Interviews : Gerard Butler - Machine Gun Preacher
Gerard Butler took on the toughest and ultimately most rewarding role of his stellar career in Machine Gun Preacher.
The 41 year-old star plays Sam Childers a former drug-dealing criminal who undergoes a spiritual transformation and emerges as the unlikely saviour of hundreds of children in war torn east Africa.
“In terms of acting chops and what it took, the complexity of the character and the journey he goes on and the emotional depth it was the hardest role I’ve had to play and it took the most out of me,” says Butler. “It was the most challenging but ultimately the most rewarding as well for that reason.”
Directed by Marc Forster (Monster’s Ball, The Kite Runner), Butler stars alongside Michelle Monaghan as Childers’ long suffering wife, Lynn, and Michael Shannon as his best friend, Donnie.
Childers was a self confessed thug in his younger years - a violent biker who provided muscle for a drugs gang. After he is released from prison Lynn convinces him to accompany her to the local church he finds his salvation in Christianity. A church organised trip to Africa to help re-build a village destroyed by civil war changes his life.
He decides to build an orphanage for the local children right in the middle of territory controlled by the brutal Lord’s Resistance Army, a militia that forces children to become soldiers and carries out unspeakable acts of violence.
Butler was born in Paisley, Scotland and initially studied law before abandoning his degree to concentrate on his first love, acting. He has switched effortlessly from genre to genre in a career that has taken him to the very top of the A list.
There have been blockbusters like Lara Croft Tomb Raider: The Cradle of Life and the spectacular 300, the lavish musical Phantom of the Opera, Guy Ritchie’s crime caper RocknRolla, the contemporary thriller Law Abiding Citizen, alongside romances like P.S I Love You and romantic comedies including The Ugly Truth.
More recently, he starred alongside Jennifer Aniston in the romantic comedy, The Bounty Hunter and will soon be seen in the Ralph Fiennes directed screen version of Shakespeare’s Coriolanus as Aufidius. He also completed Playing The Field with Jessica Biel for director Gabriele Muccino, which will be released next year.
Q and A follows:
Q: In terms of a challenge where does this one rank?
A: In terms of acting chops and what it took, the complexity of the character and the journey he goes on and the emotional depth it was the hardest role I’ve had to play and it took the most out of me. It was the most challenging but ultimately the most rewarding as well for that reason.
Q: Is it a role of a lifetime?
A: It felt like a great opportunity to say so much and really pack a punch or not – which is why it was exciting because you could also do this and fail miserably and there are a lot of ways to play this badly. It was a fine line to traverse and to try and get all those different things that is Sam. Before I met Sam I’d never heard a man described in so many different ways because the director, the writer would say ‘this is who he is..’ and it was always different.
Q: Where did you first meet him?
A: I met him in Georgetown, Pennsylvania, where he lives. I went round to his house and sat in his kitchen and there must have been about 15 people there – people from the movie, his family, some of his friends and at that point I’d read the script and said that I wanted to do the movie and so I went to meet him.
Q: What did you expect when you met him?
A: Well, you see the guy that you read about in the script and so you expect to see this gun toting wild man, maybe screaming and shouting, loud and obnoxious. I expected somebody larger than life with a lot of energy and what I experienced was that yes, there’s a lot of energy and he is very charismatic but it’s very contained. I was also well aware that this is Sam now and also he’s not in a war zone and not currently fighting for his sanity. So the man I actually met was a man who was quite considered, he would sit back and he was studying me and studying the situation and kind of enjoying the attention in a way – that this was what all of his hard work had come to. Just like I can say I enjoy it when people enjoy a movie I’ve made, well, this was his moment to shine and kind of go ‘look, Gerry Butler has come to visit me…’ (laughs)
Q: Was he sizing you up?
A: Oh I am sure he was thinking ‘are you up to the task Mr Gerry Butler?’ and there’s me with my Scottish accent. He didn’t say anything at the time but he has since told me that that’s what he was thinking and I knew, I could see his mind working, not just thinking about me, but about all of these people that had come from such a different world to his and that even though he knew he could harvest that and it would be great for his cause, there was kind of a lack of trust because he is, in some ways, a simple hard working guy.
Q: Do you like him?
A: Yes, I do like him. I got to know him and I do like him and I think he is a fascinating character. He’s by no means an angel or perfect in every way – he does have an ego, he can be quite brash but more overpowering than any of that, is that he has a deep sense of humanity. And he has spent a lot of his life risking his life to help other people and what I do love as well is that there is a charm to him. He’s a very charming guy, which I didn’t expect. He’s a tough guy but there’s a charm to the way he is with people and I’ve seen him on many occasions now when he lets go and starts talking about the terrible things he has seen and the tears well up and he starts crying. And I’ve seen that he’s a very deep human being and there’s a lot of pain and shame about his life.
Q: And the film doesn’t pull any punches when it shows that side of him. He was a volcano in his earlier life and there was some very bad stuff – the violence, the drugs…
A: Yes and when you speak to him that’s the way he describes himself, that he couldn’t stay out of fights and he did have this explosive personality – he was an angry guy and he loved drugs and by the way, most of the shame that I see and when he cried the most, was not even about the kids (in Africa) it was when he was talking about him dealing drugs and people that he felt had died because of him, that’s when I saw him cry more than any other time.
Q: Is it about redemption for him? Do you think that his work in Africa is about trying to atone for his past?
A: Yes, I do. Obviously he has been struck by the plight of these kids, he’s been there and he’s witnessed terrible things. When an audience experiences this movie it’s often very personal and they want to act and do something but Sam was there and saw it all for real and it made him want to act. But when he talks about his life he often talks about atonement and redemption and how he feels there’s never enough he can do to make up for his past. He also takes on a lot of the baggage of the kids he didn’t save to the point where it doesn’t make sense, you know, because he is out there doing his best but he seems to think that any kid that is taken away or is killed when he wasn’t around he feels responsible for that, too and that’s not rational. Maybe that’s my judgement and maybe it’s not entirely fair but that’s the feeling I got from him. And yet, there have been situations when he has had to make judgement calls. There’s a situation in the movie where he comes back and sees the kid burned alive, which really happened. He had to make a judgement call and he had to leave and could only take so many with him and when he came back the rest had been killed. And that sent him in a downward spiral.
Q: The film asks a very big question about the morality of using violence as a means to save these children. What was your take on that?
A: We did talk about it but it was interesting because you quickly get a sense from Sam that he has fool proof belief that he is backed by God and he is doing God’s work. And now, after the movie, when you analyse it, there are arguments either way, but I do feel that The Lord’s Resistance Army have no political agenda, they just kill and maim and sexually enslave – that’s the only thing they do. So when you look at it from that perspective all Sam then has done is met fire with fire and actually if he hadn’t been around hundreds of kids would now be dead that are now living, children have been rescued that would still be with the Lord’s Resistance Army killing other people and 1500 children a day would not have been fed for the last 25 years, which is what he is doing. And that’s from analysing it now. Back then, when I first met him, I very quickly saw his unquestioning belief in the work he did and to be honest that was good enough for me. I didn’t want to get into questioning the morality of what he did because it’s not going to help me in terms of playing the character. Actually it’s lethal to playing the character because he when he was doing that didn’t question what he did, he questioned God at times, he struggled with the financial aspects, he struggled with the pressure it put on his family but he never questioned the morality of what he was doing so it wouldn’t have helped me to be questioning that.
Q: Were you raised as a Christian?
A: I was brought up as a Catholic.
Q: Are you still a man of faith?
A: I believe in God. I’m not a practising Catholic anymore although I still go to Church when I go home and keep my Mum happy. In fact, I like to do it and I actually enjoy going to Church but I’ve been on spiritual trips to India and I have a much more personal association with God. So I can connect that sense of belief in a higher power and understanding the strength that you are given by that and understanding also, the strength of finding one’s purpose. I think Sam knew my beliefs. But I found it fascinating to listen to him.
Q: What was it like to film this? As well as this spiritual journey it’s also obviously a very physical role. Was it almost like playing two people?
A: Well obviously there were the physical demands. In Africa we were doing six day weeks and it was often a 14 hour day and there was a lot of action, I did all my own stunts, but those rigours I’m used to because I’ve done similar things in other movies. What was hard was to do all of that and then go on the emotional journey that Sam went on and doing all the extra preparation I needed to do as well. Because you are also working on the swagger, the dialect, on the biking, on the firearms, on the preaching style – and all of that stuff takes extra work and preparation. And I also spent a long time working on the script. I spent a lot of time with Jason (Keller, screenwriter) and Marc (Forster) making the script as good and as powerful as possible, honing it down.
Q: Was that after you had met Sam and you wanted some of your impressions of him in there?
A: Absolutely. At times the script felt a little bit repetitive and too on the nose, it was a little over written. And we worked on some of the characters, just fleshing it out and making it better. But the tough thing about this was that I’m playing a guy who went into the darkest depths of drug addiction, of domestic strife, violence in his own community, there was terrible guilt and rage, And then I’m playing a guy who has to witness the atrocities and savagery that he witnessed in Africa and then somebody who goes into the worst depression, becomes suicidal, he is in the darkest depths and he is losing his mind. And you are doing that scene after scene, moment after moment.
Q: I would imagine that talking to Sam about what he has seen in Africa and doing your own research into the atrocities that he had witnessed would have been very upsetting?
A: Terribly upsetting. For instance I had a folder full of hundreds of photos of these child soldiers, of mass graves, of kids hacked to death, kids with their arms cut off, mothers and babies that have been hacked to death lying next to each other – this is the kind of stuff that I looked at all the time, every day I would look at it. I watched documentaries about it and then I would reflect on Sam and reflect on my own life and just trying constantly to put myself into a very dark, emotional space. And to have to go and do a scene where a child is dead in your arms, it definitely made this a hard one to do. That emotional, psychological stretching without a doubt is also physically exhausting and added to the already physically demanding role. However, making this movie was also really rewarding and emotional and everybody who worked on the movie were there for the right reasons – they cared about the move, about the message and it was great to be working in that atmosphere and knowing that you were making a movie that says something and has a message that would move people. And that’s a big energy boost.
Q: What did you do when it was finished? How did you come down from an experience like that?
A: I went on a safari. I brought some friends down to Africa and at first I thought, ‘why am I doing this?’ I didn’t want anything to do with them because the movie was still with me and I was in a strange state. They came down for the last two days of the shoot and I really almost said, ‘sorry guys, do you mind if we do this another time?’ But I went. And on the first day I let them go off on safari and I just stayed back and then I went out and suddenly being out in the wilds, surrounded by elephants with those ancient eyes looking at you, and then there were leopards and lions with their cubs and you are so close to them and suddenly this film, this story, kind of took its place in the natural order of things and connecting with that was probably the best thing I could have done. It just took me out of a certain space and I was so glad that I did it.