Against the backdrop of 1970s Texas Hill Country, Ain’t Them Bodies Saints tells a gothic American tale of three characters straddling various sides of the law -- outlaw Bob Muldoon (Casey Affleck), his wife Ruth Guthrie (Rooney Mara), and local sheriff Patrick Wheeler (Ben Foster), who gets caught in their crosshairs.
Starting where other stories often end with the outlaw being captured, the lawman gets wounded and the wife finds out she’s pregnant, this noir-ish narrative puts in play a set of characters who follow a very deliberately downward spiral that concludes with a death and a redemption.
When Bob escapes from prison and sets out across the Texas hills to reunite with his wife and the daughter he’s never met, her settled life in this small Texas town becomes disrupted by his arrival and goals she’s not sure she shares with him anymore.
Supported by veteran actors Nate Parker and Keith Carradine (who played a similarly tragic outlaw in Robert Altman’s Thieves Like Us), this methodically paced drama neither involves larger than life characters or grapples with huge issues much more than to make the choice whether to live or to love where doing one almost certainly endangers the possibility of the other.
The second feature from writer-director David Lowery, this film was developed at the Sundance Institute's Writing and Producing Labs. It received the U.S. Dramatic Cinematography Award at the 2013 Sundance Film Festival.
Making the transition from her high-profile role as Lisbeth Salander in the big-budgeted Girl With The Dragon Tattoo to this low-keyed film Mara delivers a cool nuanced performance. Spurred on by her older sister Kate’s already busy acting career, Rooney has been building a resume that both includes Hollywood tentpole projects and intimate indies such as this feature.
Q: As your character develops from being a child to an adult, who takes on the responsibilities for her kid, your character serves as an archetype for that person who goes through this transition of growing up.
RM: I mean most of the film is played when she goes through that transition. But certainly it's something me and David talked a lot about; how Ruth was before [the situation in the film] and I think she used to be a very sort of fiery stubborn feisty character who was full of life and I think having a child definitely changed her.
When Ruth finds out she's going to have a baby I don't think she's particularly excited by it. She doesn't feel ready and it's not something she wants.
Bob is more excited about it than she is and then, when he gets taken away to prison she really doesn't want to have a baby it's like, “No I want Bob back, I want my life back, and I want my childhood back.”
She really [feels that way.] It’s not exactly in the movie, but at least for me, I think she really is fighting it the entire time until she sees the baby for the first time and then she's in.
Q: What made you want to play Ruth? you don't play her as an archetype but as a living character.
RM: The person that she is was so interesting and where she ends up with the relationship between her and Bob was also interesting. Also I really wanted to play a mom, but so many times I just read these scripts where it’s just like the mom, It's just the protective mom, and it’s so unrealistic to me. People are more complex than that and I found that the way she's a mom to be was really different from anything else that I'd read.
Q: In what way?
RM: Because it's not like she… Because she did fight it, it's not like she found out she was having a baby and was all of a sudden she was like, "Yes I am a mother now I am going to make smart responsible decisions.”
That’s not how life happens; you can be a parent and love your child more than anything and still make bad decisions and you think you're making the right decisions.
A lot of the mothers I have read about are just like that. Just like a very idealized version of like a protective mother and I found this to be more realistic you know her relationship with Silvia’s [xxxxx]. i just found their relationship and the way she's a mom with the decisions she has to make.
Q: She’s hugs her daughter all the time, singing to her, sleeping with her, she's very bonded with the little girl.
RM: Yes they're very bonded but at times it felt like a relationship you have with your little sister if you had a sister and had to raise her. It felt much more interesting and real to me than anything I'd read.
Q: Was it insightful to you in terms of what you might think you would behave or not behave if you were having a kid?
RM: No I didn't think of it in terms of that but certainly i thought of it in terms of -- Ruth has to make these decisions between her life that she had with Bob and the life and responsibilities she has now with her child but you know now.
Like I said before, she can have a kid and still think that going with Bob is the right thing to do for your child. I think you really can convince yourself of anything when you're in love with someone. I don't think parents always make the right decisions. Sometimes parents make selfish decisions but that doesn’t mean they love their children any less.
Q: Bob takes the fall for Ruth. There’s punishment to be meted out and he takes it. But Patrick represents a kind of forgiveness, so he's the bridge to a different life for your character that takes you out of that eye-for-an-eye realm. Do you think your character understands what he’s offering? Did you personally see this as a two-parter, the old testament vs. the new forgiveness aspect of your life?
RM: I never thought of it in terms of the New and Old Testament [laughs]. But in terms of Patrick and Ruth…
Q: He represents a different way of looking at the law.
RM: It's very sweet that he offers her forgiveness and that's great and can certainly help her but at the end of the day it's more about forgiving herself because while she has guilt for shooting this man, most of her guilt lies with the fact that the person she loves has taken the blame for it and is now been spending his life in prison. It’s more about forgiving herself than getting forgiveness from someone else.
Q: Was there anything from your personal life -- either through reading or an incident that you plugged into -- to effect her act of self-forgiveness…
RM: With Ruth, No. Maybe I've taken too many psychology classes or have been in too many therapy sessions. I know self-forgiveness is very important isn't it, to growth?
Q: David Lowery spoke about seeing a movie like Thieves Like Us. Of course, Keith Carradine was the star in that film and then being in this film which, had a lot of this style. What films did you see that helped you get a sense of the period?
RM: There were films that David had me watch McCabe and Mrs. Miller and of course Badlands. But you know David’s script was really quite beautiful and poetic -- and there wasn't really much further you had to go on than that.
Q: What was it to David’s direction or his approach, what element did you find fascinating besides his script that was fascinating, compared to say a Steven Soderbergh, or David Fincher or even Spike Jonze.
RM: He wrote it -- it came from his mind, so right there, he has to be fascinating and smart to have written it. Then when I met him I could just tell that this isn't just a writer who wrote a beautiful script; he saw the movie and knew what he wanted it to feel like, sound like and look like. I could just tell he was special.
Everyone has to start somewhere. It didn't scare me that he didn't have this body of work like some of the other people i've worked with. That was one of the things that excited me about working with him.
Q: It was a new adventure in a way.
RM: I believed in him, and wanted to be a part of it.
Q: How dependent are you on the director when you're working? Some directors expect the actor once they’re cast to show up and have it, know what they're doing, and they let them do it, Woody Allen is like that.
RM: Steven [Soderbergh] is like that.
Q: How much do you expect from the director?
RM: The thing is, the director is everything. I always love the director. I put all of my trust and faith into them and it has to be someone that I will follow and give myself over to their process. So when I worked with Steven I showed up ready and knew what I was doing.
When I worked with someone like David Lowery it was much more collaborative, we could play with things. I give myself over to whatever their process is, so I don't have be like “Oh I need the director or I don't need…” I really just give myself over to what they like to do.
Q: You’re acting is always amazing but how difficult was it to play a role like Ruth, you are not facing the Bob, you’re almost thinking about him but not facing him, so how difficult or different to do that kind of role?
RM: It was great because the way they set it up was that Casey came to Shreveport and he shot his stuff for two and a half or three weeks. Then I came and we shot our stuff together and then he left and I shot my stuff without him.
In the film, Casey's character is waiting for me, he's waiting to see what I’m going to be like now that I’m a different person. He’s just waiting and there's all the anticipation.
So he had that feeling the whole time he was shooting and then we met and we shot our scenes together and then he left and my character spends most of the entire movie pining for and missing him. They set it up perfectly and the little screen time that we do have together does have to carry through the film. It’s really important that, that translated otherwise you wouldn’t want to watch the film. They did a good job at setting that up.
Q: David said he doesn't like guns and was going to have a very different ending with you and Ben Foster’s character. I asked him did he have a gun and he said no, you don't have a a gun, but did you find it interesting to work with guns or have you done much in some of the other films as well?
RM: I didn’t find it interesting to work with guns, I don't like guns, I don't want to be around a gun, there's nothing I like about guns, except that they look really cool in Western movies but other than that I have no interest in guns, I remember I had to shoot the gun -- I had never shot one before -- and I had to shoot it and I didn't like it, I don't like shooting...
Q: In the opening battle when you shoot the guy….
RM: Yeah that was fun I guess [laughs]…
Q: To watch you in this movie or Side Effects, is fun -- what do you look for in a part? Do you worry about being typecast as the quiet serious person, Is that's what you are? I don't know what you're doing with Spike Jonze in Her.
RM: I don't really feel as though I'm typecast. I think I'm lucky in that I get lots of different opportunities but yes if I were to be typecast as anything, I definitely do get a lot of quiet…
Q: Smart people?
Q: Even your character in Dragon Tattoo is in some ways quiet. And in other ways, not very contained. Could you ever play in, like in Her. I know it's sci-fi but I don't know what you can say about it.
RM: I haven't seen it so I don’t know what I do in it or what's in there, but that's not the point.
Every character I play has a lot of internal life because I have a lot of an internal life so that's not really something I can turn off. But I don't think the character in Her is what you're talking about. And certainly I can do other things than that.
Q: Can you be big and bawdy and funny if you wanted to?
RM: Yes I could I’m sure…
Q: Does anybody ever think of you that way? Not yet?
RM: I don't know but they will.
Q: You’re not doing a Jewish comedy right now though?
RM: Not yet. But I would love to.
Q: Could you do Broadway, maybe singing and dancing?
RM: No I couldn't do a musical.
Q: How did Dragon Tattoo change your life?
RM: Dragon Tattoo changed my life tremendously in that I work all the time now, or that I can work all the time now, and the opportunity that I have now is you know incredible but people hardly ever recognize me, maybe once a month, people just don't recognize me and they don't really care I guess. That’s great and fine.
Q: At your sister's House of Cards premiere over in Alice Tully Hall, you showed up and were literally chased into the backstage area by a pack of photographers who wouldn't let you alone. Do you get that all the time like if you went to the green market here would people follow you?
RM: Yeah that was weird.
Q: Will you do the sequel -- has anybody at Sony said anything about it?
RM: I would love to but I don’t know.
Q: The Girl Who Played With Fire is on the list. You've read all the books...
RM: Yes of course.
Q What are you doing next?
RM: I'm doing Stephen Daldry’s next movie, Trash.
Q: An Irish movie with a priest?
RM: It’s a Brazilian film.
Q: You’re going to Brazil... Where do you get to go -- Rio, Sao Paulo?
RM: I'm going to Brazil. Yes, in Rio. I get to combine my two favorite things...
Q: Is it a thriller?
RM: Yes it's quite thrilling.
Q: You’ll dig the music though; the music is incredible in Brazil.
RM: That will be soon I promise.
Q: You’re involved in supporting a particular cause in relation to Africa. oddly enough when they screened the movie it was paired with a movie about an African couple called Mother of George. How did you get connected to that - you should see that movie by the way - where did that passion come from?
RM: I graduated from high school early and traveled with this school called the traveling school and we went throughout South America for four months and so that's where my love of traveling came from. Then I was at NYU and taking this class called Writing About Africa and we were reading all this literature written by different African authors.
I was doing this research paper on child soldiers on Uganda and was learning all this stuff I didn't know about Africa and really missed traveling. I wanted to go somewhere I just couldn't find any volunteer opportunities in Uganda so I randomly chose Kenya and ended up there. It’s a very long story from there but that's how I ended up there when I was that age.
Q: Now you have this Foundation?
RM: I started a non profit called Faces of Kibera and we've since merged with this other group that we met in Kenya and her non profit was called Uweza and we were always helping each other and doing similar things so we decided to join forces.
Q: And are you a style icon?
RM: I don't feel like a style icon but I don't know. I mean I haven't really been around long enough to use words like icon.
Q: Are you fashion conscious and do you like it?
RM I have always had a very specific taste. I have a certain aesthetic and it's part of my job to get dressed for these things so I'm fashion conscious...
I can tell you that in my everyday life i do not put that much effort into what i wear, but I still really like the way certain clothes look. In my every day life I really don't put that much effort into what i wear.
Q: Did you see the punk couture show at the Met?
RM: Yeah it was fantastic.
Q: Nice fashion but not really punk, its not really very authentic. Some interesting clothes that you could be wearing in the spirit of Lisbeth Salander some things in the exhibition seem right out of that film [laughs].
Q: What’s the best advice your actress sister Kate told you about the industry or the roles you should you have. Anything you keep in mind?
RM: I don't have a great line to give you on that, and even if I did it would be very personal if she gave me advice.
Q: She didn't take you aside, put her arm around you and say, "Rooney now this is what you have to watch out for?"
RM: That would be a good little thing but it's my sister; we're each others' biggest supporters and I feel so lucky to have someone that's that close to me who’s in the same industry. I can't imagine not having her in the business with me.