Interview: Ben Foster Discusses Finding a Character, Producing, and ‘Rampart’

By  · Published on February 13th, 2012

Over two years ago we got to see a whole new side of Ben Foster. With director Oren Moverman’s The Messenger, Foster gave a quiet and powerful performance, right next to Woody Harrelson, who also showed something we hadn’t seen from him before. With Rampart, the duo continue to explore new territory. Unless I’m mistaken, we haven’t seen Harrelson play a damaged and narcissistic cop, and the same goes for Foster in an unrecognizable appearance as a homeless vet.

That type of transformation and change is something Foster seems to embrace. If you know about Oren Moverman’s work ethic, then you’re well-aware he searches for honesty, which Ben Foster obviously has great admiration for.

Here’s what Ben Foster had to say about reacting, never having enough time to prepare, and how any director who says they have the answer is full of shit:

Obviously, working with Mr. Moverman again you must have had a very satisfying experience on The Messenger. What did you find creatively satisfying about collaborating with him?

Everything. [Laughs] He has a profound emotional intelligence. He refuses to judge the characters he’s interested in. He creates an environment that demands that actors listen to each other.

Where you really have to react off someone.

Yeah. Well, he doesn’t rehearse. He works one on one with all his actors, and then he doesn’t cut. And we’re encouraged to go off each other.

I recently talked to John C. Reilly and we talked a bit about that process. He says it’s gratifying because you feel like you have a voice in the storytelling, and it’s also terrifying on some level. Do you see it that way?

Absolutely. John C. Reilly is just a fantastic actor. Film is so structured. You know, with your script, your camera setups, when everybody has done their preparation. This approach releases the actors and demands that they do their homework. It is scary the first day or two. But it’s so liberating. It can get sloppy, but that comes down to doing your homework and your research. And I think the performances speak for themselves. Oren has a great eye for… he’s got a great bullshit meter.

Is it Mr. Moverman’s sensitivity that kinda gets you to open up like that on set?

Without a doubt. Without a doubt.

I’m guessing that really throws out the acting tics or that sense of calculation, where you see something very naturalistic unfolding.

Well, it’s great to hear. It’s the closest thing to free jazz I’ve experienced in working with Mr. Moverman. It’s certainly the school of Altman and Cassavetes. There’s a great grounding of character over story. If we all believe in what we’re saying and we all listen to what the other people are saying, then something will show up.

How does he approach character? There’s very little exposition about the film, about Dave Brown’s though process. Does he put that in the script or does he keep it as ambiguous on the page as he does in the movie?

Well, one of the great similarities when we started working together on The Messenger, most scripts are overwritten. And that’s to get it financed. It’s to be very clear for the check writers to say, “Well, I understand this, this, or this, and America has an appetite,” or at least has been spoon-fed a world of exposition. And Oren has no interest in that. His belief is if you know as an actor, the audience will sense enough to take the ride.

You mentioned how it’s kinda tough getting the paychecks when you’re not overly detailed. Working as a producer on the film, did you notice that trying to get financing, getting those notes?

We were in a very blessed situation. He had written a very dense script, and part of his process is bringing the cast and the crew and talking to each one of them, and each person is going to bring their own individuality to it, their own perspective. The material evolves or refines. But we found financing fairly quickly. That has, I believe, so much to do with Woody and the rest of the cast, these powerful women that came to play.

Did that make Rampart feel like a journey of sorts, where you never really know what you’re going to get by the final result?

That’s the aim. Not to say that we’re producing real life here. It’s not a documentary. We don’t know what’s going to happen in five minutes, and celebrating that unknown is key to approaching every scene.

What about the opposite way of acting, when you don’t have that sensitivity from a director? Is that a way of working that you’re comfortable in or do you prefer this approach?

Well, some scripts are so spot-on nothing needs to be changed, or very little. For my experience, 40% of the dialogue can go, roughly. We have to give the audience credit, and the studios have denied that for a very long time. People are much smarter than they give them credit for. We interact with people everyday. I think Oren has a great amount of respect for the audience. In terms of approach to working, I live for the surprise; the surprise moment.

He doesn’t give you a lot of answers as well.

Any film that claims that it has the answers, any filmmaker that claims that they have an answer is full of shit.

[Laughs] Have you ever worked with a filmmaker like that?


Is that tough?

Well, it’s a collaborative industry. I love the collaboration more than anything. Scaring myself or getting lost in a scene is the drug we chase. There are infinite amount of approaches. Working with Oren is a unique and rewarding experience for sure.

And how about producing with him?

It’s great. It’s a different part of the brain you use. There are different things at stake. But being a part of the birth of the film, the style of the film, and working in tandem with my buddies, it was a great way to lose my virginity.

[laughs] That’s a great way of looking at it. I’d imagine being a producer you get to see actors on set in a more objective point of view. Did you notice anything about actors kind of looking from the producer’s sideline?

Well, we have a hell of a cast. So, mostly just being in awe of these people. I’ve been fans of all of the actors that we have. And getting the opportunity to have a different seat in the house was a thrill watching them work.

You mentioned how you love being lost in a scene. Physical transformation is a big part of this movie, obviously with Woody Harrelson’s, also your transformation. Does it immerse you more?

If you are reduced to a chair or a limp, or a dialect, there’s certain restrictions. So, I don’t know if the immersion is any more compulsive if there’s a physical attribute that defines or is a part of the character itself. I certainly find it easier to keep things warm on set. Some actors can turn on, turn off. I would prefer to have years to prep a role, looking at it. But we do what we can with the time that we’re given.

Have you ever had a long length of time to prepare for a role?

Never enough, sir. I’d rather never make a film and just research stuff.

[laughs] Do you think you may go with that one day?

Yeah. “What’s Ben doing?” “Well, he’s researching.” “For what?” “Uhhh…his own interests?”

[Laughs] When it comes to General Terry, he’s only in the film for a few minutes. Do you think about what he’s doing when he’s not on screen or only with Dave Brown sees?

Oh yeah, it was living on the streets; it was living on skid row in preparation, and he’d do the daily grind of it. The daily grind. And that’s the homework. It’s things that nobody sees, that nobody has to know, but fills you with an insulation where there are less questions and you’re not thinking about performing or doing it right, you’re just taken.

What about when you kind of take on a more outlandish character like 30 Days of Night? Do you go into that process as well?

There are different varying degrees and there are different scenes. But, all in all, if it’s a character that’s going around killing people, I’m not going around killing people. But if you spend time considering anything night and day for, we’ll call it half the year, it will creep into your consciousness. It will stick with you while you sleep.

[laughs] You make it sound almost like… well, I don’t want to say it’s torture, but that it’s tough getting into character.

I’m in no place to complain ever about make believing. It is make believe; it is a film. But the joy or the pleasure of pursuing that which I do not know, it’s a great job. I’m not allowed to complain. It has its own psychological or chemical demands on a nervous system. The physiology of smiling increases serotonin; just the act. Even if you don’t feel like smiling and you smile, it will produced a happier mood. This is scientifically proven. And the reverse is also true. If we spend our time considering some negative or bleak circumstances, as drama is conflict, it will affect one’s chemistry. Having that perspective, one doesn’t clean up after the job, and he got on with it.

I looked through a few interviews you’ve done, and I find one quote of yours ironic where you said you’d like to get offered more comedies. To me, a character like Charlie Prince is hilarious.

Good! I’m glad to hear that. I thought it was hysterical.

[Laughs] And he’s a funny character because he doesn’t know he’s funny.

Well, I mean that’s comedy, right? When the character is not in on the joke.

So you’ll search for those type of comedies?

I’m open for business, sir. We’re guns for hire.

Rampart is now in theaters.

Longtime FSR contributor Jack Giroux likes movies. He thinks they're swell.