Last Wednesday night approximately 50 people turned out for the Barns of Rose Hill’s first “Film Night” featuring the critically acclaimed film “Get Low” starring Robert Duvall, Sissy Spacek, Bill Murray, and Lucas Black. While the honorary chairs for the event, Mr. and Mrs. Duvall, were unable to attend the showing due to Mr. Duvall’s filming schedule, another of the movie’s stars, to the delight of the audience, did attend.
Amazing Grace, a six- year-old mule who, in a very literal sense, played a supporting role in Duvall’s movie, is everything that her name implies, and perhaps even a bit more, to her owner and trainer Steve Foster of Front Royal, Virginia.
Foster’s life is an American portrait of both the heights and depths that can grip working man. Foster is so completely convinced that Amazing Grace – Gracie as he calls her – is literally the hand of God moving in his life, that the 60-year-old former drug addict and rodeo rider is often overcome by emotion whenever he recounts the story of his association with Gracie.
“I’ve ridden in mule rodeos all of my life and have been around mules since I was nine or ten years old,” Foster recounted. “Along the way I had a mule named AJ that I lost after eighteen years. When AJ died, it about tore me up. It was like losing a child. Fortunately, I found Gracie not long after and she filled that empty place in my heart.”
Foster is no stranger to loss.
Foster readily admits that as a younger man, his rodeo lifestyle, which involved drug abuse, drug deals, arrests, and ultimately rehabilitation, cost him his marriage with his first wife and created a deep void in his relationship with his two children which he has only recently been able to begin to reclaim now that they are adults.
“When God got hold of me he turned my life around,” Foster says in his husky voice that begins to falter as tears well beneath the brim of his straw cowboy hat. “Gracie was a gift from God.”
Foster says that shortly after AJ’s death a friend, who knew what AJ’s loss had meant to Foster, came across another mule, Gracie. The friend noticed that Gracie resembled AJ and decided that the new animal would be exactly what Foster needed to mend the pain in his heart.
“You need to buy this mule!” the friend told Foster.
So, with the advice and consent of Foster’s wife, Pam, Amazing Grace came to live on the Foster’s Front Royal farm. Foster and Gracie began working together on a daily basis and it quickly became clear that Gracie had an above-average aptitude for performance.
“Gracie can add and subtract numbers, she can pick up a pitcher of water and pour it into water glasses without spilling a drop,” Foster says. “She loves to play basketball and she even paints.”
Foster said that Gracie’s paintings sell for between $500 and $1,000 each.
After speaking with Steve Foster for only a short time it becomes clear that he is a very modest and humble man. While Gracie may have an above-average equine IQ, Foster also has an above-average ability to connect with animals. Not long after the pair started training together in 2007, Foster saw an advertisement in Western Mule Magazine asking for horses to participate in a television show called “America’s Ultimate Horse Idol.”
“I responded to the ad and the man that I spoke with asked â€˜What kind of things can your horse do?’”
Steve replied, “I don’t have a horse, I have a mule.”
“A mule?!” the incredulous producer exclaimed.
Whether the show’s producers were convinced by Foster, by divine intervention, or by both, to accept a mule entry, Foster and Gracie were allowed to enter a regional “America’s Ultimate Horse Idol” competition in North Carolina.
After winning the regional competition, Gracie went on to win the national “America’s Ultimate Horse Idol” title in Richmond, Virginia in 2008.
Things really began to take off in Gracie’s media career after that.
Not long after Gracie’s Richmond success, a film agent close to Duvall called Foster.
“Robert Duvall needs a mule for a film that he’s working on,” the agent told Foster. “Can he come down to your place and meet Gracie?”
Duvall, who lives in The Plains, Virginia, drove to Foster’s farm and spent much of the day observing Gracie’s demeanor and skills. Duvall quickly decided that Gracie was the right mule for “Get Low” and not long afterward Foster and Gracie were on the film set in Georgia.
Foster said that while working with Robert Duvall was nothing short of extraordinary and something that he will never forget, there were moments during the movie making experience that both he and Gracie were pushed to their limits.
“During one scene, Gracie comes out of the barn away from Mr. Duvall and she needs to turn to the right,” Foster recounted. “Well, we had shot the scene correctly a half a dozen times but for some reason Gracie turned to the left instead of the right on the last shot. Well, I kinda got frustrated and stepped across the â€˜mark’ that everyone one the set is supposed to stay behind.”
Foster said that the second that he crossed the mark he began hearing the words “Cut! Cut!”
“I knew that I had made a big mistake, but that’s when I felt a hand on my shoulder,” Foster said. “The next thing that I heard was Robert Duvall’s calm voice saying â€˜Don’t worry about it. Just be yourself and everything will work out fine.’”
Foster said that another anxious moment for him was a scene in which Gracie pulls a wagon through town with Robert Duvall himself at the reins.
“Here they were asking for Gracie to pull Robert Duvall in a wagon and Gracie had never pulled a wagon before in her life,” Foster laughed. “Do you think that I wasn’t sweating the whole time?”
In the end, Gracie’s film debut was a success as was the movie release of “Get Low”. The film premiered at the Toronto International Film Festival in early 2010 and is distributed by Sony Pictures Classics. Robert Duvall was awarded the Hollywood Award for Best Actor in October 2010 for his performance.
Although Gracie’s performance did not result in any official recognition from Hollywood critics, like most aspiring actors, her reward for the time being may be just in receiving more acting gigs. In February 2011, Gracie appeared in “Only in America with Larry the Cable Guy” on the History Channel. And her successful acting partnership with Robert Duvall may not be over either. Steve Foster says that he is hopeful that Duvall has at least one more role in mind for Gracie in an upcoming movie.
For now, in between movie roles Gracie and Foster routinely perform for troubled children, at hospital wards for children with cancer and even in jails.
Aside from Gracie’s newfound fame and Foster’s friendship with Robert Duvall, who Foster says that he thinks of as a member of his family, it’s clear that the greatest gift since turning his life around has been the gift of forgiveness that Foster has received from his son and daughter.
“I left my family when my daughter was four years old,” Foster says during a private moment before he and Gracie begin greeting Barns of Rose Hill guests prior to the showing of “Get Low” Wednesday evening.
“I still remember my little girl saying to me â€˜Please stay daddy, don’t leave us,’” Foster says fighting to maintain his composure. Perhaps as much to reassure himself as the reporter that he is speaking with, Foster reaches into the backseat of his truck and pulls out a well-worn three-ring binder filled with handwritten letters on notebook paper, children’s drawings, and photographs.
Foster thumbs through the binder pages until he locates a letter from his now adult daughter and finds a paragraph that he probably has long since memorized but reads anyway.
“Adam and I are so proud to have you as our daddy. We love you very, very much,” Foster recites. “Amazing grace is the only explanation that there is for something like that,” Foster says in a soft voice.