After graduating from Glasgow University, Butler works as a lawyer at a Edinburgh firm, where he's fired for being late and coming to work hung-over. Of his firing, Butler tells USA Today, "It was the worst day of my life, yet it was the best thing that ever happened to me." With a new passion for acting, the Scot moves to London, where he lands the lead in the 1996 stage adaptation of Trainspotting, followed by small roles in Mrs. Brown and the James Bond flick Tomorrow Never Dies.
Butler lands his first lead film role in Wes Craven Presents: Dracula 2000. Although the flick is a huge flop, director Joel Schumacher is impressed by Butler's leading turn as the Count–and will later cast him in the legendary film adaptation of Andrew Lloyd Webber's musical, The Phantom of the Opera.
Butler costars with Angelina Jolie in the Tomb Raider sequel, The Cradle of Life. Although director Jan de Bont says, "You'll feel a sexual tension; there is a chemistry" between Jolie's Croft and Butler's Terry Sheridan (Croft's sidekick ex), the film fails to deliver at the box office, taking in only $21.8 million over opening weekend.