‘Oh my God, it’s Gerry!’ from The Herald Magazine. When I wrote this piece back in 2007, Gerard Butler was making modest inroads into Hollywood, and his profile at home was far from buoyant. But when a good friend alerted me to a fan convention taking place in Glasgow, where 160 of Butler’s rabid US fans would spend several days touring his birthplace and old haunts, I knew there was a story there. Not to mention a very entertaining weekend in company of some lovely, sincere folk.
AS A place of pilgrimage, Overton Water Treatment Works in Greenock is a little unlikely. Perched atop rolling moorlands overlooking the Firth of Clyde, it boasts none of the detritus of the well-trodden tourist trail: no plaques, no souvenir shops, no discarded ticket stubs. Instead, water trickles into a cavernous storage tank, where mud is filtered out and the odd twig or leaf is removed. That’s it. Precious little to get excited about.
Melanie Greenberg, though, is captivated. On the journey over from Chicago, the vision she has lived with for the past 12 months grew vivid, each cloud and blade of grass discovering a renewed clarity. Now that she’s finally here in Greenock, the reality is too much. “Oh my God, ” she gasps, clutching her breast. “I’m gettin’ verklempt! I’m gettin’ verklempt!” Gripping on to the steel railings around the tank, she fans her flushed cheeks. “It’s Yiddish slang, ” she says breathily. “It means my heart’s about to burst.”
On either side of Greenberg stand scores of other women, all similarly impassioned. Bearing digital cameras and camcorders, they gaze down upon three blue cranes that squat over the austere beauty of the riverside. Their T-shirts, baseball caps, badges and bags are adorned with slogans: “Tarts on Tour”, “Mistress of the Tarts”, and, in one instance, simply “I Am a Tart”. One grips a small doll to her chest, a photograph of a handsome, rugged thirty something man glued to its face. “This is it. This is it, right here, ” Greenberg coos, almost inaudible. “Just think. He looked at this view once. He was here. Gerry was here.”
Meet the Gerard Butler collective: members of an internet community of more than 10,000 people who discuss and dissect the minutiae of the Glasgow-born actor’s life and work. Online at GerardButler.net (just shy of five million visitors in the past five years) they have posted drawings, photographs from premieres, inspired video homages, music, interviews, details about Paisley, where Butler grew up – and even poems and fictional stories about their hero. Merchandise, all available online via credit card, includes clothing, teddy bears, mouse pads, stickers and mugs. The “Tarts” slogan which adorns much of it came about following an online discussion about what kind of biscuit or cake Butler would be. It’s probably best not to delve too deeply.
For one week in January, the community’s most hardcore members – some 160 in all – are in Scotland for their official 2006 convention. Mostly American women, they span generations and classes: teenagers and grandmothers, company directors and housewives. Others have come from countries including Australia, Finland and Romania. There is also the odd disconsolate husband among the ranks. You can’t help wondering whether it’ll all end in restraining orders.
Let’s begin at the beginning. It is shortly before 8pm on a Saturday night, and the Buchanan Suite of the Ramada Jarvis Hotel in Ingram Street, Glasgow, is abuzz with chatter. Long dining tables, their white linen kissed with glitter, stretch across the room. Paper plates with chicken drumsticks are scattered around. Promotional movie posters are stuck to the walls with Blu-Tack. On a small stage is a DJ, the words “Bobby Mac Disco” emblazoned on his mixing desk. The atmosphere is heady with anticipation.
Melanie Greenberg is mingling with revellers, chatting with friends and exchanging stories. She, like most present, has only just arrived after a lengthy flight for the convention’s opening night. In spite of the jet lag, everyone is bright-eyed. To the right of the dancefloor stands a woman in her late fifties, her small frame wrapped in a fawn shawl. She is surrounded by a tightly packed huddle, two dozen strong. It has been this way for the past hour. Cameras flash and whirr. One by one, women step out to kiss her cheek and pose for a photograph. “I just want you to know, Margaret, your son has given me such joy and inspiration, ” purrs one woman in a soft southern US accent, taking her hand. “I know, ” comes the reply. “Me too.” The woman’s smile lights up the room.
It is a movie-star smile, and it belongs to Gerard Butler’s mother. Together with a few other members of the actor’s family, including two of his aunts and Alex Coll, his stepfather, she is a guest of honour. As the evening progresses, she will take to the stage to make a speech, delivering an anecdote about how, even from a young age, her son had an eye for the women. (“As a baby he would crawl under ladies’ skirts, ” she says at one point, with a blush. ) Bewildered and beguiled, she is nonetheless thankful. “I didn’t know whether to come tonight, ” she tells the crowd. “I thought to myself, ‘Gerry’s fans won’t be interested in his mother.’ But he told me, ‘Mum, they would.’ And, as his mother, you have no idea what this does to me.
“Gerry’s had issues and has had a hard time. His life still isn’t that easy. It gets hard travelling about and never being based somewhere for long. But my son is a survivor. I can’t tell you how highly he thinks of you and the love, encouragement and support you give him.”
Gerard Butler, it seems, isn’t your common or garden film star. For most Scots, the 36-year-old isn’t a headliner at all. His name, like that of an old school friend, is both familiar and distant. It lingers in the mind, snippets and fragments filtering through to the consciousness. “Actor. Scottish. Er, was in that movie, uh, forget its name . . . wasn’t he up to play James Bond at one point?”
For years Butler did not aspire to celebrity. His parents moved from Scotland to Toronto when he was young; when he was two and a half they split, and Margaret took her two sons and daughter back to Paisley. Butler ended up studying law at Glasgow University, and a career of writs and conveyancing appeared elementary. His heart, though, wasn’t in it. He was depressed and insecure, and drinking heavily. Police cells began to feature – and, one week short of qualifying as a solicitor, he was sacked by the Edinburgh law firm that had taken him on as a trainee. He was distraught.
He moved to London with the vague intention of getting involved in acting, and landed himself a job as a casting assistant on a stage production of Shakespeare’s Coriolanus, directed by Steven Berkoff. Daring to approach Berkoff for advice on breaking into acting put an end to his casting-assistant career. He quickly found himself acting in the performance instead.
Embryonic television roles in the comedy dramas The Young Person’s Guide to Becoming a Rock Star and Lucy Sullivan Is Getting Married followed. He turned to film comparatively late, at the age of 27, first featuring alongside Dame Judi Dench and Billy Connolly in Mrs Brown. At the turn of the decade, he took the title role in Dracula 2001, going on to feature in the Michael Crichton adaptation Timeline, then playing opposite Angelina Jolie in Tomb Raider: The Cradle of Life.
His biggest job came two years ago in the Andrew Lloyd Webber-produced film of The Phantom of the Opera. As the prominence of his roles increased, his star looked destined to shine. Unfortunately, several critics thought otherwise, and Butler found himself drifting amidst the slurry. One of his recent films, last year’s Beowulf & Grendel, has yet to find a US distributor. Among pockets of Americans, he is a cult. In Britain, he remains on the cusp of . . . well, if not fame, then perhaps recognition.
“‘When he appeared, my popcorn went flying everywhere’, she recalls”
To his internet admirers, however, none of this matters. Debi McMillan from Berkshire, who has spent some 12 months organising the 2006 convention, says her first experience of Butler (“popping your Gerry cherry”, as the fans call it) came with Dracula 2001. “When he appeared, my popcorn went flying everywhere, ” she recalls. “It wasn’t a great film or role. But he just looked the part. He fitted. It’s his looks, his emotions, the way he . . .” She pauses. “Excites you.”
Soon afterwards, her enthusiasm further fired after she tracked down his previous films on DVD, she caught wind that Butler was filming at Pinewood studio in Buckinghamshire. She knew he was due to celebrate his birthday in a few days. With the studios only a short drive away from her home, why not take the plunge? “I drove over to Pinewood and handed over a birthday card at the entrance. I didn’t think much more of it, ” she says. “But I included my phone number. I guess I’m ballsy like that.”
A month or so afterwards, McMillan’s telephone rang. It was Gerard Butler, thanking her for the card. “We just talked about Celtic FC. Small talk, ” she smiles. “It was like chatting to a friend.” After discovering GerardButler.net while searching the web for information about her new favourite actor, McMillan realised she was not alone in her affections. The website is the biggest one devoted to him, but there are many more. There’s Gerard Butler Angels, GerardButler’s Celtic Hearts, Gerard Butler Crazed, Northern California Gerry Fans, Butler’s Nuts – and, perhaps most disturbingly, GALS, which stands for “Gerry Addicted Lust Syndrome”. Butler keeps his own romantic life strictly private, but that only adds to his allure.
“Whatever he does, fans go en masse and he spends time with them, ” McMillan explains. “Hours, sometimes. Taking them out to dinner. It’s like a military operation. As soon as someone gets wind of an event it spreads like wildfire. That’s hormones for you.”
Early on a Tuesday morning, three days after the convention’s opening night, I am travelling on one of two luxury coaches negotiating Paisley’s interminable one-way road system. To my left, a bow-legged pensioner in a Pringle bunnett blurs past the window. On the right is the bastardised 1960s architecture of Renfrewshire Council’s headquarters.
There is a crackle and a hiss as Morag Dunbar, our tour guide, takes to the centre of the aisle with a microphone. She is resplendent in a navy blazer, a crisp white blouse, tartan slacks and pumps. “Now, Gerry stayed in the Ralston area of Paisley, so he’d definitely have been here partying in his youth, ” she informs the assembled Tarts, gesturing towards the town-centre pubs. “Unfortunately, though, his old school has been demolished.” From behind me comes a massed sigh, like a chorus of pin-pricked tyres.
Paisley, though, is a prelude. The real point of today’s outing, which will include the stop at Overton, is a tour of shooting locations for Dear Frankie, the tender Scottish drama in which Butler plays the Stranger, a stoic yet loving father-figure to a single mother and her child. Among his fans – particularly in America – it is one of his most celebrated films. Later today, the tour party will even meet Andrea Gibb, the film’s Greenock-born screenwriter, for a Q&A session and, inevitably, autographs and photos.
The motorway stretches ahead, providing a lulling interlude. A cassette of the Dear Frankie soundtrack plays over the coach’s PA, and heads weave and nod in unison. A hand taps my shoulder. “Do you want hear about my dolls?” asks its owner, handing me her card. “Pat Berschied, ” it reads. “Gerry’s Travelin’ [sic] Gerrymigo Tart.” A pin badge for her hometown of Paducah, Kentucky, is attached. Full marks for civic pride. “We have our own little Gerry community in Paducah, ” she enthuses. “We meet once a month with dolls from Gerry’s films and have parties with them. We dress ’em up like his characters.”
“It’s probably not normal playing with Gerry dolls, ” suggests Kelly Beasley, a mother of two from Chicago, “but it’s harmless enough. I don’t really know what other people would make of it back home, so I keep it quiet. But who cares? I love Gerry.”
Another voice pipes up. “I have a Gerry doll. It’s a mannequin really, but it’s full-size and anatomically correct.” Kelly’s friend Paulette Comstock, who hails from Wisconsin, moves closer. She wears a T-shirt featuring several photographs of Butler. Her hair is a shock of dark cherry, framing piercing pale green eyes. The look could be bottled: menopausal intensity. “We dress him up too, ” she says with a wink. “It’s great fun. Although it can get out of hand. You ever tried cleaning up chocolate spread?”
“Hours whizz past, as does innuendo. I hear of personalised registration plates bearing Butler’s name, and of how the actor has helped ‘reawaken the passion’ in one woman’s 16-year marriage”
Hours whizz past, as does innuendo. I hear of personalised registration plates bearing Butler’s name, and of how the actor has helped “reawaken the passion” in one woman’s 16-year marriage. I am told the tale of a retired US Army nurse who has secured a publishing deal for her fan fiction; of the vote-rigging allegations surrounding Butler’s victory in a magazine poll for Most Attractive Man; and of how Tarts regularly make six-hour cross-state trips to meet their idol. Everyone expresses amazement at Butler’s low profile in his homeland.
By mid-afternoon, the vehicles are winding through Greenock. We turn right, off the town’s esplanade, and trundle up towards Finnart Street. Here, in a key scene, the Stranger, leaving for his ship, turns and waves to the young deaf protagonist, Frankie, as he stands at a window. Tartmobiles at a halt, the women file out. Within seconds, 90 of them have commandeered the tarmac, furiously snapping, bringing traffic to a standstill. Schoolchildren tramping home look on quizzically. A man in a top-floor flat opens his window, rubbing bleary eyes. He shouts down, asking what’s happening. For a moment I contemplate an explanation. But none will do. I shrug my shoulders and he shuts the window and traipses off, presumably back to bed.
Before long, clusters of ladies – some of them, shall we say, less than limber – are easing themselves off a slipway to scuttle around a sewage-strewn beach in search of souvenir pebbles. And at Margaret Street the coaches sway with excitement at the glimpse of ornate wall tiles in a tenement close featured in the film.
The day’s events might be absurd, but they are by no means trivial. For some, retracing the steps of cast and crew is an emotional and spiritual experience. Take Kathy Horsfall. A Kalispel American Indian from Denver, Colorado, and a single mother of two, she had heard about Dear Frankie but found the film was not being distributed in her state. So she took to lobbying cinemas, eventually arranging several screenings. (Andrea Gibb, who believes Butler “should be celebrated in Scotland like Ewan McGregor or Robert Carlyle”, later tells me his fans acted like a “mini distribution arm” for the film. ) Such is Horsfall’s fervour for the feature, she saw it 22 times during its Colorado run. It was “good medicine” for her, she says, during her four-year battle with cancer. “And as a single mother, it told my story, ” she says. “It was very personal and inspiring. The film showed my life, and offered hope.
“I’d never done anything like the lobbying before, but it seemed to come naturally, because everything about the film and Gerry is very spiritual to me. I strongly believe he’s helped my health. He’s battled adversity himself and gives me strength.” I think about another story I was told; about how one woman, nursing her dying mother, received a telephone call of a few treasured, private words from Butler one Christmas Day. Maybe this isn’t all one-way.
Let’s go back to the Ramada Jarvis on Saturday night, where the festivities are in full swing. Word reaches me that Butler, a reformed alcoholic, has put £1,000 of his own money behind the bar for his fans. The Tarts, never shy, are making good use of it.
In a corner, a large projection screen flickers into life. A figure in a light grey T-shirt flashes up. It wears a thick-set black beard. The gabbing falls to a hush. For a brief moment, no longer than a skipped heartbeat, there is a collective intake of breath. Then the screaming begins. Not wailing, not shrieking, not yelping. Screaming, like Janet Leigh having her wisdom teeth out. It takes a minute or so to die down. Women are standing atop chairs and tables, heels wedged into sausage rolls, staring at one another in confusion. “Gerry! It’s Gerry! Oh my God, it’s Gerry!”
And, in a way, it is. Not Gerard Butler, film star in waiting, but Gerry fae Ralston, slouched in a trailer in Montreal at two in the morning, sans sword, steed and hair extensions. It is the Big Surprise. Butler is currently filming in Canada, playing the Spartan king Leonidas in the big-budget production 300, based on Frank Miller’s graphic novel. He couldn’t make it to Glasgow, but he insisted on recording a message.
Ina rumbling west-coast accent, he delivers the opening salvo of his 13-minute address to his congregation. “When I was young, and my brother was sitting on my head on the couch, I thought, ‘One day, I will have a convention.'” There are gales of laughter, and Butlerhimself chuckles too.
“Who’d have thought you guys would be over there?” he says incredulously. “It’s crazy, beautiful, and I’m really touched and honoured. I’m blown away that even one of you would come over to my home city.” He winks. “It’s not for me, it’s for you. To get away from your partners . . . just remember, what happens in Glasgow stays in Glasgow.”
Hooting and cheering erupts. The phrase is something of a fanclub motto; clearly Butler has been online recently. He goes on to offer an ad-hoc city guide, recommending the west end and Byres Road. Oh, and the university: “Go up to the law faculty and give those bastards a punch.”
The video is punctuated by moments when Butler seems conscious of the preposterousness of the situation. Nevertheless, as with his mother’s speech, the gratitude is there for all to see. “I really love the bonds and friendships you have developed between yourselves. It’s been amazing to see this grow, ” he says. “I feel we’ve become a team. You’ve given me so much, I can’t express what it means. When I heard I had even one website I thought it was a joke [but] the care, imagination and work of you all never ceases to amaze me. I learn more about myself from you than I do from myself or anyone.” A pause, and a joke. “It helps take the pressure off.”
With that, the screen fades to black. The night will contain a second surprise when Butler, in a live telephone call, says hello over the speakers. Unfortunately, distortion on the transatlantic line renders the rest of his words unintelligible, but no-one cares. He has already made their night.
“It is a curious carnival that swirls around the nucleus of Gerard Butler. Nobody party to it, not even Butler himself, can articulate just what exists between him and his fans”
It is a curious carnival that swirls around the nucleus of Gerard Butler. Nobody party to it, not even Butler himself, can articulate just what exists between him and his fans. Actions, though, help bring meaning. The convention has a philanthropic bent: a raffle of signed props and paraphernalia from Butler’s films – including a leather loincloth from 300, the crotch of which its proud new owner rubs liberally over her face – saw the Tarts raise £5,500 for the cancer charity CLIC Sargent. The cause matters to Butler: when he was 22, his father, Edward, died of cancer. As a patron of the charity, he will match his fans’ donation. To date the fans have gathered more than dollars75,000 for good causes.
“The way the relationship between Gerry and the fans has become so strong is surprising, ” says Tamara Halstead, a mother of two from Virginia. “I consider him a friend.”
Halstead, it transpires, is the original Tart. She began the website on February 10, 2001. The intervening five years have not quelled her joy – or doubts. “Sometimes I feel like I’ve crossed a line, ” she confides. “But Gerry genuinely understands what we’re doing.”
This autumn, the fans will reconvene for another convention in Colorado. Butler’s mother has vowed to attend. As for Butler himself? His next film might send him into Hollywood’s stratosphere; if it doesn’t, perhaps the breakthrough will be Burns, the longmooted biography of the poet to which he has been linked. It matters not. For the Tarts, Gerry Butler’s star will forever be within reach.