But the 43-year-old Scotsman has proved he’s more than just beefcake, and has shown serious versatility in musicals (“The Phantom of the Opera”), action films (“Law Abiding Citizen”) and romances (“P.S. I Love You”).
In his latest, “Playing for Keeps,” which opens today, Butler plays a former soccer star trying to recharge his life and maintain a relationship with his young son.
We spoke with the funny and down-to-earth star:
One of the teams you supposedly played for in this new film is Glasgow Celtic, a team you’ve rooted for all your life. They recently beat Barcelona, which is like a college team beating the Yankees. What was that like for you?
I was in Dubai, of all places. I was in the middle of a dinner with important people, and I said we had to get to an Irish pub to watch the game. I was crying, I had tears in my eyes, I had everyone around congratulating me. It brings up something so primal, so old, it was a lifetime of pride and joy and tragedy that you’ve been through with this club. Results like this are so few and far between. It was a really powerful moment.
I assume playing a soccer star, and co-starring with incredibly beautiful women such as Jessica Biel, Uma Thurman and Catherine Zeta-Jones, were what attracted you to this film.
They were both seducing factors. I read the script, and I thought it was hilarious. It was “Shampoo” meets “Meet the Parents,” meets “About a Boy.” These women are trying to get their claws into him, and he’s trying to stop being a philanderer. Then there was something very sexy in the movie, to have these beautiful women trying to seduce you. And I thought it really touching, giving the audience something to think about: lost love, second chances, a father-son relationship. I find those themes fascinating and moving.
You actually trained as a lawyer but gave it up to become an actor. Are you still interested in the law?
It’s so completely out of my life. When I trained as a lawyer, I trained with a civil firm in Edinburgh that was very old school, and we did everything from corporate law to litigation, everything I pretty much had no interest in. I had an interest when I was studying it. There was a romantic notion to being a lawyer, but the more I dealt with the reality, I realized it was not where my talents were, it didn’t pique my interest, and I didn’t want to do something that didn’t excite me.
After you made “300,” did it bother you that so many people were discussing your abs and not your acting?
No. It didn’t bother me. I know a lot of people who tell me, “I watched that movie, and now I go to the gym.” What bothered me was people telling me I was wearing a body suit. I worked too hard for you to deny me working so hard. I wanted to try and look like a sculpture, like Leonidas deserved to look. I wanted to be big and cut. I think that movie worked on so many levels, and people appreciated it for more than the abs; it’s about team spirit, sacrifice and honor.
You recently got into a very serious accident while shooting the surfing film “Chasing Mavericks.” Do you think you’re getting to the age where you might want to cut back on the big, and sometimes dangerous, physical roles?
Right now, I’m looking for a cool action project. I’m a complete idiot, and I have to learn a lesson 10 times. The one thing I do think is I have to not take so many risks in movies. Me being in “Mavericks” was maybe not a great idea. ... But that’s all part of the challenge. I love the challenges. You have these panicked moments, but they’re the jobs that give me the most satisfaction. I think it’s my Scottish spirit.
Speaking of your Scottish roots, it seems Scotland will be holding a referendum in 2014 on whether to leave the United Kingdom. What’s your opinion on the matter?
I used to have stronger feelings for an independent Scotland. But now I’m more federal, or working together, like unions. Coming together, rather than a separation, is a better idea. I think some separate taxation, more of a connection with local government, but I don’t think an independent Scotland, I’m not 100 percent sold on the idea.