Ben Foster is often regarded one of the best actors of his generation. In films like Alpha Dog, The Messenger and Hell or High Water (for which he won the 2017 Film Independent Spirit Award for Supporting Male), intense, thoughtful and deeply rooted characters are his bread and butter.
In the universally acclaimed Leave No Trace, from Academy Award-nominated director Debra Granik (Winter’s Bone), Foster brings depth and warmth to a soldier damaged by PTSD trying to desperately to raise his daughter alone and in the wilderness off the grid. The timing of this role happened to align with his wife, Orange is the New Black‘s Laura Prepon, pregnant with their first child.
I talked with Screen Actors Guild-winning actor about his early inspirations, working with Debra Granik and newcomer Thomasin McKenzie and where he finds the motivation to play his wildly diverse roles.
AW: You started out acting at a pretty young age. What was your initial draw to it?
BF: Well, I was a fan first. So seeing school plays, and my parents are both cinephiles so, but watching school plays, I saw Midsummer’s and was so taken by it. I was probably about eight or so and felt like this was a holy place, that these stories could be told and I wanted to be a part of that feeling, you know, and it never stopped.
Did you have any big influences growing up influences, like actors that you admired the most?
Well, Bugs Bunny. I still returned to him. Peter Sellers. My dad was a huge Dr. Strangelove fan and he kept making me watch it and I didn’t get it, I was too young to get it, but he would just cry laughing and slowly I, well, one grows up and the more I’d see it the more I could appreciate it and understanding that that person could be all those people was mind blowing. It is mind blowing.
How did Leave No Trace find its way to you and what was it like working with Debra Granik?
It came about through normal avenues. I got emailed the script and I was a fan of Debra’s earlier work, Down to the Bone in particular, what she did with Vera [Farmiga] I thought it was astounding, and Stray Dog her documentary about a vet and I was well aware that she doesn’t make films often and I was to read it quickly because it was a hot property. I read it and was so taken and it coincided with the news that my wife and I were going to have a daughter shortly thereafter, so I came to the project as a fan and quite tenderized to the questions of being a parent.
Did you approach this differently, your impending daughter on the way, as you would with something else?
I approached it as openhearted. It’s unavoidable, you know, and asa man or as a hu-man, anticipating the birth of a child, you’re thinking…you can’t help but futurize. So coming to work every day and looking into the eyes of a wonderful actor and human [co-star Thomasin McKenzie] and then to go home at night where my wife was deep into her second trimester and feeling our daughter kick through her belly, I just felt taken by the experience. The prepis normal in the way that you go learn the thing that you’re doing, I tend to find that way works best for me. And this was learning about primitive skills and owning that with an open heart.
I would say that it was the easiest experience emotionally, but one that I greeted with clear eyes. It’s the entrance of our daughter and the exit of another.
It seems like it was a perfect convergence of time and place for you.
It felt very aligned.
I’m an enormous fan of the film. I saw it with my mother and I couldn’t leave my seat after it was done. I was just so emotionally invested. We went to the lobby and I tried to start talking about it and, I do this for a living and I couldn’t, I was just breaking down. It’s a really special film.
That’s so beautiful to hear. You hope that things can land and sometimes they do and sometimes they don’t land always the way that one hopes. I’m really touched to hear that this is how it affected you and seeing it with your mom, how lovely.
I mean, all I wanted to do was just hug her.
Yes. I feel the same, felt the same every day since the birth of, well, not just since the birth, in the anticipation of it. Considering what does it mean and what were those sacrifices they made and maybe we held resentments that were unfounded, but my appreciation since making the film, which allowed me the opportunity to imagine being a parent has cracked open my heart to my parents in ways that I’m just bowled over by them and just want to hug them.
I think that’s the power of something that can transcend just being celluloid or video.
Yes. Story, people, being.
And like you said, Debra Granik doesn’t make movies that often, but when she does, this is what it is.
She said something to me early on, she said, ‘I’m really interested in how people get up in the morning, like how people get up and I admire people being a human being, getting up and doing it in their particular way.’ I thought that was a beautiful way to think about the film and how she likes to approach work as well. So that felt very. I’m in line. Yeah. It didn’t sound like that too.
Did you do any specific prep work for this, talking to men with PTSD and what living off the grid was like?
Yeah, we had a great teacher, a wonderful teacher, Dr. Nicole Apelian in Portland who teaches tribal primitive skills and it was important to me in our prep process to that I wanted to be able to do everything practically.
So it was important to me that I build our camp, know how to make a rain catchment, dig a fire pit. These were new skills and that’s the exciting part of the job; learning these things and doing them over and over to the point where they become instinctual. When the camera’s rolling you don’t have to cut, you might want to (laughs), but that was exciting to learn those basic skills and it makes you nature legible in a way. So my appreciation level of a natural environment made me feel a bit more grounded, and grateful and confident. It’s an interesting confidence that if you know how to do some basic things and it doesn’t take long to learn, just a sense of being, there a is a calmness that comes with that and value.
I think that comes across in the performances, which is what makes it so palpable for a viewer.
It’s great, if I can do my homework, then I don’t have to think about it and if I don’t have to think about it, the audience can feel it.
How was Thomasin Mackenize as a co-star? She’s going to have huge career after this.
She’s extraordinary. Truly, she’s got a big light inside her and she was a joy to work with. Absolutely. A joy to work with. Yeah. Oh yeah. She was wonderful. So present.
Congratulations on both of your Gotham nominations too.
Oh, thanks! It’s nice when people like the thing, and it’s really nice that people want to talk about it. And as you well know, there, there are some things that you kind of have to talk about that maybe it doesn’t move one, but this one is different. So that feels good.
Do you have much of a methodology for getting into your characters and does that change with each part?
In terms of what we just touched on, if there’s a skill involved or the person is in a world that lends itself to learn is what keeps me alive and work and excited to say how does that work and how do you get up in the morning? So finding people that have lived similar lives or comparable, authorities on a subject that I’m going to be representing, I like to be able to own in my body whatever physical behavior is there in order so I can forget and just experience the narrative the in present time with my costars.
So I’d say the methodology is just learn the thing. And this was the primitive skills nature thing.
Do you approach something differently like X-Men or Warcraft and then that you do with something like Leave No Trace?
Well, I would say that I was very interested in angel magic when we were doing X-Men and I had done quite a bit of prep. What does it mean to fly? How do you fly? So I’d get on boats and I get to the very front of the boat and I just ask people to drive the boat around. We’d go on picnics, but I’d be out front and just like ‘what does the wind feel like?’
So that’s a tactile experience. For how much that translates into the film, I won’t say; some translate, some don’t; some of the quieter homework elements that kind of draw you in. In terms of the other one you mentioned, working with Duncan was exciting. The curious element of that would be a line in the script that says ‘and then he casts a spell’, and these are things you do in prep where you’re saying, okay, well how do we do that? And I would say, ‘Duncan, how do you do that?’ We both kind of just looked at our feet. Like, whose department is to make magic? (laughs)
So I recruited Terry Notary, who was just a wonderful physical coach and actor on our piece for the MOCAP [motion capture] guys. And I said, ‘Well, take me to the parking lot and teach me some magic.’ He said, ‘What do you mean?’ I said, ‘We gotta make some spells, man!’ So that was fun. So then we just played with gestural elements and then brought in the effects crew and those are bigger, you know, to do’s and it’s art by committee and sometimes it can really translate and other times it doesn’t necessarily, it can be diluted a little bit.
On Leave No Trace, Debra was very supportive of the physical stuff. Some of my magic might’ve been on the cutting room floor. (laughs)
I don’t know, making fire has a certain element of magic to it.
That’s real magic brother, the real thing. Fire is life.
One last question: you have a directorial debut and development. Is there anything you can talk about that?
I’m incredibly superstitious with these getting, so what I hope to do is talk to you in a couple months once the financing and casting lands, but I’m, I’m hoping, I’m hoping things, um, are ever moving forward.
Then I’m hoping for that myself.
Cool man. Thanks for sharing your experience with the film and you know, I do a lot, you know, we do this for living, right? We talked but I heard you and I’m grateful you shared that with me.
I’m grateful that it exists so I appreciate it.
Thank you so much. I appreciate you. Be well to have a good day.
Thanks, Ben, take care.