Movies

Ben Foster Tells Us About His Love For 7-Eleven Hot Dogs, And His Hate For Social Media

Scott Green for Bleecker Street

Over the years, Ben Foster has been quietly building an unimpeachable acting resume, making a name for himself playing a collection of intense and unhinged oddballs in acclaimed films, from Alpha Dog and 3:10 To Yuma through Lone Survivor and Hell or High Water and Lance Armstrong in The Program. Stories of his method acting have followed him along the way, from allegedly eating dirt on the set of Lone Survivor to taking PEDs to get into character as Lance Armstrong.

That quiet intensity, those well-chosen roles, his committed approach — it wouldn’t be much of a stretch to call him an American Daniel Day-Lewis, albeit in a younger state (Foster is 37).

All of which is to say, he strikes you an actor’s actor, a virtual lock for a future Oscar someday, someone who lives for the work, not for the press tour questions; a guy who stays off social media and would prefer to keep the questions about the work. He has a reputation for cultivating a bit of mystery, and for being a little unforthcoming in interviews, as most Serious Artists do.

In other words, I was a little apprehensive about speaking with him when I got the chance this week — as he promotes his new movie Leave No Trace — from Winter’s Bone director Debra Granik. Foster plays a survivalist dad in the film, a military veteran who has taken to living off the grid as a way of managing his anxiety, and taking his daughter, Tom, played by Thomasin Mackenzie, who actually gets the majority of the film’s lines, along for the weird ride.

Sure, there’d be plenty of movie questions, about the tradition of oddball itinerant movie dads, from the Glass Castle to Captain Fantastic, how to do a new twist on the “haunted veteran” character, and what it’s like playing a father while becoming one (his wife, Laura Prepon, was in her third trimester while Leave No Trace was shooting). But there was also so much I wanted to know about Ben Foster the person. Would he answer? Would I be able to ask?

I won’t go so far as to say I needn’t have worried. There was often a pregnant pause or an exhale of breath before the answer any time I strayed from Leave No Trace. But it seemed more an earnest hesitance to discuss himself than an attempt to control his persona — more a natural reticence than an attempt to stage manage his mythos. And he had a way of making those method acting stories seem less wild than they were originally described. So, about that dirt-eating incident…

“That, unfortunately, will haunt me for the rest of my days,” Foster says of the dirt-eating legend. “It’s not something that you set out to do. It’s not like I wake in the morning and think, like, ‘You know what’s really going to help me today? Getting a spoonful of dirt in my mouth. That’ll impact the scene.'”

He clarifies: “We were doing that scene in Lone Survivor, where an RPG had just blown up and we were thrown down the side of a mountain. And I was looking at the other actors and their capped teeth were so goddamn white it just looked like a joke. So I just decided to quickly shove some dirt in my mouth. And Pete [Berg, the director] saw and he asked me if I was eating dirt and I didn’t answer him, so now I’m haunted by this narrative of that I eat dirt for all of my days. I was just embarrassed about all the capped teeth. That’s the truth of it.”

I’m a sucker for a good method acting story, whether it be insane method acting that goes right, like Daniel Day-Lewis building his own house with 17th-century tools, or insane method acting that goes wrong, like Jared Leto… well basically Jared Leto’s entire life. But instead of Foster’s now entirely reasonable explanation ruining what had been a good method acting story for me, I realize I enjoyed the full context as much as the apocryphal anecdote. Perhaps it’s because it lands on that same line between admiration and ridicule, between pure truth and total silliness, where most acting (and maybe most art) lands.

“Like everybody’s ripped in two, bleeding everywhere, but with fantastic smiles,” explains Foster. “I mean, hey, man. I’m in the racket, I did mine, I get it. But in terms of the realism, there are certain things that I found, in terms of prep work which just help me kind of fuzz the lines a little bit, and it just makes my job easier if I don’t have to think so hard and just do the damn thing.”

Is that persona as the real guy who wants to just do the thing, and cut out all the BS a little cultivated? Probably, but Foster sells it. You believe him. I asked if he did anything method to prepare for Leave No Trace.

“You know, the longer you live on this planet, your life experiences become so varied and I’ve found I don’t have to work so hard to relate to certain things, if that answers the question,” Foster says.

And it does. I know he’s withholding a little, but it’s a well-articulated response, succinct and easy to grasp without overexplaining.

Though part of that may be that Foster’s character in Leave No Trace and he are a lot alike. They both have daughters. They both eschew social media. And both speak with a certain economy of words. There isn’t much method necessary. Foster reveled in his character’s non-verbosity.

“When I read that line [in the film], ‘is it a want or a need?’ it was a key moment for understanding who this guy was,” Foster says. “And I asked [Granik] if we could do a pass of the script with that filter. I was just saying, if he just wants to say it but doesn’t need to, he shouldn’t. So we took the red pen to the script and pruned it down. In the belief that we could transmit all of these ideas, or at least a lot of them, without the unnecessary exposition. That was the joy of this job. How lean can we make it?”

The result is pretty lean. Foster is so far from chewing scenery that it seems like he might starve. At times we have to glean things about his character based on a meaningful glance, or the way his eye lingers on a newspaper headline. Which only proves Foster’s capability all the more. I ask him if he had to add anything to this character just in his mind, to help play him.

“For sure, yeah,” Foster says. “You build it up and then reduce it. It’s kind of like cooking. It’s like making a sauce. I’m not very good at that, but I’ve seen my wife do it and it’s very impressive.”

I sense an opening, and ask about his wife’s recent cookbook.

“She does have a cookbook.”

“Does that mean you eat better now?”

“Oh, man, yeah,” Foster says. “I mean I was a 7-Eleven hot dog man every day.”

Every day?

“I lived right next to 7-Eleven when I was in LA years ago and that’s probably what’s wrong with me.”

I ask if he ever finds himself missing 7-Eleven hot dogs during the day.

“No,” he says. “But when I see a bag of Fritos, they’re hard to resist.”

Okay, so Ben Foster, the 7-Eleven hot dog-loving actor and Will, the Leave No Trace character Ben Foster plays, who lives in the woods eating leaves and bugs like Bigfoot, might not be a one-to-one comparison. Still, Foster is a man who appreciates the simple things.

“I’m the last analog generation, you know?” Foster says when I ask about his lack of social media presence. “We didn’t grow up with technology and then technology started coming in and I just, I don’t know, something about Facebook and Instagram gave me the creeps early on and I just avoided all that. The Twitter of it all. I appreciate them as tools and I think, well-used, they do save lives. But there’s also a sugary track there that can rot your brain and I just… people talk about branding themselves and shit. I’m a guy. I work freelance. If they want to hire me, they know where I’m at. And I don’t take vacations. I’m not a lifestyle person. Sometimes I eat really well, sometimes not. I don’t think it’s anybody’s damn business, and I’m not interested in theirs.”

I can’t stay off Twitter no matter how hard I try, and I’m certainly not saving any lives. But if keeping it analog and avoiding online poisoning keeps one of our best actors sane enough to keep working, I’m all for it.

‘Leave No Trace’ opens in select theaters this Friday.

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