Now available in select theaters and on VOD is By the Gun, director James Mottern‘s spin on the mafia crime drama. The film follows Nick Tortano (Ben Barnes) on his ambitious climb to the upper rungs of the North End’s organized crime syndicate, despite his best friend and right-hand man (Slaine) constantly warning him against it. When Nick finally becomes a made man he finds it’s not all it’s cracked up to be and realizes the lives his friends, family, and the woman he loves (Leighton Meester) are in jeopardy. By the Gun also stars Harvey Keitel, Toby Jones, Paul Ben-Victor, and Ritchie Coster.
I recently jumped on the phone with Barnes for an exclusive interview about By the Gun. He talked about why the story and character appealed to him, his research process for keying into the character, the closeness of the Boston community, and how this film is aware of the legacy of crime dramas. He also talked about his upcoming History Channel mini series, Sons of Liberty, and why he’s so excited for it. Check out what he had to say after the jump.
What was is that appealed to you about this story and the character?
BEN BARNES: Well, it was absolutely something that I was looking for. I was looking for something – not necessarily in the mafia, gangster drama, but something certainly more gritty and tougher, and more urban maybe than the stuff I’d done. People had started asking me a lot of questions in junkets abou8t being associated with the fantasy genre or period stuff, so it was absolutely – I said in interview I think a couple years earlier that I wanted to do something where I could wear a T-shirt, drive a car, and have a gun and this absolutely fulfilled those criteria.
I just read the script and thought that the character was just a really full and engaging one. I’d seen the director, James Mottern’s film Trucker, which was a film about a female trucker played by Michelle Monoghan and I thought he just captured her physiological journey very personally and I thought that skill set could absolutely be translated into this sort of film about one young man’s journey, and dissatisfaction with life, about his ambition, and about what he thinks it is he wants out of life, and what he thinks it is he wants out of himself and what he wants to be. Then once he starts to move towards those goals he realizes that actually maybe these goals are turning him into something he doesn’t want to be. He struggles when he looks in the mirror, and that to me was a really interesting character. And it was set in a world that I wasn’t particularly familiar with and seeing the world through other people’s eyes is definitely one of the main catalysts for me in terms of the reasons that I want to do this kind of work and be an actor. When I was talking with the director about what we were doing in the film in terms of him wanting me to hang out in the North End and meet some of these shadowy figures that live in the Boston underworld and sort of immerse myself in that world for a little bit and see how it feels was really appealing to me. It was a lot of those things all mixed together, really.
That was something I wanted to touch on. As an Englishman signing on to play an Italian American, how much of a research process did you have and how much did you immerse yourself in that culture?
BARNES: Well I was sort of cast fairly late into the process. I think I was one of the last people to be cast, which is kind of interesting bearing in mind it was the protagonist. I basically went to Providence, Rhode Island, where we shot a decent portion of the film and the rest of it in the North End in Boston, and the great thing about it was that they were really prepared to receive me. They cast a lot of the smaller parts, really filled out the cast with these great, authentic Boston figures. A lot of the characters – we shoot in some of the great Boston landmarks in terms of bars and restaurants and the bar owners and some of the gangster figures are played by the real bar owners from Boston. A lot of the characters in the film have this kind of history with this sort of difficult life in Boston, so I was already immersed in the world even when I was still reading through and talking to people in rehearsal. One of the actors had been in the police force, so he knew this whole world from the other side of it. So the whole world was really there for me even before we got into the research.
I think they were a bit wary of me as well. as you say, I’m this English guy coming in and threatening to be like, but it was unbelievably rewarding how much they did embrace me in the end once I had sort of proven myself to them. They would be, “Hey Benny, you’ve got to come down to my restaurant tonight. You’ve got to down!” And they’d give me this slap on the neck. Just watching their physicality and the way that they talk to each other. It’s a very muscular language that they utilize with each other. That’s what I found. The sort of male of the species in Boston is that very Italian way mixed with the sort of grittiness of urban life, so it’s something that’s extraordinary to be around and it’s something I wanted to swim in befog I got my hands dirty trying to emulate it. But they would give me a tough time. There was definitely a time we went out for some drinks and they were goading me to try out my accent with different people and I was kind of resistant because I felt I wasn’t ready for it yet. And they would kind of slap me about – literally slap me about a little bit – to try and force me into it, which I think actually in the end was good for me. It kind of shocked me into wanting to prove to everyone that I could be chameleon like and transform myself into something else, which is obviously one of the great joys, privileges, and challenges of acting.
Yeah, I thought you did a really fantastic job, and it’s funny you use the word transform, it says right here in my notes that I wanted to ask you about your transformation. Nick talks differently than you, his accent is different, the tenor of his voice is different, he moves differently than you – was there a particular element that really helped you unlock this character?
BARNES: I mean, it was kind of just interesting , as you said, from a physical point of view. It was interesting to watch these characters in the North End, the way that they get other people to listen to them and the way that they’re kind of threatening with each other. They’re not really shouters and screamers, they’re more about intimidation, and even the affection is kind of intimidating in a way. Instead of a hug they’ll kind of grab the back of your neck and pull their face close to theirs so you know they’ve got something important to say. I’m saying it like they’re a completely different species and they’re not, they’re actually wonderful human beings. We just had the premiere in Boston with 500 Bostonians all kind of just celebrating each other, which is that they obviously a lot of the cast and crew and writer are all from that are and they’re all really supportive of each other which is a lovely thing.
It was just keying into those little physical things I think which kind of helped me feel like that character. and then once you start you’re just trying to be truthful to those moments and key into things that feel emotionally honest when you’re doing the individual scenes and obviously reacting to someone who’s so naturally – like Slaine, who’s playing my best friend, he’s absolutely – he’s a rapper and absolutely part of that world, not the mafia world, but the that tough Boston world. He’s absolutely the real thing. Then in the scenes with someone like Leighton. Leighton Meester I thought was absolutely just lovely in this film and she’s so warm and it’s very easy to play that kind of intimacy with her. So obviously you’re using what’s on the day to find what’s organic.
This film is obviously influenced by the sort of old school crime dramas, and I’d imagine as an actor getting to make a movie like that with Harvey Keitel has got to be pretty exciting.
BARNES: Yeah, it’s kind of awesome. The writer, Emilio Mauro, he doesn’t pretend that he hasn’t seen those film. He’s written it into the dialogue. The characters in the movie have seen The Sopranos, they talk about “You’ve watched the first half of Goodfellas too many times.” They’ve seen these movies. They know what it is how people see them, and also kind of how they want to be seen as well. So our film was slightly more referential, and slightly more trying to look at it from the inside in terms of that’s what it seems to be, but this is what it really is. Maybe it isn’t all that it seems cut out to be, maybe the violence and the paternity of those Godfather type figures aren’t as glamorous and won’t take care of you in the way they say they will, which I thought was an interesting take on the genre.
Before I run out of time with you, I am a huge history nerd so I definitely want to ask about Sons of Liberty. What kind of show can we expect from that?
BARNES: I was actually, obviously, in Boston a couple days ago and I went to see the Sam Adams statue and I saw on the side of it the inscription about the fearless statesman. It says “Sam Adams a statesman, incorruptible and fearless.” And I thought that was such a great tag, such a great jumping off point for a character. I’m really excited about this show, actually. I think more than I have been about something in a long time, because it’s going to be on TV, which I’ve never done something like that before. Plus, it’s six hours of character development so you can really get out a real full character.
I think it’s a really good balance of history and – I read a lot of books and listened to some books on tape and did the research into that period, but then at the same time there’s been a lot of historical documentaries about that era, certainly the era after it anyway, but what they wanted to have, the director and the producers, wanted to have a very young spirit of revolution. Ballsy kind of history with the bar fights left in, very physical rough and tumble version of events. So it’s a really good blend of the pinpoints that happened in that ten year period in the run up to the war of independence, but also that kind of Oceans Eleven feeling when Paul Revere, John Adam, Sam Adams, Benjamin Franklin, and George Washington kind of banded together in the same room. You forget because they were all presidents that all of them came together with the same idea, the same ideal at one point. Getting to play Sam, who’s kind of the instigator of a lot of it, the Clooney of it really, [laughs], was a great privilege for me. So I thin kit’s going to be just really interesting and really cool at the same time. It looks like a painting as well, so it’s kind of got that weird blend of drama and history and art and fun, all wrapped together, I hope.
Is anybody back home giving you some flak for playing a key figure in the American Revolution?
BARNES: [Laughs] Not yet, I guess it’s better to be on the side of the victors. There was a definite day on set where we were pulling off a heist of British gunpowder and we dressed up as redcoats. It was the only costume I didn’t have to try on, it just fit perfectly. I just walked around the other Americans going, “This feels good, this feel snug. How does it look?” You know, just teasing, but it was fun.
By the Gun is available now on VOD and in select theaters.