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Interview: Ben Foster on "Leave No Trace" and Acting as Therapy

by Nathaniel R

Ben Foster discussing "Leave No Trace" last summer when it openedWhen I first met Ben Foster he was promoting Rampart (2011), a hard and angry movie about corrupt cops in which the acting was (unsurprisingly) terrific, he would barely speak about himself. Time has mellowed him, or at least made him more lighthearted about his own intensity. He ended our last interview begging for a screen comedy but sadly that project has never materialized. In person he's friendly and thoughtful and funny, never as impenetrable or scary or tragically sad as he has been is in his famous roles. In fact he's a happy new father, having had a daughter with his wife, the actress Laura Prepon, just over a year ago.

We met last month to discuss Debra Granik's award-winning drama Leave No Trace. He plays Will, a former soldier who has shut himself off from society with only his daughter Tom (Thomasin McKenzie) for companionship.When Will and Tom are found living in the woods at the beginning of the film, social workers attempt to reintegrate them into society. The daughter immediately adapts but the father is tougher to reach. Leave No Trace is moving and insightful and beautifully acted so that's where we begin as we discuss his career, his early days in acting, and what's next.

Our interview, has been edited for clarity and length...

with Director Debra Granik on set

NATHANIEL: Projects like Leave No Trace live or die based on the chemistry between the leads, so how can you prepare for a two-hander like this. Were you involved in casting? 

BEN FOSTER: I was involved in casting so far as Debra said 'I found someone I really like, and she's in New Zealand, here's the tape'. It was recorded on her phone and I watched like 30 seconds before I was like 'Oh yeah, that's it.'  

Instant approval. That's so cool.

She has a quality --you see it in person and you see it onscreen, she's lit from within. [In awe] She's one of them.

And I assume you trusted Debra a little bit on unknown actors, too, because she's famous for that Jennifer Lawrence discovery...

Everybody talks about Lawrence, but what about Vera Farmiga for Down to the Bone [Debra Granik's debut in 2004] ? Everybody mentions that Jennifer's amazing, 'yeah I know, but Vera?!'  Fuck me, that's just ... she's just dynamite. 

Are you normally involved in casting at all?

It depends where I'm at in the chain, sometimes I come in last.

Depends on whether or not you're the lead I suppose.

Or if you're supporting and the lead falls out. I like to know and quite often it's about wanting to work with somebody --- that's often the draw. Being a freelancer I like to work with a filmmaker or an actor that I enjoy as a fan. 

I take it you see a lot of movies. Last time we spoke it seemed like you watch other actors a lot and have strong opinions. 

Strong opinions is a fair estimate. But I haven't been watching movies in the last year and a half. We had a kid, so it just goes out the window. I've been watching diapers.

That's not very cinematic. 

No, but it's moving.

So you joined the Academy a few years ago. How has that experience been? 

You get a lot of screeners! I feel bad now that I said that because the screeners are starting to piling up and it's going to be crammed. It'll be a lot of watching. I like watching things that are creative. I like the dream, I'm still drawn to it, nothings changed and it's nice that people keep hiring me.

What about your own movies? Are you the type of actor who can watch their own stuff?

Not usually. I don't tend to.  I'll watch one every four years or something then I put them away. Unless I'm included in the editorial process then I hope to stay in good terms with filmmakers who I've worked with and put those broken-hearted valentines in a box somewhere for another time.

Otherwise you'd be judging which takes they picked? That sort of thing? 

I think it's two-fold, ya know? I'm a builder. I come in, I like working with other people so often the reasons for doing something for myself might not be as meaningful to the filmmaker. Even a tiny detail for me it can be "the door," and the way in can be mishandled. It's like being cheated on, and I do feel films have a similar pattern to love affairs. It is short intense physical emotional obsessive for three months and then you're done. And then there's this thing that exists.

A record of the affair. 

A record of it but it's not mine, I'm only a part of it. It's someone else's summation of my experience and I guess I um, maybe I'm not... I don't know, I'll look at the love letters at another time!

When you've got a little distance?

Yes, it's too hard. 

The public only latches on to certain films in any actor's career. So like Hell or High Water or Leave No Trace. Do movies that become special to the audience, feel more special as you're making them? 

It's really nice when you care about something -- I'm sure it feels the same way for journalists, who like the way something they wrote was shaped and handled -- it's nice when those work [for people] but that's not always the case. I never intend to make a bad movie or an unsuccessful film. But I've been a part of things that haven't been as representive of my higher values, not by lack of trying or talent. It just didn't turn over. Halfway through the film you can kind of get the sense of... [pause]

Whether or not it's turning out well?

Yeah, yeah. 

Leave No Trace obviously turned out well. It's quite an actor's piece -- very emotional and connected to the characterization. Is that easier, despite the complexity required, than when a film isn't so character focused? Like action films or what not.

That's a good question. I prefer character work. But I don't really know how to separate character work from the work that I do. I like all of it, I really do. I enjoy the physical aspect vof acting ery much. If my body knows how to do the action of the task or what the characters are doing, then my job is half done. The physical component can be the action or the way a man walks through the woods who has returned from war. It's just a different kind of living in, whether it's a smaller film that's relational or something more physically explosive.

How do you prepare for a role like Leave No Trace. Do you study the script a lot? Rehearse? 

The script was so beautiful to begin with so I was already very excited. I got a call that said Debra's got a script. She doesn't make films often so I was excited to read it, but we had just found out, my wife and I, that we were going to have a daughter. I didn't know what the film was about so when I read it, it was hitting me on core level questions that were just coming to the surface. What kind of father am I going to be? How is this going to shift? How can I show her the very best of myself? How can I protect her from things in myself have been wounded and shaped by life? So those things were already there and they were coming in very raw.

In terms of prepping further, it was going to Oregon and studying with a primitive skills teacher and learning how to do all of those physical tasks myself and do it in a way where I could do it without thinking about it. Make a fire, go collect water, dig the fire pit, make the camp, cook food . That in itself is an emotional preparation, you know, because that's life.

And not skills you knew before. 

No no, and that was such a pleasure. And then there was speaking with friends who've served and returned and they shared with me their struggle.

For us an audience, we have through-lines with actors. We take the past movies we've seen into the new movie, our preconceptions about the actor's persona or whatnot. When you're going from movie to movie do you take anything with you from the last one?

I think so, in the way that hopefully one has a deeper understanding. I would say that you could look at a musician and say -- lets take Beck for example, there are different periods of Beck's music. You could look at something like "Sea Change" or "Mutations" and say 'Theres a theme here.'  Some actors work similarly in asking these kinds of questions. For myself, I would put this role on a shelf naturally of men who have served.

Like The Messenger

And Lone Survivor and Rampart. But I hadn't explored the traumas of war and what that does to someone when they return, and how do you negotiate those unseen scars? Meeting with soldiers over the years informed the work but I hadn't explored it in this way.

You've received a lot of acclaim for Leave No Trace. Do you read reviews?

Sometimes. But the point is, how did I feel about it? How did I experience this? How was I in service of this? Was it fluid? Was it different? Was it informed by life? It changes and it's raw and it's exciting. 

His first gig on Disney's "Flash Forward" in 1995

You've been acting professionally for almost 25 years. That young man back there, how do you think he'd feel about your career right now? 

I think he'd be very surprised. When I was kid on a Disney show  I thought I would be doing comedy, you know. I was making people laugh and it's the greatest thing in the world. Like, I have a stack of homework films I'm supposed to watch right now. I don't put them on, I'd rather watch Looney Tunes, sincerely. I will put on Bugs Bunny tonight.

I feel pretty damn good about it [my career] because it's a scary world out there and you're seeking something true in make-believe. Being a teenager is really hard, and confusing and if you're going into the arts there seems to be a hypersensitivity. It can be disillusioning. I would never encourage a youngster in make believe -- 'Go travel. Go read a book. Fall in love a lot!'

But don't you get to do all these things through acting? 

You do but the feedback of it is success or failure; job or no job. It's you out on the line and it's harder coming back from roles. It's confusing to be someone else for three months and then return. It's like, ahhh, I've got to go back to the normal way of being.

Speaking of going away for three months. You're currently in production on something called Medieval?

Yeah, I go back to Prague tomorrow.

as Jan Zizka in "Medieval"

You're leading a big period epic this time. How daunting is something like that? I assume it's a lot more physical than some of your other roles. 

Yes. Big battles and per the working title, Medieval, there's a lot of mud and blood. It's an old tale that we've heard before but I hadn't known this version of it. My character Jan Zizka, there are statues of him in the Czech Republic. It's potent stuff. This is a man who was one of the few unbeaten generals in the world. He was blind in both eyes by the end of his life, but still leading men into wars. At the end he was [saying things like] 'When I die I want you to take my skin and make drums out of it so I can lead my men into battle after I'm gone.' 


So yeah, okay, lets hang out with him for a little while. [Laughs]

I guess that's an obvious in to the character. He's very obsessed with war. 

He's into it. He was very committed. So yeah, horses and medieval times -- I had never done any of that. Michael Caine and Roland Møller are in it. Did you see Land of Mine?

I did. Loved Møller in that film. 

I kind of fanboy'ed on him. I saw that twice. 

I've talked to you a couple of times now and you strike me as more of the sensitive artist type than a brute. But you've played a lot of very aggressive men, people who have almost a swagger about their violence -- I'm thinking of Hell or High Water or 3:10 to Yuma. Do you find something within yourself or are you building your characters from scratch? 

I'm a physical person, I suppose, But I don't know how to answer that. I'm a much happier person since being a parent. I think work is a wonderful way to look at things within oneself that are frightening. I think thats, uh,  probably a good thing. 

Like you get to experience it your work but not in your life? 

Yeah, you don't need to kill that guy. You can just do a film about it. 

[Laughs] So acting is therapy? 

Isn't anything we do? So is sports.

I guess, yeah.

Or writing. Or sex. Like, you know, you're trying to be a person in the world and it's confusing. The work [acting] is a really nice way to make sense of it, practice empathy, and go to places that are naturally in conflict. It's an odd job, and I'm still surprised by it. I'm still in awe of it. 

Leave No Trace is currently available to stream on Amazon Prime. It's nominated for 3 Independent Spirit Awards including Best Feature. 

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Reader Comments (21)

Should have asked him about her going supporting lol.

He comes off well here, sensitive and ambitious but down to earth.

Good actor too, and Leave No Trace is one of the best films of the year.

January 10, 2019 | Unregistered CommenterMe

Great interview with a great actor, he's a lot more thoughtful than I would have guessed.

January 10, 2019 | Unregistered CommenterMDA

My first memory of Ben Foster is in "Get Over It," so I have no problems envisioning him in something light and funny. Hopefully he'll get a chance.

January 10, 2019 | Unregistered CommenterRaul

I haven't seen Leave No Trace yet, but it looks vers similar to Galveston (his other 2018 movie).

January 10, 2019 | Unregistered CommenterPeggy Sue

A lovely interview. I have not really followed his career, but have seen him in a number of movies. The Messenger was very good. I plan on watching Leave No Trace this weekend.

January 10, 2019 | Unregistered Commenterrdf

I saw him first as Russell in "Six Feet Under." Such a great role (and show).

January 10, 2019 | Unregistered CommenterParanoid Android

He's our next Sam Rockwell. The minute he gets the right role he will win everything.

January 10, 2019 | Unregistered CommenterPeggy Sue

Such a good actor and LEAVE NO TRACE is an incredible film. I hope that LAFCA Director prize for Debra Granik encourages Academy voters to watch it.

I just read the novel that inspired the film - MY ABANDONMENT by Peter Rock. The ending of the book goes in a very different direction from the film. The book is in fact inspired by two true stories - the one Granik focuses on is the father-daughter story.

A mild *spoiler* for the book but not the film - the last part of the novel is inspired by a man abducting a girl and claiming to be her father; it's very disturbing.

January 10, 2019 | Unregistered CommenterSteve G

Thanks for the interview. I'm in awe of his performance in Leave No Trace. And the actress that plays his daughter too. In fact, that's my second favourite movie in 2018 after Ash is the Purest White.

January 10, 2019 | Unregistered CommenterJans

He’s wonderful in Leave No Trace. Those wounded eyes convey such pain. Nathaniel, do you think this is a lead or supporting character?

January 10, 2019 | Unregistered Commenterbrookesboy

I just finished Galveston and I am asking myself why

Lynne Ramsay - You were never really here
Debra Granik - Leave no trace
Chloe Zhao - The Rider
Marianne Heller - Can you ever forgive me?
Melanie Laurent - Galveston
Tamara Jenkins - Private Life

Are not in the best directing / picture / editing / cinematography conversation!

A thriller
A drama
Another drama
A dramedy
An action film
A comedy

Much better directed than 99% of the men directing of 2018.

I am not understand the critics groups and the guilds. I don't even start to talk about HFPA and Bafta. What the hell?

About Ben Foster: like someone said about Sam Rockwell could apply to him too - just need the right spotlight character and all the awards will come! He is amazing in Leave no trace and Galveston.

January 10, 2019 | Unregistered CommenterSoshua

I need to see Leave No Trace ... maybe i'll do that this weekend. I LOVED that interview. He seems wonderfully thoughtful.

January 10, 2019 | Unregistered CommenterJJM

Great interview! Ben Foster has been one of my favorite actors for a long time. He never gives a dull performance.

January 11, 2019 | Unregistered CommenterBrittani

brookesboy -- they're obviously both leads. It's a drama about the relationship between a father and daughter. BUT if people reallly have to have just one lead and just one supporting, (sigh) he would be supporting) because McKenzie really controls the narrative and she's onscreen more.

January 11, 2019 | Unregistered CommenterNATHANIEL R

Nice interview. I saw Foster at St. Ann's Warehouse in a production of Streetcar with Gillian Anderson and Vanessa Kirby. A mesmerizing actor. He was fantastic in this film, with a quiet, coiled intensity. So glad the larger public is getting to know him better.

January 11, 2019 | Unregistered CommenterPam

Nathaniel, thanks, that really makes sense. I was having trouble making my final lists for the year and I was going back and forth. I think he's going to make my Top Five for Best Actor, but I still have to see Vice, which I'm dreading. I really don't want to. But nothing NOTHING can induce me to see Bohemian Rhapsody.

January 11, 2019 | Unregistered Commenterbrookesboy

Not that this has anything to do with the interview, but I really think Bale is superb and SUBTLE (that's not meant to be sarcastic) in Vice.

Probably misses my top 5 tho. Currently Bale, Cooper, Foster and John David Washington are immediate runners-up. Still have some to see tho.

^^If you can catch Bohemian Rhapsody, you probably should. No reason to refuse.

January 11, 2019 | Unregistered CommenterMe

I just watched Hell or High Water last night, and he is the MVP in that movie. I'm surprised he didn't get more of a push for supporting actor that year.

January 11, 2019 | Unregistered CommenterRaul

I love him. Second only to Bradley Cooper this year for best actor. Leave No Trace is also one of my favourites of the year.

January 11, 2019 | Unregistered Commenterchoog

I hope this comment does not irratate, but, Nat, you have become an expert interviewer since your break-up. Reading your questions reminded me of the great, Brian Linehan (who's many conversations with Pauline Kael are gold). You probably never heard of him because he is Canadian, but trust me, he was special. And lately, so are you.

January 12, 2019 | Unregistered CommenterIshmael

Thanks for the info......

January 31, 2019 | Unregistered CommenterHarshak5

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