It's hard not to think about the consequences of violence, in life and even in films, when the actor you're interviewing has a bodyguard standing outside his hotel room. But Gerard Butler, the Scottish star of movies that include 300, The Ugly Truth and RocknRolla, who was in Toronto two weeks ago to promote his new drama, Machine Gun Preacher (it opened on Friday), was unfazed.
It wasn't his first bodyguard. When he played a Spartan king who overthrew the Persians in 2006's 300, "there was some shouting in Iran," he said, in a Scottish accent thick as thistles. "They felt it was disrespectful to their people, because it was heavily stylized, with the Spartans depicted as incredibly masculine and powerful, and the Persians – not." The studio, Warner Bros., received death threats, and the actors got safety lessons from ex-secret servicemen.
This time around, Butler said, Machine Gun Preacher's filmmakers had received "threatening phone calls from some radical organizations" – which is why his bodyguard gave me the once-over as I entered, much to Butler's amusement. He plays the title character, Sam Childers, a real-life drug dealer turned religious orator who built and runs an orphanage in a part of the Sudan too dangerous for NGOs and the United Nations to go into. Part of his work includes rescuing kidnapped child soldiers, and he's made some scary enemies because of his willingness to meet violence with violence.
The film doesn't shy away from depicting that – from its poster, where Butler hoists his gun under red-spattered letters, to its end credits, which feature a clip of the real Childers asking, "If your family member was kidnapped, and I told you I could get them back, would you care how I did it?" Yet both Butler and the film's German-born director, Marc Forster ( Monster's Ball, Quantum of Solace), say they feel ambivalent about it.
"There were other posters that were more my flavour," Forster said in a separate interview. "But I have heard that one-sheets with guns on them sell more tickets."
Forster initially resisted Childers's story. "I kept saying, 'Violence creates more violence,' " he said. "And I thought, it's another story about a white man going to Africa to save black children." Still, he travelled to Pennsylvania to meet Childers, and to Sudan to see the orphanage.
"After spending time with the kids there and seeing the atrocities going on – The stories are way more brutal than in the movie, one after the next. I had to hold back. Audiences can't digest that much – I felt I couldn't turn my back on this story," he said. "And I realized that, in fact, Africa and the children saved Sam. This man with no education, few financial resources, was able to change the life of hundreds. So many people today feel powerless. I felt this was inspirational, this man taking his power into his own hands."
Forster cast Butler because he's one of the "few leading men in Hollywood who are really masculine," he said. "Apart from his bigness and strength, there is this wild side that Sam has too. Like, 'Get out of my way.' And this charisma. In his personal life there is also the dark and the light. He grew up without a father; he had a history with drugs and alcohol, as did Sam. They were good things to draw on for this character."
Butler and Childers spent a lot of time together, talking and riding motorcycles. "I questioned [Sam's methods]a few times, too," Butler said. "But whenever I did, it always came back to the fact that there are thousands of kids alive because of the work he's done who otherwise wouldn't be. He hasn't killed hundreds of people. He's been involved in a few gun battles. But he's working in a world which people have turned a blind eye to. It's easier not to think about what's going on over there."
Though he's played a number of brutes on screen, in person Butler, 42, is sweet and self-deprecating. Born in Paisley, Scotland, he didn't see his dad from age 2, when his parents divorced, until he was 16. (They later reconciled; his father is now deceased.) At 11, after begging his mother to drive him to Glasgow to audition for the musical Oliver!, he landed a role as one of Fagin's gang. "It was all so exciting and bedazzling," he said, "but I lived in a place where drama was not at the forefront of people's lives."
At 15, his dream returned – literally. After watching the fantasy film Krull, he dreamt that he was living in the movie. "I was standing with the princess, and the love between us was so incredibly powerful, and flames were coming out between our hands," he said. "I laugh now, but dreaming it, it was so romantic and so consuming. I woke up and knew there was one thing that I had to do, and that was to act. To go and live in that world." When he told his mother about it, he wanted it so badly that he started to cry.
He attended a five-week residential course at the Scottish Youth Theatre. Afterward, feeling more practical, he went to law school. At 25, after seven years of training, he was a week away from qualifying when his law firm fired him. "Those guys that sat in that chair and said, 'You've got to go, we're sorry' – at the time, they felt like ogres to me," Butler said. "Now I see almost God sitting there, saying, 'This might be painful now, but really this is me allowing you to do what you're supposed to.' "
The next day, he packed his bags and moved to London, where he knew a casting director. He became her assistant, and worked odd jobs, including bartending, telemarketing and trade shows. "I'd be at a toy show demonstrating windup cars, wearing the same suit that I wore when I was a lawyer, thinking, 'What happened to my life?' " Butler said, grinning. Eventually, while casting a West End production of Coriolanus, he read for it himself, and landed a place in the ensemble. "There's a beautiful synchronicity to that," he said, given that his next film is Coriolanus, where he plays rival to Ralph Fiennes's title character.
In both Preacher and Coriolanus, Butler shows a depth and range we haven't seen from him before. Ambiguity seems to suit him more than certainty, and based on his life, it's no wonder.
Forster, too, is still struggling with his film, long after it's in the can. "It got very complicated for me morally, and I haven't found an answer," he said. "At least it's a movie you watch and discuss afterward. You can say, 'I don't like it,' or 'I disagree.' But it has an impact." An impact requiring a bodyguard.