I bumped into Gerard Butler two nights in a row -- first at a Producers Guild screening of his new movie, Machine Gun Preacher, and then again at a charity fundraiser and the premiere of it. What a film! What an actor! He is engaging and charming and at the top of his career so it's an exciting time in his life -- especially with such a compelling movie to show off his talent! It represents a lot of passion that went into bringing a Dateline NBC story and book into its own powerhouse film! Do see it! Butler makes Stallone look like a titmouse -- but then again, I have a very staunch idea of what make a film star.
My dad enjoyed a deep and abiding friendship with Jimmy Stewart and I learned a lot about what it was like to have to be a movie star. He has to be larger than life -- and that certain energy -- it was easy to overlook his skill because it all looked so natural. I think this is a curse for the handsome actor and this no exception for actor Gerard Butler who not only stars in Machine Gun Preacher, a true story of Sam Childers, a bad-ass drug dealing ex-con who converts to Christianity and goes to East Africa (Uganda and the Sudan) in the midst of civil war to help coerced children get out of fighting and return to their lives as children, but executive produces as well!
It's a phenomenal movie though it has received mixed reviews -- the critics can be so wrong. One said that he is in every scene and planned it that way. Oh please! The story is about Sam Childers and this is his story! They are just jealous of Butler, who can bring movies to life and look good doing it! George Clooney has a way with others (see next week's column) and I suspect Gerard Butler's charm won't keep him far behind. I hope his humor and humility take him far in Hollywood. When he spoke of being honored to have been involved with this project, he was honest and real, just as I was honored to have spoken with him one on one.
What really counters his physicality, which opens the movie, is his sensitivity, something no Scottish lad would ever admit to. That's star quality. He becomes his characters; he feels the characters. In wonderfully gifted Joel Schumacher's Phantom of the Opera, he was a delicious Phantom. And I know Joel Schumacher loved working with this actor who began his career as a child on the stage. In real life, his salvation may have been soccer but here it is his character's wife's fervor which she shares with him.
In Machine Gun Preacher, we see a borderline madness and Butler makes the illusion complete when later in the film as Childers, he goes back to Africa on a killing spree in the name of the children. This is when we question his motives -- how much is driven by his personal demons and how much is it for the children? As someone who has been in the trenches in third world countries fighting for literacy with my own organization (see www.powerforkids.com) his kick-ass behavior is conflicting and confusing.
I would have loved to supply these children with books and teach them to read but our character had to murder the enemy who is stealing children and murdering their parents so that this strong moral dilemma plagued the movie. "Thou shall not kill" went right out the window -- even though it was in self-defense. Was he right in killing? The audiences seem to think so.
Butler seems comfortable with his emotions, which are something like an actor's refrigerator contents -- they have to be able to reach in and pull out a beer and serve it up on tap. Or a red velvet cake, a glass of champagne, or a cheeseburger. Here, we get a gourmet meal as Butler transforms his looks and voice into those of a "Pennsylvania hillbilly" who is unrecognizable.
He wasn't afraid to do his best for the film and involve the best people he could find including voice coach Jerome Butler, who helped him have a perfect "Pennsylvania hillbilly" accent and heavy-handed director, Marc Forster, which worked perfectly to deliver the harsh realities of the story. In one moving scene, we see the evils of the LRA, as they force a child to kill his mother so he will have to go fight with the evil Lord's Resistance Army. It's a scene that you will never forget.
Mr. Butler's intensity holds the audience hostage. He challenges you. He may not make you want to lean in and hug him but he sure makes the story come alive and it's a story that you couldn't make up if you tried. It is so compelling and raw and real that at the charity-fundraising premiere, the audience was spellbound and at the industry screening I also attended, the film received a standing ovation! It's wow factor is spelled W-O-W!
I asked Mr. Butler why he received an executive producer credit since I am a member of the Producers Guild and this is often an issue and if he earned it, I wanted to invite him to become a member of our organization. He was quiet and I could tell he was being modest and it was at this point Relativity Media CEO Ryan Kavanaugh stepped in and said, "Were it not for Mr. Butler, the film could never have been made. It was his commitment to the project and story that he saw through which brought it to life." Wow! No faint praise here! I immediately thought of my own Scottish project and made a mental note to share it with him if I saw Mr. Butler a third night in a row!