Machine Gun Preacher star Gerard Butler on spreading the word
Gerard Butler is a man on a mission in his latest role. Susan Griffin catches up with the frank Scot to talk about new film Machine Gun Preacher.
It’s pleasing to see Gerard Butler, or Gerry as he’s known to friends, is as straight talking as he ever was, despite his mammoth movie star status.
We’ve only just met and he’s already berating me for talking about the unusually good weather.
“I always joke that when your movie’s bad, people tell you about the weather outside,” laughs Butler, an actor who lays claim to one of Hollywood’s most eclectic CVs, having ticked off everything from Shakespeare and musicals, to romcoms and thrillers.
For the record, his new movie Machine Gun Preacher isn’t bad either.
Based on a true story, Butler’s portrayal of Sam Childers, a renegade biker-turned-preacher who founded an orphanage in Sudan, reminds you he’s a dramatic actor of merit.
“When I first read the script, I thought, ’Are you kidding me?’ This couldn’t all have happened, but it did – and much more.
“Sam has experienced more than most people would in 10 lifetimes,” admits the 41-year-old, who’s no stranger to tackling larger than life warriors (he played the Spartan King Leonidas in 300 back in 2006).
An unlikely hero, Childers reinvented himself in 1992 after a lifetime of violence and addiction, and dedicated his life to faith and family, before embarking on a trip to Uganda to help rebuild a war-ravaged village.
It was meant to be a one-time event but once Childers had witnessed the incredible need, both there and in neighbouring Sudan – where his first orphanage is now one of the largest in the country, feeding up to 1,200 children a day – he became a man with a mission.
He also began to lead what some regard as unorthodox heavily armed ’rescue missions’ to retrieve children kidnapped by Joseph Kony’s Lord’s Resistance Army and save them from having to carry out unthinkable atrocities.
“The story takes place on two continents, in two completely different cultures, which perfectly expresses the duality of Sam,” says a dressed down Butler in jeans and jumper. The Scottish accent is still intact despite living in Los Angeles these days.
“There’s Sam in Africa and Sam in America. There’s the younger, out of control Sam with no God but himself, and the Sam who found this higher purpose,” he says.
From the start, Butler set out to bring integrity to the complex and volatile role and for that reason, decided to meet the man himself.
“We didn’t have financing at the time, but we all got on a plane and the next minute I’m in Johnstown, Pennsylvania, with Sam and his family at his house,” recalls Butler.
“I’ve never met anybody who I’d heard so many things about. Everybody said they knew him, that he was crazy, cunning, or hilarious. Interestingly, I found somebody who was far more pulled back than I thought he was going to be,” says Butler.
“I could see he was studying me, trying to work me out and seeing if I was up to the task – toothpick in his mouth – which I liked.”
As a young man, Butler himself experienced the dark effects of hedonistic living and believes it helped Childers relate to him.
“I know he had his doubts, because he has doubts about all of Hollywood, to be honest,” laughs Butler.
“I think anybody like that will think, ’He’s an actor, how can he be a badass?’ But I am,” he says with a grin.
Described by one critic as “part chest-beater, part soul-searcher”, Butler has reportedly said he can’t remember a time in his life when he hasn’t been battling with “quandaries, fears and weaknesses”.
And today he admits feeling an immediate affinity with Childers.
“I connect with people who have a lot of pain,” says Butler whose parents divorced when he was a toddler, and didn’t see his father again until he was 16 years old.
“Much as I could have fun with Sam, I really connected with him when he talked about his life or the guilt that he felt,” he reveals. “It made me want to hug him and do justice to the story.”
In fact, the importance of the work Childers continues to shoulder made the film more personal for Butler than any other project he’s been part of: “It’s the one that I’ve been most involved in,” he notes.
“Marc Forster, the director and I worked closely together for over a year and every day was epic. It was a marathon.
“On a single day, we might do a scene where Sam breaks down, like his life is over, then another where he’s been high on crack for a month and has to deal with his family. In between, I’m sitting with my folders of visual aids, images from Sudan of kids burned, people hacked up, babies...”
But as hard as the movie was to make, Butler says it’s the hard ones that pay off.
“You have to sacrifice a lot to do a movie like this, but at the same time, the rewards you get from it are more soulful. This movie spreads good and creates of lot of conversation.
“People come out going, ’I wanna do something more than just live the life I’m living’ and that makes me feel great.”
EXTRA TIME – GERARD BUTLER
:: Gerard Butler was born on November 13, 1969 in Paisley, Scotland.
:: His acting career began when he was approached in a coffee shop by the actor Steven Berkoff, who gave him a role in a stage production of Coriolanus.
:: In 2008, he and his manager Alan Siegel launched the production company Evil Twins. Their debut project, Law Abiding Citizen, grossed more than 100 million dollars worldwide.
:: Butler’s a board member of Artists for Peace and Justice (APJ), which was established in 2009 to encourage peace and social justice.
:: Butler’s currently filming Of Men And Mavericks, based on the true story of Santa Cruz surfer Jay Moriarity and his quest to ride the notoriously treacherous Northern California break.
:: Machine Gun Preacher is released in cinemas on Wednesday, November 2