Chances are if you know Ben Foster by name, it's because his characters – and indeed, his performances – are almost unforgettable: Spacker Dave, a pierced and perforated neighbor to Frank Castle, a/k/a The Punisher; Mars Krupcheck, a homicidal teenage home invader in Hostage; Russell Corwin, a troubled artist on Six Feet Under; Jake Mazursky, a fearless, mercurial older brother looking for his sibling in Alpha Dog; and Charlie Prince, a sociopathic bounty hunter in 3:10 to Yuma. Add another role to that growing list: The Messenger's Staff Sergeant Will Montgomery, a soldier assigned to notify parents and loved ones that their sons, daughters, husbands and wives were killed in the line of duty.
Foster gives the performance of an already-impressive career as the tortured young soldier, turning his own tightly-wound on screen persona into a portrait of a man trying to come to terms with his own life through announcing the deaths of others. Cinematical recently spoke to Foster via telephone about Montgomery and his participation in The Messenger; in addition to talking about his collaboration with fellow cast and crew members, Foster reflected on the kinds of roles he tends to tackle, and talked about the process of creating such memorable performances in one film after another.
Cinematical: Where did you see this guy at the beginning of the movie, and where did you want him to sort of end up?
Ben Foster: That's a tricky question. Um, it was such a beautiful script that Oren [Moverman] and Alessandro [Camon] wrote and I suppose when I read something that I know I have do it is it feels there's a connection that's just below the intellect. It's not saying that I get this entirely or I have an experience that I can connect to immediately, but I suppose we've all felt isolated from the world around us. And just wanting to honor this person. Where we take him at the end, I don't know; I don't know how to answer that. I suppose it wasn't so much wanting to show this guy in a light [because] if I approach a person or a character like that, it always feels hollow; it was more approaching a question than a result, and that question was how do we deal with grief? How do we deal with losing loved ones, this inevitable experience of being a human animal, when we lose the people closest to us at some point and we still have to get up and do laundry and make dinner for our family and we have to remember, how do we connect again? And I suppose asking that question, film is an incredible vehicle to meditate on a question and do it in a collaborative way. So I don't know if there was an analytical approach to where I wanted to bring him. It was just experiencing this question day in and day out and the necessity for getting back to life after we've lost the things that were most important to us and finding a reason to celebrate this very brief time that we have.
Cinematical: At the beginning of the film he's able to be amazingly candid with this girl he's involved with, but not like they were before he left for war. As we're introduced to him, do you feel like he's stewing in all of these feelings he has, or is he just completely unaware of them? Or how did you sort of look at him at the beginning of the film when he is assigned to this unit which will force him to be confronted with those feelings perhaps on a literal daily basis?
Foster: Well, it's tricky (laughs). It's really complicated. Uh, when you've been away a while and had a romance of any sort, there's hopefully going to be the ability to be frank with each other. Unfortunately, frankness can move to a kind of callousness, and that's sort of a front that they're both playing; she's playing her part in the relationship, being interested and supportive and present, but she's heartbroken too and she's still hurt that he let her go, which we find out later – that he's gone off to serve and she should live her life. Being let go of and feeling not to be the most important thing in that person's life, that's crushing, so we find ways of hurting people to let them know how much they mean to us. He's trying to be a man, he's trying to be okay with everything, he's trying to function, and these petty little cruelties that we do, the harsh words that we use and the physicality that we speak with, he wants to be okay. He wants to just be alright with everything and just move through, everything's great, life's my f*cking oyster, you can't hurt me any more, I've been hurt too much. But those are all lies; those are the lies we tell ourselves to get through the day.
Cinematical: How much of the film was shot in sequence and how much had to be moved around?
Foster: We jumped around quite a bit. The first scene that we shot was the notification scene for Steve Buscemi's character. The first shot of the movie, first day, and the notifications being single shots without rehearsal, it was a real dive. But we jumped around quite a bit. But I don't remember it that way; Oren had to remind me, but it felt like a fluid experience.
Cinematical: How much of the dialogue was written or what you said predetermined?
Foster: The script was written, the scenes were written, the text of the script that the Army provides the notifiers is in stone, but we were all encouraged to go off book and listen to each other. The blocking was you walk on this path and you knock on the door and you listen to each other, and Oren sent the crew away so he could shoot in 360 degrees. People make a big deal out of these, I guess you call them improves, the physicality of the violence – a slap, a push, spit, you know – and it's no more devastating than looking in someone's eyes who's not performing at you but with you, and everybody came to work very brave.
Cinematical: The reason I ask is because there's a really powerful moment in that notification scene where he says, "why aren't you dead?" and we learn later that your character has reason to ask himself that question. Was that in the script or was that a sort of happy accident that connected later as you were filming?
Foster: That particular line was written. You read a script a thousand times and these images and these patterns and connections reveal themselves, but maybe the writers didn't intend... with Oren and Alessandro, we're dealing with two incredibly intelligent and sensitive people who really gave us a strong world to play in.
Cinematical: Was it easy to be surprised then? Even if you weren't quite aware of what was actually going to happen in the moment, because they were so well thought-out, was it tougher or easier to be surprised once you got into a scene and were talking to these people and notifying them?
Foster: Every day I was shocked – beyond shocked. The kind of intelligence that went into this script isn't the kind that trips you up, it's the kind that releases you. It allows you to feel. It's not 'how do I do this scene?' The words fall out and then you're there.
Cinematical: What's your normal process, if you have one, of getting inside a character? Do you spend a lot of time preparing or do you prefer to try and be present in each moment?
Foster: Everybody will approach it differently and different material and a level of play will inform the kind of prep required or I suppose I feel is required. But I'm always much more comfortable speaking to people if there is the luxury of speaking to somebody who has had a similar experience, and if not being able to speak to them then reading up on the subject and watching as many documentaries [as possible]. Basically pulling in as much information as possible to sit with, and then let go of. I'd rather not think about it when I'm on set; prep time isn't the time to digest this world. Reading extensively, talking to people, asking yourself questions, writing down your experiences in journal form, it's really whatever gets you there, but walking gets it back into the body and at some point you have to stop researching and experience [things]. Intellectualizing things, just for myself, only goes so far, and then it becomes a trap, so laying an information web and then letting it go is the muscles that we keep, I suppose exercising with each job. Building it up to let it burn out.
Cinematical: These two guys both narcotize themselves against the emotional impact of doing the job, but each of them has his own anxieties about himself and his role as a soldier. Was it easy to fall into a sense of camaraderie and yet contentiousness with one another? And then was it easy to shed that once the cameras were turned off?
Foster: Contention was difficult. Woody [Harrelson] was so dedicated and sacrificed a lot to do this little film, and he really did the work and was humble. Being able to ask these questions every day on set, there was certainly a lot of tears in between takes and a ridiculous amount of horseplay after work. Doing press for this picture has been really hard; they're like, "so, what did you do?" and you can't really say legally. You know, you've got to shake out the ghosts. He was a brother and so humble to the material and those that we were trying to serve, as was everyone. I mean, Jena Malone is such an exquisite actor and came in for virtually two scenes, three scenes. Samantha Morton, who is a lighthouse. Everybody just showed up and it's easier to lay yourself bare when you know that this is happening every single day. So contention, there were some moments on set when it was difficult for me and Woody to I guess disagree, and you do what you've got to do and you find your ways; you find your way into those doors, so you're not faking it.
Cinematical: Were you surprised to discover art imitating life with you needing an escape after work in a similar way that the characters did?
Foster: I don't know. The magic of the drug of it is when the lines start to bleed. Some people are able to turn it off at the end of the day, have a glass of wine and have a nice chat, but it's difficult to shake entirely so keeping it in essence with you, it has never been much of a choice, and Woody was going really far so I know he was working through a lot. I mean, when you spend two months asking these kinds of questions night and day, it stays with you and you've got to do your own work for your own life, and hopefully those lines bleed. Hopefully there's a catharsis through filming.
Cinematical: You seem to have a tendency to play characters who are very tightly wound. Is it easy to get into that mindset or that's something you enjoy, or do you just find that people seem to recruit you for that kind of material as opposed to the lead in a romantic comedy?
Foster: Well, I'm interested in drama, and that isn't to say that- God, man, I'm looking for a romantic comedy (laughs). What people want to hire me for, it depends on the season; everybody likes to file you away. When I did Six Feet Under, all I was getting was interest in playing gay or bisexual artist-types. When I did Alpha Dog and a few years later I did 3:10 To Yuma, they just wanted me to play serial killers. I don't know. It's really what crosses my desk when I feel that I can get back to work. If it feels right and the people feel right [to work with] and the questions feel right that I ask with the other players. But I don't know if it's easy; I'm sure I should think a little harder about it.
Cinematical: What did you hope to accomplish, artistically or personally, when taking on this story?
Foster: Uh, Oren's direction was rooted in empathy, not in a place of lecturing the audience, and my hope is that we collectively did enough homework and bared ourselves enough where the soldiers and families and friends of soldiers don't feel like we're lying to them, and they get our intentions that these are human beings. These are boys and girls, these are husbands and wives who are going out to serve a complicated war, and beyond all of the politics, beneath all of the chatter and the news and opinions, these are human beings. Let them know that we care about them and we're thinking about them and we're grateful for their sacrifice, even if we don't agree with what's going on. I hope most that the people who see this film who are not a part of the army or the military world, the civilian world, has a little more empathy for soldiers and how we have to take better care of them. So, empathy.