The Messenger's Ben Foster: 'I Love and Hate What I Do'

With awards season in full swing, Movieline has launched a new recurring feature called "For Your Reconsideration," where we speak to the talented people whose contributions to the year in film are worthy of a second look. This week: Ben Foster from The Messenger.

For years, directors have counted on Ben Foster to add verve and nerve to a host of supporting parts in films like 3:10 to Yuma, X-Men: The Last Stand, and Alpha Dog, but Oren Moverman's The Messenger affords him a different opportunity: the chance to harness all of his skill and become a leading man. As Staff Sergeant Will Montgomery, Foster expertly illustrates a man who's unmoored upon his return from the war, yet pulled into the gravity of two very different people: his new partner in a casualty notification unit (Woody Harrelson), and a young widow (Samantha Morton) who Will becomes consumed with after being forced to give her the bad news.

Foster had some bad news of his own to report when he called me last week to discuss the role. Once we'd gotten past that, the 29-year-old actor opened up about the effect of playing so many emotional parts, the way he reconciles his tattoos with his character, and how his feelings on the war are forever changed.

Hey, Ben.

Hey, Kyle. I'm just leaving a hospital and getting into a cab. Excuse me if I start muttering to a cab driver in just a second.

Were you shooting in a hospital?

No, I was injured in a stunt and came in for an MRI. This is often how we spend our days in movieland!

Have you injured yourself doing a stunt before?


So this is old hat for you.

[Laughing] The hat is done! I injured myself in the boot camp for Black Hawk Down. On the last day, I tore my abductor muscle in three places, then got to set and I couldn't do it. I lost a job in Morocco. On this particular job, I'm almost done, so I'm not losing any jobs from me being too physical.

You wouldn't normally think of acting as a profession where you need to get a lot of MRIs, but I guess you never know.

You never know. Work hazards, man!

Anyway, The Messenger. You know, when your character is first assigned to be a part of this casualty notification unit, he's not looking forward to it, he knows how emotionally taxing it will be. Obviously, it was going to be taxing for you as an actor to play out those scenes, too. Did you have any similar reservations that the part would take a lot out of you?

I wouldn't say they were "reservations" necessarily. It's what we're interested in as actors -- we're interested in the qualities of experience, and some of those experiences are difficult, particularly in dramas when conflict is the engine. I was excited to ask these questions with these people. How do we really deal with grief in our own lives? More importantly, when we have to deliver this news to strangers and we haven't dealt with the traumas of our own lives, we get sick. The hope is that it would be a cathartic experience.

Do you find that to be the case, that when you finish shooting a film like this, you feel like you've satisfied something?

To lesser or more degrees. When it's the opportunity to ask challenging questions, rather than prove a point, there can be healing in life. Sometimes, the time frame of the picture doesn't allow for a complete flushing, but that's why, ideally, you take time off after and reevaluate and consider and rest.

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  • Vania Melamed says:

    I served as a female U.S. Marine, and happen to also be Orthodox Jewish. I found it sadly hilarious that poor Ben is "conflicted" by his idealistic notions of service members coupled with his contempt for the politics circumventing today's American military. He says we need to care better for our soldiers, that they're just kids, yada yada. Oh, Ben, thanks for the support, brother, but you're too Hollywood. Here's his irony: the very politics that reduces military care is designed by the administrations and representatives he and his co-stars vote for. If he's going to sum up the military, I'm going to sum up Hollywood actors.
    We do join for a variety of reasons, but unless we join the Air Force where bootcamp is 6 weeks long and military traditions don't hold (it's the branch you join when you want to focus on personal growth instead of combat skill and team development, so an A.F. Colonel I moved in recently told me), we join for reasons you can only mimic from a script. We join for college money, which you'll never have a struggle with. We join for the excellent free medical and dental and vision coverage for ourselves and our dependents, another thing you'll never have to worry about. We join because we were accepted to Loyolla Marymount University or UCLA (we are not stupid, despite what most liberals and hippies think) and can't afford to attend even after we receive Stafford Loans. We join to escape gang territory in which we live, like Pacoima and the Bryant Street gangs off Parthenia or to escape MS13 indoctrination as my Salvadoreno husband had. We join for religious inspiration, sorority, fraternity, for the excellent state-of-the-art training in foreign language, intelligence, physics, and certain technical schools. We join for direction, belonging, and sometimes just a graciousness for country once we see the countries we've emigrated from have either no freedoms or very vague protections, again something Ben and his cronies will never experience first-hand.
    By the way, Ben, you have no conscience. How dare you take roles in movies that don't support families of the victims these movies advertise? Nick Markowitz was my friend, and you didn't receive that call that summer that Nick was dead, you didn't lose that classmate. The revenue from that movie didn't benefit Nick, but was another fleeting thriller which Jesse James Hollywood can now add to his resume: "I inspired a major movie and it made me look like a hard-*ss!" You and your friends act like you're so enlightened, but in reality, if you could be paid enough to play the rest of the common people, you would. We're just muses who add figures to your pay-cheques and character traits to your repertoire.

  • R Hoods says:

    I liked it on Freeks & Geeks when Ben Foster as Eli delivered his weekly catchphrase: "I do anything to get away from annoying Vania, maybe even join Military. That why I join Marines."
    Seriously, it's a puff interview with Ben Foster. Save your anger for a Shia Labeouf face-to-face.

  • B says:

    Wow, bitter much? I agree with R Hoods. Lighten up. This was a nice interview with a thoughtful actor who had nothing but respectful things to say about the military and its personnel. Vania's anti-liberal rant has no place here. I tip my hat to our troops (and as the child of a veteran I do have an appreciation for them, thank you very much). Haven't seen The Messenger yet but it sounds like a good one and I'll definitely check it out.

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