Nick Allen sat down in a roundtable interview with Gerard Butler for the film Machine Gun Preacher. You can read Allen’s Scorecard Review here. You can read his interview, which features Butler talking candidly about his potential and variety as an actor, if you keep reading this article.
You play a lot of larger than life characters, some larger than Sam. I know you said you wanted to play him with a degree of honesty and integrity that was important to you. Give us a sense of how you approached this character with all of these rough edges. And tell us why he was such an important character for you?
I don’t think you can compare Sam to other characters that I’ve played, who can be considered “larger than life.” I wouldn’t say that he is more larger than life than most of them, because a lot of [my characters] are stylistically big and over the top. Phantom of the Opera, Beowulf and Leonidas. You’re really playing on exceptional power. Whereas Sam is a very charismatic man, but still just a man. What I really connected with was the fight that he had. He had incredible courage, he had incredible determination and endurance, and yet at the same time is filled with shame and anger, and this violence that just simmers underneath the surface. That to me was how to make this character more fascinating and more gripping. One of the first things we discussed is that, “We’re not making a movie about a hero here.” He is a hero, but we really want to show the downside. The falling that you get when you come across a man like this, and that not everyone agrees with what he’s doing. The cost to his family. To me, that was perhaps what brought him down from being so over-the-top was by playing his determination, and that ferocious part of him, and showing him as just a man who was always scared.
One scene that fascinated me was your moment of intense preaching. How did that emerge and affect your own relationship with spirituality, both inside and outside the confines of religion?
My god [laughs]. Listen, in truth, I’m an actor. I get into a role, I’m impacted by a role, but I can’t say that every scene I playing a movie changes my life. That was one of my favorite ever days of filming, because I did get so involved. I did all my preaching scenes in one day. I did about eight pages in one day of dialogue, and did a lot of improvisation with that dialogue. I stole some stuff from here and there, and I Youtubed so many preachers. What was interesting was this blind, I don’t mean blind in a bad way, but just this belief that they have in the power of God, and how protective they are in every way when they have that belief was very fascinating for me. And yet, to play it in an impure way, because a lot of Sam’s preaching, especially in the movie, is coming from a place almost of fanaticism, and not within the realms of a healthy sermon, by a sane creature. Because at the time, he really was losing it. Yes, let’s leave it at that.
When you were working with this material you were looking at pictures and reading documents concerning the real destruction that had affected Sudan. Has working with these real events of violence, and then replicating them, created a difficult unity of fake and real violence? Or is there still a complete difference to you?
No. If you’re doing an action movie like a Tomb Raider that I did, or Reign of Fire, or even a 300 or a Gamer, of course they’re pretty much fiction, and again as I say, stylized. You can detach yourself from the violence there. In this movie, what was more interesting and more difficult, was that the violence felt very real, and is based on actual real violence. And that’s what really helped drive me through the story, and into the emotion. And that’s one of the things that I love about this movie, because you’re very involved in all of the action. The action comes completely out of character, rather than in a movie where it’s like, “We have a couple of dramatic scenes, now we throw in the action.” That’s not what this movie is about. All of the action is based on real life incidents.
One of the things that was constantly effecting me was … I had a book. It was full of photographs of some of the horrors of this war. Villages had been attacked, people’s heads had been bashed in, graves filled with children. I could go on forever. This is what I used as my source material to get me into these scenes. Thousands of kids holding AK-47s. I was never really looking at this violence as fake, or detached from it. It felt very real to me.
You spent some time with Sam in Pennsylvania. Can you tell us how that affected your role?
I watched him preaching. He’s just a fascinating guy. It was good to sit and listen to him. Something starts to build within you the more you listen to him and watch him. And then just spending time with him, and getting a sense of the man. Listening to how he talks, and what he has been through. In one moment he can have his toothpick and really be Mr. Cool, but the next moment he can have tears in his eyes as he talks about hold a child who had been blown in half, or the shame that he feels about his own life, and the damage he did early on. Reading his book, you get such of a sense of the man.
As strongly identified as you are with larger-than-action, what was it like getting into a situation that really humanizes the action?
When I saw this movie, I had forgotten how much action was in it. It never felt like an action movie. It felt like a character based drama. And it just happens that this character got involved in firefights, and some shoot outs. And I was literally blown away when I saw how much action we did. “Oh, really, we did that?” The stuff that I remembered most were the emotional moments, which were the most powerful. It was went he went through that I remember the most from the movie.
As a former elementary school teacher, I was happy to see you working with kids again. I loved Nim’s Island. What have the kids taught you?
That would be my favorite thing about working on this movie. I think on the news you always hear about problems with kids and the family unit, etc. Yet when I made this movie, it gets you so much faith and pride in our future leaders, who is making up our society. For instance, the two kids that played my on-screen daughter at two different ages were just phenomenal little girls. They were humble and smart, cool and funny. More than anything, the kids in Africa, I was surrounded by them, that was my favorite thing to do. Getting to know them was truly the most fun experience, and actually turned out to be very profound, because then you connect who these people are. They are the same kids who are being hacked to death, who are being forced to hack family members to death. Going through unspeakable horrors and fears. But to have a little African ten-year-old saying, “What age are you? And you’re not married? You have to get yourself a wife!” I couldn’t believe how similar they were to us. How entertaining they were. I spent more time in this movie holding hands with them, my arms around them, and it was just a fun way, we’d just play games with them. I’d be guilty of doing that in movies, feeling that it was a chore. With this, that was my favorite part of the movie – just speaking to them. They were just so cool. And I’d go back to that book, and I’d open that book, and I would just look at those kids. It was tough, but it was … it was a tough movie to do, but it was very rewarding too. Really. It was an honor to tell this story.
What do you take away from a character like this?
From a movie I like this, I take away the same thing that I hope any audience member would. Hopefully to be inspired, and touched by the things that are going on elsewhere. To be educated by that. For me, this film wasa complete education, but I try and despite going through that experience, I have to take each project on an individual basis. It doesn’t mean that suddenly after doing something so heavily dramatic that I’m going to do The Ugly Truth and feel guilty about it. I’m going to try on that movie to focus on the fun, it’s time to do something different. So this movie was time to take on a challenging character, who went through a lot. People will take out of this movie whatever they take out, and maybe nothing, but I can’t imagine people won’t be impacted by this movie. I’ve never been impacted before so much by a script that I’ve read.
To amplify a bit on the business end after what occurred with 300 where you suddenly became this “it” person, how did that impact you personally and professionally? Was there any decisions that you made during that period where you thought, “Maybe that wasn’t right”? It’s kind of fascinating.
Yeah, it’s fascinating for me. When 300 came out, and hit it was a tough time for me. You felt like you should be a high as a kite. I was high, the movie was doing great. It was a fascinating experience because then I came into a doubt, because you realize, “Everything’s changed. There’s no turning back now.” I actually found that to be a hard time that I went through. And then, I was thinking, “If this is the time I want to make a killing, and become Schwarzenegger or Jason Statham, then I could go down that line, and make those movies. Or, it’s really kind of a watershed there – I could take a gamble, and make the people go, “Really? The guy who did 300 is in Nim’s Island?” But it was time to say, “Okay. I have action. Now let me go off and do some comedy, a dramatic movie, or an animated movie.” For longevity, and for my own satisfaction. To keep my own creative juices and interests going. And to be honest, that’s what’s always excited me about being an actor. I wouldn’t say I’m the best actor in the world, but I feel like I have a lot of variety. And that I can take myself to a lot of places that I think not all actors can. So, therefore, to pull off a Machine Gun Preacher or a Phantom of the Opera, to get people to say, “I didn’t know he could do that.” I just did a modern Shakespeare movie with Ralph Fiennes (Coriolanus). These are the kinds of movies that you’d typically want to run a mile from. But you’d always know that you ran a mile. And you go, “I had the opportunity to challenge myself, and I did.” Sometimes, I’ll read a project, and I’ll love it. But I’ll be sh*t scared of it, but I’ll say, “Oh god.” I know that’s it – I’ll do it. I just did a surfing film. And I couldn’t surf for sh*t. And I know it’s easy to learn to surf a bit. But that’s six months of your life. I guess that’s where I derive my strange sense of fun. By really challenging myself. It’s really exciting when people come up to you and give you compliments about your work, and the comment on the variety of your work.
If you had a choice, is this the kind of role maybe ten years ago you’d have taken? Or have you grown into this marriage of both dramatic and acting potential?
I would have done this ten years ago. I don’t know if I would have done it as well. God knows, maybe I’d have done it better. I think that this was a role that wherever I am in my life, I would see as a big challenge. You read thsi story, and you go, “This is such an incredible, almost unbelievable story that not many stories take you,” and it’s a true story. A fascinating, complex, outrageous character that I think whenever I’d have read it, I would have wanted to play it.