Gerard Butler goes from pro soccer player to youth coach in the movie "Playing… (Dale Robinett / FilmDistrict…)
As a child growing up outside Glasgow, actor Gerard Butler found his first heroes not on the stage but on the soccer pitch. Back then he had less desire to follow Sean Connery's footlights than to follow the footsteps of Liverpool standout Kenny Dalglish or Celtic's Charlie Nicholas.
What he didn't have was the talent.
"It's every young kid's dream to be a soccer player, to play for Celtic or Rangers," says Butler, who portrayed U.S. goalkeeper Frank Borghi, a former World Cup hero, in 2005's "The Game of Their Lives."
"I was not a bad player. But I don't think I was ever delusional about my hopes."
Fortunately a fringe benefit of being an A-list Hollywood actor is the ability to act out your childhood fantasies. And though Butler won't win any awards for his latest work in the romantic comedy "Playing for Keeps," the film's opening montage already ranks among his favorite scenes because in it Butler, who plays a former Scottish soccer great, scores goals for both Liverpool and Celtic.
"I really actually believed for a little bit that I was a Celtic and a Liverpool player," he says. "I went inside the studio, put on the [kit], ran around shooting and diving and heading the ball into the net. And then when you actually insert that into a game — they were European [Championship] games that Celtic and Liverpool were playing in — I'm watching that going, 'Gosh didn't I do well? Look at that. I'm a rock star.'"
Just not a movie star, since "Playing for Keeps" has been universally panned. Yet for all its artistic flaws, the film is notable for another reason: It was one of two soccer-themed films that opened this weekend, joining the brooding "Heleno," a critically acclaimed biopic about the tragic life of long-forgotten Brazilian superstar Heleno de Freitas.
"Heleno," in Portuguese with English subtitles, is showing at the Sundance Sunset Cinema in West Hollywood. And its star, Rodrigo Santoro, says despite the fact there is little soccer actually played in either movie, the sport is a "fresh and new" storytelling device that unites the characters and pushes the plot forward.
"Soccer has grown very, very much," says Santoro, who played the sport growing up outside Rio de Janeiro. "The first time I came here, maybe nine years ago, I wanted to play soccer and it was a little tricky to find people to play. Now it's incredible how much it has grown."
It wasn't that long ago that stories originally written about soccer were given a baseball backdrop — "Fever Pitch," a 2005 release about a die-hard Boston Red Sox fan, was a remake of a British film about a diehard Arsenal fan. But "Playing for Keeps" goes the other way, moving the original project, "Confessions of a Little League Coach," from the baseball diamond to the soccer pitch.
Despite that, Ron Shelton, who wrote and directed sports-themed movies such as "Bull Durham," "Tin Cup," "White Men Can't Jump" and "Cobb," says soccer isn't quite ready for its Hollywood close-up.
"It's going to take awhile," he says. "It will be a fun challenge. For it to sell foreign — it's all about foreign sales now — an American soccer story is probably not going to work. And a foreign soccer movie isn't going to work here."
The demographics suggest soccer's appeal is growing, though. According to the National Federation of State High School Assns. nearly 800,000 students played prep soccer in 2011, and the U.S. Soccer Assn. says its 3 million members, ages 5 to 19, make it the largest youth sports association in the country. And a 2011 survey by the Sporting Good Manufacturing Assn. found that more than 14 million Americans play organized soccer, nearly three-quarters of them 25 or younger, an increasingly difficult age group for Hollywood to capture.
"Soccer is a big selling point," says Oliver Wyss, a former Swiss national team player who served as a technical adviser for Butler's movie. "If it's done realistic, it can be very, very successful."
But then using soccer as a way to connect with people isn't a new concept for Wyss. After his playing career ended when he was diagnosed with aplastic anemia, Wyss founded the nonprofit organization Soccer for Hope (soccerforhope.org) to raise funds and awareness for children suffering with life-threatening diseases — an issue that hit close to home a few years later when both his children were found to have rare cancerous brain tumors.
For his son, Hudson, the disease proved fatal, but 10-year-old daughter Abella was well enough to have a speaking role in "Playing for Keeps" — courage that inspired Butler and other cast and crew members to appear at a charity screening last month that raised $50,000.
"We decided, as a former professional soccer player, let's go back into the soccer community and try to raise an awareness through there," Wyss says. "The priceless aspect of it is the awareness and the support from Hollywood's finest."