Interview: Gerard Bulter prefers a rough ride for movie roles
STEVE RUSSELL/TORONTO STAR
Sep 29, 2011
Gerard Butler likes it rough.
The blue-eyed Scottish actor, his burr especially pronounced, slings his long legs across a downtown hotel easy chair and says that making Machine Gun Preacher “kind of beat the s--- out of me,” but it was a worthy trade-off to get to the heart of the story of a bad news biker who finds God and embraces a new life as a minister and humanitarian in the Sudan.
The movie had its world premiere at the Toronto International Film Festival and opens in theatres Sept. 30.
Butler plays Sam Childers, a violent drug dealer and all-around badass who gets out of jail to find his former-stripper wife (Michelle Monaghan) has found a new life in an evangelical church.
Inspired one Sunday by a visiting preacher’s stories of the torment suffered by children in Sudan at the hands of a brutal militia, Childers goes to Sudan to help build an orphanage, but soon becomes a solider in the war for the children.
Eventually, he builds his own church back home in the States and becomes its preacher with fundraising for his Sudan mission the subject of most of his passionate sermons.
Playing Childers put Butler in almost every scene and required him to work at a very intense level, he says, whether it was manic preaching, rants and raging, bar brawling, or facing gun battles with the enemy.
“There were long days, intense emotional moments,” says Butler, who worked in Detroit and South Africa on the film. “I always knew it would (be tough) and I always knew it had to be because that kind of stuff actually helps when you’re playing a role like this.”
He also faced the task of making Childers, a guy who is clearly not here to make friends, a likeable character onscreen, even if that only happens occasionally. Admittedly, “he goes from point A to point B without getting involved in some of the niceties and reality of the situation,” Butler observes, but he wanted to ensure the power of Childers’ deeds outweighed his often arrogant and unsavory personality elements for moviegoers.
“I think it was what was challenging in this movie was to show this journey so that you could say in some ways, this guy is a hero,” says Butler, who had begged off his morning interviews at TIFF after a five-hour delay in Chicago got him to Toronto in the wee hours.
“Stand back and look at what he did,” Butler urges. “He went to Africa and took it upon himself to finance and build an orphanage and then started fighting in a war which took incredible courage fighting against this extremely dangerous militia who are responsible for some half a million deaths. You would say there’s a hero.”
Butler also spent time with Childers on the set. How did they get along? The actor chuckles.
“I think Sam is slightly suspicious of everything,” he says with a grin. “There were times when he wasn’t on the best of terms with our director, or producer. He’s a very demanding character. But then there’s the other part of him where you forget he was arrogant, insensitive, full of anger and stubborn beyond belief … the man has a lot of humanity as well and he does believe deeply in what he does.”
Born in Glasgow and raised briefly in Montreal, the 41-year-old Butler has had a colourful life as a musician and law-school grad who decided to act rather than follow a career in law.
During our chat he was dressed in a dark blue, long-sleeved shirt, his longish hair swept back from his forehead and a sporting a short beard. Tanned and relaxed, he was charming and easygoing, despite the late night. He was also very funny, laughing and making jokes about how his next movie role would be “a story about a guy who works in a candy store and he just sits there and sits there and eats candy and speaks in his own Scottish accent.”
Butler made his film debit in Mrs. Brown in 1997 and movie fans first took notice of him as the title vampire in Dracula 2000 three years later and then as the lead in Joel Schumacher’s screen adaptation of The Phantom of the Opera in 2004. Playing buff and brawny King Leonidis in Zack Snyder’s 300 two years later made him a bona fide star.
The roles he’s taken on have fit a pattern, says Butler. He prefers to do movies where he’s forced to learn a new skill or to rise to a difficult challenge.
“I generally take on roles that will somehow be taxing, whether it’s training for 300 or learning to sing for Phantom of the Opera,” he points out. “But without a doubt this one (Machine Gun Preacher) was one of the most exhausting films just because of the pressures. We had to film in all the worst parts of Detroit. We were filming long, long hours and the movie was so emotionally taxing it took it into being physically taxing.”
Up next are two such roles for Butler. For Playing the Field (he also produced the movie and suspects the title will change) he stars alongside Jessica Biel, Uma Thurman and Catherine Zeta-Jones as a former professional soccer player. He spent three months working on his football skills for that movie.
Now he’s spending time on a surfboard to play Rick “Frosty” Hesson in Maverick, a biopic about legendary surfer Jay Moriarty. Both movies are due out next year.
But back to that candy man project. What kinds of chocolate would his character munch on? “I love Mars bars,” Butler says enthusiastically. “Twix; anything Swiss. Wait. Leonidis bars!”