Gerard Butler stars in this week's new release Machine Gun Preacher as Sam Childers, a man who left a life of crime and drug addiction to devote himself to his children who'd been affected by the violent attacks of the Lord's Resistance Army in the Sudan. Butler, who also serves as executive producer, and his costar Michelle Monaghan, who plays Sam's wife Lynn, chatted with us during a recent press day in San Francisco. They talked about what it was like portraying real people, how Butler prepared for the role, and the difficulties he endured while filming some of the more disturbing scenes in Africa.
Did you know about Sam's story, and what did you think of the title when you heard it?
Gerard Butler: It was my agent who'd heard about it for a long time, and he loved it, was very passionate about it for a long time. He pitched the story to me, so I immediately connected Machine Gun Preacher with a guy who fought for children in the Sudan. I like the [title] Machine Gun Preacher, I think it's very catchy, but I think that it allows the movie to reveal the far deeper, interesting, more complex story. And yet to let people know that it's a crazy ass movie at the same time. He's a crazy ass guy, a hell of a powerful adventurer as well. I didn't know about it before, and [then] I wanted everyone to know about it.
Michelle Monaghan: I mean obviously, I got the script and saw Machine Gun Preacher, and I was intrigued — come on! I was completely inspired when I'd read it. This is definitely a project I wanted to be a part of, and certainly knowing that Gerry was on board to tell his story, as was Marc Forster, only cemented the idea of being a part of it even more.
To find out what else Butler and Monaghan had to say, like how hard it was shooting the violent scenes, just keep reading.
How do you prepare for a role like this?
GB: I'll keep that brief, because that could turn into a book. Months and months, I was working on this script with Marc and Jason [Keller], the writer, for a year. And when you get that intensely involved you're actually helping create, [and] it really helps you climb inside the character. [I did] An awful lot of research, tons of documentaries on Sudan, the conflict, the LRA, the situation, you know, and I was watching movies on bikers, watching movies on preachers, documentaries on bikers, Robert Duvall's incredible portrayal in The Apostle. You glean all you can — I spent time with carpenters, plumbers, bikers, to kind of break down all the individual parts that make up Sam. And the rest of it is the emotional journey, which is just constant reflection. I have a book with me all the time, with thousands of photos of maimed kids, kids in mass graves, stuff that would both disturb me and yet I know is the truth. Thousands of kids strapped with AK-47s, RPGs, the life they live, mothers with babies strapped to their backs that have been hacked to death, which is a typical situation after the LRA have passed through a village. The more you do of this work, the more you start to settle into the character.
Was it tough filming the scenes of violence?
GB: Very tough. They're some of the most rewarding scenes, when you have to go to the furthest places. I think the harder you have to work or something, the more rewarding it is at the end. For instance, when I'm having to walk over and see 14 burnt bodies that are caused by me, because I didn't do my job, or pick up a boy who's blown in half and have a breakdown, I don't just have to do that once, I have to do that all day long. You come out of that and you feel like you have post-traumatic stress disorder. [I was] Shaking, shaking, nobody could come near me. When I first started talking about this movie, I would often just start crying, just remembering it. Also the fact that you don't just have to be in those scenes; Sam spent a lot of time in that emotional space when he wasn't actually witnessing it, the aftermath of it. You're having to go there a lot of the time, when he's at the dinner table with people, when he's coming off the airplane, to go back into that haunted, despairing space. It was tough, but it's exciting to look for those roles as an actor.
Do you think Sam replaces his addictions to drugs and alcohol with an addiction to his work in Africa?
GB: It's often when people transform in their lives they find something to grasp onto, often it's a higher power, often it's some other purpose. Sometimes it's a negative purpose, but one that's also common is workaholism. And if you combine that with his sense of adventure, and the fact that that would take him to other corners of the planet, and then the fact that he happened to witness what he did, then it gives him an addiction, but almost with good reason. What a great purpose, what a great addiction to have. To fight, to save children. I think it is an addiction; it's a dangerous one, but at least it's a humanitarian one, and one that if he hadn't had, there'd be hundreds if not thousands of kids dead or missing.
You met Sam and Lynn Childers; were you worried it would affect your performance?
MM: No, if anything it should just inform us. These are real people, so anything that I could glean from Lynn, I knew that it was only going to enhance my performance. She's a complex woman; I knew there was more to her than what I was reading. So to be able to spend a weekend with Sam and to kind of understand the dynamic of their relationship, I really just discovered she's a real quiet giant. She's a woman that has an incredible amount of faith. And that's really helped her endure a lot throughout the years. She's really humble, and she has a lot of strength. So that was really what was important for me to convey from her, and that was invaluable.
GB: Without a doubt, being able to speak to the "machine gun preacher," the guy that caused the story, and see what makes him tick, see his eyes when he talks about these things, learn his soul, and his physicality, it helps. But I do think you do have to be careful, because one: most of the stuff that happened in this movie was 10, 15 years ago, so you're not hearing him talk about it as it happened, so stories often change, or the reflection of the story changes, and we have to go back in there and tell our version of that. And so it's interesting, because you also got to say to yourself, I'm listening to this, but I'm not here to do him favors. I'm here to try and tell this story. Which sometimes, often, is quite damning of Sam, or that situation. The negative, darker side of him. I think you've got to try and not be affected in a way that's trying to please him.
How did Sam and Lynn react to seeing the film?
MM: They loved it. I think they were really proud. Speaking to them both, Sam especially, I think, was disappointed that Gerry wasn't better looking, definitely, but we all kind of felt that way the whole way along. But Jason Keller did screen it for them, and we got a couple of nice calls; I think Lynn had pulled Jason aside and said "He got him, he got Sam." I'm sure there was a great sense of relief from them as well. They were actually in Toronto, and they got a standing ovation. It was a really a proud night for Gerry and I, for the whole film — to see the reaction, and to see the looks on their faces. It was a great ending.