Actor Ben Foster on Becoming a True Gentleman in David Lowery’s ‘Ain’t Them Bodies Saints’

“I prefer not to have to make any movies, just prep,” says Ben Foster, whose dedication to his roles has made him a uniquely intense and sought after actor for quite some time now. Since his teen years, the now 32-year-old actor has navigated his way through the worlds of teenage romantic comedies to an award-winning stint on Six Feet Under to films like 3:10 to Yuma and Rampart—and with his latest turn, we get a glimpse at Foster as an old-fashion gentleman rare to appear on our screens in Ain’t Them Bodies Saints. As sheriff Patrick Wheeler in David Lowery’s beautifully textured ode to American folklore and the lovelorn Westerns of a bygone era, he fully immerses himself in the quietly passionate skin of his character who Lowery calls “a romantic, but is also more complex than that.” 

Telling the story of Ruth and Bob, a feverishly in love outlaw couple, the 1970s-set story kicks off after Ruth has accidentally wounded an officer in a Texas hills shootout. But rather than letting his love take the fall, Bob places the blame on himself and is sent away to prison. As the officer shot, Wheeler develops a keen interest in Ruth and her daughter, looking to protect them and care for them in a way that’s selfless and entirely decent. “He’s an old-fashioned romantic, and slightly shy,” says Lowery. “The kind of guy who might love a girl deeply, but wouldn’t think to impose those feelings on her if the time and place weren’t right.” And in order to play the role, Foster put in the time and research to give a fantastic performance alongside Rooney Mara, Casey Affleck, and Keith Carradine.
 
Earlier this week, I sat down with Foster to discuss his love for preparation, the lost tradition of gentlemen, and our love for A Midsummer Night’s Dream.

So I actually saw the film in February or March and that weekend I saw you in the plays section of Shakespeare & Co. I hadn’t had a chance to talk to anyone else about the movie yet, so I was going to see if you wanted to chat but by the time I did you were walking back up the stairs.

Well, hello now then. That’s a great book store.

 
Well, this was a great film. How did you come onboard and was there something that immediately attracted you to it?

My buddies produced it. I was thinking of doing a movie that’s also coming out called Kill Your Darlings, but I wasn’t sure if I was going to, and so I called up Jay and Lars and asked what they had going on. They’re my pals and I love what they’re after and they said, well actually, there’s a short film we want to send you called Pioneer by David Lowery and then they sent me the script. I read it that day and wanted to do it.
 
Had you been familiar with David’s work prior to that?

No, but I really responded to the short and loved the script. It felt to me an unreleased Willie Nelson record.
 
Oh, I like that. Did you two work together to bring Patrick to life? He’s someone that seems to devour films and I imagine is pretty wonderful to collaborate with.

Good choice of words…devour…Yes, he’s very well-read and versed in film. He’s collegiate. In terms of prepping, I took my pick-up and drove from New York through Texas. I drove through Texas for about a month to get the feel for it. I hadn’t been to Texas before and I just wanted to get a sense of the land. And then I ended up in midland, just looping back. They called the sheriff’s department there and they let me into the department and set me up on some ride alongs and I just became real friendly with them.
 
Had you done anything like that before to prepare for a role?

Oh yeah, sure. Not Texas sheriffs, but that’s the best part of the job—the prep. I prefer not to have to make any movies, just prep. 
 
Right, yeah getting to step into all of these different lives and be these people for a short while, I can’t imagine anything more fun.

It’s immersion journalism, except the end result isn’t an edited bit of language, it’s scenes that are cut together. But getting to spend time with these men and their families, you see what seems to be lost today is a traditional gentleman. I don’t read many scripts where we’re dealing with gentlemen. I see a lot of leading men, I see a lot of bad guys, but I don’t see gentleman, and I like that a lot. I met some true gentlemen down in Texas, and they carried guns and that didn’t make them bad either. I was so moved by being in that part of the country and seeing those values, which have been really bastardized in the media as of late. So being able to bring that back and bring that to David, we were able to fill in some things and take some things out and then you’re just cookin’ with people, you know?
 
I read that he saw your role as a surrogate for himself? Do you find him to be this kind of antiquated gentleman?

Yeah, he said that. He is a gentleman. He seems to be out of time, he’s not of this time.
 
How was acting opposite with Rooney? You two had a really strong presence on screen together.

I think she’s just a lovely actor, very strong and vulnerable, very present. I enjoyed very much working with her. You give something and some people just act at you and she’s with you. And that’s all you can really ask for with a partner.
 
Was there anything that struck you differently while working on set of this film? It seems like it was a pretty intimate and passionate experience.

I enjoyed it. I like this size film. It was a healthy-sized budget for an independent and we had trailers. We didn’t have trailers for Kill Your Darlings, so you know, it was kind of luxurious that way. It’s a sweet thing. I get to work with my buddies and learn about Texas and have my heart broken a little bit. It was nice.
 
You’ve been acting for a good number of years now. Do you find that you take something away from each role and lend it to your own life, or do you find life is the ultimate learning experience for your characters?
It’s both. Anything you put your attention on, you’ll effect it and it will effect you. It’s quilting. The best part of the job is researching and then you take a little bit of that and hopefully keep that light in your heart for the rest of your days—you keep the good parts. And then there are other gigs that wear on you in different ways and hopefully you can find the gift in that.
 
Are you able to shake off your character at the end of the day and get back to you?

Harder gettin’ out than gettin’ in.
 
When I was about eleven, I was a pretty huge fan of Get Over It. I suppose that was the first film I saw you in.
It’s cute, right? There’s singing and dancing.
 
It’s pretty funny to watch now because of how much you all have changed as actors but also how much culture has changed in terms of teenage portrayals and “teen movies.”

I liked that script too because it was sweet—initially it was sweet. But then it got less sweet as we were shooting. What it felt to me was more a traditional romantic comedy, but then it started getting punched into teen film and then you’ve got the fake tits and the stupid references but it was a really sweet script to begin with. Aesthetically,  it’s colorful.
 
Well, if anything it was my introduction to A Midsummer Night’s Dream and probably Shakespeare, because what else are you going to want to read when you’re eleven?
Well that was the first play I saw as a kid that made me want to act, so that was probably one of the reasons why. I never did it but I always wanted to do Puck. Maybe some day.
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