Twenty Minutes with Ben Foster

In 1999 I caught Liberty Heights, a sweet coming of age film from Barry Levinson. Co-starring with Joe Mantegna and Adrien Brody was Ben Foster, a complete unknown. Foster was a fresh-faced kid who acquitted himself well. I thought he might have a future in shy, sensitive roles, maybe as a leading man in romantic comedies.

Foster did have a promising future, but far different from what Iíd anticipated. Foster has specialized in dark, mysterious, edgy roles. Heís probably best known for his turn as Russell, the talented but creepy art student in HBOís ďSix Feet Under.Ē Foster has played villains in Hostage and Alpha Dog. His one notable exception of late was Angel in X Men 3: The Last Stand.

Fosterís latest is 3:10 to Yuma, director James Mangoldís (Walk the Line) remake of the 1957 Western. Russell Crowe stars as Ben Wade, a legendary outlaw captured after a robbery. Christian Bale plays Dan Evans, a down-on-his-luck farmer who agrees to bring Wade to a train to the court in Yuma. During the treacherous journey Evans must stay a step ahead of not only Wade but Wadeís gang, which is determined to get their leader back. Peter Fonda portrays a grizzled bounty hunter who has long been on Wadeís trail.

Foster is Charlie Prince, Wadeís ruthless right-hand man who leads the charge to free Wade from the law. Foster glowers with menace as a man who would just as soon kill you as talk to you. He more than holds his own with his accomplished co-stars.

A few weeks ago Foster sat down for a discussion about his new film and his career.

Question: Do you have one question you keep hearing every time?
Ben Foster: ďWhat was it like to work with Russell and did he throw a phone at me?Ē (Laughs)
Adam Spector: OK, Iíll cross that one off. (Laughs)
BF: Russell was actually incredible to work with. I mean, startlingly so... I did not know how to ride a horse. After reading the script a few times you begin to realize you are going to be on a horse (for) most of the film. So I had to learn... I donít know if you guys know this, but he (Crowe) has a ranch in Australia. He has a sh-tload of cattle. Heís a horseman for sure, so he would always take me out riding.

Q: After Alpha Dog and Hostage you had three roles where you were cast in a pretty similar role but you played them all pretty differently. Heís (Prince) much more quiet than Mazursky or Krupcheck (Fosterís Alpha Dog and Hostage roles). Was this intentionally different from the previous roles or was it more how you saw this character?
BF: I mean itís just how I am... You just go on your first instinct, your first impression when you read a script. I forget who said this, itís a metaphor that makes sense to me. The first time you read a script you have a very light outline of a photograph and you read it a hundred times and ideally it becomes clearer and clearer. But you have to honor that first impression and that first impression was these are men of very few words. Their actions speak louder than their words. And it was finding his (Charlie Princesís) physicality and what his heart was after. Itís really like getting out of the way so his voice can show up. So if you construct performances they just feel like a piece of poorly made furniture. The drug is making enough room inside for him to show up rather than going the other way and trying to make him.

Q: I want to know if youíre afraid of getting typecast, after the last three movies.
BF: I love those movies, but for me itís about the script, if itís got meat on the bone. If thereís a romantic comedy thatís well written, and isnít just about getting kicked in the balls and falling in swimming pools, it would be something fun to pursue. But Iím not worried about it. I donít feel that Iíve been the same guy. You know it doesnít matter what job you have or what actor. If a film is a massive success everybodyís going to refer to that.

AS: One of the things that struck me about Charlie is that heís devoted to Ben so much that it's beyond just loyalty. It almost seems that Ben is a father figure. At one point Charlie could have had the gang all to himself. Instead he goes back for Ben. Why do you think Charlie cares about Ben as much as he does?
BF: I guess whatís most important is to know that itís real. I guess I get a bit uncomfortable talking about backstory that doesnít show up. The same thing with DVD commentary. I love DVD commentary but it leaves a nasty taste in my mouth because itís not in the film.

AS: Let me switch gears then. In the press notes [producer] Cathy Konrad credits you for bringing a vulnerability to Charlie that wasnít necessarily on the page. Is that something you were going for or is that something that came out as you were doing it?
BF: If youíre willing to risk your life and everything for one person, one has to have a big space inside, regardless of your actions. So, yeah if we look at the matter that you brought up about father-son figure and I wonít even necessarily say that thatís what Charlie and Ben have... Whatever need there is, thereís a union thatís important.

Q: I read that when you played in Alpha Dog, [director] Nick Cassavetes told you that your character was like a fast car that doesnít handle well. So if you could sum up Charlie Prince in a similar kind of way...
BF: When I met with Jim, heíd been going through archival photographs for a long time. I was in New Zealand at the time. So I went through any book that I could get, which was surprising how many books on the American West there are in New Zealand. I just was going through as many photographs as possible, just trying to get a feel for it. All of the photographs that I looked at of outlaws, they were really flashy dressers. Fops and dandies ... there was a rock and roll aspect to it which made sense--they were desert pirates. Thereís got to be great joy or pleasure in the performance of taking someoneís life. Because every action you have in life, that we live, is with death in mind. Who weíre going to marry, who weíre going to date. If youíre going to stay at this job. ďI donít want to spend the rest of my life doing this.Ē Everything has to do with mortality. So if mortality is in fact that close to everything that you do every day, and youíre somehow skating by it, it has to feel very empowering. If youíre pursuing that life there has to be a great sense of freedom. So if I was to describe Charlie, the three influences that made sense to me was heís a glam rock mountain cat matador.

AS: Did Mangold give you much direction for the character? It seems like you put a lot of your own work into it. Did he let you figure it out for yourself?
BF: We were pretty much on the same page. Iím sure itís like writing an article. You can do certain things, you can pursue a direction and then you can bring it to your editor. And theyíre like ďLook, we want to do this angle. Youíre totally wrong.Ē He (Mangold) was very encouraging to pursue this frequency. It just felt right. It wasnít something where you read a script and go ďWell, thatís who he is.Ē Itís looking at the rock and roll aspect of it, which took me to glam, which has kind of a feminine graceful quality that also has a sense of royalty which makes sense for the name Prince, Charlie Prince. Heís the prince beneath the king. And at least in terms of how we learn as children, or as young people how we develop our characters, we look at our environment and we imitate. We imitate sounds and actions and thatís how we become. So if heís a predator, what are the predators? You have tarantulas, you have rattlesnakes. He seemed like a cat. So I watched a lot of cat documentaries. You study how they move and try to find that internal predator, I suppose. In the script he (Charlie) has two Scofields. When I got my hands on these massive guns, just these massive pieces of metal, heís like a samurai or a matador. These felt almost to me like swords. Images work for me, pictures. I always have a binder and I take from paintings, photographs. I draw. Itís all kind of a conjuring . These are the rituals that you do to make enough room for these guys to show up. Thereís a gravity to images and music so rather than intellectualizing you go ďCats are interesting.Ē I donít want to overthink it, but it feels right. And if youíve listened to these whispers, as psychotic as they may seem at first (laughs) ideally that shows up and you can get out of the way and he can experience through you. Mediumistic channeling, thatís the drug ... when youíre not thinking at all.

Q: How did you get the part? Did they offer it to you? Did you have to audition?
BF: I auditioned. I was in New Zealand. I was back for a day, I was jet lagged, just gotten off a plane, was out of my mind, starving, and I just wanted to go home... I had to get on a plane the next day to New Zealand. And they said ďYou have to go in today.Ē I said no. ďNo, I donít care. I donít want to audition. I donít want to be another person right now. I want to go home, eat barbecue, and sleep, period.Ē And they said ďYou have toĒ and hung up on me. I was an hour late to the meeting, stuck in traffic, just miserable LA traffic. So I got to the meeting, I couldnít find parking. I was in the worst fucking mood. Just a feral human being. I shouldnít have been around people. So what I brought into the room, thatís who came in. (Laughs)

Q: Really set you up for the character well.
BF: It worked out ... and the next day I got a phone call before getting on the plane back to New Zealand saying ďOK once youíre done in New Zealand youíre going to get on a plane and go to New Mexico.Ē So it was really about working backwards, finding that exhausted, hungry and horny mindset and, I suppose, decorating or exploring more specific avenues with the other things we talked about.

AS: You mentioned when we started how much Russell Crowe helped you. Both Crowe and Christian Bale, besides being known as movie stars are known for being intense, driven actors. Was that your experience? If so, how did that impact you and the rest of the cast?
BF: I donít know about the rest of the cast. They seemed to all get along. Christian is lovely. Heís just a lovely guy, a quiet family man. Very focused, very dedicated to what he does. It shows up on screen. Heís one of the finest we have. And Russell has an enormous presence. Heís one of the great actors we have. And that doesnít just come from being intense. It comes from a great sensitivity and insight and intuition. Heís extraordinary to work with. It makes sense. I mean I understand, man, if somebodyís talking a lot of sh-t on set or making a bunch of noise talking about stupid stuff. I donít want to hear that. You want a quiet set. You want an environment which allows these people to exist, because theyíre not you... Itís not Russell Crowe as a sociopath, itís Ben Wade. When you have a lot of racket on set, itís very difficult to allow an authentic exchange to take place. But he (Crowe) was nothing but fantastic with the crew. He doesnít care who you are or what you do. If youíre dedicated to what you do and you work hard at it, and youíve got a good attitude, great.

AS: You and Fonda discussed yesterday [at the audience Q&A, see below] how cold and brutal it was during the filming. You said that the elements helped you get into the story. How did that work out? How did those conditions help play into what you did on the set?
BF: Well, pain is a great motivator. It heightens your senses. You become very present... weíre not on a sound stage. Weíre not dealing with foam mountains or fake cactus. Weíre in it. This is the territory. Itís such a severe landscape. The weather was so fierce that youíre either gonna complain about it or youíre going to absorb it and become part of it. And you have to ask yourself when youíre on the horse and the windís blowing... ďIím cold and I want to go back to my room.Ē Well, thatís not what these guys are doing and you have to honor the people that youíre playing. Itís not about your comfort, itís about honoring the character. If youíre putting your ego into it then that little gap is whatís gonna make or break a performance. It may be good and well crafted, but itís not going to sing, itís not going to wail. And I think the wailing, when itís beyond logic... just as an audience member, when itís beyond logic and it hits you and you experience that person as your own. You have to destroy your ego. So weather is quite welcome.

Q: What do you have coming up?
BF: I have a small, cameo thing in 30 Days of Night, which is a vampire flick, which is fun. The director, David Slade, did Hard Candy and I just love him. Heís wonderful, interesting, and bizarre. But I should be going to Belfast, Ireland pretty soon to shoot a film about the IRA called 50 Dead Men Walking. So that should be interesting. Yeah, I donít think Iím going to do anything more. (Laughs)

Adam Spector
September 1, 2007

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