Rattling audiences as moustachioed outlaw Charlie Prince in James Mangold’s 3:10 to Yuma, Ben Foster is an actor who enjoys his westerns. On the awards circuit this fall for David Mackenzie’s Hell or High Water, which puts the actor in close quarters with Chris Pine once again, Foster has also recently wrapped production on Scott Cooper’s Hostiles, opposite Christian Bale and Jesse Plemons.
Meeting Foster in person, you’d be forgiven for thinking he’s the tough and intense middle American we see on screen—born in Boston, the actor became so attached to the role of Tanner Howard during the shoot that he briefly considered purchasing a cottage out in Texas. A recipient of an Independent Spirit Award nomination for his supporting work in the film, Foster spoke to Deadline about his attraction to western films, David Mackenzie’s process, and letting his character go.
How did you get involved with David Mackenzie’s Hell or High Water?
I got a phone call and they said, “You got to read this, quickly. It will be going out to a lot bigger names. There are some people fighting for you, but you’ve got to read it right now.” I sat down and I read it, and I looked at who was a part of it and I looked at the script, and I was angry. I had been on the road for a while, and I was looking forward to having break, and it was by far the best script I had read in years. I couldn’t imagine letting anyone else do it.
What in the script sparked with you?
Where the lines of love are drawn—it’s about brotherhood, and how far would you go for someone you care about. That resonated with me deeply. Having a brother, it wasn’t hard to fall into Taylor [Sheridan]’s words.
Between the action and the drama, the script is also notable for the way it incorporates its little comedic moments.
I imagine that all people know what it’s like being in a tough spot in their life at some point, the place where things are very scary and confusing. Humor is great medicine for that, and Taylor understands that—but they’re not just saying something funny to be funny for the movie’s sake. It’s their own survival. It’s stoicism; that kind of gallows humor is a way to break through and survive. Taylor gets that, implicitly, so it comes from the heart and the guts of these guys, rather than, “We need a laugh in the 5th minute of the movie.”
Among other things, the film has been dubbed a neo-western—the western seems to have been an area of interest for you throughout your career.
I suppose, at least the westerns I’ve done, it’s man against the world. With limited resources, you only have your will and your word and your courage to get you through, or your belief system. There aren’t any capes, but there are value systems, which are of classic power and weight. These are questions we will always ask as men, and I suppose I like horses and I like the desert.
With Hell you’re playing another nuanced anti-hero—is a role like this sort of the best-case scenario for an actor?
We’re the stewards of our character, the people that we play. We’re hired to defend them and unpack them at the same time. It’s hard talking about them in a critical fashion, in the same way I would imagine you could tell a mama joke, but nobody can tell you a mama joke about your mama. The things that I feel a shorthand with, and a connection to, I hope to bleed the lines of distance, and ultimately the work that we get to do, be it a journalist or in the arts in any manner is to exercise empathy. It’s about empathizing, even with the most questionable or, in some people’s opinion, deplorable or violent [behavior], and what’s the root behind that? Where did that come from? We’re all guilty of something. So, let’s find some compassion in there.
The film is surprising in the way it’s structured—we don’t know up until halfway through the lengths these men are willing to go to in their endeavors.
I just think Taylor wrote such a great script. Violence can just happen. I think that the way that David handled the violence in this film, it just erupts, and then it’s done. That’s just life. You have a family member, and then they’re dead. That’s how it is. It doesn’t get better—it just becomes more real. I think it was handled really bravely, and boldly, and simply, and respectfully in this film, where it could have turned into, perhaps, pornographic, and exploitative of human life. The violence actually served something. It has a weight and there are real consequences. How it was structured, I can only pay tribute to Taylor.
What was your experience of the film viewed through the lens of your Cannes premiere?
Hell, man, any time somebody likes what you do, it feels good. I’ve been on both sides of it. People like things, people don’t like things, but to have a general appreciation for it, that certainly feels good.
Working with Mackenzie on this film, did you find he brought a European sensibility to what is, in some sense, very American material?
He’s not so much European as he is a human, and he leads with his heart and his gut. He’s not out there to prove a point. He’s not out there to show off, and show everybody what he knows. I do believe that David’s deeply interested in investigating this very confusing and complicated animal called the human being. It’s a curious creature, us.
Having worked with a wide assortment of directors, what stands out about his process?
He’s a thrill to work with. He’s improvisational. He’s got a sense of emotional danger in him. He comes with a lot of life experience. He’s extraordinarily sensitive, and also very strong-willed. I couldn’t like him more.
And Chris Pine? You’d worked together not long ago on Craig Gillespie’s The Finest Hours.
The other picture we worked on, we were just standing next to each other on a boat. In this one, we’re driving next to each other in a car in the desert. We got hit with fire hoses and dump tanks. I’m not complaining, or being like there was some heroic act. We knew what we were getting into, and there was no real danger. When you’re wet and cold for three months every single day, you better like the person you’re next to. We just liked each other, so being next to each other in the car, there was a built-in shorthand that I’m sure served the film in some way. I can’t define quite how, other than I respect the hell out of him, like him as a person, and hope to find another thing that I can sit or stand next to him again.
When you’re going through the motions of robbing a bank for a camera, or inhabiting the role of this sort, is there an adrenaline rush, or how do you experience it?
The adrenaline rush is usually the research and discovering those things inside yourself. Making a movie is more like endurance work—the adrenaline is already there. Then it’s just about maintaining an availability, and pulling on resources to be present and hear things for the first time, after the tenth time. Live with each other, like a musician, if you’re a traveling band. We were all over the place. Playing the same song every night, you’ve got to change it up and you’ve got to listen. It’s very condensed work in that way.
Did you enjoy shooting on location, out in the desert?
I enjoy the desert—I like it out there. Although, I like being by the ocean and I like being in the forest, so there’s something to say about less people and more nature. More expanse where you can hear your own thoughts.
What were the logistics of shooting the film’s car chases? Did you do your own stunts in that case?
They were crazy enough to let me do the driving. I had a great time, I like driving a lot and I like driving fast. I feel comfortable behind the wheel. We tied one [camera] onto the side of the [car] and go, “This is fucking great.” Bless Chris Pine’s heart, that is a brave man, too. He was into it.
For you, is there something enjoyable in putting in physically demanding work for a role?
It’s a joy. We all have that feeling like, “You know what, I’m going to read all the classics. I’d like to learn piano. I want to take up crochet.” Whatever it is that you want to do, we rarely do that thing. That’s so strange that we as human beings have these desires and we don’t prioritize the things that tickle our hearts, that really turn us on. The job, at best, is saying, “I’m going to spend the next six weeks becoming a master of this thing.” It’s an excuse to say, “I don’t know.” And learn.
What was your biggest challenge on the project?
Letting him go.
Letting the character go?
Yeah. It took a few months. I couldn’t come home. I almost moved to Texas; I was kind of stuck. I just wanted to shoot my gun and raise hell. Finally, the day before I was moving—I love Texas, but the day before I was supposed to wire in to buy a little cottage, it’s not that I came to my senses…I realized that I may end up in Texas some day, but I had to unplug. That was the hardest part.
Do you find that level of attachment with all of your roles?
No, I don’t. But some love affair, or somebody that you fall for, and you have an intense, even two months, or six weeks with one person and they consumed your entire thought process. You go to bed with them, you wake up with them, you spend all day with them. They’re part of you, and then they’re gone, and you miss something. There’s an absence. That absence can be really confusing. That’s what it’s like leaving a role sometimes.
The film feels vital and resonant in the political climate of today. Would you agree?
It’s really hard out there. For a lot of people, it’s really hard out there. They’re all looking for something to believe in, a way to do right by our families. The world’s done gone crazy and it ain’t going to get simpler after the eighth. No matter what happens. After voting comes in, it’s not going to get simpler. Really educating oneself and being in line with your own heart and your family is all you can do.
As you promote this film, what do you have on the docket going forward?
Just a terrific time on Hostiles. It’s Scott Cooper’s picture, with [Christian] Bale and Jesse Plemons. I haven’t been told how much I can talk about it, other than a great leader in the cavalry has to take a group of people that maybe he doesn’t necessarily want to be protecting, and he has to protect them, across the plains. I’m one of those people that he picks up, and that’s as much as I’ll say.