At 32, Ben Foster has aged out of Young Hollywood. And it's about time. For years, he was a staple of "Up-and-Coming Leading Men!" lists before everyone realized he'd already up and gone in a different direction entirely, building a résumé of fascinatingly off-kilter roles in films like 3:10 to Yuma, The Messenger, and Rampart. And after a summer in which big-budget bombs have the industry all but eulogizing the Leading Man and glorifying character actors, it's clear Foster's instincts served him well—and landed him some plum roles, too.
In Ain't Them Bodies Saints, out now, Foster plays a small-town sheriff who completes a love triangle with an outlaw on the run (Casey Affleck) hoping to reunite with his wife and former partner in crime (Rooney Mara). Foster doesn't talk much, but he turns in the kind of subtle performance in which the slightest movement—the twitch of his Texas 'stache as he watches the woman he loves cradle her daughter—draws you in. "I'd be happier if I could just spend the rest of my life doing silent films," he says. He delivers an equally nuanced turn in October's Kill Your Darlings, playing a young William S. Burroughs alongside Daniel Radcliffe's Allen Ginsberg and Dane DeHaan as a frenetic Lucien Carr. "He was always arguing to do less," says Peter Berg, who directed Foster in next year's Lone Survivor, based on a former Navy SEAL's account of losing his team after an ambush in Afghanistan. "It was an interesting choice, and one that not all actors could get away with." In a scene Berg calls the film's cornerstone, Foster's character advocates for killing three Afghan civilians who stumble across his crew—an unsettling emotional moment that grapples with the moral complexities of combat. "These are the difficult questions," Foster says, "and they're as old as war."
His willingness to cut to the bone served him well when he replaced Shia LaBeouf on Broadway in Orphans, as a street tough haunted by his mother's death and father's abandonment. "I'd have nightmares where I'd wake up screaming at my girlfriend," he says. (That girlfriend is Robin Wright—he even dates like a serious actor.) "When you wake up standing naked in your bed with the sheets and pillows all over the place, you know you're on the right path."