Ever since wrapping his run on HBO’s drama “Six Feet Under,” Ben Foster has been keeping busy, appearing in “X-Men: The Last Stand,” the western “3:10 to Yuma” and Oren Moverman’s acclaimed indie “The Messenger.” Still, 2013 marks what is arguably his biggest year yet.
This January, the Boston-born, Iowa-raised actor was at Sundance in support of his two great supporting turns as a lovelorn cop in David Lowery’s “Ain’t Them Bodies Saints” and as William Burroughs in the Beat biopic “Kill Your Darlings.” (“Saints” opened last Friday, while “Darlings” opens this October.) And in December, he’ll play a navy SEAL alongside Mark Wahlberg in “Lone Survivor.” Add to all that the rumors that he’s set to embody Lance Armstrong in Stephen Frear’s upcoming biopic and it’s clear Foster has arrived.
Indiewire called up Foster to discuss his experience at Sundance this year, his upcoming directorial debut, and balancing indies with commercial fare.
Can we go back to Sundance? I know it was months ago, but you were there with two distinctly different indies from first-time filmmakers. What was the experience like being with the two of them, for “Kill Your Darlings” and “Ain’t Them Bodies Saints,” at events that launched their respective careers?
It is surprising to be in the presence of someone every day and shoot the film with them, and there’s a shorthand, ideally, that builds between you and your director, because you’re making something together. And the months go by, I go on to different projects, and they’ve stayed with this one. And their consciousness is so tuned and focused. It’s almost as though it’s breaking up with a girlfriend and then having an affair for two nights.
You’re like “You’re still really into this, huh? You’re still thinking about this every day?” And you go to the premiere with them and they’re shaking and their mouths are dry and they’re wringing their hands and they eyes are full of the camera’s flash and they haven’t been to the dog and pony show. And it’s startling to be in the presence of that, because as I had known them previously, it had been as co-collaborators, and now it’s really their time to shine.
Sundance is a director’s festival, and it’s to celebrate the makers, the writers, the producers and the directors. It’s really their festival. And it’s the first time being let out of the editing room because they’ve been trying to eke by every last minute and penny to get ready… they become the belle of the ball. It’s like letting an overly fed, sunlight-deprived animal into an area of mass attention. So it’s startling because we’ve been out in the world and they haven’t for about a year. Does that make sense?
Yeah, totally. Did you feel like you were taking a chance with either one, or did the fact that they had also both penned the scripts give you the confidence that these guys could really pull their projects off?
I had a pretty good feeling with both of them that they were going to pull off what they were after. They’re both very driven and both very different personalities. One’s very collegiate and one’s more of an essentialist. And they’re both well-studied and both incredibly articulate and caring about the material, so to participate with that kind of drive is what keeps me wanting to return to work with first-time filmmakers or in the world of independent cinema… it keeps my heart uncalloused, working with that kind of energy.
Watching “Ain’t Them Bodies Saints,” I could see you also in the Casey Affleck role — speaking to your range as an actor. I was however kind of surprised to see you in the quieter, more subdued and mannered role as the cop. Did that appeal to you, the challenge of keeping so much in?
Well, the best part of the job is the pre-production, and that period is spent casting a big net of research and following where it may lead. I ended up taking my pickup truck from Jersey all the way to Texas and taking about a month through Texas to get a feel for the country.
It is really its own country. And spending time with the sheriffs at Midland, Texas, I just cold called them, and they let me come by and started taking me on ride-alongs and to meet their families. We’d go out for Mexican food and have some margaritas, and you’d get a feel for the kind of work ethic that we don’t often see. It’s an America that isn’t popular it seems these days in the news, of the quiet, the dignified, and the loyal officer, protector of the peace. We don’t see a lot of that.
What I like so much about David [Lowery]’s script is that it presents people with a lot of heart and perhaps an inability of how to follow it, or following false signals. And even if they’re going to rob a bank, they’re human beings. And even if you fall in love with a woman just because her husband isn’t there, doesn’t mean you make a move. I’m drawn to that, and more and more the kind of men that I met in Midland, Texas reminded me of such values that I hold true. And it was wonderful to have the opportunity to explore that on film in the small quiet, tiny way that we did.
Do you and Rooney Mara work in a similar way? Because the scenes your share together are just so delicate and beautiful to watch.
She’s a luminous creature. But when the camera rolls, she’s like a tuning fork: incredibly smart and very present and what a great dancing partner that is.
You’re currently in the midst of prepping your directorial debut with the help of Oren Moverman, who’s acting as a producer on it, and who you worked with on “Rampart” and “The Messenger.” Has directing always been in the cards for you?
Storytelling has, yeah. And collaborating has. The drug that I chase is research and collaborating with fellow doers, so whether that be directing or holding a light for someone’s short film, I revel in that kind of community.
And you’ve also managed over your career to deftly straddle both indies and Hollywood fare. Which world do you feel most comfortable in as an artist?
There are different strengths and weaknesses, but I feel like it would be unfair to generalize it as it usually is by saying “Well, you gotta do one for them and one for you, gotta pay rent, wink, wink.”
Actors are incredibly well paid, less so in the last five to 10 years, but it really comes down to who are you working with, is what makes the project. If you have more toys it doesn’t make it a better movie, and just because you don’t have a trailer doesn’t make it a more authentic film. It’s who are you working with and how do you communicate with one another.
Moviemaking is falling in love. You come together and you spend a summer or a winter together and you share every thought, question, and feeling and you document it. And then we have this document at the end of it, and sometimes it makes it to the festival. But after that, we wash our hands.