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Q&A: Real-life 'Machine Gun Preacher' Sam Childers and writer Jason Keller

Compared to Sam Childers, the man he plays in the film “Machine Gun Preacher,” Gerard Butler calls himself, “a little puppy Laborador.” It’s not hard to see why.

Childers—a former drug dealer who has saved thousands of African children by building an orphanage in Sudan and defending kids from violent rebels—has led a life stranger than fiction. Many viewers watching “Machine Gun Preacher” may doubt the truth of several scenes, such as one in which Childers (Butler) jumps from the passenger seat of a moving car into the back seat to defend a friend from a knife-wielding hitchhiker.

It really happened. “I actually thought I had killed the guy,” says Childers, 49. “I didn’t find out until almost a year later that I didn’t. For a year I was looking over my shoulder, but it would have been self-defense because the guy had the knife to another guy’s throat.”

Childers, who lives in Pennsylvania and used to run drugs out of Chicago, claims that his glorious mustache is the product of only three weeks, and I’m inclined to believe him. And while he doesn’t promote violence—he’s a pastor, after all—he believes in doing whatever he has to do to protect those in need.

“I don’t believe that I’m a vigilante,” he says, “but I can guarantee you one thing: There’s nobody gonna be selling meth in my backyard.”

At the Four Seasons Hotel, Childers and the film’s screenwriter, Jason Keller, 42, talked about having a bounty on your head, the world’s best mustaches and the one thing that scares Childers.

What went through your head the first time you heard somebody put a price on your head?
Sam Childers: You know, I was never really bothered by it. I’ve always heard all my life—even my dad used to say, “Boy, someday someone’s going to kill you.” And I probably heard that all my life.

When did he start telling you that?
SC: He started telling me that at a very young age. Probably 11 years old, 12 years old. I was always getting in trouble and he’d always say, “Boy, if you don’t straighten up, someone’s gonna kill you one day.” So I was always hearing that.

Jason, did you hear that as a kid?
Jason Keller: I didn’t. Growing up in Indianapolis, I didn’t hear that often.
SC: It never really bothered me. That day could come. That day might not.

You should have a sign up, “Number of days since last death threat.”
SC: It hasn’t been too far along. In the last few months. But you know, you always get people talking. We have a free country. People say what they want to say.

Do you know the most money that’s been offered?
SC: No, I don’t, and I don’t really desire to know. I tell people, if you want to be a coward and take me from the back, go ahead. If you want to be a man, meet me from the front.

For “Machine Gun Preacher,” what was the hardest question Gerard asked you about your experiences?
SC: I believe the things that bother me the most that I have to tell is not of the children that were rescued; it was the children that were left behind. Or it was the children that I’ve seen that you couldn’t rescue. That were already dead or already starved or blown up. In south Sudan many years ago it was nothing to come across the body of a child or the body of a grown-up that stepped on a land mine. That’s probably the hardest thing that I’d ever have to explain to anyone, is actually the children that we could not rescue.

Jason, how anxious were you going into that setting? Not many people traveling for a job need kidnapping and dismemberment insurance.
JK: I remember telling my wife—I don’t know how that slipped, or she saw an email or something. She was sort of, “Really? This is for real? You’re going to Sudan?” She was nervous. Because at the end of the day although we crossed over into Sudan and we spent a couple weeks at the orphanage, although there wasn’t immediate fighting in that area there had been fighting not too long before we had been there. So there wasn’t any battles happening right around us but the threat was always there. It was nerve-wracking.

What was going through your head that first moment?
JK: I was with Sam, and we were all with Sam, and we were always traveling with bodyguards, SPLA soldiers, in these trucks. And we would travel in convoys because as I learned over there it’s safety in numbers. So we would be in three or four trucks at a time. So intellectually I knew we were probably safe. But you can’t drive down a road and see the burned-out husk of a car or a tank that’s been burned out, the remnants of war, and look in your rearview mirror and see 12 SPLA soldiers with AK-47s hanging out the back, you can’t experience those things and not feel great trepidation. I knew I was safe, but it’s an intense place to travel to.

Sam, do you feel like a protector in that situation?
SC: I have done some type of security work almost all my life. If anyone is with me, yes, I’m going to do the best I can to make sure that they’re in good hands.

What scares you?
SC: The only thing that I’ve ever found in my life that really puts fear into me is my wife’s meatloaf. I’m telling you, man, if she put it on the table, I’m scared.

Because it was so delicious?
SC: You take it from where you think it’s going.

Does she know you feel that way?
JK: She does now.
SC: Absolutely. She never makes meatloaf. But no, there isn’t a whole lot in life that scares me. The biggest thing that probably scares me with my faith is to know that I want to be doing what God wants me to do. James 4:17 says if you know you should do something and not do it, you have sinned.

You say you listen to Bob Seger. Has anyone ever told you that you look like him?
SC: No, no, I’ve never heard that one.

Do you think you do?
SC: No, no, I’d like to see the guy one day. I love his music, man. I’ve been to a lot of his concerts years ago.
JK: I see the Bob Seger. That’s fantastic.
SC: He’s cool. Tell him that. Maybe I can get to meet him one day. I’d like to meet him. Ain’t a whole lot of people I’d really like to meet; I wouldn’t mind meeting him though.

If you, Sam Elliott and Tom Selleck were in the same room together, whose mustache would be the most glorious?
SC: Mine is the best, but Sam Elliott—
JK: Sam Elliott gives you a run for your money.
SC: He has a good mustache. But mine is the best. Even Paul Teutul, any of ‘em. Put ‘em in the room, mine’s the best.

Would they recognize that?
SC: Oh yeah, yeah. We’d talk about it.
JK: You don’t want to miss that conversation.

Watch Matt on “You & Me This Morning,” Fridays at 7 a.m. on WCIU, the U

mpais@tribune.com

Copyright © 2015, RedEye
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