Not only is Gerard Butler an ‘A-list’ Hollywood actor, starring in the likes of 300, Law Abiding Citizen and The Bounty Hunter, the proud Scotsman is also a passionate Celtic fan.
In his latest film, ‘Playing for Keeps’, he takes on the role of George Dryer, a former Celtic and Liverpool star who has fallen on hard times and aims to get his life back on track in American suburbia.
FIFA.com caught up exclusively with the leading man to talk Celtic past and present, his memories of standing on the terraces and Old Firm games, as well as what it was like seeing himself depicted as a star for the Hoops and Reds when shooting his latest movie.
FIFA.com: As a die-hard fan it must have been a bit of a dream come true to get to appear as a Celtic former player?
Gerard Butler: Yeah I guess it was. There are many things in life I’m not very good at, so if I get to pretend to be good at them – especially if they are a dream – then I’ll take that. When I get to put on the Celtic strip, and Liverpool strip too, we actually filmed the opening scenes of the movie in a studio, using footage from original games, and I replicated parts from them. So I got to play and run around in Celtic and Liverpool shirts and score goals for them, diving headers, bicycle kicks. It was hard for me to believe it was me doing it in front of 60,000-70,000 people!
You got to do something a bit similar in real life too, appearing in a charity game at Celtic Park alongside some club legends.
If I was to look back on my whole career that would possibly be the highlight, just for me emotionally, for the fun and for the excitement, it was amazing. I went to many Celtic games when I was growing up, cup games, European matches and Old Firm games and it’s your life. I think that’s why it hits you more profoundly than something like standing at a Hollywood premiere. It brings back everything you were steeped in, your history, your passion, your family’s passion and all those memories you have in that stadium, the times where you’re literally about to explode with excitement, passion, anger or joy. All you and the thousands around you wanted to be doing was to be out on that field playing. To be on that field, playing, warming up, shouting to the crowd and then kicking off and playing that game, it was indescribable. All I could think at the time was ‘be cool’, but I knew I was taking the experience to the grave.
What are your earliest memories as a Celtic fan?
I used to support St Mirren when I was a kid – until I was about 6 or 7 – because I was from Paisley, and my brother still is a diehard fan. However, I lived in an area where Celtic and Rangers were a big influence on people and I was just charmed by them as a team. I have earlier memories of watching Scotland, such as in the 1978 World Cup when Archie Gemmill scored against the Netherlands. My strongest memories however were of watching Celtic when they played Real Madrid when they won 2-0 at Celtic Park, Johnny Doyle scored a header. I remember then listening to the away match on the radio, on my own back in Paisley, with Real Madrid 2-0 up and then scoring a third goal just before the final whistle so we went out. So my most profound memories are probably going from the high of beating Real Madrid to the low of losing to them a fortnight later.
How about the experience of going to games?
My cousin Billy used to take me, and we’d go with a big crowd of people on the supporters’ bus. These were real working-class folks with a lot of ‘colourful language’ and songs to be sung [laughs]; I just remember being crowded out by these big, over-weight guys who love to shout! Some of those games could get long and cold, and would be tough during a Scottish winter, but generally the excitement overcame it.
Old Firm games in particular, the atmosphere there was indescribable. It’s sad to say that a lot of it came from not just competition, but almost a cultural hatred of each other, but they’d lead to such an incredible, tangible atmosphere that was like a mass hysteria at times. Sometimes you’d go home and you’d be buzzing for days after those games, you’d literally feel like you could fly off with your wings. It was an immense experience and that also went on on the field too, so you knew you were going to get some incredible games. Something was always going to happen, normally there were going to be sendings off, often there were fights, people might even go to prison! [Laughs] You didn’t know if you were going to get out alive! But for an adventure that was more than just a soccer game, a lot of my most powerful memories were standing at Parkhead in the Jungle (nickname for the old northern terrace).
Were there any players that particularly inspired you?
Without a doubt Kenny Dalglish was the man. He managed me in a charity game I recently played in between England and the Rest of the World, and he was my biggest hero, so that was pretty incredible. Dalglish was pretty unbeatable, but there was Billy McNeill and Roy Aitken. Aitken was like the white version of Didier Drogba, he just had so much force, strength and passion that he could drag a whole team anywhere. He’d just pull them up and get them these incredible results that they didn’t always deserve. Johnny Doyle, just because he’d always score a winning goal in the nick of time, Charlie Nicholas, I could go on forever.
No doubt the Lisbon Lions were mythologised during your childhood too.
For sure. It’s pretty much what all the songs were sung about at Parkhead and in the family, there were stories about all of them. The Lisbon Lions were at a time when Scotland were even beating the English and they were such a skilful team. Celtic won nine championships in a row from 1965 to 74.
They had a fairly impressive result in beating Barcelona a fortnight ago too, did you get to see the game?
I was working in Dubai and I was at this dinner with some people, and I made 90 per cent of them leave this swanky restaurant to go to this little Irish bar to watch the game. At one point I didn’t think we were going to get there as I couldn’t get a car the car to come and get us, but we managed to make it and it brought back memories of those victories – but what a game!
This will be remembered for almost the opposite reason to the Lisbon Lions in the sense that they were an immense team and a terrifying sight to come up against. However the reason we are talking about this today is because we came up against Barcelona and managed to pull off this one victory. They also played a great game at the Nou Camp, but this is not something we do week-in, week-out, so they have a few more to go before they’re up there with the Lisbon Lions. Without a doubt it was the most exciting moment I can remember watching Celtic in... forever.
In ‘Playing for Keeps’ you appear as a player having trouble dealing with life after football. How did you go about capturing that?
When George comes into this town he’s not just lost his football career but he’s lost his business opportunities, he’s lost his money, he’s lost his family, so he is just generally down on his luck. When you show things like him seeing his son who he hasn’t seen for a while, selling all his football memorabilia, you get the chance to show very obviously the humiliation, the quiet sadness and turmoil that goes with that. You’ve seen plenty of players’ lives unravel as their careers come to an end. He’s also coming to a whole new country, so he’s not just wrapping up his soccer career, but he’s also coming into a small town where nobody even knows who Celtic and Liverpool are, so these people don’t really get who he was anyway, so it just made the idea even funnier and slightly more tragic.
Do you feel it gave you a better understanding of the troubles players face after their playing career is over?
You want to see what’s going on with a player when he’s scoring goals, winning games and picking up trophies, and that can be in any sort of athlete or sportsman’s career, but then suddenly when they finish, they disappear. It’s not often that you give much thought to where they are but each one has a whole life to deal with. Some of them make the transition rather gently, a lot of them are happy to get out and have had enough of what they’re doing, but even those find it hard as it’s a huge transition to change your focus and not have that kind of income, while others suffer more obvious problems. So I feel it’s definitely given me a deeper understanding of the struggle, and also that others may not necessarily sympathise with that struggle.
And finally, with the FIFA Ballon d’Or on the horizon which player and coach do you think have the best shot at leaving with an award?
I think Roberto Di Matteo, just for doing what he did to take Chelsea to win the Champions League, with not necessarily the strongest team in Europe, but with some of the strongest tactics in a way. And then it seems like an obvious answer, but how can you look beyond Lionel Messi. He’s just immense to watch, whatever he’s doing, be it dribbling, scoring a goal or creating an assist out of nothing, he’s just simply the best player in the world.
Playing for Keeps is at theatres from 7 December