Recently I had the chance to chat with actor Souléymane Sy Savane of the upcoming film, "Machine Gun Preacher". So far on its festival circuit, the film has received a standing ovation and praise among critics. Here at Shadow and Act the peripheral issue of “Sam Childers” the real life main protagonist [of the film] portrayed by Gerard Butler has been the subject of heated debate, with the sentiment among many being that this is just another one of Hollywood’s “Great White Hope” movies. I spoke with Souléymane about that subject as well as the overall subject-matter of the film and the ongoing social strife in places like the Sudan and his homeland, The Ivory Coast.
Monique: I learned from your biography that you were formerly trained as an actor in New York but before moving there you lived for some time in Paris. Did you ever have a inkling during that time, that acting was what you wanted to pursue?
Souleymane: Not really. I mean, only later. Because, when I was in Paris I was mostly modeling and wasn’t really thinking…maybe I was thinking okay after modeling, maybe I would go to school. Yet there was one thing I was confident in and that was that I’ve always wanted to come to the States. When I was a kid my father took me to an American exhibition...I went there and saw some things that really sparked my imagination; I saw the Lunar car! The car, you know, that was on the moon?!
SS: They brought the car over to my country! It was all wiry...It was very striking to me. And I saw some guy that looked like a chemist; he had a white robe on and he was doing some experimentation with two tubes. One tube turned into Coca Cola and the little one was Fanta! And I remember I was like “Wow, wherever this is, I need to go”. The idea of that became more pressing as I grew up.
ML: Well it’s interesting that you mention your time growing up. I want to ask you, growing up in the Ivory Coast, were there any artistic outlets for you to pursue dramatic arts? I know you were saying before that you didn’t really consider acting as much, like when you were in France you were modeling and it really wasn’t something that was too pervasive in your mind but when you were a kid growing up around you did they have any artistic outlets for youth in the dramatic arts? And if so, what were they?
SS: No, actually there weren’t. My father was an elementary school teacher and my mom was a secretary when I was a kid. I grew up mainly with my father and his other wife...my step mom and we were not like what I would consider an artistic family. Yet, when I was around twelve, we moved to the arts quarter of Abidjan and that’s where I found myself around more artistic people. I felt like I started becoming more aware of what it [art] was, with the exception of the fact that as a kid I used to love comic books. So, to answer your question, being artistic came natural to me.
ML: I was wondering, do you have any future plans to assist in developing films that tell stories of and about people from the Ivory Coast?
SS: Yes, I mean not necessarily only for the Ivory Coast but for Africa in general. I became clearer about the need to when I came to the States; I really got more aware of that here…but yes I’m working on several things. One of the things that I really want to pursue is to find a way for people of the continent to live in peace. How do we manage it? How do we bring the people together to find a way toward peace? It’s mind bugging that problems that happened twenty five years ago with droughts and people dying of hunger in certain regions is still happening, ya know? I believe that people really want to help but I’m not sure if we’re looking in the right direction. So, that’s what I’m hoping to work on, by building a platform where we’ll really try to address that. In the shorter term, I’m actually releasing a comic book that takes place in a poor capitalistic Africa; a lot of the issues happening on the continent will be discussed in a very modern way.
ML: I was actually going to ask you about your other projects besides "Machine Gun Preacher" later in the interview but that’s fascinating, a comic book. I want to talk about "Machine Gun Preacher" now, and I want to ask you when first reading the script, was there any moment where you stopped and went “I must be this character, I must be a part of this film!”
SS: Wow that’s interesting. If I’m going to be totally honest, um, no--no I didn’t. Even though I liked the role, I almost felt like I had been spoiled. I just came out of Goodbye Solo, which was like a really developed, rounded character; it was a fuller story in terms of character arc. Now, when it comes to Machine Gun, the subject matter made it a movie I had to be in but not necessarily the role. It was really more about the subject matter when it came to Machine Gun Preacher.
ML: Yes, I understand. I wanted to know if the particular character that you play in "Machine Gun Preacher" is based off a real individual in Sam Childer’s life?
SS: Yes, absolutely. Deng exists and is actually still around. I didn’t get a chance to meet him but yeah I saw pictures of him. I heard of him. When I met Sam in South Africa during shooting he told me about Deng a little bit. So yeah it is based on real life stories.
ML: That was my next question! I was just about to ask you too, did you get to meet Sam and you said yes. So, you met him in South Africa?
SS: Yeah, I met him in South Africa and it was very interesting—
ML: What’s he like?
SS: That’s a good question. One thing that struck me was his swagger.
ML: His swagger?
SS: Yeah! I was like “what!” He had like the best hair ever! He had a comb in his hair, walking a certain way. I was like, you know, it’s so interesting especially as an actor how a character can be so surprising. Because, we see what he’s doing is real. This guy has got the machine gun and he goes out there and you know… you see him come by neatly dressed, a big smile on his face…and the way he walks. There’s a certain swagger in the way he walks…and he’s a preacher! A very, very interesting character. Absolutely.
ML: Yeah, it seems like he has quite a dichotomy going on with—
SS: Yeah, yeah. Exactly.
ML: I want to ask also about Marc Forster. In what way was Marc’s directing style different from other director’s that you’ve worked with in the past? Like, what was different about his style that you may have picked up on as compared to other directors you’ve worked with in the past?
SS: I think he is unbelievably humble and he is very soft spoken. He has so much respect for the actor. It’s very different to work with him because you really have to listen. He speaks very, very slow and very mellow. You don’t feel like he’s talking about the movie. In a way, you’re kind of comfortable because it’s almost like a conversation when he’s giving you direction.
SS: You know what I mean? You feel very much a part of it, a part of the decision making. I don’t know if I’m making a lot of sense.
ML: You’re making complete sense. It seems like it was a very comfortable atmosphere. I mean you guys are dealing with heavy subject matter. Having a director that, as you said, is more conversational in getting you involved in what is the process and is not like barking and yelling at you—
SS: Exactly. No barking and yelling, no confrontation. That kind of thing was avoided as much as possible. I mean he [Marc forster] really understands how to work. I can’t recall anything going south. The whole shoot was very smooth. It was just unbelievable.
ML: Well, I have a question about your co-star, but I’m going to save that for closer to the end of this interview. I want to ask you quickly, because I know this is going to be the big question for the folks that read Shadow and Act, what is your opinion of the criticism that the film has a white savior theme to it? That idea has debated a lot particularly on our website. I don’t know if you’ve read our site...
ML: It has been tossed around a lot. We’ve heard it elsewhere. What do you feel about that? It seems like it was a great experience working on the set, working with the people you worked with. What’s your opinion when you hear criticism like that, that this is a white savior film?
SS: Okay, its obvious I heard of it. And obviously I’m—it’s something that touches me directly because I’m African. So, there’s no way of ignoring that. With that said, I remember when I read the script…you asked me something about my character…that was one of my biggest fears. My biggest fear really in this movie was to just be the African dude hanging around. You know? But the role is the role. How do you make it something more than what is on the paper? That was the real challenge I tried to answer. I hope you know it’s not for me to say anything but that you guys would appreciate what I’m saying. So, that was really the thing, and I was totally aware of that. Now, to answer your question more directly, it’s interesting I’m from the Ivory Coast so you probably know that about six months ago we’re going through some really serious things, civil war. It left over six thousand people dead, just because someone that was president went for re-election, lost the election, and refused to give away the power. Now, at the same time, he is someone that was president for ten years, had time to build partnerships to buy all kinds of weapons, and to have allies from places like Angola and other places. Now, when people try to march in protest, he turns his militias against them at night, burning some of them alive and chopping some down. Now those people, what do they do against someone like that? Every time they try to march—cause they don’t have no weapons! Every time they tried, he was sending death squads, killing people, killing hundreds of people. Killing them! He sent a tank to bomb some women that were trying to march. You can find all this online. What do those people do? It took the United Nations, it took France, it took the U.S., to bomb this guy and destroy all of his weapons. So what do you do? That’s my real issue. I understand the people that, you know, think this way. But I think the danger here is to almost forget about the main issue. You know what I mean? I don’t think the issue really is about the white man going to save Africa. The issue is that there are kids in Africa, the same way there are kids everywhere else that don’t have—what can a kid do against a bunch of mercenaries coming and burning his parents alive? What can a kid do?
SS: …Because the truth is, I’m not talking about the other movies or I’m not talking about anything else. The truth is, in this particular case, in the case of Machine Gun Preacher, that some man left his family, his business, went to Sudan, built an orphanage in the middle of a war zone, saved some kids and fought some rebels. That is true and the man is still around. So, what do we do? Now if Hollywood does that role, then I hope we all can understand, it’s a business too. It’s just business. So we just keep doing what we do. We just keep working and then we—there are different markets we can open as we go. Tyler Perry has opened his own market, that’s something we can do. Hollywood is not the end of it. It’s not. Furthermore, I want to say something because Hollywood is always making those movies where white people go and save black people but I think that says it all, because if they keep making those movies, it’s because those movies have an audience. So should we get mad at Hollywood, or should we get mad at the audience? In my case, I was very happy that the U.N. intervened in my country because if it wasn’t for the U.N., I’m telling you…Rwanda would have been like a small example compared to what was going to happen in the Ivory Coast. There were militias from everywhere, from Liberia, from Angola, from Ukraine, it was unbelievable! All kinds of weapons…I’m talking weapons with militias armed and ready! It was just going to be like the worst thing on Earth.
ML: It sounds very frightening, I couldn’t imagine.
SS: Unbelievable, I mean unbelievable. When I grew up in the Ivory Coast, there was peace. I grew up ice-skating and then just out of the blue, the whole thing started going south.
SS: It’s unbelievable. So that’s the type of Africa I remember. The one I grew up with. That’s the one I want for my continent because I’ve seen it. I know it exists. It’s not easy.
ML: Nothing is just black and white.
SS: Exactly. It’s not just like a black and white story.
ML: Well switching gears a little bit and thank you so much for your thoughtful reply and being so candid in these answers. I know that it’s –when questions are thrown at you, especially something like that I can imagine it’s not the easiest thing to always answer. You know what I mean?
ML: Let us talk a bit about the future. I know you said earlier you’re working on a comic book series but I’m also curious to know if you are currently working on any other film projects. If so, could you share what they are with us?
SS: Right now I’m attached to a few projects. One you can find on IMDB. But you know, this is Hollywood. Until you’re on set you’re not working. At the same time, I really feel very fortunate because even though I live in Hollywood I’m in a position where I can choose--I managed to be in the position where I can choose where I work. So, that kind of gives me time to see things coming. The danger is, having to work. Especially in a medium like this because you can be attached to a project that you’re not really inspired by and that will show.
ML: If you could produce a dream project, like, something you have been dreaming about doing forever what would it be?
SS: Wow, that’s an interesting question. What would it be? It would be Sundiata. It would be the story of Sundiata.
SS: Yeah. Sundiata was the founder of the Mandingo Empire. He had a beautiful story. His mom was the ugliest...excuse my French, woman…but it’s a beautiful story. I would like to tell it in a kind of epic way; a serious epic. It’s such an inspiring story.
ML: I hope you get that accomplished one day. We need more films like that, telling stories about legends or heroes or—just fascinating individuals that don’t often get covered in film and the media.
SS: Exactly. In a way it’s what we can do as actors, as artists. Hopefully we have enough voice that we can really use it to bring forth this kind of story. I also think that would be the answer to some of these criticisms.
I would like to thank Souléymane for taking the time to speak to Shadow and Act about "Machine Gun Preacher" and address the criticisms that have been levied against the film. I personally appreciated his candor and his passion for his country and the continent of Africa. We hope to have him on the Livecast some time in the not-so-distant future to discuss these issues of finding peace and more!
Catch Souléymane as Deng in Machine Gun Preacher which opens tomorrow in theaters across the U.S.
Until next time!