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Q&A: 'Machine Gun Preacher' star Gerard Butler doesn't want to kick your ass
By Matt Pais RedEye movie critic
12:00 a.m. CDT, September 26, 2011
“Machine Gun Preacher” star Gerard Butler won’t name specific movies, but he recognizes that he’s made some stinkers.
“There without a doubt have been movies that I’ve watched and went, ‘What a waste of time that was,’” says the Scottish actor, 41, who may or may not have been referring to “The Ugly Truth,” “The Bounty Hunter,” “Law Abiding Citizen,” “P.S. I Love You” and others. “I can say that now and maybe kind of smile about it, but I gotta tell you, when that happens it’s really depressing because it’s months out of your life.”
Clearly Butler (who doesn’t mind being called Gerry) had no qualms about diving into “Machine Gun Preacher,” opening Sept. 30. In the film Butler plays Sam Childers, a real-life Pennsylvania activist who transformed from a violent, dangerous drug dealer into a religious, self-described freedom fighter. He built an orphanage in Sudan and took down murderous Sudanese rebels by any means necessary. Yes, that means through violence.
Butler worked with a dialect coach, bikers, contractors and plumbers to nail all facets of Sam’s life. He frequently referred to a book featuring photos of mutilated African children in order to bring himself to the necessary emotional place for the role. Of course, Butler already owns a Harley, so it’s not as if becoming a leather-clad bad boy was that much of a stretch.
At the Four Seasons Hotel, the primarily L.A.-based actor—who swore off alcohol a long time ago, by the way, but indulged me in a chocolate milk chugging contest you can watch above—talked about fake mustaches, public urination and a fan who wanted a swift kick to the chest.
Can you sense a movie you’re making is going to be bad at the time or only after you see it?
Both. Normally you can tell. There was a movie that I did that I didn’t like and I knew from the first take. And I was relatively inexperienced at that point and I was just so excited that I got the role and I only assumed that the movie was going to be great. I was very naïve. And literally from the first “Action!,” a few people in the scene we all started talking and I went, “Oh God, this is going to be crap.”
Can you give me one title that made you feel that way?
[Laughs.] Rhymes with “no.”
For “Machine Gun Preacher,” was there any point at which you tried to grow a mustache like Sam’s?
[Laughs.] No, we talked about it. We talked about it quite a lot, and actually I did grow out a beard and mustache but you know what, it’s a little too much of a gamble. For instance, in “300” it worked great. We all said, “We’re going to stick with this ridiculously long beard,” and that worked because it was more stylized. It seemed after the conversation it’s a little too much to ask people to take. A lot of people would find it fine; we’re already going on a heavy enough-journey without this big mustache. It also looks great on Sam, but it didn’t look so good on me.
You don’t think so?
No, I know so.
It would take me six years to grow it like him.
There’s the other thing. It would have had to have been a false mustache; I could never get to that length. “Really, I’m going to spend a whole movie with this big false mustache?” When it’s not in truth important enough to the story, and it’s just taking a kind of gamble that wasn’t really necessary.
What was the hardest part of this role, and what went through your head the first time you touched down in Africa?
The hardest part of the role without a doubt was dealing with the tragedy of Sam’s life. Other people in most movies, perhaps in your more dramatic moments life got a little depressing, you struggled with love or something. His journey is so intense that his downs were downs that most people will never experience—the intensities of drug addiction and acting out on that addiction almost to the point of death and extreme violence. Then basically a mental breakdown, witnessing the horrors that he witnessed. That extreme, extreme emotion and physical destruction, having to go to those places was intense. But touching down in Africa was surely exciting for me ‘cause I knew this whole movie was a great adventure. Much as it took a lot out of me, it also gave me so much.
Did you ever doubt that you could do it?
I always doubt myself. I swing between thinking, “I’m going to knock this out of the ballpark” to, “This is gonna suck so bad.” Even “300,” there’d be times that I was going, “OK, this is amazing” to other times when I was thinking, “This is so ridiculous, I can’t believe we’re standing here looking at nothing, talking nonsense.” And I definitely had that with this. “Am I pulling it off? Am I pulling off the accent? Am I pulling off the character? Is it too melodramatic? Am I representing this man well?” So definitely you get that a lot.
How do you think Sam’s badassness compares to your badassness?
I think he is truly a badass. I think I’m a little puppy Labrador compared to him.
You’ve played a lot of masculine characters. What do you think people expect out of you when they meet you?
It’s interesting you say that because I’ve tried to get past thinking about that because it never really leads you anywhere good when you think people have expectations of you. I try to be decent with people. My feeling is generally most people appreciate that, that you can stay grounded and warm and friendly towards ‘em. But I have no doubt that sometimes people go, almost, “He’s real, he’s normal. What a disappointment.”
Do you recall something someone said on the street, when they were trying to bring a character out of you?
Oh, all the time. I constantly have people asking me to quote lines from movies, especially “300” of course. Or give ‘em one of those kicks. Literally somebody asked me recently to kick him in the chest as hard as I could. They were like, “Go!” I’m like, “Are you kidding me?” “Kick me! Kick me!”
“I won’t be angry, it’s OK.”
I’m thinking this is funny and I went, “[Laughs] No,” and [he said], “Go! Kick me!” And I’m like, “This is so stupid. No, I’m not going to do it.” So I hit him in the head with a baseball bat, and then we were fine.
What’s something you think reflects a softer side of you that might surprise people? Sam talked about how much he loves cologne.
Maybe I’m a bit of a crybaby. I’m the kind of person that I can I have a little tear in my eye when I watch movies. Sometimes even just somebody tells me a story and if it’s powerful I’ll tear up.
What’s a movie that made you cry? Disney stuff?
What would be a movie that made me cry? Oh my God, a lot of my movies made me cry. “Life is Beautiful.” That made me cry. It also made me laugh. You can’t beat a movie that makes you laugh and cry at the same time.
How upset were you when you heard about Gerard Depardieu’s public urination incident and the careless way he’s dishonoring the name Gerard?
[Laughs.] It didn’t cross my mind. I’m all for public urination. You should be able to relieve yourself whenever you feel like it.
This is from personal experience?
Absolutely. I just did it earlier on today. Out on the street. Just close to the hotel.
On Chicago: “I think this city’s great. It has all this great architecture and it’s a big city but it doesn’t feel like a big city. It feels very small town. Really good people. I love walking about this city. It’s got a good energy about it … I made a bit of a movie here. I had a girlfriend from here; I came visiting with her. I’ve been in and out a few times.”
On picking roles: “I have always had this feeling to keep it open and see where it leads me and never get stuck into one genre. I remember when I took on ‘Phantom’ Andrew Lloyd Webber said to me, ‘This is going to change your life, and it’s going to change the path of your career.’ And inside I was thinking, ‘No, it’s not. I’m still going to keep doing what I’m doing which is everything I can.’ Perhaps [‘Machine Gun Preacher’] will lead to slightly more dramatic roles, but that was where I was going anyway. But I don’t ever want to stop doing comedies or whatever. I want to keep changing it up.”
A role he wouldn’t want: “I wouldn’t want to jump in on a number 5 or a number 6 of any movie. I think it’s more fun to create roles than jumping in on the sequel of something.”
On his iPod: “Oh my God. Sigur Ros is one of my favorites. Mogwai. Windy and Carl. I love kind of weird music. I love a bit of Radiohead. Massive Attack. LCD Soundsystem.”
Watch Matt on “You & Me This Morning,” Fridays at 7 a.m. on WCIU, the U