There are few actors as consistently interesting as Ben Foster. In one film he's a tortured pretty boy coming to terms with mutant powers; in another, he's an Iraq War veteran shouldering the responsibility of telling bereaved families about their dead sons and daughters; and in his latest, 'The Mechanic,' he's a troubled 20-something who enlists a seasoned hitman to show him the ropes. What's most compelling about these wildly different characters is not that he attempts to play each of them, but that he pulls it off -- which is why he continues to be one of the most in-demand actors in Hollywood, in films both epic and intimate.
Moviefone sat down with Foster at the recent Los Angeles press day for 'The Mechanic.' While marveling at the oddball interior of the SLS Hotel as he talked about the role, Foster provided some insights into his approach to these different kinds of characters, and offered his thoughts about balancing his own impulses as a performer with the prospect of collaborating with cast and crew members on a movie that they all want to be successful, creatively and commercially.
Moviefone: Before we even see your character, he's described as a guy who tends to go too far. How important is a line of dialogue like that in helping you define the character you're playing?
Ben Foster: Well, we're always fighting exposition, and the first line of action of starting a film is sitting down with a director and saying, "well, we can lose about 40 percent of my words. We really don't need to say all of this." So, it's what's the bare minimum, and I don't know about anybody else but when I'm told everything that I'm interested in experiencing, I'm bored. So it certainly helps set the stage. If I'm like, "hey, you're going to meet my friend – I've known him for 20 years, just don't look at his glass eye and never mention tap dancing," that will inform you, but maybe it's too much and maybe it's too little. So you're constantly kind of just feeling it out.
Why do you think your character has this constant need to be so physical in all of his confrontations? There are oblique references to his relationship with his father, but the movie doesn't fill in all of those details.
Good. I don't even know how to answer the question. We could look at it very simply as the experienced professional that Jason [Statham] plays, and Steve has young man's disease – he feels like he's got a lot to prove and has a lot of unfocused energy. As you said, oblique past relationships and behaviors is far more interesting to me than a character bio. So you do your homework beforehand, and hopefully the essence of that person or the feel of that person is communicated in some way that any audience member will have a different idea about, but in that way one can build their own relationship with this character.
There's a scene, kind of a montage in the film, where your character is reacting to the news that his father has died. What did you need to do to flesh out that nonverbal but very memorable sequence?
It's a very brief bit of action-direction within the script, in which Steve shoots up his house. We knew that there was going to be a gun, and we assumed that he was going to be drinking heavily, because his character was someone who was abusing alcohol, but we didn't really talk about it a whole lot. I asked what I could break and what I couldn't break, because we were working in someone's house, and then just got back to the idea of what does it mean to lose a loved one.
There's a lot going on in his life that he's processing, and music is a great tool, so I asked if I could wear my iPod in the scene and just go and explore the house of my childhood. There are always those moments where you're trying to remember the tone of their voice, trying to remember how they sounded, and you can't and it kills you so maybe you play a really loud song so you don't think any more and it just kills that part of you. Of course there has to be a semblance understanding where a scene is going to go, but the feel of when you're given permission to listen to your gut, you don't know what you're going to do, and Simon [West] was great with us. He gave me room to just work some shit out.
When I saw the movie, I wasn't sure how I felt at the end of the movie, because your character Steve is just trying to get revenge for his father's murder, and Jason's character Arthur stops training him and tries to kill him. When you read a script, how do you think about the sort of choices a movie makes with your character?
[Long pause] It's a very insightful question. There were conversations [about what happens to Steve at the end of the film], and there were lots of conversations about [what happens to Arthur at the end of the film]. You can say your piece, but at the end of the day, our job is not to rewrite the script, it's to feel it. Every role must be defended, and my take may not have the global intention that the filmmakers have, but we collaborate and we find ways to make it work.
There is a healthy, healthy, healthy dose of gun porn in this film, and I know I go to the movies and have a great time with films of this genre. If it leaves you having a feeling and thinking about it afterwards and you're not sure how you felt, but felt that you connected with some of these characters, then it was probably time well spent. It wasn't a wasted evening of going to the pictures, and at the end of the day, it's about having a good time. I go to these movies to say, "holy shit! Wow, did you see that?" and this movie has these tentpole action scenes of violence. But hopefully in between we can fill in the people that are inflicting or that are inflicted upon that they will have a little conversation afterwards, and I can't really ask for much more than that.
After doing a film like 'The Messenger' which you described as a particularly intense process, is a film like this comparatively easier, or do you have to apply the same discipline and focus even to material that is simply meant to entertain?
It's a different kind of platform, to ask question. I wouldn't say it's easier, but what I try to remind myself on every film and ideally on my clear days, is that this is your last day. Not insofar as I need to get in a hot air balloon, have sex with a penguin, and learn how to make a wedding cake, today, for example.
You know, that whole thing.
You know those weekends! Sorry, mom (laughs). But how much time we're allotted, each film is the last film, and there are different difficulties; the stunts were far more difficult than those in 'The Messenger,' and connecting to the physicality of that was a different challenge. Behavior in a human being and your prep work, it's different from job to job, but it satisfies different appetites.
Do you prefer material to which you can personally relate, or is the challenge to relate to any material, regardless how different it is from your experiences?
At the end of the day it's all about connecting – how do you connect to this? And I've never been a hit man in my own personal life, and I certainly didn't prep by picking targets in New Orleans and then taking them out. But if you're willing to put in the time, you can if you allow yourself to relate to just about anything. This world is so strange and doesn't make a whole lot of sense most of the time, or why people do what they do. But that's the job – it's not necessarily saying it out loud, but doing enough prep work or time that allows you to understand things that maybe you ordinarily wouldn't. You don't necessarily get it with this person's circumstances, so it's always coming in as a virgin. And if it works, it hurts.