Like so many film stars, Scotland-born actor Gerard Butler started out on the stage, though in his case, he was lured into his first role almost accidentally, while studying to be a lawyer. He moved into film with 1997’s historical feature Her Majesty, Mrs. Brown, and as he steadily got larger roles throughout the ’00s, his work tended to fall into one of two camps: He played muscular, often grim men of action in Attila, Reign Of Fire, Timeline, 300, RocknRolla, Gamer, and Law Abiding Citizen, but took downtime for the romantic comedies The Ugly Truth and P.S. I Love You. (His role as the wounded, sensitive, raging villain in 2004’s The Phantom Of The Opera was an anomaly; he says he hasn’t taken a singing role since.)
Butler’s most recent role, in the based-on-a-true-story feature Machine Gun Preacher, is complicated: Butler plays real-world church leader and impromptu military leader Sam Childers, who overcame his past as a drug dealer and addict to found a church in Pennsylvania and an orphanage in Sudan, where he’s openly led military missions to stop raids by Joseph Kony’s Lord’s Resistance Army, and rescue child captives and child soldiers. (Childers is also touring in support of Machine Gun Preacher; we spoke to him and the movie’s screenwriter in a separate interview.) The A.V. Club recently spoke to Butler about playing a real-world figure, dealing with downtime, and the funny side that got him into rom-coms.
The A.V. Club: At what point in the filmmaking process did you meet Sam Childers?
Gerard Butler: Just after I had agreed to do it. I’d been talking about the project for a while—I’ve never had an experience like this, where I met [director] Marc [Forster], but it was actually a long time before I got the script and read it. And when I did, I said, “I love it,” and Marc and I talked a little more and decided to move forward with it. At that point, I said, “Let’s get me up there so I can meet Sam.” So we went to Pennsylvania, a whole team of us. I hung out with him there for a couple of days, and that was that.
AVC: Was there pressure in playing a living person, who’s still actively doing what you’re portraying him as doing?
GB: Yeah, it probably is, though I think it probably depends on the circumstances. Because if you play a role like the Phantom [Of the Opera], there’s a lot of pressure because of the diehard fans who are going to give you shit no matter what happens. But with Sam—he’s a very strong, opinionated man, and I knew he was going to have something to say about it, so there’s a certain amount of responsibility there. But at the end of the day, I know that I’m going to give my best, I’m going to do my best. I just hope that he likes it. If he doesn’t, or if other people don’t, that’s just the way it is.
AVC: How actively did you model your performance on him? Were you trying to reproduce him?
GB: I wasn’t trying to reproduce him, no. I don’t think that makes sense. And to be honest, it’s not like enough people know who he is. He wasn’t JFK, he wasn’t Martin Luther King, he wasn’t Malcolm X. This character is him, but at the same time, I’m not the shape and size he is, so I kind of took my time with him, studying him, probably every interview that he ever did, whether it was in print, whether it was recorded, whether it was TV, and spending time with him. But then you have to make it your own, and live with that, and fly with that. So that’s what I did.
AVC: How do you feel about the morality of what he does?
GB: It’s interesting. In playing the role, I really try not to judge, because it’s deadly. The fact is, Sam himself wouldn’t question at all the morality of what he does, because he feels so strongly about what he does, and so backed by God. God talks to him and tells him to do these things. Then when you stand back after the performance and watch the movie, you maybe question, really, how moral is what he does. And I always think it is questionable how he lives his life, how he operates, and how you would class that. Is it mercenary? Is it vigilantism? And yet I find that the argument is very quickly shut down when—as Sam says in the movie, “If somebody took your kid, your brother, your sister, and you knew I could get them back, would you care how I did it?” You look at this orphanage, where almost a thousand kids have been saved and taken away from the Lord’s Resistance Army. Even today, they’re feeding—and have done for the last 20-odd years—1,500 kids a day. You look at those facts and you think, “Well, anybody who would be arguing the other way is saying, ‘No, just on a point of morality, I would like to see a thousand kids dead, and 1,500 not being fed every day, and sheltered every day.” So that quickly puts an end to it for me.
AVC: Does this movie reflect any of your personal beliefs about God, or violence, or politics, or intervention in other countries?
GB: I think it would reflect my belief in intervention, and courage in following one’s dreams. And then on the dark side as well, and how people can be plagued by guilt and shame, and how that can be a real motivating factor in leading someone to take action, whether it’s in their own lives, or other people’s lives. Sometimes we are led into doing great things for the wrong reasons, if you’d like.
AVC: Your character runs a wide gamut: You have emotional, tender scenes; big, violent action; a lot of strong personal interplay. Was there a particular side of the character you enjoyed?
GB: This is what I liked about the role. As you say, you really experience as much of a human being as you can, watching Sam go through this story. So I loved that as a challenge. I’ve played a lot of emotional characters, but none more so than this. And I would have to say that as the story impacted me so powerfully and profoundly, that I wanted to take on this journey. The emotion broke my heart. That’s what happened to me during the movie, it really pulled me down. I don’t know whether I like to bask in grief, but I enjoyed being able to be sucked into the emotion of that role. Although I think it did go too far, and I found it hard to get out of the movie at the end. Even now, sometimes when I talk about it, I get quite emotional, because it is such a powerful story. So on the one hand, I had to try to protect myself against it, but on the other hand, there’s nothing better, I think—even as a person, but especially as an actor—when you can really feel the emotion of your character’s journey in a very deep way.
AVC: Does that make you want to seek out more roles like this, or avoid roles like this to give yourself a break?
GB: My problem is, whether it’s for emotion or for the talents that a character has to have in a role, I find it very difficult to not take on a challenge. For instance, Phantom Of The Opera, in truth, scared the crap out of me, but I wasn’t going to walk away and say, “I didn’t do that because I didn’t believe in myself.” Even 300, a role like that, and especially a role like this—it’s a big role for me to take on, and yet I think I knew I was going to be very emotionally impacted by it. But not to this extent. In my last movie [Playing The Field, due for release in 2012], I had to play an ex-professional soccer player, which meant trying to get to a standard at soccer which is way higher than I’ve ever been. And now I’m about to play a surfer [for Mavericks], never having surfed in my life, so I’ve got to try to pull off being a surfer. So I seem to always make it more difficult for myself than is necessary. I need to say, “Okay, enough, take the easy road.” But the easy road for me is not—it might just come out coincidentally. I wouldn’t ever choose a movie because it’s easy. I might choose a movie because I feel like being funny, or I feel like being able to do something that is perhaps dramatic, but to a lesser degree. Because I like switching it up, basically, not because I would take the easier road.
AVC: Still, when you sign on for a rom-com, do you think, “At least I don’t have to go through the physical nightmare I went through for 300”?
GB: Absolutely. Yeah, there’s always advantages and disadvantages to doing any role. And there’s a great sense of achievement, testosterone, fun, being able to live out your masculinity when you play an action role, or an action-adventure, or a real tough-guy role. Really, if you’re doing a comedy, you can sit back and relax. And it’s good to know that at the end of the day, you don’t have to run off for another two hours and go to the gym, or go spend the rest of the night swordplaying with stunt guys, or having to go train at the soccer field, despite the fact that you were up at 5:30 that morning and you’re not finished with your work until 8 at night, and then you’re training and you don’t get back until 11 o’clock. Then I think, “Oh my God, I love comedy.”
AVC: That said, are there specific challenges that make you want to seek out comedies as well?
GB: Yeah, when you go into comedy and you suddenly think, “I’m not funny.” Comedy is actually very hard. It’s hard to choose those moments and know when you can really push it, and know when you should be bringing it back and making it more subtle, and knowing as time goes on, as you do take after take and the crowd around you stops laughing, or it feels like they’ve stopped being amused, to still trust that what you’re doing is funny. And there’s a whole bunch of other challenges as well, because whenever you do comedy, you realize you’re up against—you’re performing next to people who you would think are so unbelievably good at it, that that’s a bit of a pressure. But at the same time, it’s just fun. It’s fun to be able to let out that side of you. And I think that for a long while, I wasn’t doing so much comedy, and I always felt there was still that part of me to explore and enjoy.
AVC: What did the filmmakers see in you that initially made them think you’d make a good romantic-comedy lead?
GB: I had done some comedic work before I’d come out to America, back toward the year ’99, 2000. Some of the roles—for instance, Tomb Raider and Reign Of Fire—there had definitely been comedic parts to those roles. I think more than anything, for instance when I played Gamer, it was the same producers who I was working with who produced The Ugly Truth. So they saw me out every night being a jokester, at the end of the table telling jokes. Also, when it came to other comedies, they’d seen me on talk shows. It was actually very strange—it’s not like I had a showreel of comedy, but they’d say, “Look at him on Jay Leno,” or “Look at him cracking jokes here on Craig Ferguson.” So I think from that, they realized I had a sense of humor and perhaps could handle a comedy.
AVC: You fell into acting somewhat accidentally—you’ve mentioned in interviews that you don’t have acting training, you didn’t go to school for it. And with your early roles, you’ve said you acted by instinct alone. Has that approach changed for you over time, with experience?
GB: I don’t think I make a point of the fact that I didn’t study; I would say I didn’t go to drama school because I was a lawyer before—I studied law, and trained as a lawyer. I did actually take some acting classes when I first got into the business, and studied with a couple of coaches, only privately, and normally for auditions. But I actually found working with of a couple of them that I went in and screwed auditions up. Yeah, it’s true that my instinct has seen me through a lot of these roles. And then I had my own process, which is based partly on instinct mixed with intelligence and experience, and that’s served me very well.
My last three movies, I actually worked quite heavily with coaches, just to see what I could get from them. And it’s interesting, you do definitely make discoveries that you wouldn’t have made on your own, and it does allow for extra preparation. But I do find that I’m still dealing with 90 percent, 95 percent what I would be doing anyway. Although, I found that experience of going through that trip with somebody—to question you, to challenge you, and somebody who can become a friend and support you. I worked with this guy Aaron Speiser who—I love the guy, we have so much fun and he’s very much from the same page as me, and that’s been good. I don’t use him for every movie, but I used him on Law Abiding Citizen. I found it was helpful as well, especially now that I get involved a lot in the writing of movies, not creating it, but developing it, putting in a lot of changes. When I have somebody else to run this stuff by and say, “Am I crazy for wanting to rip this scene out?” you know, or “What about this?” and test things out… So yeah, I forgot the question. I do ramble on.
AVC: It’s mostly just, as you’ve matured as an actor, do you approach films differently than you would have 10 years ago?
GB: The way I approach a film now is definitely way more—well, it depends. I’d say it is more of an in-depth approach. I’m also coming from it now often feeling like I’ve created the role in a big way. So when I start the movie, I already feel like I’m in it. I’m not a jobbing actor anymore; most of the films I do, I’m involved with development. Some, I’ve taken from scratch, and worked so heavily on the script, I’m embodying a lot of the character by the time I even get close to filming, because I’ve asked so many of the questions that I do. Having done a lot of work with this particular acting coach, that’s probably changed my approach. There is nothing better than being able to ask all the questions, do all the work. It’s when you let it go that you fly.
So many actors get caught up in their technique, and to be honest, I see it really getting in the way. I see them forcing things. I definitely do my best work when I’m free of that. But I think as an actor, I work really hard in preparing the roles. I spend I feel like 90 percent of my waking moments walking around thinking: “What does this character do? What is his relationship with so-and-so? What would work better here?” Always, really. Too much! And sometimes I’m like, “Shit, enjoy it! Sit down in your chair and watch a movie.” And I’m like, “No.” I think I’m always working or thinking, “No, I’ve got to work on the dialect, because I’ve got to do a lot of American.” For instance, with Sam, I always had his interviews going in the background, so I was always listening to his voice, or thinking about the man, thinking about the scenarios, trying to climb into the emotion of what he had to go through.
AVC: Do you treat all roles with that same depth? Does an action movie like Reign Of Fire or 300 need that approach?
GB: No, no. For instance, I look at a movie like RocknRolla—I had a chance to work with Guy Ritchie. They offered me the movie, and when I finally flew to London to do it, I got this new draft of the script. Turns out there had been two intermediate drafts. I went back with ideas to make a lot of changes, and Guy was very open to that. But when I read RocknRolla, I honestly thought I could have walked right in and played it there and then. And with Dear Frankie, too. There are some movies where I actually wish, when I read it for the first time, that I could go right in there, because I get it. When I get something, I get it. I think, “If only the other actor was here, and we could just do this now,” because I know one of my issues is that I can overthink things. Even now, as I continue to work as an actor, I try to allow that overthinking to branch out in different ways, rather than thinking too much on the same thing. So you can see some kind of pattern of thought.
AVC: Which of your roles have presented most of a challenge in terms of getting to that level of comfort?
GB: I would say it’s probably been my most recent work. Something like this movie, definitely, because there is so much going on with the character and the complexity in what he goes through. Coriolanus, a Shakespeare movie I have coming out with Ralph [Fiennes], because when you’re performing, sometimes it feels like another language, and yet you’re trying to get such layers to the character. In other words, it gives your homework a whole new perspective.
AVC: Early in your career, you were a vocalist in a rock band. Are you still involved in music at all post-Phantom?
GB: No. Phantom nearly killed it for me. When I was a vocalist, a lead singer in a rock band, I was a law student at the time. It wasn’t a professional rock band, it was for fun. I was already way out of that by the time Phantom came along. Having to learn to sing, it was such duress, having to really try and get to such a quality. Sometimes that can happen—if you have to do such intense preparation for a role to become very good at something, it can take a bit of the enjoyment out of it. I have always loved singing, but I think after that, I thought, “Okay, I’ll give that a rest for a while.” And then you go down your path for whatever reason… It’s interesting you say that, because at times, I think, “God, I wish I did get back into that, even if it was just for fun.” I sometimes wish I would pop back off and do some sessions with a singing coach, because there was also a part of me that really enjoyed that. It’s another form of expression which I get a lot out of.
AVC: You seem very intent and focused, and in some ways, stressed and unhappy with all this. Do you enjoy what you do?
GB: Oh my God. It’s funny you say that, because yeah, maybe I do get stressed at times, but I love what I do. This is the part that I don’t like. I don’t actually like talking about—I wish I could just go and get on with my job, because I love getting a script, breaking it down, working with other people, bonding with other people, fighting with other people, and out of those arguments, creating something that nobody expected and seeing it all come together. Telling a story, having an impact on people’s lives, moving them and making them laugh. It’s so incredible when you meet somebody who comes up and passionately tells you how much they liked you in a movie, or how much they liked that movie. That’s a great thing, because I know what I get out of watching a great movie. So I love what I do, but it’s more—I don’t think there’d be anybody who would tell you that, even if it’s something they love doing, they don’t get stressed out by it. I’m a very intense person, so I go very intensely and passionately into what I do.
AVC: You’ve said in other interviews that the hardest part of your career is the downtime, because your life isn’t nearly so intense between projects. How do you deal with that?
GB: That’s my point exactly. When I’m making a movie, it’s making use of my creative juices, and it fills me up with what really is—I think my purpose here is to tell stories. When I’m not, then I really have to learn how to live life and make use of the time properly, and it’s like, “What should I learn now? How much do I put into the work and development? How much should I put into taking time off?” I’m not always great at making those decisions, but when it comes to working, my time is totally taken up. I have no option except to get up early in the morning and to work on that movie and to finish. But I take that with a pinch of salt, because I also love my time off, and that’s where I do go on adventures, and catch up on the things I have to catch up on, and see my friends, and get home and see my family. I don’t see that truly as a massive problem in my life.