Ben Foster has been acting for 18 years now — at 32, that's over half his life — and over time, he's begun to consider himself a journalist as much as a performer.
"It's creative journalism; it's immersion journalism with a creative interpretation," he says, coining a buzzy term for his approach to prep work. "So I learn something and I bring it to the director, who is the editor, and we build something. Sometimes it's what I want and sometimes it's not. It's always the pursuit of a question and the opportunity to collaborate, which is about problem-solving."
To wit: When Foster was cast as a Texas sheriff in writer/director David Lowery's upcoming period western Ain't Them Bodies Saints, he packed up his pickup truck and headed for the Lone Star State to do his due diligence. Foster ended up spending a month in what he calls "the country of Texas," zigzagging the map and "talking to bootmakers and going to honky-tonks." Ultimately, he found himself in Midland, spending time with the city's sheriff's department and meeting with officers who represented a third generation of noble lawmen.
"Getting a feel for that culture was — is — the most rewarding part of this job," Foster explains. "It's doing the prep work. Being around the traditional American value of being a gentleman, which has been lost today, there's an etiquette that has been lost with our generation. Spending time with that and its simplicity, you do good to your neighbor because that's the right thing to do, rather than 'I don't want to get caught... I don't want them to tweet something mean about me.'"
The character that emerged, Sheriff Patrick Wheeler, is a complicated blend of upstanding guardian and lonely soul. Left by his wife at some point before the story — which offers more suggestions than answers — he becomes intrigued by a young mother played by Rooney Mara. Her husband, played by Casey Affleck, is in jail for an armed robbery that culminated in a shootout that tagged Wheeler in the shoulder and killed another cop.
What Wheeler doesn't know is that Mara and Affleck's characters committed the crimes together — it's a 1970s-set Bonnie and Clyde situation, with financial desperation replacing the adventurous, anti-hero outlaw spirit of yesteryear — and that Mara actually fired the bullet.
It's a heartbreaking — and beautifully shot — story, but it may not be as difficult to watch as Foster's next endeavor, Lone Survivor. Foster joins Mark Wahlberg, Emile Hirsch, and Taylor Kitsch in the Peter Berg-directed true story of Navy SEALs who were forced scramble for their lives in the wake of a failed covert mission to take out a Taliban leader; the title indicates their ultimate fate.
The movie presented Foster with another opportunity to practice his "immersion journalism with a creative interpretation," and he went through extensive SEAL training and met with both the titular lone survivor, Marcus Lutrell, as well as the widows of the fallen soldiers.
Foster doesn't watch many of his movies, but says he had to watch this one, because it is "a heated topic" and he expects it to raise a lot of questions and controversies. The soldiers' widows also recently screened a version of the film — it is due to be released in late December — and gave it a solemn nod of approval.
"They were behind it. I'm surprised," Foster admits. "It's not pulling many punches and it's tough to watch people die. It's not The Expendables."
With his plate clear of projects for the moment — his run as Shia LaBeouf's last-minute replacement in Orphans closed its Broadway run early (he's rather taciturn on the whole situation) — Foster is working to set up several movies with producing partner Oren Moverman, who directed him in 2011's Rampart. He'd also love to portray late Queen frontman Freddie Mercury.
Foster, a multifaceted performer given to introspection and long road trips in his truck, might see something of himself in the legendary singer.
"I'm a huge Freddie Mercury fan. Just him, his physicality, his theatrics, but more importantly, the shy man beneath all the pageantry," he says. "So I'm just putting that out there."