A Departure From Everything: An Interview With Ben Browder of ‘Outlaws and Angels’

Sci-fi icon Ben Browder discusses his new film, his sci-fi past, and the ambiguous nature of heroes and villains.

During the press tour for JT Mollner’s Outlaws and Angels, I sat down with star Ben Browder to discuss his approach to the film. Browder is best known as Farscape‘s John Crichton, and Stargate SG-1‘s Cameron Mitchell. His role as sinning preacher George Tilden, however, is about as far from his previous heroic roles as one can imagine, but the fast pace of production and traditional camera work provided the actor with new challenges.

I, of course, know your work from Stargate. I’m surrounded by sci-fi stuff … I’ve got a signed Amanda Tapping picture staring down at me as we speak.

She’s a great girl.

So, the new film is a departure from everything (laughter).

That’s a good reason to do it. This is a departure from everything. Yeah, it’s an unusual piece, but that’s what drew me to it and made it interesting. It was a different kind of day at work, and it was certainly a different kind of experience. It’s so far away from something like Farscape or Stargate that from an acting standpoint it’s actually a viable reason to do it. Stretch in different ways; to look different, to be different.

What was the shooting schedule? Was it a fairly quick film to make or …

It was a fairly quick; I think it was an 18- or 21-day shoot schedule. There were a number of days when we could get a 12-page scene in one take. Or multiple takes, but it was all moving, you know, the camera moving. The style of shooting that [director] JT [Mollner] adopted has that ’60s and ’70s independent western sensibility. It was an interesting and cool way to just shoot. You always have some of these very brutal scenes, and it’s a ten- or 12-minute take. It’s exhausting.

I had the feeling he had lunch with Quentin Tarantino at some point before he did this script.

I don’t know. Tarantino certainly has a different visual style than JT, but the love of the Western, the love of extreme situations, I think they definitely share.

The points were made viscerally. There wasn’t a whole lot of mystery. But on the flip side of that, I’m a big Shakespeare fan. I write reviews of Shakespeare books and plays; I’ve even been to Stratford. It felt as if there was a little bit of Shakespearean gravitas in there, right? It was about the thin lines.

Well, yeah. JT was pretty particular about maintaining a period vernacular and language, so we avoided modern idioms in the language itself. I think there was an even earlier version of the script in which the language is even more archaic and, in some ways, opaque because of it. He was very particular about maintaining a proper sensibility with the verbiage, which was interesting, because when you read the script, you think, “Wow, I haven’t seen that on the page, ever” about a particular turn of phrase. From an acting standpoint, you could relate that to Shakespeare, or you could relate it to restoration period language.

Well, I was thinking the Shakespeare; it was a tragedy. I mean, there was the set up and the transformation; it was a proper tragedy.

I’m giving my Lear there, no question.

With a mouth full of blood.

That was a proper Lear. That was Lear gone wrong, you know what I mean?

There was one continuity problem with the scene; you and the blood in your mouth. When the characters were walking out of the house toward the lake, you weren’t covered in blood anymore. It wasn’t clear how you got cleaned up. (laughs)

A little bit cleaner than I was on the floor, yeah. You weren’t looking that close at me anyway in that scene. You were probably looking at Chad [Michael Murray] and Francesca [Eastwood].

The film was, overall, properly disturbing.

It was disturbing to shoot as well. It wasn’t one of those situations where you go, “Oh, this is gleeful fun”. It was difficult material, and it was difficult to see it, but that was JT’s vision, and that’s what the film is. There will be people who love the film, and people who hate the film, for the exact same reason.

It’s very odd, watching it, given those thin lines between right and wrong that are running on the front page of newspapers and on CNN and everywhere else right now.

The thing about heroes and villains, as there were in Outlaws and Angels, is that we’ve got things happening every single day in which people do horrible, unspeakable things, and in their minds, they’re the hero. They’re doing them for reasons of faith and love — the good things — and they get misdirected and become horrible, horrible events. You can see quite easily how the events of the last few days, for which the vast majority of people will say that’s a horrible thing, but in the minds of certain people, they’re thinking, “Yeah, that’s the right thing to do”. Certainly the people perpetrating it probably thought they were doing the right thing.

Well, it’s what you see clearly in terrorism. I think [the series] Homeland makes it very visible that, at the end of the day, it’s Grandpa coming home to his wife and grandkids in the middle of the desert. He may have just bombed a bunch of people, and yet he’s still a grandfather too; he has that other life. In your film, the outlaws were purposefully faceless at the beginning, and then you grow to know them, and find out they weren’t quite as horrible as you may have thought.

Yeah, and people that you thought weren’t that horrible turned out to be quite horrible There’s a great amount of grey area in there, and that’s part of the human experience we encounter every day. Look at the film from that standpoint; on the one hand, it’s very retro and it’s shot on film, it’s shot in a proper western techniscope [2.33:1] aspect ratio. It feels like an old film, and yet at the same time it breaks hard with the traditional western good guy/bad guy stereotype. So I think it’s an interesting piece. I think JT wrote and directed an interesting film. Is it going to everybody’s cup of tea? No. I don’t want my mom to watch it.

I was going to say it’s not going to get the Zootopia crowd.

It’s not a fluffy film.

So, with all of your background with green screens and effects, I’m assuming this was mostly in-camera. Is there different prep for you when you’re doing something like this? Is it easier? I mean the dialogue was hard, as you said, but is it somewhat easier since it’s all there, and you’re reacting to real things versus stuff that’s going to put in at post-production?

No, from an acting standpoint, I haven’t found there’s a great deal of difference. It helps to have fun set effects, but that also means sometimes there are more people around you while you’re working. Practical effects can be intrusive in a different way because it’s like, okay “now do the makeup change”, and you’re scrambling to get it done because you’re on a tight schedule. Honestly, I learned a great deal about practical effects working on both Farscape and Stargate.

I’m very experienced in the realm of practical effects. The massive amount of CG work that goes on now is more akin to the stage; if you have stage training, it’s not really that much of a problem. You’re used to delivering a soliloquy or used to facing the audience. If you’ve done Shakespeare, that’s common, and sometimes very similar to working with something that’s just pure CG. If you’re doing something with someone using motion capture, you’re actually working with an actor and getting a performance back from them. In my mind, there’s not really a divide. Acting is acting; sometimes you’re standing there looking at a person and delivering the lines, and sometimes you’re looking at an “X”. If you’re struggling, you just have to create the world a little more inside your head. It’s fun to be able to do. It’s a great deal of fun to be able to do a long ten-minute take that’s more akin to working with actors. It’s a good experience.

Is there some takeaway learning that you got out of this experience?

I don’t know. That’s a good question. I haven’t really thought about it. You take chances and sometimes a chance will pay in unexpected ways. I don’t know that I learned that there; maybe you re-learn it every time you do it. It was a good experience. The shoot was a good experience, with an enjoyable and talented cast. JT did a great job on it. I’m happy to have done something that’s a departure from what I’m normally allowed to do. So, my takeaway was it was hard, but in a weird way, it was also fun. If I can string together a lot of jobs like that, I’d be very happy.

Yeah, you don’t have to save the universe every time, every character you play. (laughs)

No. In some cases, you’re the problem, with your small little universe. I have a small little universe and I’m the problem.