Ben Foster is the Messenger

Posted on 11. Dec, 2009 by Administrator in Film/TV, Profiles

One wouldn’t have necessarily been able to predict it based on his rakish, smirky turn in Barry Levinson’s 1999 coming-of-age dramedy Liberty Heights, but courtesy of roles in films like 3:10 to Yuma, Hostage, Alpha Dog, and 30 Days of Night, Ben Foster has evolved into his generation’s go-to guy for a brooding, disarmingly packaged menace. Meeting him in person, it’s easy to see why; he has the same piercing eyes, and not much of a need to please. Foster, who recently moved to New York, has a well-chronicled affinity for meditation, and a perhaps less well known appreciation of tattoos, which he characterizes as “body mapping.”

He also has a moving new film, Oren Moverman’s The Messenger that underscores the fact that the psychological tolls of war don’t expire at our borders. Foster stars as Staff Sgt. Will Montgomery, who returns from a tour in Iraq, wounded and medal-honored, to find out that for the remaining three months of his enlistment, he’s been assigned to the Army’s casualty notification unit under Captain Tony Stone (Woody Harrelson). After breaking news of death to various next of kin and at first clashing and then bonding with his superior officer, Will develops a delicate bond with a new widow (Samantha Morton).

On loan from filming a remake of Charles Bronson’s The Mechanic, which he describes as “good, old-fashioned assassin entertainment,” opposite Jason Statham, Foster is an uncommonly thoughtful and intelligent, if reserved, interview subject.

Ben Foster and Director Oren Moverman

h: Part of the movie deals with the absurdity — perhaps a necessary absurdity, but an absurdity nonetheless — of having a manual to coach extremely specific protocol on delivering news to next of kin.

Ben Foster: We had the guy who was head of the U.S. Casualty Notification Office for two years on set every day. He had done many [notifications] himself, and ran the machinery of the death brigade for the entire country, so in terms of procedure it was well studied. You know you’re delivering the worst news of that person’s life, and we all receive news in different ways.

h: Was there a lot of prep time on the movie?

BF: I went down eight weeks early to work with Oren in New York, and six weeks out we went down to Walter Reed [Army Medical Center]. Oren is so sensitive and attuned to the qualities of love, and how clumsy we can be in trying to deal with one another. And he doesn’t approach these frailties of the heart with cynicism, but with compassion. We’d sit and talk about fathers, those that we’d lost, and meet soldiers along the way. I moved into the apartment that Will lives in, just to get used to the light switches, get my stink in there — this anonymous sand wasteland, this middle ground, this purgatory of sorts. I slept in my fatigues and walked every night for about two months. Walking gets me out of my own head and into the body, and the body is what reacts with the phenomenology of experience. We become open to our senses when we get of our heads.

h: Owing to the nature of what got us into the war in Iraq, do you think movies that deal with the war even secondarily are an extra tough sell?

BF: It’s a difficult subject, but one of the reasons I was drawn to it is that it doesn’t lecture, it doesn’t push one political view. It really gives a human voice and face to the American soldier.

h: Mysteriously, a single loafer gets delivered to our hotel suite, with the explanation that it is Woody Harrelson’s shoe, previously lost and now found.] So what were your impressions of Woody?

BF: I was a huge fan. A lot of names were suggested, and when his name came up it just clicked. Upon meeting him, he’s everything you hoped he’d be. He’s got a brilliant mind, a wicked sense of humor, he’s very well informed — and he’s maintained that dangerous yet childlike quality. He’s a brother, and his performance in this film is such a knockout.

h: You had great things to say about Oren. What’s the difference between good and bad directors?

BF: (pause) Too much talk on set. It’s like race car driving. If you’re working a tuned car and ripping the gears all around, it’s going to mess up the car. I think secrets are great. I don’t like to know what other actors are doing. I’m not fond of rehearsal, but rather people who are interested in being in the moment and finding that thing. It’s not about the freedom to let Ben do whatever he wants, but instead just how does the coherence of the scene reveal itself today?

-Brent Simon

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