"I'm actually not as intimidating as I look." (Lenny Gilmore / RedEye )
“Machine Gun Preacher” star Gerard Butler won’t name specific movies, but he recognizes that he’s made some stinkers.
“There without a doubt have been movies that I’ve watched and went, ‘What a waste of time that was,’” says the Scottish actor, 41, who may or may not have been referring to “The Ugly Truth,” “The Bounty Hunter,” “Law Abiding Citizen,” “P.S. I Love You” and others. “I can say that now and maybe kind of smile about it, but I gotta tell you, when that happens it’s really depressing because it’s months out of your life.”
Clearly Butler (who doesn’t mind being called Gerry) had no qualms about diving into “Machine Gun Preacher,” opening Sept. 30. In the film Butler plays Sam Childers, a real-life Pennsylvania activist who transformed from a violent, dangerous drug dealer into a religious, self-described freedom fighter. He built an orphanage in Sudan and took down murderous Sudanese rebels by any means necessary. Yes, that means through violence.
Butler worked with a dialect coach, bikers, contractors and plumbers to nail all facets of Sam’s life. He frequently referred to a book featuring photos of mutilated African children in order to bring himself to the necessary emotional place for the role. Of course, Butler already owns a Harley, so it’s not as if becoming a leather-clad bad boy was that much of a stretch.
At the Four Seasons Hotel, the primarily L.A.-based actor—who swore off alcohol a long time ago, by the way, but indulged me in a chocolate milk chugging contest you can watch above—talked about fake mustaches, public urination and a fan who wanted a swift kick to the chest.
Can you sense a movie you’re making is going to be bad at the time or only after you see it?
Both. Normally you can tell. There was a movie that I did that I didn’t like and I knew from the first take. And I was relatively inexperienced at that point and I was just so excited that I got the role and I only assumed that the movie was going to be great. I was very naïve. And literally from the first “Action!,” a few people in the scene we all started talking and I went, “Oh God, this is going to be crap.”
Can you give me one title that made you feel that way?
[Laughs.] Rhymes with “no.”
For “Machine Gun Preacher,” was there any point at which you tried to grow a mustache like Sam’s?
[Laughs.] No, we talked about it. We talked about it quite a lot, and actually I did grow out a beard and mustache but you know what, it’s a little too much of a gamble. For instance, in “300” it worked great. We all said, “We’re going to stick with this ridiculously long beard,” and that worked because it was more stylized. It seemed after the conversation it’s a little too much to ask people to take. A lot of people would find it fine; we’re already going on a heavy enough-journey without this big mustache. It also looks great on Sam, but it didn’t look so good on me.
You don’t think so?
No, I know so.
It would take me six years to grow it like him.
There’s the other thing. It would have had to have been a false mustache; I could never get to that length. “Really, I’m going to spend a whole movie with this big false mustache?” When it’s not in truth important enough to the story, and it’s just taking a kind of gamble that wasn’t really necessary.
What was the hardest part of this role, and what went through your head the first time you touched down in Africa?
The hardest part of the role without a doubt was dealing with the tragedy of Sam’s life. Other people in most movies, perhaps in your more dramatic moments life got a little depressing, you struggled with love or something. His journey is so intense that his downs were downs that most people will never experience—the intensities of drug addiction and acting out on that addiction almost to the point of death and extreme violence. Then basically a mental breakdown, witnessing the horrors that he witnessed. That extreme, extreme emotion and physical destruction, having to go to those places was intense. But touching down in Africa was surely exciting for me ‘cause I knew this whole movie was a great adventure. Much as it took a lot out of me, it also gave me so much.