Michael Bezjian/WireImage.com
Karen Leigh
March 18, 2007 AT 04:00 AM EDT

Having a hard time recognizing scowling Scottish beefcake Gerard Butler? Maybe that’s because his most prominent role before 300 had him hidden behind a mask — as the titular ghoul in director Joel Schumacher’s 2004 adaptation The Phantom of the Opera. Since wrapping 300, the 37-year-old actor has signed up to play opposite Glenn Close in an adaptation of Emile Zola’s Therese Raquin and next year will romance Hilary Swank in P.S., I Love You. Butler is also reportedly the frontrunner to star as Snake Plisskin in a planned remake of Escape from New York.

Prior to 300‘s record bow — its $70 million opening last weekend set a new standard for March — Butler’s career wasn’t exactly soaring. Despite solid reviews for Phantom, most of the buzz landed on his much-lauded teenage co-star, Emmy Rossum. Butler may now be looking like Hollywood’s latest go-to action hero, but in the years before landing the role of 300‘s Spartan King Leonidas — the actor says he ”was like a salivating dog in terms of how much I wanted to be involved” — he paid his dues, vamping as Dracula in Wes Craven’s Dracula 2000, playing Attilla the Hun in a made-for-TV movie, and languishing in a blink-and-you’ll-miss-it turn as Lead Seaman in 1997’s James Bond outing Tomorrow Never Dies. His big break came with the 2002 Matthew McConaughey sci-fi flick Reign of Fire,which led to a role as Angelina Jolie’s foe in the Lara Croft Tomb Raider sequel. The following year he became a household name among theater geeks and goths alike, singing Andrew Lloyd Webber tunes while smoldering in white face paint and a black cape as the Phantom. While he enjoys doing action movies, Butler says ”there are many other things I can do, and I would never stay in the one genre,” and the actor’s post-Phantom roles include the limited release soccer drama The Game of Their Lives (think Dead Poets Society in cleats) and an underpublicized Beowulf epic, Beowulf and Grendel.

Preparing for 300, Butler left his vocal warm-up tapes at home and began a strict regimen — six hours per day — of weights (going so far as to pump iron between takes) and cardio in order to bulk up to Spartan proportions. ”When I saw the results that I was getting, I thought, Y’know, I’m not [Arnold] Schwarzenegger, I’m not a [Jean-Claude] Van Damme,” he says, ”but it would be great to stand up there and be imposing.” Forget about those abs — 300‘s massive opening had all of Hollywood bowing down to King Leonidas.

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