We’ve seen every kind of hardass hitman in cinema. Ben Foster was not interested in repeating cliché or romanticizing the ugliness of crime. What drew the actor to Galveston was the opportunity to strip the film noir hero of his masculinity. In combination with his role in Leave No Trace, Foster was looking to follow a path of reduction, attempting to see just how much emotion he could shave from the character and still produce a compelling protagonist.
Galveston begins like many other crime revenge films. Foster’s thug escapes to his hometown after surviving a double-cross and in his passenger seat is Elle Fanning’s damsel in distress. Where director Mélanie Laurent and screenwriter Jim Hammett take the plot from there is a riveting descent into human sorrow, where survival is not victory.
I spoke to Ben Foster over the phone. We begin our conversation by looking at the slew of heavies he’s played over his career. We discuss the realities of what compels him to choose one role over the other, and why he was eager to work with Mélanie Laurent on her first English-language drama. We also talk about the dark depths he and Fanning had to plummet for Galveston, and how such realms are not always easy to shake.
Here is our conversation in full:
Just when I think I’ve seen you play every kind of hard, brutal character, you come and deliver a real gut punch wallop of a human being in Roy Cady.
I’ve been wanting to play the cute girl next door, but they don’t hire me for that.
Well, what compels you to keep coming back to these kinds of characters? These broken, anger-fueled men.
Well, I saw Mélanie’s first film called Breathe, and I thought it was so beautiful and delicately handled the challenges of adolescence. I had heard that Elle Fanning was attached, and I’m a fan of hers. I read the script, it was good, but Mélanie’s take on it sounded interesting. Yeeeah, it had a quality to it that I felt that I hadn’t played, I hadn’t done a proper Noir road film, and I like those girls, I believe in their talent.
Well, I’d say on top of that, what I liked about it was…we’re gonna use the term toxic masculinity. He’s castrated and I thought that was an interesting way to go about someone who’s lived in a very tough environment with that kind of male identity. On the surface, it’s grizzled, hard, violent, intense, whatever words one wants to use. The fact there was something that was crippled inside him felt interesting within this genre. I thought we could maybe explore some of those ideas. I don’t know how successful we were, but that’s what drew me to it.
Well, so when you’re navigating your career, are you drawn primarily to filmmakers as you were with Mélanie? Or are you drawn to the script? What gets you to say yes?
Well, it depends. It seems taboo to say, but we all need a job. Somehow in the movie industry, there’s this concept that people only do exactly what they believe in their heart is the only thing to do at that time. I don’t know how many people operate in that way. I like builders, I like artists, I love collaborating. It depends on what’s happening at home. We shot this before I shot Leave No Trace. When I had read Leave No Trace, I had just found out that my wife was pregnant and was expecting a daughter, so I felt more compelled to do that film than most. That was just the circumstance at home.
Well, to your earlier point, in Galveston, this pairing of you and Elle Fanning, and the path that those characters take, even within the context of noir films, it’s unique.
I hope so, I hope so.
How did you see that relationship with Elle?
She’s such a pro and she’s got a pristine reputation in our racket. That, as I get older, it’s nice to work with hard working, good folk. With people who can leave their ego at the door and are willing to work hard. That’s half of it. I’m not a musician, but I imagine when musicians who don’t know each other get into the room and you just start listening to each other and you start offering up a rhythm or a melody and a feeling. The best is when they receive that, or you receive something they’re giving and there’s a response. Then you’re making music, you’re making something happen. It’s such a beautiful feeling.
You have a particular scene in this movie, a confrontation between your characters. I found it to be one of the hardest standoff scenes that I’ve watched this year. What is it like before the scene rolls, and what it is like in that room after that scene ends?
You just block it. You have to rough it in. It becomes pretty animal, it becomes animal at that point. I give her room, she gives me room. We don’t do a whole lot of talking. You want to get your engine warm, but we block it out ’cause we may have to go again, and nobody wants to get hurt in a real way. You do want to touch on some things inside that could translate as true for the camera. It’s creating a very safe environment to do very dangerous things emotionally and physically. In that particular moment, we did a couple takes and Elle and I knew that I wasn’t gonna hurt her and that she was gonna be fine, and I’d be listening to her. I guess I got the signal that it was time to go a bit harder, and so we did. I told her, “I’m coming for you on this one.” And she nodded, she’s like, “Yep.” We just did the thing and sometimes that’s what it takes. It’s got to be agreed upon beforehand, it’s got to be supremely safe, understood. Then you go into your corner like an animal and you come together and hopefully, the camera’s rolling and something’s communicated and exchanged that lands.
Obviously, you’re both professionals, but is it a type of scene that sticks with you? Are you that type of actor that you experience that and you can shake off, or does it stay behind?
I’m sure you’ve heard it before, but there are different kinds of boxers and there are different kinds of actors. Myself, it’s hard to shake at the end of the day, and that’s part of the ritual. I’m not going out doing the things that necessarily the characters would, but the internal life, and I mean that by I’m not gonna be breaking the law just to get into a role every time. I have to speak vaguely. It’s hard to shake at the end of the day, and I don’t understand people who can just walk away on a set, I don’t understand it and I respect the hell out of it. I would dare that person to say, or anybody to say. Let’s say the subject’s baseball and for the next six weeks to eight weeks, your whole life is talking and thinking about baseball.
I would imagine you would go home thinking and feeling baseball. This just happens to be dealing with hit men, prostitutes, and cancer. Weeeee! Yeah, it chases your ass home.
What did Mélanie bring to Galveston that another director might not have?
If this film was made in the ’80s, he and Elle’s character, they would probably get into a physically romantic relationship, and we castrated him. We were interested in taking that part of his masculinity away and exploring his outbursts as a reaction to that, or a fear of that. I like the take on the stoic fixer and being a man who’s emotional love life and sex life has all but been destroyed. The rest of it is somewhat of a cover. He’s a man who’s got to keep running. Those things, it felt interesting to play in those shades a little bit.
When I was watching Galveston, I actually had a thought similar to that where what if Sam Sheppard or Peckinpah or Michael Mann had made this movie? The loss of the West mentality shoved into neon lights. It felt like that was stripped away in this screenplay. No romanticism here.
I’ll be honest with you, I haven’t seen the film. But I love me some Peckinpah and some Mann and some Sam Sheppard. Those are my guys or some of my favorite guys. In the day and age that we’re in now, it was much more interesting to riff on that with Mélanie and reduce this man. Yeah, it’s been an interesting year. I did that and two weeks later I was doing Leave No Trace. It was unconscious but it was about reducing men. I was much more interested in that rather than hyping. It was about limiting the ability to communicate, the ability to be stationary.
Like somebody doing sketches. This was me looking at it from that perspective. These were men who’ve either been so wounded in their own experiences that all they can do is run from the ghosts. You can’t run forever.
Do you think about your characters standing next to each other? How one fits next to others in your filmography?
No. That’s a horrifying idea, putting up a poster of the people that I’ve played in an Avengers type scenario [Laughter].
Well, I guess –
That’s a horrifying idea. I’d laugh my ass off, and I certainly haven’t thought about it. It’s usually traditionally just job to job.
Do you think of other characters feeding into your current role? Does one performance seep into another performance?
I don’t understand the question.
Like when you’re forming Roy Cady, your work on Hell or High Water or Hostiles, do their personalities bleed into Roy’s personality?
I certainly hope that it doesn’t influence the behavior of the character. The character is supposed to be their own. As a human being, you accumulate a life experience and our job is to apply those experiences, but not repeat them. You can play in similar fields, but I would tend to be asking similar kinds of questions, just because I’m interested, certainly not in doing a mash-up.
Galveston opens in select theaters and Digital HD and VOD on October 19th.