MACHINE GUN PREACHER directed by Marc Forster, screenplay by Jason Keller based on the book by Sam Childers, with Gerard Butler, Michelle Monaghan, Michael Shannon and Madeline Carroll. An Alliance Films release. 123 minutes. Opens Friday (September 30). See listing.
Gerard Butler stands with his back to the door, framed against a window, looking out at the Toronto skyline. I've walked into his room, yet somehow he's the one making an entrance.
Butler has come to the Toronto Film Festival with two films, Machine Gun Preacher and Coriolanus. Each uses the actor's imposing physical presence as a storytelling element - though in person, he's chatty and loose, a world away from the coiled warriors he portrays onscreen.
In Machine Gun Preacher he plays Sam Childers, a former Pennsylvania biker turned born-again protector of Sudanese children, for whom he built an orphanage at great personal risk. The film dramatizes Childers's journey from criminal to saviour in simplistic, Oscar-baiting fashion, but Butler took the role's complicated morality very seriously. He plays violent men fairly often, he says, but usually in an exaggerated context; Sam Childers is an actual person, and he's done some awful things.
"In a movie like 300 or Beowulf [& Grendel] you can hide behind some kind of stylization," Butler explains. "But in Machine Gun, I couldn't. The real guy's around. I filmed him a lot, so I had footage of him and extra stuff of him preaching, doing interviews. I played his interviews in the background; he's done more interviews than I have, and he loves to talk."
Butler came to believe that Childers's redemption sprang from the ex-biker's understanding of the pain he'd caused others during his criminal days. "I always felt this shame, and this pain that he had inside, and then this need to do something with himself, to seek danger, to make a name for himself and to do great things."
One of the film's key moments comes when the reformed Childers chooses to take up arms against the Sudanese soldiers threatening the orphans he's trying to help. Butler's performance conveys an uneasy mixture of religious fervor and raging blood lust; it's a scary, intense moment, and he has no idea how he got there.
"Explanation of performance is not my strong point," he says, shrugging. "I wish I could just go and act. When I'm performing, when I'm in the middle of doing what I do, it's those moments that I live for - when you feel that you have a pure understanding of the essence of that character, the essence of that moment, and what is going on.
"[When] somebody says, ‘Explain where you just were there,' I don't know. But ‘instinct' would be the word that works [to describe] where I try to come from as an actor, and interestingly is where Sam definitely comes from as a person."