INTERVIEW: ‘Leave No Trace’ Star Ben Foster Talks Acting

Sitting down to talk with Ben Foster is an experience. The actor is at times deeply intense, but also quick to laugh or connect on a personal level. In that way, an interview with him is very much like watching one of his performances. With a new one of his hitting screens with the release of “Leave No Trace,” we got to sit down with him and talk about his craft. Yours truly has interviewed him before and interacted on a number of occasions, so there was a bit of familiarity here. That never hurts things, though Foster is such a talent, he can hold his own regardless.

From acting in a Debra Granik film to why this role was right for him now, we cover a lot here. It’s a wide ranging chat that should be both enjoyable and informative. It certainly was on our end. Foster stars with Thomasin McKenzie in the movie, which Granik co-wrote with Anne Rosselini and directed. The performance he gives in “Leave No Trace” is among the best of his career, as noted in our rave review. It’s a must see work, with his turn front and center. Truly impressive stuff, and he speaks eloquently about it here. Foster is having a moment, one which started two years ago with “Hell or High Water,” and shows no signs of letting up. We spoke to Granik here, and today we present Foster to you. Enjoy.

Here now is our chat with Ben Foster:

Joey Magidson: You don’t necessarily take the roles that you envision an agent pitching you on. What attracted you to this role in particular?

Ben Foster: I wanted to work with Debra! Her film “Down to the Bone” affected me deeply. Vera’s work in that is just stupendous. And Debra doesn’t make films often.

JM: It’s about five years between each one.

BF: Yeah. So when I read the script, when the script passed my desk…and just in terms of agent, I’ve been with Brian Swardstrom since I was 17, and that guy is, he’s just the best.

JM: He does right by you.

BF: (Nods) And doesn’t go in for the sell. So on that front, I’ve got a good corner.

JM: So you actually get these scripts.

BF: Yeah! So he sent this along, and I read it, and it’s rare, but I just burst into tears after reading it. We had just found out at home that Laura was pregnant, and we’d also found out that it was a girl. So, I was already tenderized to the material. These are questions that I’d, like, asked. If I’m going to go to work right before the birth of our child, this seems like a meaningful way to spend some time.

JM: You’d be bringing something home besides just the experience of making a movie?

BF: For sure. Making anything, with film, you have an allotted time. Usually six to seven weeks, and we’re there in the independent world, so sometimes less, sometimes more. The way that I understand it is that we’re able to ask some questions of your fellow collaborators, and are those questions sparking you at that time? These questions will chase me until the end of my days! How do you parent someone in this world? How do you try to do right by someone?

JM: This is a movie that doesn’t overly explain things. As an actor, did you ever want the big “character explains” scene? Debra had said you were very against that.

BF: Yes. Exactly. We did a pass, and the key was, when reading her and Anne Rosselini’s script, was whether it was a want or a need? That was the door in. Then, we did a pass of the script together, just saying “well, what if Will chooses his words as economically as he chooses his belongings?” If he wants to say something but doesn’t need to, cut it out. So we just redlined the script, and we got out, roughly 40% of his words. It was a beautifully sparse script to begin with. Any extra exposition that we felt could be suggested or transmitted without talking about it, that was the game we played. That was the pleasure.

JM: Your performance, it’s not a silent performance, but you find yourself watch Will’s eyes and hands more than anything else. Combine that with the prep work that Debra said you trained to do, it makes for a very unique bit of acting. It’s a far cry from watching an actor play piano and know it’s a double. What was that like?

BF: That was the best part of the job! For sure. To go do an intensive, survivalist/wilderness appreciation, learning a new skillset. What was most exciting, and it’s…and it’s available to anyone who wants it, if you choose to allot yourself that time. If one says “I always wanted to learn piano,” well, I don’t know how to play piano, but if someone said I had six weeks to just do what you can to learn as much as you can about piano…

JM: You’d just eat, sleep, and play piano…

BF: In six weeks, I’d know a little bit more, and that’s so great! With this, it was just being able to read surroundings in nature. Where before I’d say I was appreciative about nature, the trees and the stream, I couldn’t read it. Now, through the training that Debra set up for us, it became a bit more legible. That’s something I would encourage for anyone to do. In this vert toxic age of distraction and technology, with the ultimate great connector that has disconnected any sense of ourselves, and looking at the climbing anxiety and depression, you go “what is that?” Well, possibly, possibly, it’s that we’re giving ourselves over to things that are not nature. So, by looking at what is natural and touching a little bit of nature, my life has already been elevated because of this experience. Just by saying that if I go take a walk, today, and just touch a tree today, sit in the grass today, for ten minutes, my day is better. I can think better. I can breathe and experience this world a little bit clearer. So that was the joy of the job. Being able to do that so intensely with Tom and then take that into the film…that’s the stuff that you keep for life. And it’s not always that way.

JM: There’s a universality to the story, much like everything Debra has made. It’s a conversation, as opposed to a monologue.

BF: Well, the same way when you’re having a conversation and two people aren’t listening to each other, they’re just waiting to say what they want to say. It’s similar in films. If we already know what they’re going to say, there’s no emotional depth. There’s no resonance. If one can take ownership of an experience, not be told it, but can be told it and negotiate it…

JM: It’s a full meal.

BF: Yeah! Then it’s your experience, not ours.

JM: Something I really appreciate here is that both lead characters are given shades. By the end, they look at the world differently than previously, but between the acting and the filmmaking, it’s never preachy. It asks questions. You truly feel that both of them are right.

BF: That is the best compliment that anyone can give to a piece of art! Does it provoke a line of thinking that allows you to consider a little more deeply something that we go about everyday. It might, if we give ourselves the moment, right now, to enrich ourselves.

JM: It exists in the theaters. Obviously, there’s more out there that doesn’t, be it escapist fare or just a bunch of dinosaurs running around…

BF: I’m into dinosaurs. Sure! (Laughs)

JM: There’s room for both though, ideally.

BF: (Nods) There’s room for both. I don’t want to eat a salad every night, and this movie’s not a salad. It’s hard to say, I like both. What feels good is that this is a poem. In a rackety world, one that can move and ask a few questions about how we can take care of each other. And celebrate the goodness in each other without being preachy or sappy! To do that, it’s quite an accomplishment.

JM: This is one of the first films in your career where you’re the veteran in the cast. How does that work for you?

BF: (Laughs) It’s interesting. It didn’t feel that way. I think anyone who’s good at what they do, and in our racket…well, let me say this. One can do what we do in a lot of ways. The people that I respond to, that I enjoy working with, we’re like musicians. You’ve got to listen to each other! Because it might be different. Each take is going to take a different quality. It’s not about nailing something. It’s never about the perfection of, it’s about the coherence of. If you and your fellow actor, or you and your environment are connecting, you can’t lose! Tom is a great connector. She’s just a real deal actor. And we all have good days and bad days of being able to be present. That’s the game. Do your prep work. Don’t outsmart yourself or trip yourself up with too many ideas. Then, just be present with one another and be brave. Something will happen! Tom is exceptional in that department, a rare talent. I probably looked to her for more calm, as she has a wonderful presence. For me, I may be the vet, but that just means I’ve seen a lot, a bit more than she has, a few more years. I’m just all the more grateful for someone who’s right there with you.

JM: I’m curious, what do you enjoy watching when you’re not working? I remember when we spoke last year you were a big fan of “Logan,” but what else?

BF: “Logan” was great. We’ve been on a John Ford kick at home. We just finished “Fort Apache” last night and then we were going to continue with the calvary trilogy, but instead decided to watch “Veep.” And that was great. You gotta laugh too! (Laughs)

JM: It’s fascinating to me, since you do run into people who don’t ever watch anything.

BF: Yeah. There were a few years there where I didn’t want to be influenced…

JM: You didn’t want to accidentally steal?

BF: (Laughs) Please steal! I just didn’t want to be influenced where I didn’t know what I was taking! (Laughing) I’m a conscious thief. But now, there are so many holes in the education, it’s such a treat, with the ability to stream. “Touch of Evil” a few nights ago. It’s a great role!

JM: It’s undeniably cool that you can see everything, but it can also make it overwhelming!

BF: Yes. So, what we do at home is we choose a filmmaker and we’ll go through a block of their work. Then, the next week we’ll do someone else. So that feels very good. And then offset that with something that maybe doesn’t feel like homework? We did “Barry,” and that was fun.

JM: Something you can talk to each other while watching?

BF: Yeah!

JM: It makes sense. For the longest time, what I would do for my grandfather, who was a retired movie projectionist that had sworn off theaters…

BF: Cool!

JM: I would pick out a Blu-Ray for him and make a pile. He basically had a curated experience every day, and I was kind of jealous, frankly. He’d watch anything too. Pick up “9 Songs” and just watch it, then report back “there was a lot of fucking in that movie.”

BF: I like this guy! What did he respond to?

JM: He actually had a stroke and passed away last summer…

BF: I’m so sorry.

JM: But oddly, he liked Kevin Smith’s “Zack and Miri Make a Porno” a lot. Also a big Mel Brooks fan. “Annie Hall” and “Indiana Jones,” and so on. He was an 84 year old crab, so it was always an adventure with the new stuff. Though, he was, like me, a fan of “Hell or High Water.”

BF: That’s great. I like him. I like a good crab!

JM: Is there anything next that you’d really like to explore?

BF: Just to keep asking questions. It’s a short ride we get here, as you well know.

“Leave No Trace” is now playing in limited release.

THOUGHTS ON OUR INTERVIEW WITH “LEAVE NO TRACE” STAR BEN FOSTER? DISCUSS IN THE COMMENTS!

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