Ben Foster won’t watch Leave No Trace. It’s not the first time he’s skipped out on watching his own performance, but this time, he thought he might have more of a reason to watch it: Debra Granik’s bracingly vulnerable movie is about a nontraditional family, and Foster is a new dad. “I don’t watch most of them,” he says. “I thought with the birth of my daughter, I’d want to see it, but I think it’ll hurt too much.”
It might. There’s no bad guy looming over every scene in Leave No Trace, but there is a tender sense of tragedy: Will (Foster) is a veteran with PTSD, who has chosen to raise his daughter Tom (newcomer Thomasin Harcourt McKenzie) off the grid entirely, living in tents pitched in a national park. When Tom is spotted, the two-person family is taken into custody, and reentered into the normal world of regular houses and neighborhoods and schooling. Will bucks under the pressure as Tom begins to adapt. “I read the script, and I just started crying reading it,” Foster says. “That’s very unusual for me, I don’t tend to get that rocked. But I had just found out that my wife [Laura Prepon] was gonna have a daughter soon. She and I had already been talking about being parents.” Foster talked to Vulture about being a new dad, and braving Granik’s cinematic wilderness.
How did becoming a father change the way you thought about the script, and how you approached the Will character?
Well, it was through the lens of the expectation of [my daughter’s] arrival. The weight of these questions, and the allotted time to ask them, was very focused and intense. It’s rare that one’s own life and work have a coherence and play off each other in that way. I’d go to work and say good-bye to my daughter in the forest, and come home and put my hands on my wife’s belly and feel these kicks. It was a very potent time.
What did you learn about yourself, as a parent or as a father?
It’s the most distilling experience, because your bullshit just doesn’t fly anymore. You have to get up every day, because there is someone that is much more important than you. And it’s what every parent says: I believe it changes you. I think it kind of scrubs away a lot of your — a lot of my — nonsense.
Did you think about your own parents differently?
Oh my God. I’ve never thanked them and apologized more in my life: “I’m so sorry I didn’t get what you were doing! You were amazing, I was so lucky to have you! Thank you, I’m so sorry, I’m so sorry.” May my daughter not take 37 years to figure this out. Man. Yeah, are you close with your folks, or siblings?
I’m really close to my parents. I gave a version of that apology after I saw the Greta Gerwig movie, Lady Bird. But it sounds like what you’re saying is on a much grander scale, with being a new parent.
But just being able to acknowledge that those that came before us and made the space for us to be, and do the best that they could is … whew.
I think that’s what we get from your character in Leave No Trace. He’s really doing the best he can, and trying to fit in for his daughter, but both have to realize that it’s not working, and they have to separate. Can you tell me about how you approached that as an actor?
Well, the script was pretty clear about the trajectory of what was happening. And we shot in order, which is unusual, and very helpful for being on our side of the camera. Just experiencing it progressively. I know at some point every parent has to let go. And I imagine that’s very hard for someone you love.
We don’t know much about Will’s history, but he was a soldier and is suffering severe PTSD. You’ve played soldiers before, so I’m curious how that impacted your preparation for this.
I’ve had the opportunity, in researching other jobs, to get familiar and become friends with some men and women who’ve served and returned, and struggled with reentry. I did Rampart, but that character’s homelessness was different, and this isn’t an addiction story in that way.
There is a sense of struggling with being out of service. I suppose the conversations that I’ve had with my friends over the years have kind of informed some of the difficulties and the traumas that one has to keep dealing with, unless they find the healing and help they need. He’s slipped through the cracks. Will has slipped through the cracks.
Your performance is so silent, and you’re saying so much with your face. It’s really emotional. Was that something you were particularly conscious of?
This movie, in particular, yeah. When you just read the script over and over again, patterns start showing up — maybe they’re your patterns, maybe they are in the script. When I read the line, “Is it a want, or is it a need?” that Tom asks her father about a chocolate bar. “Is it a want or is it a need?” It became very important, like a key for me into understanding who this guy was.
I brought that line back to Debra, and I said, “Let’s look at the script through that lens. If he doesn’t need to say it, he shouldn’t. So let’s just go through every scene, every line, and ask that question.” What we found was that we could say a lot less. So she and I just took a red pen and started crossing out lines. If you let him just do the physical thing, if I can just learn the physical thing, own that skill, and you put a camera on it, it will tell the story. I don’t need to explain it. We don’t need to talk about backstory about wife — we don’t need to. We can say a lot less.
How was the wilderness training for you? I heard that’s when you and Thomasin first met.
Yeah, we met there. To Debra’s credit, we didn’t do a traditional rehearsal. That is definitely up my alley, just avoiding that, and doing your own prep work. I came in early, trained with these wonderful teachers about wilderness appreciation and survivalism, and took some of those skills to teach Thom myself. That created a really nice shorthand bond, where we could just go make a fire together, or go collect branches for a shelter. Just really basic things created, I think, a safety, and a shorthand together that was lovely.
Did you have an outdoorsy childhood?
Not like Will, but I did grow up in Iowa, where I spent a lot of time outdoors.
This was extreme, though, and it was great. If anybody’s like, What should we do this weekend, go to the woods. Take a private lesson of wilderness appreciation. It gives you a sense of confidence and appreciation, where you can start reading what the birds are saying. It’s a language. They’re the gossips of the forest. They’ll tell you when there’s something coming. It’s like waking up. You just tune into your space, and that feels wonderful.
Retreating into nature feels like an artistic movement right now — Kanye and Justin Timberlake have booth chosen more rural settings.
Returning. I like that.
Yeah. We’re so stuck in our machines that we’re all craving, I think, something eternal.
Debra noted in an interview that there’s no traditional villain in this movie partly in response to Trump’s election. Did you share the same thinking about this lack of traditional bad guy?
Although it’s a difficult film emotionally, it is a hopeful one. And it is celebrating that these are really scary times. Really scary, in every which way. I had no technology in the woods, and I found that it didn’t take much work to wind myself up if I just looked at my phone and read the news.
It’s nice when you can watch somebody ask for help, and someone lends a hand. When I read this script, every page, I’m like, Someone’s getting raped, someone’s getting shot, Someone’s getting into addiction, something’s gonna happen. And none of it does. Instead, it’s just, Someone gives you a ride, someone gives you some food. I think it’s very optimistic. That’s the spoiler of the movie.
This interview has been edited and condensed for clarity.