Essays · Movies

Ben Foster and the Gradual Evolution of a Character Actor

Not many actors can claim movies as different as ‘Warcraft’ and ‘Leave No Trace’ on their resume.
Leave No Trace
By  · Published on September 7th, 2018

With the barrage of news items coming out of Venice and the Toronto International Film Festival, you’d be forgiven for missing a casting announcement about a foreign-based historical project starring an atypical leading man. On August 23, Deadline announced that Ben Foster would be joining historical drama Medieval, a film about 1300s warlord and Czech national icon Jan Žižka. The film, which added Michael Caine in a supporting role earlier this week, seemingly lacks the pedigree to be an award season contender or a surprise summer hit. But it does have one thing going for it: it continues to reposition Foster away from a career of psychopathic sidekicks and towards the kind of starring roles befitting one of Hollywood’s most reliably interesting actors.

As a character actor, Foster’s pedigree is secure. Since beginning his acting career on television in 1996, he has moved easily around the outside of Hollywood, juggling filmmaker-driven independent fare against second-tier genre films. Before this year, the quintessential Foster role would likely be Charlie Prince in James Mangold‘s remake of 3:10 To Yuma, a character just smart enough to be both angry and confused about his place in the world. When the end comes for Prince at the hands of his would-be mentor, he dies suddenly and without acclaim; this is a life – and death – repeated in countless other Foster performances, from 30 Days of Night to Hell or High Water to Hostiles. Foster’s signature intensity also led to his surprising turn as Stanley Kowalski in the National Theatre production of A Streetcar Named Desire. Playing against a memorably manic Gillian Anderson, Foster’s performance is pure blunt masculinity, an angry, cruel man who dominates the women around him. If forced to choose two words that best describe the actor, ‘angry’ and ‘quiet’ would often do in a pinch.

But 2018 has been a transitional year for Foster as an actor. While he has never been afraid to take risks — note his appearances, by mere months, in both Lance Armstrong biopic The Program and Warcraft: The Beginning — Foster has found himself as a leading man in two of this year’s most memorable films. In Galveston, Foster plays a dying hitman who flees Louisiana for the titular Texas city; narrowly escaping being murdered by his employer, Foster’s character finds himself as the unexpected protector of Elle Fanning‘s teenage prostitute (and her younger sister). Similarly, in Leave No Trace, Foster plays an Iraq War veteran who chooses to live off the land with his daughter (Thomasin McKenzie). When the two are rounded up by authorities and forced to acclimate back into society, they flee the state in search of a new patch of public property to call their own.

Despite the overt differences between the two films, there are several key connections between Galveston and Leave No Trace. In both films, Foster works alongside an actress nearly two-decades his junior, offering Fanning and McKenzie the meat of the film as he lays the dramatic foundation necessary for the film’s success. Characters actors, by definition, are often empowered by their roles to steal every scene they participate in; therefore, it’s satisfying to see someone of Foster’s pedigree carve out space to ensure that his talented costars are at the emotional core of the films. It may seem odd to describe Foster as a generous actor, but Foster’s steadying influence amplifies the already impressive performances of Fanning and McKenzie. Both films also feature Foster as a person on the run, electing to leave behind the recognizable comforts of the modern world for the undesirable spaces of society (such as motel rooms and public parks). Here Foster’s characters are given an internal justification for their public discomfort, which makes all the difference in the world in how the audience relates to them.

Then there’s the inversion of his masculinity. Though Hollywood is (thankfully) less enthusiastic than ever with toxic male antiheroes, the two female writer-directors – Debra Granik in Leave No Place and Mélanie Laurent in Galveston – have found hidden depths in the characters that Foster frequents onscreen. In these films, the actor’s stoicism and dull paranoia speak to the trauma lurking beneath the surface, be it the violence he observed during his tour of duty or as a result of the cancer he knows is spreading throughout his lungs. Take one memorable scene in Leave No Trace, where Foster’s Will is asked to work through a series of true-false questions to evaluate the severity of his PTSD. Will is able to breeze through the first few questions, but as the exercise continues, he begins to stumble over questions that speak to his ongoing bad dreams and severe social anxiety. We’re used to seeing a hurt and betrayed Foster on the screen, but not as a character let down by his own emotions. This feels like an evolution of an actor, even if it’s just in the quality of the role he takes on.

And while Medieval may not be the kind of movie that breaks Foster through as an A-list leading man – few period pieces involving swordplay really are – it does hint at his continued growth and estimation in the eyes of Hollywood casting directors. With any luck, we may look back at 2018 as an essential turning point for the actor, a time where he full transitioned from beloved Hollywood psychopath to a mainstream nuanced and unconventional actor that would make someone like Robert Mitchum proud. Enjoy the next time you sit down to watch a half-remembered Western or science-fiction film and see Foster spouting off as the maniac in the corner; odds are, his days are as an exclusive character actor are slowly winding down.

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Matthew Monagle is an Austin-based film and culture critic. His work has appeared in a true hodgepodge of regional and national film publications. He is also the editor and co-founder of Certified Forgotten, an independent horror publication. Follow him on Twitter at @labsplice. (He/Him)