Ben Foster is pacing Manhattan trying to ignore the clamor. “Sorry about all the sirens!” he groans apologetically. He’s just gotten home from starring as 14th Century general Jan Žižka in the biopic Medieval, hyped as Czechoslovakia’s biggest blockbuster to date, and Foster just wanted to stroll around to appreciate the holiday lights and squirrels “and ambulances,” he jokes.
Foster’s a long way from the Oregon forest where he shot Debra Granik’s Leave No Trace, a haunting, based-on-a-true-story drama about a survivalist veteran who has trained his teenage daughter to live with him in the forest. You sense Foster wouldn’t mind teleporting across the country for an hour of quiet. Then again, finding his own quiet is one of his strengths as an actor, not to mention as a human being dealing with modern chaos. At 4, Foster’s parents, two hippies raising a family in Fairfield, Iowa, taught him Transcendental Meditation, a mental pause he continues to carve out of his busy days. “It still fuels my life,” says Foster. “I encourage anybody that is finding the world a bit dissonant to take 20 minutes twice a day and hear your own voice.”
Meditation might have helped his character Will in Leave No Trace, who is so uncomfortable with the intrusion of his own thoughts that he busies himself chopping wood, recycling eggshells, and tinkering with solar stoves. He’s avoiding ideas that he won’t say aloud to his daughter, Tom—and won’t even whisper silently to himself. The woods are his physical and mental escape.
Foster gets the need for that. Over the last decade, he’s played a half-dozen veterans of the War on Terror in films like Lone Survivor and The Messenger. Foster’s resume stubbornly reminds us of the veterans who’ve been forgotten. And Will is a culmination of all those roles, a man who made it back home only to choose to be homeless. The paradox is his desire to raise a child off the grid also forces him to be on the run from social services. He can’t evade the future forever. Will’s raised a terrific girl—New Zealand newcomer Thomasin McKenzie radiates intelligence and bravery as Tom—but she’s starting to realize that one dad, no matter how loving, can’t take the place of a community.
Foster read the script right after he learned that he and his wife, Orange is the New Black actress Laura Prepon, were going to have a daughter themselves. He cried, and knew he had to convince Granik to give him the role. So while Prepon was in her second trimester, he was tromping around in the trees thinking about parenthood and responsibility and how to give your child the best when no one—not even a guy like Will who can survive the apocalypse—has all the answers.
“She was front and center in my heart for sure,” says Foster of his daughter Ella, now nearly a year and a half. As were his own parents, who also gave him adult-sized freedoms at a young age. He was an observant kid. An undiagnosed hearing disorder had the side-effect of training him to study faces and body language, and how to tell what people felt when you couldn’t hear their words. In school, Foster won second place in an international drama competition, yet his grades weren’t great. “If I can spell elbow five different ways in a book report, perhaps I should let someone else do the spellchecking and focus my energies elsewhere,” he laughs.
At 14, his casting tape got into the Disney Channel’s hands, and they flew him from Iowa to Los Angeles to audition to play the lead in their sitcom Flash Forward. Disney asked if his family would move to Canada. Astonishingly, they agreed. “They weren’t stage parents,” says Foster. “I didn’t come from a family that was industry savvy. It was incredible—incredible!—the sacrifices they made. But they recognized that I was happy doing this, and as a new parent myself, seeing your child happy, nothing beats it.”
Foster shot five episodes of the show before it went on a year-long hiatus. Then a wonderful disaster happened. He turned 15 and discovered angst. When his castmates painted butterflies on the dressing room wall, Foster scribbled Soundgarden lyrics. “I think they disturbed the producers,” says Foster. “They said, ‘Ben doesn’t seem so bright and fuzzy.’”
Suddenly he went from being the kid who didn’t mind chirping, “Hey, let’s go get a pizza!” to stubbornly insisting that real people don’t talk like cartoons. So the show hired him an acting coach. “He didn’t disagree,” says Foster, “so we ending up talking about what we were pursuing in this scene, and about connection.” He was risking his Disney Channel gig, but becoming an actor.
Foster never went back to school. He got his education on the set. Barry Levinson taught him improv shooting Liberty Heights, where he played a confused Jewish kid who dresses up like Adolf Hitler as a gag. As misfit Eli in Freaks and Geeks, Foster learned how to play a person who never knows when the joke is on him. He made the audience cringe and sniffle and laugh all at once. Nick Cassavettes’ Alpha Dog, in which Foster plays a furious, self-destructive small-time drug dealer whose anger problems get his younger brother kidnapped and killed, gave him permission to push his performances to the brink. “Emotional danger turns him on,” says Foster. “His school is as long as you’re telling the truth to yourself and listening to the other person, you can’t lose—and while you’re doing that, scare yourself, go farther.”
So he did in movies like 3:10 to Yuma and Rampart and Hell or High Water, perfecting his Ben Foster-isms: a whiplash temper, elastic vocal chords, and vibrating energy. Which is why it’s ironic that in Leave No Trace—the role that’s got Hollywood wondering if he’ll finally get his overdue Oscar nomination—Foster gives a hushed, near-mute performance. Will and Tom talk in facts and functions—tighten this, light that, this good?—not feelings. Occasionally, they scrap speech altogether and communicate in animal clicks. When the government kindly, but forcibly relocates Will and Tom to a house where the bright girl can go to school, the duo’s deepest exchange goes as follows: “Are we going to be OK here?” asks the child. Will simply replies, “We’re going to make the best of it.” Foster lets the timbre of his voice and the dimming light in his eyes say the rest.
“We talked a lot about how to not talk a lot,” explains Foster of how he and Granik pruned her script—not that the Winter’s Bone writer/director is a chatterbox, herself. “We chose his words like he would choose his belongings: Was it a want or a need? And if it was a want, he didn’t say it.”
They wound up removing nearly half of Will’s dialogue, especially the stuff that most actors would want to do, like any big moments that would explain how Will got here. There are no sermons about the violence he saw abroad. Instead, there’s just Foster’s tense pause when a psychology test asks if he has nightmares or troubling dreams. He doesn’t answer, and that’s answer enough. Later, Granik filmed Tom discovering an actual New York Times clipping from 2015 about a unit of Marines stationed in Afghanistan whose suicide rate is 14 times the national average. Bring up that article to Foster, and he’d rather not elaborate how the article informed his portrayal. What’s buried inside Will must stay buried. He’d rather leave it to us to note how Will flinches when a helicopter roars overhead. The specifics don’t matter, only the scars they’ve left behind.
“Debra’s a deeply humanist filmmaker,” says Foster. There are no villains in the film, not even the government employees who drag Will and Tom out of the woods. When Foster read the script, he was ready to spot the person his character would have to fight. “Every other page I was like, ‘Oh, it’s going to be the trucker, or it’s the lady in the hippie camp who’s going to do the bad thing.’ But it’s not about that. There are good people in the world who are happy to lend a hand, and I think that’s something worth reminding each other about.”
As for his palpable bond with his onscreen daughter, on the first day of the shoot, McKenzie explained that she would like to do a Maori ritual called a hongi, where they’d hold each other in silence for a full minute. Right when the AD ordered them to the set, Foster and McKenzie found a quiet hideaway, bringing along her caretaker, who witnessed and timed the embrace. At first, Foster felt awkward. But then, “our heartbeats and our breath synced up and we were just together in a feeling of security, and care and protection became our reality. I knew that I would take care of Thomasin and she would take care of me—it was this accelerated connecting that I’d never experienced.”
The real life father and daughter who inspired the story eventually disappeared. “It’s not been proven, but it’s been suggested that he’s no longer with us,” says Foster. Today, the girl would be 26. Foster has no idea if she’ll see Leave No Trace. He doesn’t even know when he’ll see it himself. “I experienced it, but I’m just not ready to witness it,” he says. Maybe he’ll wait till his own daughter is old enough to see the movie her dad made for her before she was even born. “Maybe she won’t have any interest!” laughs Foster, as he winds his way through the busy sidewalk back to his home. “Oh dad and his make-believe—why doesn’t he get a real job!?”