Ben Foster has been attracting attention for some time thanks to his intense (sometimes even downright unhinged) portrayals in action flicks like X-Men: The Last Stand, 3:10 to Yuma, Hostage, and 30 Days of Night. So his affectingly restrained starring turn (alongside Woody Harrelson) as a young casualty-notification officer in this week’s The Messenger, writer-director Oren Moverman’s heartbreaking portrait of the contemporary American home front, may initially come as a surprise. It shouldn’t: Foster brings a similar degree of intensity to the part, and manages to keep it coiled for most of The Messenger, a gut-wrenchingly powerful work that’s as intense as any war movie. (In fact, it would make a fascinating double bill with Kathryn Bigelow’s The Hurt Locker.) Foster spoke to Vulture on Veterans Day about trying to do justice to America’s soldiers, and about how he tries to find a way to love even the villains he plays.
What kind of research did you do for this role?
We did as much research within the few months we had to prepare as I suppose we could. We went to Walter Reed and spent time with the soldiers there. We went to Arlington. We were invited to touch the wounds of the soldiers. These kids that had been blown up — just terrific, brave human beings. Every soldier in the background in the film is a real soldier that had just returned. We had someone from the casualty-notification office on set every day. I’ve always had a civilian nod of the head to a soldier, but now I have some awareness of how much responsibility and care and respect they need and deserve. When you can share a common vocabulary with these soldiers, and start to understand their experience, it really changes your perspective on war and what it means to return to a world that can be very isolating.
It’s interesting talking to you on Veterans Day. It’s an emotional day today. And here we are talking about sending 40,000 more troops — we have a very big responsibility to these guys. I’m just really concerned that over the past eight years, there’s been a lot of refinement with casualty notifications.
The notification scenes in the film are absolutely harrowing. What was it like shooting those?
Oren created this incredible environment on set. No scenes were rehearsed in the picture. For the notifications, he kept us separate from the people we were notifying. He talked to us separately. We never met them until we were knocking on the door. And these scenes were shot in single takes. There was rarely any coverage. We were encouraged to go off book, and most of all, listen to each other. The drug of it all is getting lost with other actors and forgetting that you’re not performing at someone, that you’re together in it. We’re exposing ourselves with each other. I think that’s what makes Oren Moverman one of the future greats, period. He’s more interested in the messiness of the experience, as am I. So it was kind of a good fit.
I’m impressed with your ability to do so much with relatively little dialogue. So much of what happens in this movie basically happens on your face.
It’s always the space in between the words that interests me: We rarely, in my experience, say what we mean and ask for what we want. One of the first things I do with a director is sit down and go over the script, because I find that one can usually lose about 40 percent of the lines. If you don’t need to say it, don’t say it; feel it.
Does doing a film like this change your attitude at all toward violence and action movies?
It’s funny. I’m doing that exact thing right now. I’m shooting a remake of The Mechanic, which is an old Charles Bronson film about an older assassin who teaches a younger assassin. There’s more consideration, sure, but at the end of the day the morality exists in the approach of the film. We’ve been watching people get eaten by lions for a long, long time. I can’t really stand on a soapbox. It does make you think about the difference between real-life violence and violence for entertainment’s sake. And let’s face it, these days even the news can be taken as entertainment in a very perverse way. It’s a really difficult subject to think about.
I once read that you like to find a way to love every character you do. It’s interesting to hear that, since you’ve played a number of totally vicious, almost psychotic characters.
That’s the exciting part about exploring those darker corners. You open your own morality and find an ability to empathize with that which is horrific and violent and cruel. It becomes about rationalizing and fighting for that person. Everybody needs something. For example Charlie Prince [in 3:10 to Yuma] … if he doesn’t shoot first, he’s going to die. It is the Wild West. He loves his boss more than anything, and will do anything to protect and earn his favor. If this was your father or your best friend, you’d be thinking, “I have to protect this person.” You have to wrap your head around actions which otherwise would seem incomprehensible. The lines of morality get really fuzzy. That’s one of the most exciting things about getting to play in these dark little nightmares.