Ben Foster Loses Himself in His Roles, and ‘Leave No Trace’ Allowed Him to Disappear

After more than two decades in Hollywood, the actor tells IndieWire he has hit upon a formula for professional satisfaction.
Leave No Trace: Ben Foster Loses Himself in His Roles
"Leave No Trace"

Ben Foster only knows one way of working. After working in Hollywood for over two decades, the rare child actor who managed to find his way to a compelling adult career has been reaping the rewards of long-term commitment. In recent years, that has included an Independent Spirit Award for his turn in “Hell or High Water,” a continued relationship with his most cherished directors, and a sustained level of intensity that might exhaust other actors but only seems to keep Foster more tuned in. He buries himself in performances to a point where, as he describes it, he’s not even acting in a traditional sense.

“For my job, the goal is to learn the thing, and then do the thing, and do it, and do it, and do it over and over until I don’t think about it,” Foster said in a recent interview with IndieWire. “You start building a world where you don’t have to think so much. It’s the only way I know how to do it.”

It may not be the most suitable approach for every film — and over the course of 22 years in the business, Foster has dabbled in all kinds of projects, from an “X-Men” installment to the 2001 teen rom-com “Get Over It” — but Foster’s world-building approach has yielded his best, most satisfying work. His latest film, Debra Granik’s “Leave No Trace,” allowed Foster to once again gets to disappear into a role.

The movie, which debuted at Sundance this past January, arrived in limited release over the summer, and has somehow managed to sustain the rare 100% rating on Rotten Tomatoes in the interim. The story finds Foster playing single father Will, who lives off the grid with his teenage daughter Tom (Thomasin McKenzie, who recently earned an Indie Spirit nomination for the role). Suffering from PTSD and eager to exist outside the normal realms (and all the normal people who populate them), Will and Tom’s lives are built around their isolation, one threatened when they’re accidentally spotted by a stray runner.

For an actor like Foster, who adores being immersed in a role, it seemed like a dream gig. If nothing else, it allowed him the chance to apply his desire to “learn the thing” in literal and practical ways: he eventually adopted primitive skills, as well as escape and evade techniques. He learned how to build a fire, how to dig out a tent, how to find food. He didn’t just want to do all that stuff, he needed to do it for his work.

Debra Granik on the set of "Leave No Trace"
On the set of “Leave No Trace”Scott Green

And then there was filmmaker Debra Granik. Foster says he was an early fan of Granik’s work — he pointed to “Down to the Bone” as a marker of Granik’s “impressive” filmography and her ability to get in sync with her actors, all things that appealed to him. From their earliest meetings, Foster says it was clear that he and Granik would be able to work together in pursuit of a shared vision.

“The [filmmakers] that I’m drawn to are much more interested in collaborating,” Foster said. “In those [first] meetings, you try to create a shorthand or understand what the filmmaker wants to accomplish, what questions, avenues they want to explore, and can you share a working language? There’s nothing worse, well, there’s plenty of things worse, but it’s a drag to go to work when you’re making different movies, and I’ve found myself making different movies than the filmmaker. I found myself halfway through saying, ‘Well, I guess we didn’t understand each other.'”

Foster doesn’t name names when it comes to those films that were the product of such misunderstandings, preferring to reflect on the things that have worked. “My first film was with Barry Levinson,” he said, referring to “Liberty Heights.” “I’ve been a lucky fella in that department, and I’ve been really fortunate recently to work with some smart people. If you can go to work and someone can provoke a question that stirs you up a bit, that’s great. That means something’s gonna end up on film that feels true, and not a waste of time, or a lie. There’s less betrayal.”

The actor might have been even more sensitive to such betrayals when it came to “Leave No Trace,” as the film arrived at a pivotal point in his personal life. Foster and his wife, fellow actor Laura Prepon, had just learned that they were going to have a baby when he started reading the script. It all clicked. “Reading this script and coinciding with the news that we were gonna have a daughter months after completing this film, everything felt very charged,” Foster said.

“Leave No Trace”Bleecker Street

For Foster, someone who often gets labeled “intense” or “crazed” in his work (both of which have been added those terms as part of his IMDb biography), signing on for the film and the experience it would entail seems to have been an easy decision. Not that it was necessarily an easy process, as the material that Grankik and co-writer Anne Rosellini adapted from Peter Rock’s novel “My Abandonment” contains heavy themes.

“We talked about the unseen scars of war and different coping mechanisms,” Foster said. “These are things that have touched my life by having friends in the military, and I felt like I could ask these questions in an emotional way that I haven’t before, so that was exciting. … Further than that, trauma is trauma, and war doesn’t get to own PTSD. Understanding that if you live long enough on this planet and you make it to a certain age we’re gonna experience things that go unresolved, leave a mark. We need to find ways to cope. We don’t do it so well sometimes.”

One thing that leaves a mark on Foster: his work. He doesn’t shake roles off, and he doesn’t seem to want to. “It’s like a breakup,” he said. “It’s three months of, we’ll call it an intense love affair, where it’s physical, and it’s mental, and it’s every day, and all night, and then it’s over. … It feels like falling in love and breaking up. Sometimes it’s a good breakup and sometimes it rips your heart out, and you think about it, every song reminds you of that person. It’s supposed to hurt a little. If it worked well, I think it’s okay to sit with that.”

While Foster admitted that has occasionally considering quitting the business, he has a hard time taking those feelings seriously. “Every couple of years, there’s a moment of an, ‘In case of an emergency’ clause, and get the fuck outta here, because this is clown town,” he said. “And then there’s an artist, a director, an actor, someone that inspires and excites. … I don’t even have a high school diploma. What am I gonna go do?”

“Leave No Trace” is now available on Digital HD, Blu-ray, and DVD.

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