At an airport in London, unable to find a quiet space to chat, Gerard Butler retreats to an abandoned children’s playroom, without a chair to accommodate his frame. Possessing a sharp and generous sense of humor, manifest particularly in his independent features, and rom-coms like The Ugly Truth, Butler is quick to find the laughs in an absurd situation. The actor has just completed filming on Hunter Killer, a submarine action thriller, opposite a couple of his acting idols—Gary Oldman and Michael Nyqvist—and as he begins his journey to the Toronto International Film Festival, in support of his latest prestige indie drama, Butler actually finds that he’s exactly where he wants to be.
Featuring Alison Brie and a couple dramatic heavies, including Willem Dafoe and Alfred Molina, The Headhunter’s Calling stars Butler as Dane Jensen, an acerbically witted, self-absorbed and viciously competitive headhunter who struggles in the pursuit of a work-life balance, working incessantly to support his family, while at the same time losing any real connection to them as a result of his myopic view. When tragedy strikes the family, Jensen must do an about-face and examine the unhappy life he’s been living.
In Dane Jensen, Butler saw the opportunity and the challenge, as with several previous roles, of taking on a character with a lesson to learn—someone who begins his arc as a roundly unsympathetic figure and must earn his way back into good standing with an audience. “It’s rare to get the chance to play a character who does push the envelope so far, in terms of being ballsy, aggressive, lacking compassion—being insensitive towards his family, being selfish, egotistical, bullying at work,” Butler shares. “And especially in this situation, when it turns out that his kid is actually sick, and hasn’t been provided the kind of love and attention that he so badly needs from his father. To go from that extreme to the polar opposite, where he develops a more holistic attitude to his life, and discovers really his true soul and heart—that was a really fun challenge to take on, and something that you always had to be cognizant of.”
Part of the reason the actor identified so much with the story and the part related to his pre-Hollywood former life as a law student, and a reflection on what his life might have been like if he had landed in a corporate arena similar to Dane’s. “If I carried on as a lawyer—what I was faced with, as well as having some personal issues, in terms of not fulfilling my purpose, and therefore not being very happy in my life…I understood that that world was not for me, and that I could see myself 40 years down the line, thinking, ‘This is not what I wanted to achieve in my life,’” Butler shares. “And I think that’s the same kind of existential crisis that Dane is going through, where he knows he has this purpose—and it’s to win and it’s to sell—but he’s kind of forgotten why he’s doing that.”
A passion project of Butler’s for many years, from a script by hot Hollywood scribe Bill Dubuque (The Accountant)—who based the script on his own previous life as a headhunter—the film was eventually packaged in foreign pre-sales via Butler’s star power, with the actor taking on producer duties, a method of business that has worked for a charm for Butler in allowing him to carve out a unique resume, alternating as he so desires between the blockbuster actioner and the indie darling. “I feel like it’s worked very, very nicely for me so far, because I’ve always been very successful in foreign markets,” Butler says.
In finding the overall shape of his career, “I don’t know if I have an overall plan. I think I generally move along as I’m feeling what I need to sustain my soul,” he admits. “There’s a lot to be said for making bigger movies: they’re very fun to make, and to bring together. But then there comes a time where I feel like I really need to tell a story that speaks to my soul—that pushes me to create a more rounded, colorful character. That’s what happened with this movie.”
Working closely in prep on The Headhunter’s Calling with Mark Williams, who was making his feature directorial debut, Butler says that the tearjerker got a few out of him, and Williams too—a mark of identification that allowed him to put his trust in an unknown variable. “It’s perhaps a little bit pathetic, but we both talked with such passion about how touched we were by (the script),” Butler says, in earnest. “I could just see that he wanted to tell this story for all the right reasons, because it does have such heart and is so profoundly inspirational, and yet it is also very challenging.”
As a film producer, Butler’s responsibilities vary from film to film—though in the case of Headhunter, the actor enjoyed going all-in. Beyond helping to secure the initial financing—bringing the film together very quickly, with several offers immediately after the package was put out to the world—Butler would sit down with line producers at production meetings, and took part in a long and arduous casting process. For Butler, who enjoys the puzzle of it all, part of the joy is also being able to hone his skills and awareness as an actor. “I’m always surprised when an actor can say, ‘Well maybe we don’t need this scene, or we can take this away,’” he offers. “I’ll never forget the first time—it was Law Abiding Citizen—they took me into a meeting and I was told, ‘OK, now you’re going to learn.’” Though Butler prefers to work within the more creative side of producing, in developing, the naturally charismatic, gregarious actor is returning to Toronto this year, in part, to mingle with a wide assortment of film financiers, in hopes of securing the funds for the next passion project.
On the subject of the bottom line, while “running out of oxygen” in the kids’ room, Butler takes a moment to reflect on February’s Gods of Egypt, February’s sword-and-sandal actioner that made the critical error of crossing Deadpool. A major critical and commercial failure for Butler, the film was the actor’s first swing at a film budgeted at over $100 million—though he mentions that his part in the film is smaller than the marketing materials might suggest. “Listen, I thoroughly enjoyed the movie, and I know a lot of people enjoyed it, too. You win some and you lose some,” Butler says. However, the following weekend, Butler broke-even with the hit sequel London Has Fallen which made more than its predecessor, close to $200M to $161M worldwide; his marquee power still strong.
“I do feel I had certain issues with how it (Gods) turned out in its fullness—but it showed me, yeah, for sure, that there’s just no safety anymore in this industry,” he adds. “You can’t just spend big budgets, or even show some pretty splendid special effects. And by the way, sometimes even a good story doesn’t work. It’s a very high-risk industry right now.”
A Voltage Pictures production, The Headhunter’s Calling is produced by Gerard Butler (300), Nicolas Chartier (The Hurt Locker), Jonathan Deckter (Dredd), Craig J. Flores (300), Patrick Newall (Anon), Alan Siegel (Law Abiding Citizen), and Mark Williams. CAA will handle U.S. sales.
The film will have its world premiere at TIFF this Wednesday, September 14 at 9:30 PM.