Ben Foster doesn’t take on a role recklessly. His process is a courtship, a series of carefully crafted inquires and considerations. Or perhaps more fitting: It’s a mating ritual, with Foster investigating the particularities of a role, assessing it from all sides, then pursuing it with passion and showmanship. He preps; he researches; he gets to know his subject intimately, then he takes it on wholly. It’s his slow, calibrated dance that’s landed him roles he’s well suited for and earned him a reputation for being a fierce actor. It’s also why he rarely returns to the final product he gave so much to make.
“I don’t watch all my films,” he admits on an early evening in August in Vail, Colorado. “I don’t take pleasure in doing that. Making movies is like falling in love, and watching them is like breaking up and reading all the old love letters. It always hurts. I’d rather spend my time researching them than watching them.”
At age 32, Foster may be at the height of his career. He is relishing some of his biggest and most thoughtful roles with three films this year: Ain’t Them Bodies Saints alongside Casey Affleck and Rooney Mara, Kill Your Darlings with Daniel Radcliffe, and Lone Survivor with Mark Wahlberg. His work in the films, as well as a healthy career in television and smaller budget films, has earned him so much attention that the actor is now in the running to play another prominent role: Lance Armstrong in an upcoming biopic on the bicyclist.
Foster is reticent about his involvement in the project—“Nothing’s set in stone”—but admits it’s his reason for his residence of the moment. “I’m [currently] embedded with the Garmin cycling team, doing a little investigation for a film I might be in…I’ve been with them for about two weeks, rippin’ across Colorado.”
Well, there you go. Training, researching, and preparing with Jonathan Vaughters’ Garmin-Sharp professional cycling team in the mountains of Colorado for the potential role of Lance Armstrong is certainly Foster’s style.
Foster says he’s trying to get a feel for the cycling culture as a whole, not just the racing aspects. He’s interested in the backstories of the bikers: how they started, why they started, their likes and dislikes. “[Cycling] is such a large subject,” Foster says, before praising the generosity of Garmin riders. “I’m knocked out by this team. This sport is brutal and these guys are warriors.”
It’s usual fare for Foster to embed himself this far into the environments of his characters. For his role in Ain’t Them Bodies Saints—a film about a Texas outlaw (Affleck) who escapes from prison to reunite with his wife (Mara), written and directed by David Lowery—Foster had one of his more rewarding experiences of preparation, driving his pickup truck from New York to the empty plains of Texas to get a sense of the state. “I’d never been to Texas. I wanted to get a feel for the land, the people, for the country of Texas, and just feel my way through it.”
Armed with a loose map and a voice recorder, Foster ended up in Midland, Texas, where he decided to cold call the sheriff’s department to see if he could visit the station and talk to the officers. The officers—some of them third-generation sheriffs—obliged, and Foster was soon steeped in Texan police life. They took him out to shoot guns, brought him on for ride-alongs, and introduced him to their families. “It was such a great privilege to spend time with those kind men,” said Foster, also emphatically citing that Texas has the best barbecue in the world. “It’s really one of the best experiences I’d ever had, just as a person.”
He certainly had time on his hands to reach that conclusion. Foster roamed the Lone Star State for a month, living in motels and hanging around honky-tonk bars, hat makers’ stores, and boot shops getting to know as many people as he could. “[Texas] is its own country and a very proud country, and I’m so proud that it’s part of our country,” he says. “Some of [the] politics I didn’t always agree with, but [that’s true] everywhere. I appreciated the hospitality and its soulful people. There’s a lot of good going on in this country and we don’t see it on the news.”
Furthermore, Foster says, the love he developed for Texas was essential to his character. After all, in Ain’t Them Bodies Saints, Sheriff Patrick Wheeler is in love with a woman who still pines for her outlaw lover. “But [my character] goes about this [relationship] without bitterness,” Foster says. “The film asks: ‘What are the corners of love? What is love?’ Love is sacrifice. Love is rude.”
Love of a different kind is also prevalent in Foster’s other new film, Kill Your Darlings, about the young Beat writers—Allen Ginsberg (Radcliffe), Jack Kerouac (Jack Huston), and Lucien Carr (Dane DeHaan)—meeting at Columbia University in 1944. Foster plays William Burroughs, appearing in his first scene in a bathtub, mumbling incoherently and wearing a gas mask as nitrous gas seeps into his lungs.
When first approached for Darlings, Foster had been a fan of Burroughs’ work for many years and was excited for the opportunity to find “Burroughs’ young man.” It was a chance to get to know the lesser-known side of the writer. “He’s permanently frozen in my mind as a grandee junkie skeleton, and this [film] was taking place before he put pen to paper. How do you ‘Benjamin Button’ William Burroughs?” he asks with a chuckle.
In six weeks, Foster read and watched everything he could find to go back in time with Burroughs. He viewed clips of the writer doing readings, poured over documentaries, and paid careful attention to the poet’s specific mannerisms and patterns of speech. Foster says the key to playing Burroughs as a young man was remembering that the writer was also a performer, so finding the “Burroughs character” was dependent on how he was performing at the time. “He was a lion of literature, and [in the film] he’s floating and hasn’t found his way yet,” Foster explains. “I believe we can all relate to that.”
The same could be said of the other Beat writers in the film. Ginsberg, Kerouac, and Burroughs were all conscious of a higher calling for themselves, but still fumbling for a grasp on it. Their friendship was strengthened by the murder of an acquaintance of the group—David Kammerer—at the hands of his younger infatuation, Lucien Carr. A tortured Carr united the writers—and sparked some of their early literary works—but did not share in their literary success, becoming an editor instead for United Press International. And yet the murder of David Kammerer marked the humble, extraordinary beginning of the Beats. “It’s the thunderclap that begat the movement,” Foster says. He draws an analogy between the young writers in Darlings and soldiers who share a war trauma. “They became brothers in arms over a horrific incident. Once you survive a traumatic experience, or anything that gives you proximity to your end, it gets in your DNA. Most people can relate to a close call, and from the sacrifice jumps the urgency to communicate. War is a young man’s game, be it on the page or on the battlefield.”
War is the subject of Foster’s other film this year, Lone Survivor, the true story of a Navy SEAL team that embarks on a tragic mission to kill a Taliban leader, ultimately leaving one soldier, Marcus Luttrell (Mark Wahlberg), as the only returnee. The film is the only one of Foster’s that the actor has actually seen this year. It’s still giving him nightmares, but watching it seemed to him the honorable thing to do. “If the widows and the wives, mothers, fathers, and sisters can watch their namesakes die, then I can man up and watch it myself. They gave us their solemn nod of approval and it was one of the prouder moments of my life. Marcus Luttrell’s story is a story that asks questions as old as war. It’s rare for me to be excited for a film the way I was with this one.”
As usual, Foster took serious steps to prepare for the role. Beyond his extensive training with Navy SEALs in the desert, he paid a visit to Walter Reed Hospital for real-life insight. “I spent time in the amputee ward with a soldier who lost both his legs. Good-looking kid, married, 19 years old. He let me touch the stump of his legs, showed me where the bone was pushing through the skin, showed me where it hurt. I touched my mouth after we spoke, and my lips began to burn. And I realized that I actually tasted the wounds of this man.”
Foster also heaps praise for the writer/director of the film, Peter Berg. “What [Berg] did with this film, I don’t know if it’s been captured before,” Foster says. “I like what he’s about, I like his animal. He’s a very special filmmaker and a very interesting man. He’s pro-soldier a thousand percent, and he wanted to make a movie that honored them.”
Honoring subjects seems to be Foster’s forte in his long journey from acting competitions as a teen in the small towns of Iowa. Overall, it’s a skill he feels he honed by avoiding an overdose on Internet and social media, and instead focusing on real life and his surroundings. “There’s such an apathy in this generation, the ‘look at me’ generation, the Twitter generation, the Snapchat generation. It’s altering our states of consciousness and our behavior,” Foster says. “Put your devices down for an hour a day and quiet yourself. Whether it’s through meditation or taking a walk, find some solitude to hear your own voice. Because without that, you’re a goner.”
Stylist: Michael Fisher
Grooming Notes: beard oil by Beard Buddy and fort greene classic beard balm by Brooklyn Grooming.