Gerard Butler rethinks his work after ‘Machine Gun Preacher’ role
While Gerard Butler has played characters based on real people before, “I have never before played someone that not only is still alive, but whose life touched me so deeply, having such a deep emotional impact on me,” the actor said.
“I know it sounds a bit pretentious, but truly, playing Sam Childers has changed my life, and how I think about myself as an actor.”
During a recent Chicago visit, the Scottish native sat down with the Sun-Times to talk about “Machine Gun Preacher” (opening Friday), based on the life of Childers, once a troubled and violent drug addict and criminal who found religion, turned his life around and became an international humanitarian.
The title refers to Childers’ evolution into a gun-toting, self-taught man of God, who often had to do battle in Africa to save the lives of children fleeing the horrors of war.
Butler chuckled when told this performance may surprise the legion of fans who have come to think of him as a hunky heartthrob — due to such roles as the abs-chiseled King Leonidas in “300” and Jennifer Aniston’s sexy ex-husband in “The Bounty Hunter,” or his reputation for dating some of the world’s most gorgeous women.
“Yes, once they see me being such an ass---- or tossing my cookies during the early scenes in the film, I’m sure they won’t find me very appealing,” Butler said with a big laugh.
“But hopefully, they will stick around and see the amazing journey this man — Sam Childers — went on and continues to go on in his life.”
While some actors playing a real person prefer to rely only on the script given them by a film’s screenwriters, Butler said it was imperative he meet Childers before he even shot one scene in “Machine Gun Preacher.”
Along with director Marc Forster, Butler traveled to Childers’ hometown of Johnstown, Pa., to meet him and his family.
“It was great, because I got to absorb so much of who Sam is by seeing him in his own home — his own den — sitting there surrounded by his family, including his wife, Lynn, and his daughter, Paige, who play such an important part both in his life and our film.”
As Butler recalled, “It was quite the group. Along with Sam and his family, there also were a bunch of other church people who were close to him and his mission.
“Sam kind of sized me up and actually was a bit cocky at first. It was clear he wanted to test me a bit — to see if I could handle the role, playing him as a younger man.
“Suddenly, he thrust a gun in my hands, obviously checking to see if I knew how to handle it. So, thinking I should act the part, I started playing with it, as if I would be using it for real.
“People literally started yelling, and I think a couple hit the floor. Sam had handed me a loaded gun!
“Not exactly the best way to test me, I thought, and I worried that we hadn’t exactly started out in the right way.”
That said, Butler finally did connect with Childers.
“What struck me was how charismatic this man was. I could see how he could inspire people — both in that small church he started in Western Pennsylvania, and the children and adults he came to care about so much in Sudan and Uganda.
The part of Childers’ life that intrigued Butler the most was what happened after he found God, got clean and on something of a fluke flew to West Africa to see first-hand what was happening in that war-torn part of the world.
Once he licked his drug addiction, Childers had owned his own construction company, and he initially intended to use his skills to help Africans repair homes destroyed in the civil war in Sudan.
“As I spent that time with Sam in Johnstown and read his story, as he described it, I was so amazed at the obstacles he had to overcome in Africa.” said Butler. “At first he really was flying blind, with no concept of the culture, the history, the way things worked over there — or didn’t work!”
Virtually starting with nothing, Childers raised funds to build orphanages in Sudan, saving hundreds of children from some of the most brutal conditions imaginable. It is estimated that more than 2 million people — men, women and children — were massacred during the long civil war that eventually led to the partition of Sudan into two countries earlier this year.
While Butler said he and the “Machine Gun Preacher” filmmakers — especially Forster — wanted to accurately recount Childers’ story, “we also knew — and Sam came to realize — that we were making a movie. Some things had to be changed. For example, the character Michael Shannon plays in the film actually is an amalgam of several friends of Sam’s. He’s a composite character, because that simply worked better for the purposes of our storytelling in the film.”
Having Childers around a lot was helpful when it came to capturing details of his life.
“We spent about four or five days with him in Johnstown, then Sam came to the set when we shot in Detroit [doubling for Johnstown], and he also came to Africa with us.”
While Butler said his experience making “Machine Gun Preacher” made him happy about “both entertaining an audience, but more importantly delivering a message as well,” he isn’t going to stop making the romantic comedies or action flicks that have made him a box office star.
“There’s long been talk about a ‘300’ sequel, and if they get the script right, I’m sure that will happen. I also love comedy and doing those kinds of movies too.
“Don’t worry. As much as I loved doing this film — and am very proud of what we achieved — I’m going to continue to mix things up, hopefully for a long time to come.”