butler)
Credit: Vera Anderson / Getty Images
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.