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 SF Gate Interview - Gerard Butler plays life-size hero in 'Preacher'

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PostSubject: SF Gate Interview - Gerard Butler plays life-size hero in 'Preacher'   Sun Sep 25, 2011 10:20 pm

Gerard Butler plays life-size hero in 'Preacher'
Pam Grady, Special to The Chronicle

When Gerard Butler strides into a San Francisco hotel room, he doesn't so much project the aura of a movie star as that of a biker, clad in jeans, a form-fitting T-shirt and leather jacket. The look is appropriate, for the 41-year-old Scotsman has come to town to promote his latest movie, "Machine Gun Preacher," in which he portrays Sam Childers, a biker, drug addict and criminal who transforms himself into a man of God and founds an orphanage in the war-torn Sudan, taking up arms to defend his young charges.

"I feel the story is such a remarkable and exciting adventure to go on," Butler says. "Here is a man who fights addiction, who fights against his own environment and friends that are all kind of leading him to a dark and lonely place, who finds redemption, finds God, gets his life together, who begins a whole other fight in Africa, saving children, fighting in a war."

He has played his share of larger-than-life characters. He was the Hun in "Attila," a 2001 TV miniseries. He played a dragon slayer in "Reign of Fire," a troll-fighting Norse warrior in "Beowulf & Grendel," and Spartan King Leonidas, who leads a small band of men against a huge Persian force in "300." In Ralph Fiennes' upcoming "Coriolanus," Butler - who began his professional career as a spear carrier in a production of Shakespeare's tragedy - is Volscian general Tullus Aufidius, the titular Roman's nemesis. The real-life Sam Childers represents something different, an ordinary man caught up in extraordinary circumstances.

"Did I consciously think, 'Here's a man who is a hero, but who is a regular guy?' I think probably that was an influence, because I love to examine a hero and what is the nature of a hero?" Butler says. "What is the nature of a man who realizes that he has to fulfill a certain destiny?"

Excited and challenged
"I just knew that I had to play that character, because it left me excited. It left me challenged. It left me tingling. I wanted to know more. I wanted to know more about him. I wanted to know more about Sudan. I wanted other people to hear the story, to feel what I felt when I read the script."

Butler studied Childers' memoir, "Another Man's War: The True Story of One Man's Battle to Save Children in the Sudan." He looked at documentaries and books about the strife in the region and the situation facing the children there, many orphaned, many maimed or killed, some pressed into service as soldiers. He also got to know Childers, traveling to Pennsylvania to spend time with him and his family.

"When Sam talks about his past, you see the extent of the man, how much he's lived, you feel his charisma. Through his eyes, I saw so much humor, which is something I didn't expect to see, and which really helped me inform the character. And then so much pain and shame, how he would just sit and I would see how haunted he was," he says.

"Here's a man who seeks danger and something to do in his life which is far more demanding than your typical person would seek out," he adds. "Sam thrives on danger. There's a moment in the movie when (his friend) Deng tells him there's a bounty on his head. That's funny to Sam. That's what he lives for, knowing that he's caused enough of a ruckus that people want to kill him. There's that dry sense of humor and I think awareness of his own destiny. Sam likes to cause problems."

Emotional experience
Making the movie was an emotional experience for Butler, who after spending day after day looking at photographs of children caught in Sudan's cross fire, would step out on the orphanage set in South Africa and imagine danger and terror stalking the little kids around him.

"To me when I was there at that orphanage, I really felt like I was in the Sudan," he says. "That orphanage was built out in the middle of nowhere. You'd look around and you'd look over toward the horizon, and you'd just always imagine these rebel forces coming at you."

It was also a physically taxing shoot. Unless an insurance company forbids it, Butler does all of his own stunts. He feels more connected to the story and his character that way, but he also admits, "In '300,' I thought that if I could impress the crap out of the stuntmen with how hard I trained, how big and strong I got, that if even they went, 'Wow! He's not just an actor, he's a bad-ass!' then I'd done my role. Then I could really imagine that I deserved to be their king, because I would never ask them to do something that I wasn't willing to do times 10. So it was like that on this movie as well. I've got to prove myself to myself and prove myself to everybody else that I'm willing to take risks."

Injured on set
Making "Machine Gun Preacher," Butler tore ligaments, was cut twice on the head when he was hit by shell casings that flew out of a co-star's AK-47 during a battle scene, and was struck just beneath the eye by a pellet that ricocheted off a car. He was also coping with pain. In 2007, he injured his back during a car crash scene on the set of the thriller "Shattered." During a pivotal fight scene with Ralph Fiennes' while making "Coriolanus," his back problems flared again.

"In that fight, my back went out and stayed out for five months," he remembers. "In the final scene in 'Machine Gun Preacher,' when I'm picking the kids up, that was one of the worst days. I felt like I was being stabbed in the back, and I had to spend all day lifting kids off the truck.

"By the end of it, when you count all the takes, I probably lifted 200 kids off the truck. Every time, I felt like somebody was sticking a knife into my shoulder blade. That day involved many painkillers." {sbox}

Machine Gun Preacher (R) opens Friday at Bay Area theaters.

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