A while ago, Ben Foster strutted his stuff in 3:10 to Yuma, stealing moments from both Christian Bale and Russel Crowe and I’ve been waiting for him to lead a film ever since. In writer/director Oren Moverman’s film The Messenger, he finally gets his chance and he in no way disappoints.
Talking to him, you realize that he’s an old school actor who relies on preparation and acting techniques to get him where he’s going. There’s no doubt that he will be seeing some Oscar love in the coming months for his performance in this film. Not only is the script and the overall story amazing, but there is something about Fosters intensity and yet innocence that has you entranced from the opening shot until the credits role.
But enough gushing, lets find let Foster speak for himself…
This character is quite intense, how did you get into character and inhabit such a difficult role?
Ben Foster: It was a very dense experience. Certainly that allowed the most time for research and sinking into something that the resource is endless. We went to Walter Reid. We met on a train going to Walter Reid and spent time in the amputee ward. That was a very harrowing experience. It was the first time at least for myself that I had seen the results of war in a very visceral way. The place is a remarkable facility but it was the first time that I saw the face of warfare outside of magazines, the statistics, the chilling numbers. You see these boys and girls, children with missing legs and burned up pretty bad and their attitude was so positive. When they would ask, ‘What are we doing here? Why are you saying hi?’ Sheepishly we were saying that we were making a film about casualty notification officers. They would say, ‘Oh, man. I would rather go back into combat than do that.’ You take that with you into filming, a sense of service to these men and women rather than yourself. Even what you might call a dramatic scene, a big scene within the structure of the film, say I wanted to nail it, it was more I want to serve you guys and get out of my own way.
Why do you play such broken people so well?
BF: I think we all feel like that at some point, right? A little lost, got a lot of feelings, don’t know where to put ‘em. There’s not a strategy behind it. It’s just when you read something and there’s a physical reaction to it and there are questions within that physical reaction and pictures start coming and those pictures frighten you, that always feels like it’s something that needs to be pursued. Getting the opportunity to ask questions about things that scare you is something that is exciting. I suppose drama is conflict. We’ve all felt wounded and I don’t know. I don‘t really know why but I don’t really think about it in those terms. I’m certainly reading all types of scripts and would love to do something frothy.
How much backstory do you fill in on these characters?
BF: If I can’t see it, I can’t feel it. So a lot of prep time is based around gathering information, research, spending time with people that maybe have lived similar experiences and walking, and letting these pictures and these experiences be it books, documentaries, stories and letting it bleed into your own ‘What if it was me?’ Walking for whatever reason has always been a great tool for taking it out of the intellectual, getting it into the body, getting it into an unconscious place and it begins to realize itself. It develops. Keeping journal entries has been a useful tool. I’ll give you an example of what was it like when Will got hit? And filling in details that are not in the script allow these pictures to be more realized in my head.
It’s not “oh, this would be cool if…” it’s this is an image and you can find these images anywhere, or songs. This is a song that reminds me of a feeling, it feels like something, and start gathering. It creates an inner life that can be drawn from and is drawn from when I feel most lost. Drawing from these images takes me out of my head of trying to construct something that isn’t there. It gives it permission to be with the other actors and not force it.
There’s a ground that’s been laid. It’s like well, that’s what – - and when we lose ourselves and we draw on these pictures, we just have to become more specific. Well, if it was this, this, this, this, what do the senses tell you? What does smoke smell like? What does the earth feel like. Did you hear a creaking sound? What does that sound remind you of? You just build this mental tapestry. It’s a place that you can kind of go to. That makes – - there are many doors to go about it but unless that landscape is created, particularly for something like this which is so specific, I can’t really operate.
In your research, had the procedure for contacting next of kin changed over the years?
BF: Over the past eight years it’s changed a bit I think. They go with a chaplain now. I think so. I’m pretty sure that that’s where we fudged. It’s developed over the past eight years, casualty notifications, because there have been so many notifications made in the past eight years. And the army is intending to refine an impossible task.
And there’s another step after the notification?
BF: There will be someone who comes after the notification that handles the organization of the funeral. There’s a follow-up following that and I guess you could call it also its own theater. There’s a script that the soldiers follow which is a strange metaphor to the theater of war. There are spooky parallels.
Which got tougher and tougher for your character to follow.
BF: Well, it’s all about connecting. The film hopefully is about connecting. His character, there’s a lot of name and form in the film. It’s not particularly, not all of it planned. Captain Stone has a hard of stone. O-LIVE-ia. And Will was taken from Walter Reid after meeting a soldier there who left a print on all of us.
Have any servicemen seen the film and have you spoken to them?
BF: There was a fantastic thing that happened the other night in Savannah which was really surprising. We all went to Hunter, the war base, and that was remarkable meeting the families, pregnant wives asking for Woody to sign a f***ing Twinkie and it meant the world to them. You start seeing these values and saying, ‘I’m going to send it to my husband who left this morning at 2:30 in the morning. He’s going to love it.’
There was one soldier that came in full fatigues. I can’t repeat what he said but it just went online the other day. It’s the only thing in the article where a single soldier stood up who had been in combat and spoke. It’s about a page and a half long and this seems to be the consistent reaction is that they’re grateful in a way that we’re not sugar coating. We’re not giving an easy answer. We’re not giving a political agenda. We’re just saying, ‘Okay, these are human beings. This is what they do. Yes, they’re brave but they’re also human beings’ and dealing with the difficult circumstance. But they are still looking to connect and they don’t have a language, a vocabulary with their family who didn’t go and see it so they’re very isolated. So to see people who lovingly, but show it warts and all, that we’re all trying to figure it out and make relationships, love, make friendships, connect again, is difficult but possible. The gratitude has been overwhelming.
Check out The Messenger in theaters November 13th.