Gerard Butler's career is interesting, to say the least. He remains one of the most bankable actors working today, but you'd be hard pressed to name five of his films that are worth watching twice, or even once. That being said, I am most definitely excited to see what kind of fire he breathes into the film adaptation of the infrequently produced Shakespeare play CORIOLANUS, opposite Ralph Fiennes (who also directed), which most of us won't get a chance to see until January. And part of the reason I'm curious about Butler's work in in CORIOLANUS is because of what he does in his current film MACHINE GUN PREACHER, which opens in select cities this weekend and goes wide next weekend.
Although I may have issues with some of the choices writer Jason Keller and director Marc Forster make in bringing the story of real-life preacher Sam Childers to the big screen, I found very little fault with Butler's portrayal of this once bad man who find God and becomes a doer of great goods, especially on behalf of African orphans. MACHINE GUN PREACHER also features some terrific performances by the likes of Michelle Monaghan and Michael Shannon, as well as the fantastic Souleymane Sy Savane.
But back to Butler, whose career turning point was 300, but has since given us such questionable works as P.S. I LOVE YOU, THE UGLY TRUTH, LAW ABIDING CITIZEN, THE BOUNTY HUNTER, and GAMER. And let us not forget his pre-300 performances in DRACULA 2000, the second LARA CROFT movie, TIMELINE, and THE PHANTOM OF THE OPERA.
In the end, I was much more interested in talk with Butler about his current work than asking him to explain or apologize for his past work, and it didn't surprise me that he asked me when we met if I liked MACHINE GUN PREACHER. Strangely enough, that question rarely gets asked in interviews I do. But for someone whose career is seemingly under constant attack, I can see why he'd be a little skittish about something he's genuinely proud of and is being received well by preview audiences.
I was told just before I interviewed Butler that there was Oscar buzz around the movie, and I'm not sure I'd go that far, but it is a very watchable movie about an incredible man (one whom I interviewed the following day, actually; I'll have that for you shortly). In the mean time, please enjoy my brief conversation with Gerard Butler, which took place just prior to a rousing Q&A we did after a screening of the film in Chicago.
Gerard Butler: So you’ve seen the movie then?
Capone: Yeah, I saw it a couple of weeks ago.
GB: Did you like it?
Capone: I did, for the most part.
GB: Yeah? You can be honest, I don’t mind.
Capone: I’m a big fan of Marc Forster. I like that the guy doesn’t really even know how to repeat himself in terms of the kind of material he does, and it’s just a really fascinating story. And I like that it’s something I haven’t really seen you do a lot of. What was it that struck you about Sam’s story initially when you got the script or heard about him?
GB: I think it would be the same thing that struck anybody, to see a guy who went throw such a massive transformation, somebody who was a smack addict, a heroin addict, this violent rogue who within a couple of years was a preacher living between the U.S. and the Sudan building an orphanage for kids and fighting in a civil war. Just saying that, those words coming out of your mouth, and you go… “Okay…”
Capone: “It sounds like a movie.”
GB: It sounds like a movie and it sounds almost like ridiculous fiction, and yet it’s a true story. So, you read that and you are so moved, kind of shocked, horrified, and yet strangely inspired by the story. So I think I had the same reaction as anybody would have to this material or to this movie, and then I’m lucky enough to be in a position where I could also play that guy, and of course I love a role that I can get my teeth into or a role that is unusual and I get a chance to say something different.
Capone: Was there something on a more personal level for you that you found a kinship in, in terms of some of the demons he had to overcome before he could complete the transformation?
GB: Absolutely. By the way, this is another reason why I think people will identify with the movie, because whether it’s in a larger scale of actual drugs, violence, escaping your environment, or whether is just somebody beating other demons within themselves. Whatever that happens to be, that’s why you identify with this character, because he finally faced those demons and overcame them and had this kind of incredible transformative period.
Yeah, without a doubt, I’ve been in a lot of places where he has be in, on a smaller scale. I wasn’t picking up shotguns. I wasn’t robbing crack houses, but I was getting into my own trouble, which was in my world the same kind of thing. To me, that was my reality, and so yeah I identify a lot with the kind of pain that he went through, the anger, the confusion, and then the frustration of somebody who is trying to do good. But in a way, he typically doesn’t really know how to do that and he bites off more than he can chew, which is the kind of thing that can get you in a whole lot of trouble, but can also have you break borders and do things that the normal man wouldn’t do. That’s Sam.
Capone: In some of those early scenes with his family and with Michael Shannon, those are rough; those are hard to watch. Was it more important for us to like him or was it more important to understand him?
GB: I think it’s more important for us to understand him. That’s a good question. Is it? Or is it just more important for us to see him and then for us to either like him or understand him or hate him. The audience can make of this what they will, but I felt through that that I understood him, that I saw a man who was stuck in this environment and who was definitely on the way down and who couldn’t connect with anything in life, not himself, not his family, nothing. So it was interesting to see him at that stage in his life and then point out all the more what great steps forward he made in the rest of his life to show you where he came from.
Capone: That bit of film of the real Sam at the end where he asks that question, “If your kid was kidnapped, would you care about how I got him back?” Did you agree with that? Did you, at any time during the reading of the script or making of the film, say, “I don’t think I would have done things that way.” Whether it was a courage thing or just a morality thing, did you ever come into conflict with some of the things that he was doing or the way he was doing it?
GB: I’m not Sam. I don’t think I would ever be capable of doing what Sam has done for a variety of reasons and I’m not built like Sam in many ways, and yet I have such a respect for what he did. I know that his actions and his achievements have been very controversial and I understand that. By the way, there would be a time when I could have argued myself, “Is this right? Is vigilantism justifiable?” But those simple words at the end of the movie, in one sentence he says something where I don’t think there would anybody who wouldn't say, “Fair point, that kind of wins the argument," you know? But I like that it’s left for everybody to argue about. The fact is, he is what he is and he’s done what he’s done; the fact is, there’s an orphanage down there where many hundreds of kids lives have been saved, and everyday many hundreds of kids are being fed.
Capone: You’re listed as an executive producer on this film. What did that entail?
GB: Obviously producing is a way more in depth, involved experience than executive producing. When you make a movie like MACHINE GUN PREACHER, basically that movie is not going anywhere until you say, “Yes.” Then you have your name and then you have your value in it, and the movie happens. So I think that the tradeoff now is “Well okay, if you are going to do that, then we want to be executive producers, myself and my partner.”
Now on top of that, we got very involved in the development of the story. I worked very near with Marc and Jason, really working this script. We would have these epic script sessions, sometimes nine hours--I think we had one that was even more than that--over the year where we would just lock ourselves away and work it and just always kind of staying involved in the publicity aspects, and also have a very close relationship with Relativity Media and [CEO] Ryan Kavanaugh. That’s one of the reasons that we are going through Relativity is through my relationship with them. Without a doubt, the ones we've produced, I’ve been way more involved in those sort of things.
Capone: Right, in addition to Marc being your director, Michelle Monaghan and Michael Shannon are just two of my favorite actors. Michael's a great Chicago actor. Let’s talk about Michael first. What is it like working with him? I always got this sort of real bizarre, intense vibe, but it works for everything he does.
GB: Yeah. Michael comes from a very quiet place of being an observer. He doesn’t necessarily feel the need to jump into a conversation to prove himself, to people-please which I can say without a doubt that I’ve been guilty of many times. That’s not him. As you say, he plays really interesting characters and he’s a very interesting person, and as you get to know him, he opens up more and more. I love that experience, because then you really feel when you are becoming friends that it’s something that you’ve earned, because he doesn’t walk in and throw his arms around you and say, “Hey, you’re my buddy, let’s go.”
But as an actor, it’s rare to work with somebody who just has so much going on in his performance and where he is, and he is incredibly alive and he never plays it the way you expect someone to play it. He’s very generous as an actor, there are no games going on, which you often experience. I love my scenes with him, because I almost love that part of the relationship. That part of the movie is my relationship with my best buddy. We’ve been through everything together; we've been through the worst of the worst, the darkest moments, drug filled violent to both of us suddenly finding God and getting our lives together. Our friendship is that kind of long deep powerful friendship we had. I just thought that that part of the movie, in a way, gave it more gravitas, made the whole effect more profound, and really that was Michael. I mean, you can’t do any of that unless you have your other actor giving you that. He is so talented, and that may seem cliché to say, but I love him.
Capone: Yeah, I agree.
GB: And he’s working all of the time now, because there is nobody out there who hasn’t witnessed him working and doesn’t say, “I love that guy. I love watching that guy.” He blows you away.
Capone: Those are some of my favorite scenes in the movie, with the two of you. It’s not about forwarding the plot, it’s just about the two of you being friends.
GB: Two guys just shooting the shit, and yet when you stick that in the environment in the part of the story when it appears, it makes it all the more powerful and all the more interesting, where we are? Two guys robbing a crack den, picking up a hitchhiker, getting into all sorts of trouble there, or me helping him though difficult areas of his life and also him helping me when I needed it. Whether it’s the right or the wrong way, he’s there for me and I’m there for him. Then in a way, we're not there for each other, which you’re right, it’s without a doubt right up there with my favorite parts of the movie.
Capone: Then Michelle, who is one of the few beautiful women that can play this kind of working-class character. She’s done it before. Tell me about working with her.
GB: Well for a start as a person, Michelle is incredibly cool and incredibly fun. She is one of those girls who is as comfortable with the electricians, the key grip, the cameraman, anybody in the crew, catering as she is with her makeup crew or me or the director. We all get the same treatment, and fun and smart and self deprecating and then surprisingly irreverent. So, I was really blown away to get a girl who has that beauty and yet has so much more to give in terms of personality.
Capone: Was that a tough role to find the right person to play?
GB: Yes, absolutely.
Capone: I can imagine.
GB: And it was also the hardest role that we had when we were working on the script, trying to make Lynn not sound like just a kind of whiney drowning person. It’s not like Lynn is like that as a person--the actual Lynn--it’s just because Sam is always forging ahead very much without the consent of his family and doing things that any wife would have problems with, it was, “How do you bring Lynn out of that hole of just being a woman who has issues all of the time with what her husband is doing?”
Then you bring in Michelle, and she gave you all of those qualities together with an encouragement, a compassion for Sam and a compassion for his work and a sexiness and a sassiness, which is something that we never had with Lynn. And suddenly Michelle arrives and you go “Oh, there you go.” Because we needed to be reminded of the fun that these guys had. They had a really great life, and I think originally in the script that wasn’t there, and now we also have this great relationship, so that you feel so much more pain when you see it going wrong, because you know what they actually had together. She just performs at so many levels, incredibly subtle actress and yet as you say can really grab that quality.
Capone: Before they shut me down, I was about to say the trailer is for CORIOLANUS is awesome. It just looks badass. When you're doing a Shakespeare, does that feel like the stakes are higher?
GB: Yeah. [Laughs] I can’t lie.
Capone: “People are going to notice if I screw this up.”
GB: Which is why I wanted to do it. Look, I’ve got to tell you it’s like you say, “Sam, was that a difficult decision to take that on?” Absolutely it is, but my problem is once you see a challenge, for me anyway, I can’t go the other way, because it will always be in the back of my mind, “That was a scary role and you didn’t take it on, because you didn’t have the guts. You weren’t courageous enough.”
Then there was Shakespeare, and I was going standoff against Ray Fiennes and Vanessa Redgrave and Brian Cox, who are masters of that, and then kind of say, “Okay, one, that’s a challenge, and I want to see if I can do that. And two, I don’t mind being humbled. I don’t mind learning.” As I’m acting, I always want to keep schooling myself. Shakespeare is not my typical territory; it is their territory, and I knew “Wow, how often do you get that opportunity?” What was lovely for me was that Ralph was so excited for me to play that role, and he told me a lot about why I was right for that role and you go, “Well you know what? If Ralph Fiennes is saying this, then let me jump on board.” Plus, the script was phenomenal. It’s a great story.
Capone: I’ve heard that from other actors, they say they look for things that scare them a little.
GB: It keeps things interesting.
Capone: Alright, well I know you wanted to run in and see some of the end of the movie. It was good to meet you. I don’t know if they told you, I’m actually moderating the Q&A with you guys.
GB: Oh, you are? How long is the Q&A?
Capone: Probably like 20-30 minutes or so.
GB: Perfect. That was a good interview; you asked some really great questions.
Capone: Thanks. Hopefully, I’ll ask some more during the Q&A.