Preacher tells wild real-life story
Star Gerard Butler went to a dark place to play extraordinary real-life biker-turned-missionary Sam Childers who helped save children in war-ravaged East Africa.
Every actor has their own way of getting into character. For his role in "Machine Gun Preacher," Scottish actor Gerard Butler tapped into the rage and indignation of real-life biker-turned-child rescuer Sam Childers by carrying around a book of research on the horrific experiences of the displaced children of east Africa whose lives have been devastated since 1987 by the ongoing civil war in South Sudan and northern Uganda.
"I would look at that, and it was a shock that it could take me to a very dark, emotional place," Butler says during a recent interview at the Toronto International Film Festival. "And really you just spend a long time thinking, just really working into those spaces of where it's hard to imagine being."
"Machine Gun Preacher" stars Butler ("300," "Law Abiding Citizen") as Sam Childers, a real-life former drug addict and biker gang member who found God and turned his life around by building his own church and founding an orphanage in war-torn Sudan, often by taking on the insurgents with a machine gun in hand.
Michelle Monaghan ("Source Code") co-stars as Sam's patient wife Lynn, Michael Shannon (HBO's "Boardwalk Empire") is his junkie best friend Donnie, and newcomer Madeleine Carroll plays his daughter Paige. Ivory Coast native Souleymane Sy Savane plays Deng, a soldier in the Sudanese People's Liberation Army who befriends Childers and helps him liberate the children forcibly recruited by the Lord's Resistance Army, a brutal guerrilla group headed by Joseph Kony, a hated figure who was indicted for war crimes in 2005 but remains at large.
After director Marc Forster ("Monster's Ball," "Quantum of Solace") cast Butler in the part, the Scottish actor wanted to meet Childers so he travelled to his home in Jonestown, PA. There, Butler says, he was surrounded by all of Childers' family, "including Paige and Lynn, and a couple preacher friends of his and then just a couple other people. And it was very much in his own domain and in his element, and [he was] kind of enjoying the space and the attention, and quite rightly so; his movie was about to be made and a Hollywood actor had got off his ass and come to see him in his den.
"And he had a toothpick in his mouth and his little cocky smile: 'What you got? What you got for me?' I sat down, and he was like, 'Here, take this,' and he gives me a gun. And so I start playing with the gun, and I think, 'Maybe I should brandish it' so I brandish it and they all go 'Whoa, whoa!' They duck. 'It's a loaded gun!'
"We were about to have our first fallout, and I was like, 'Why are you giving me a loaded gun in a small room full of fifty people?' You know? And there went the first test. But immediately I saw a man with incredible charisma. You could tell he could be very dangerous as well. A powerhouse of a man but with a great twinkle in his eye, and that's something that I really kind of grabbed on through all this was colour, really colourful character."
One of assembled journalists asks the cast about their obsessions, inspired by Childers' obsession with first drugs and then helping the children of east Africa. While the answers of her fellow actors are light-hearted or pat, 15-year-old Madeline Carroll, who works with the international aid agency Zoe International through her church, gives the most heartfelt response, indicating that she was obsessed by the stories of the children Childers rescued.
"Some of the stories just make me so sad," she says, crying now. "But some of their stories are just incredible, and that really impacted me, seeing the strength of those kids. And how can I not do a movie like this that made me open my eyes and help save some of these kids over there? How could I not do it?
"I'm very thankful for this movie, and I hope all the people walk away wanting to make a difference and willing to help people like Sam did. And the difference is Sam actually did it. We talked all day long about how we were going to do this and we were going to do that, but Sam actually did it, and I hope that people leave this movie inspired and want to do that."