Gerard Butler Talks About 'Machine Gun Preacher'
I know Gerard Butler is one of About.com writer Rebecca Murray’s favorite actors, so when I got a chance to see him at the Toronto International Film Festival, I brought him her love. When I told him she said hi, he said that was cool of me and told me to give her a big hug from him. Won’t be the same coming from me.
Machine Gun Preacher is based on the true story of Sam Childers, a reformed ex-convict who becomes a man of faith, and focuses his attention on rescuing Sudanese children. Butler plays Childers, showing his reform from a life of crime and further obsession with charity. The film played at TIFF and Butler participated in a press conference in Toronto.
Can you talk about your first meeting with Sam and your impressions of him?
Gerard Butler: "My first meeting with Sam was at 9pm on the 21st of September in Johnstown, Pennsylvania. It was in Johnstown, and a crew of us went up there with Marc [Forster] and some of the rest of the team on the film. We arrived in his house and he was surrounded by a lot of his family - Paige and Lynn and a couple of preacher friends of his and a couple of other people. He was kind of in his own domain and in his element and enjoying the space and the attention, and quite rightly so. His movie was about to be made and he had a Hollywood actor who had got off his arse and come to see him, in HIS den."
"He had a toothpick in his mouth and this little cocky smile like, ‘Okay, whatcha got? Whatcha got for me?’ Actually, I sat down and he was like, ‘Here, take this,’ and he gives me a gun. I’m like, ‘Okay, I know this is a bit of a test,’ so I start playing with the gun. Then I’m thinking maybe I should brandish it so I brandish it and they all go, ‘Whoa, whoa!’ and they duck. ‘That’s a loaded gun?’ I’m like we’re about to have our first fall-out. I’m like, ‘Why are you giving me a loaded gun in a small room full of 15 people?’ And there went the first test."
"But immediately I saw a man with incredible charisma, and you could tell that he could be very dangerous as well. He’s a powerhouse of a man but with a great twinkle in his eye. That’s something I wanted to grab onto through all this was a real colorful character with humor through all of this."
Is meeting the person you are playing something of a double-edged sword because you are playing a version of the character, without the hindsight he now has? Do you have to temper what you learn from him so it doesn’t end up being his version of what went on rather than the truth?
Gerard Butler: "Yeah, that’s a very good point, actually. I spent quite a lot of time with Sam and got to know him. You get a feel for him. I’m not playing JFK, I’m not playing Hitler. It’s not like I have to get every hair on the head right and every little tic that the character had. It’s not like not enough people know who Sam is. It’s much more the story in the man and the essence of the man. That’s what I wanted to get. As you say, this is somebody who most of the stories we tell in the film happened a long time ago. I’m thinking this is a guy who is now used to telling the story. He’s written a book about these stories; he’s told these stories many times. You have to go back to where those stories came from and imagine them in their element as they arrived, what drama that created, what emotion that created. At that point, you come from the script - the script which is completely based on his story. Then I’m working with the likes of Michelle [Monaghan], Souleymane Sy Savane and Marc, our director, and finessing our own story. In that respect, you can’t then pay too much heed of someone coming in in hindsight going, 'Whoa, whoa, wait a minute. Maybe I wasn’t that bad. Maybe I didn’t shoot that many people!'"
How much time did you spend in Johnstown?
Gerard Butler: "We were there for about four days. Sam also came to visit me in L.A. and he came to Detroit and he came to Africa with us. I talked to him a bunch on the phone but Johnstown itself, we were there, I think, three or four days. That was plenty of time to get a feel for the place. And then Sam also took us around everywhere, where he grew up, where this drug bust happened, where this fight happened, where he made out with this girl..."
This is such a fascinating story and there has been a lot of news coverage of it over the years. Had you seen any of the news reports?
Gerard Butler: "No. I had never heard of Sam Childers. I’d just been told about this movie, Machine Gun Preacher. Marc didn’t even want me to read the script until he knew we were closer to getting the movie made and that I was definitely the right guy for this because he knew I would pounce on once I came across this story, as anybody would. As Michelle did, as we all did... You read this story and it is so captivating and full of adventure and yet truth. It’s inspiring and remarkable and you think, ‘Okay, I think they’re all fantastic characters to play.' When you go, 'Oh, okay, this is this guy, look what he’s doing. I want to tell this story because I don’t think a lot of people have heard of him.'"
What research did you do and how did you process the horrors of the Sudan that you had to look into?
Gerard Butler: "There is a lot of source material you use when you’re playing a role like this. There was countless hours of TV interviews, and especially radio interviews with Sam. Then I broke down everything he did. Sam was a biker so I watched a lot of biker documentaries and books on bikers. He was a preacher so I watched a lot of hours of YouTube footage on religious fervor, fundamentalism and preaching. And then, more than anything, footage, documentaries and photographic material from Sudan. That’s what helped me more than anything to climb into this character."
"If anything, Sam’s journey was this dark journey into hell in him trying to help these kids and a descent into madness. He was just ground down by what he witnessed and by the constant pressures of family, of finance and war, death and of abuse and hopelessness, really. There was a lot of great documentary footage and interviews with kids, but especially the photographic footage that I would use on a daily basis. I had this massive folder and I just took it around with me everywhere, and I would look at that. It was a shorthand that it could really take me to a very dark emotional place. Then you spend a long time thinking, just really working into those spaces where it’s hard to imagine being."
Sam is very much obsessed, whether it be with drugs or helping other people. What are your obsessions in life?
Gerard Butler: "I think that I have many obsessions that many years of therapy haven’t quite gotten rid of, but they certainly diagnosed that I had them. I’m not going to go into too many details but the main one is three letters, begins with S and ends with X. No, I’m kidding! I’m joking. My publicist at the back… Just remember if you’re quoting that bit, I’m joking."
"No, I get obsessed with, in truth, many things. Many obsessions that have led me down some winding, dark roads. And many that have brought me to the place where I am at today, because I really grab onto them with both hands and bite into them and that’s me, I’m gone. This was one of them, actually, this movie. I get obsessed with roles without a doubt, specially when that role you feel is very impactful and has a message. It’s also easy for me to be not obsessed and just completely let things go, but when it’s something that really gets you and sticks with you like this did, it’s easy to let it take over your life. Then doing all the work you do is a joy if in other ways kind of self-destructive."
How was working with Madeline Carroll?
Gerard Butler: "Can I just say that working with Madeline, she took everybody’s breath away. One, her natural talent was incredible and we were so lucky to have her. She’s also a kid with such heart and such maturity and yet in a lot of ways completely innocent. And a great appreciation for faith and God."
"I remember the first day that she met Sam, how excited she was and all the best reasons. She just took all the great stuff out of Sam and his faith and his courage. It was really lovely to see somebody that was at that age, yet in the movie for all the right reasons because she has such a blossoming career but still takes roles very much based on the message of her character in the movie. Maybe my favorite scene in the movie is the scene where she’s had enough. As you see there, the pain she talks about is what Paige went through being neglected by Sam on his journey and how much of a brave face she put on things until eventually even she has to say, 'Dad, this is ridiculous.' You see from there, and there are just so many points in this movie where she completely breaks your heart. I was very, very, very proud to work with her. We all were."
What did you do to portray a family together?
Gerard Butler: "I think it just came out through the natural process of rehearsal. We had a pretty intense rehearsal period and through that, that’s the very thing you sit and you talk about. Then you put it up on its feet and you see where it takes you. You see when it takes you too far and you see when you think it doesn’t take you far enough. You see what seems to be working and dramatic and truthful and organic. They were not easy scenes to do, to really get them bang on and really get the intricacies and complexities of what was going on with that family, as you say the highs and the lows."
You’ve done a lot of romantic movies and action movies lately. Was it important for your soul to do one that talked about something important?
Gerard Butler: "Absolutely. That’s why I did it. But I feel like all through my career, in larger or smaller ways, I try to put some message in there. Even in a fun movie like P.S I Love You I think there are great messages in there. Even in a movie like 300 or Beowulf, there are always messages based on courage or tolerance or fighting the demon within, of unity. This is in a more obvious way because it’s actually dealing with a person’s journey to save children in Africa. Yeah, there’s a more direct message in that sense. If it touches you, it touches you when it watches you as an audience, that’s what touched me as an actor. Yeah, I guess I felt a responsibility to make a movie like that."
How do you deal with awards buzz around this type of movie?
Gerard Butler: "Oh, I don’t. You know what? I can’t get caught up in all that. I just hope people go and see the movie and people like the movie. Really, at the end of the day, that’s what I love. When people come out of this movie I can see they genuinely were touched and got something from it, then that’s the most exciting thing."
There is talk of a 300 prequel. Will there be a role in it for you?
Gerard Butler: "Yeah, they’ve been talking about it for years though. Every now and again it seems to gather some energy behind it, but I don’t know."
But if it’s at the point where there’s a script and it says: "Exterior – Sparta – Day – Leonidas is in the scene."?
Gerard Butler: "Then I’ll look at it. It just depends on the script. If it’s an amazing script, then we can talk. But I haven’t seen anything yet so it’s kind of hard for me to comment in the dark like that."
* * * * * *