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Movie stunts leave a mark on Butler

Acting can be a dangerous profession, or so it would seem for Gerard Butler, whose latest film Playing For Keeps opens next week.

On several occasions, the Paisley-born star has been on the wrong end of a stunt gone bad – but never more so than while shooting his forthcoming movie, Chasing Mavericks, when he almost died.

Playing surfing legend Frosty Hesson, Butler suddenly found himself caught out by a series of freak waves and dragged under water, in need of rescue. The experience was terrifying.

"It's like you're in an avalanche and you don't know if you're ever coming up and you can't breathe and there's nothing you can do about it, and it's holding you down and you've lost your board, and you're spinning and you're spinning and you're spinning, and nobody can do anything for you because you're miles away," he said, visibly humbled by having to recall the incident, which occurred off the coast of northern California in December 2011.

So, what went through his mind? "You go, 'Why did I do this? What was I thinking?' But it's too late. And I remember other surfers talking about that, and one guy saying that when he was under he really thought that was it, and he said to himself, 'I could be surfing two-foot waves with my son in Hawaii right now'.

"I'm sure there are a lot of people who have had those thoughts that never made it back up – who went, 'Why am I doing this'? And the thing is, I did make it back up but then it all started over again because no-one could get to me. So, I went down another twice and that really put the fear of God into me."

Not that it has deterred Butler, 43, from placing himself in harm's way again. For while he candidly states "that's when I really went, 'Alright, this is getting stupid'," he quickly adds: "But then I went onto the next movie and did more stupidity!"

On that occasion, for the action film Olympus Has Fallen, Butler messed up his arm. But it's easy to see why the excitement of the moment sometimes gets the better of him, as he giddily recalls what took place.

"I wish you had been there because you'd have seen me going, 'Wait a minute, I could do this. I could run and I could fly back and I could land on the ground'. And that's fine if you do it once, but after the fifteenth take and you're cut to shreds and your elbow is all swollen up... I mean, at one point my arm went black and blue all the way round because I was doing this kung-fu move."

As if to underline the point, Butler also recalls a stunt that went wrong on the set of Butterfly on a Wheel in 2007.

"Pierce Brosnan was driving the car and we smashed straight into a wall," he recalls, his voice building excitedly again. "It was 3ft high, the cable was supposed to hold us and it didn't. We were in a car park in a Range Rover driving at full speed towards the edge of this roof and the cable didn't hold us. We smashed into the wall, my neck went out, my ribs came out, I had bruised ribs for months."

Butler still feels the after-effects of that injury now. "Two nights ago in Oslo, the chiropractor came over and he was cracking my ribs back in."

So, what of Playing For Keeps, his latest, which sees him playing a former Celtic football legend whose career is cut short by injury, and who finds himself in Virginia attempting to start a new life and re-connect with his estranged wife (Jessica Biel) and son (Noah Lomax)? Was that a little easier on the joints?

"Believe it or not this script was originally a baseball movie," he laughs. "It was called Slide and I thought, 'I can't play baseball'! I still have a rotator cuff injury from a movie I did years ago, another soccer movie about England playing the US. In it, I was supposed to do a baseball scene and I trained for months and I hurt my rotator cuff and we ended up cutting the scene anyway. Baseball's a lot harder than it looks."

Sporting change aside, Butler was drawn to the idea of playing a man who has reached a crossroads in his life and is forced to grow up, especially given the parallels he saw between sportsmen and actors who have to live their life in the media spotlight with all the trappings and temptations that follow.

"It is hard to stay grounded, either as an actor or as a sportsman, and it doesn't really matter what age you are. It's a lesson you have to learn whenever you're thrown in, whichever age you start... in a sense, you do stop developing as much when you're thrown into the limelight in such a big way.

"It's hard to mature, or for certain parts of your character to develop as they would normally if that wasn't your field, or your life. So, I could empathise with George [his character]. I remember some guy said to me once, 'You've got to give up the good for the better'. And I kind of understood that. You've got to give up all the great, exciting things but at the same time, in that respect, you're giving up those low points as well for the better. And that's why I think George is coming to the realisation that it's time to grow up."

For Butler's own life, that may involve using a stunt double from time to time.

Playing For Keeps is released in cinemas on January 1, 2013.

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