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.”