Gerard Butler rose from humble beginnings in Scotland and truly landed on the public’s consciousness with starring turns in Phantom of the Opera, 300 and P.S. I Love You. He has since made quite a career for himself. Now, Butler is back on screen with his first true passion project, the true story of the Machine Gun Preacher. Machine Gun Preacher is the life of Sam Childers, a former drug addict who became a preacher, then went to Africa on a mission -- only to discover the horrors happening to children with the civil war in the Sudan. Childers was then compelled to drop everything and help.
Butler is visiting with Movie Fanatic in Toronto at the city’s film festival to chat about Machine Gun Preacher -- also starring Michael Shannon and Michelle Monaghan -- and how obsessions, when they’re positive ones such as Butler’s unrelenting effort to get the film made, can not only change the person who is obsessed, but also change the world in the process.
The actor talks with us about meeting the real Sam Childers and how for a man who knows great success, Butler felt his triumphs were pale in comparison to a man who had risked so much to save so many.
Movie Fanatic: When did you first meet Sam and what were your first impressions of him immediately?
Gerard Butler: My first meeting with Sam was at 9 p.m. on the 21st of September in Johnstown, Pennsylvania [laughs]. No, seriously, it was in Johnstown and a crew of us went up there including Marc (Forster, director). We arrived at his house and he was surrounded by his family, a couple of preacher friends of his. He was very much in his own domain and element. He was enjoying the space and the attention, and quite rightly so. His movie was about to be made. A Hollywood actor was kissing his ass coming up to see him [laughs] in his den. He had this cocky smile that kind of said, “What you got for me?” I sat down and he said, “Take this.” And he gives me a gun. I knew it was a bit of a test, so I just started playing with it. I brandished it, and everyone ducked! Sam yelled, “That’s a loaded gun!” So I’m like, “Why are you giving me a loaded gun?” There went the first test. Immediately I saw a man with incredible charisma. He’s very dangerous as well, a powerhouse of a man, with a great passion in his eye. That’s what I really wanted to grab on to. He’s a real colorful character with a great sense of humor.
Movie Fanatic: Is meeting real people when you’re crafting a character a double-edged sword? You’re playing a version of the character and playing him without hindsight that he now has -- do you have to temper what you learn from him?
Gerard Butler: It’s a good point. I spent quite a lot of time with Sam to get a feel for him. I’m not playing JFK. I don’t have to get every hair right on my head. It’s not like a lot of people know who Sam is; it’s more about the story than the man. It’s about the essence of the man. That’s what I wanted to do. As you say, for him, most of the story happened a long time ago. I’m thinking this is a guy who is used to telling his story. There’s a book about the story. He’s told the story many times. Then, you have to go back to where those stories came from, that’s my job. I need to bring it life. What created those stories to begin with -- where was the emotion? That’s where I’m coming from, the script. The script gets into his story. In that respect, you pay too much heed to somebody coming in in hindsight and saying, “Hey, maybe I wasn’t that bad.” [Laughs] “I didn’t shoot that many people.”
Movie Fanatic: There was some decent news coverage of Sam’s story, were you aware of it at all before tackling this project?
Gerard Butler: No. I had never heard of Sam Childers. I just had been told about this movie Machine Gun Preacher. Marc didn’t even want me to read the script until he knew we were closer to getting the movie made and I was definitely the right guy for this. He knew I was going to pounce on it once I came across this story, as we all did in the cast. You read this story and it is so captivating, and full of adventure, and yet it’s inspiring. You think, “I think they’re all fantastic characters to play.” I wanted to tell the story because I don’t think a lot of people have heard of him.
Movie Fanatic: How did you do the research for the film and was it even possible to process the horrors of the Sudan?
Gerard Butler: There’s a lot of source material when you’re playing a role like this. There’s hours of TV and radio interviews with Sam. Then, I broke down everything he did. Sam was a biker, so I watched a lot of biker documentaries [laughs]. I knew he was a preacher, so I watched hours of YouTube footage of preachers on religious fervor and preaching. More than anything, I watched footage and documentaries and photographic material from Sudan. That’s what helped me more than anything to climb into this character. Sam’s journey was really a journey into hell and him trying to help these kids and this dissension into madness. I wanted to know what he witnessed while having the constant pressures of family and finances of war, and death and abuse and hopelessness, really. There was a lot of great documentary footage, but it was especially the photographs of the Sudan that I would use on a daily basis. That could take me into a dark and emotional place. I spent a long time thinking about getting into those spaces in Sam’s heart in terms of what he felt after seeing what he saw in the Sudan.
Movie Fanatic: One could argue that Sam is obsessed. He was obsessed with drugs. He became obsessed with helping these kids in the Sudan. Do you have any obsessions that drive you?
Gerard Butler: I have many obsessions that many years of therapy haven’t gotten rid of [laughs]. I’m not going to go into too many details. But, one has three letters that begins with ‘S’ and ends with ‘X.’ I’m joking [laughs]! Seriously, I get obsessed with many things that have led me down some widening dark roads. Many that have brought me to the place that I’m at today because I really grab onto them with both hands. That’s me, I’m gone. This movie was one of them. I get obsessed with roles, especially when that role is impactful and has a message. When it’s something that gets you, like this did, then it’s easy to let it take over your life. Then, all the work that you do for it is truly a joy.