Ben Foster: Leaving a Cultural Trace

August 23, 2018
The singular actor was compelled to star in Debra Granik’s Leave No Trace because of concerns for his unborn daughter.

Ben Foster feels out of place in the glam surrounds of the Riviera, speaking to the journalist throng following the premiere of Leave No Trace at the Cannes Film Festival.

“It was a bittersweet moment,” he says, remembering his first foray to Cannes in 2006 to promote Brett Ratner’s X-Men: Last Stand. “They tarred and feathered me, pulled me up a building and dropped it down. I dare say not a very successful film creatively.”

This time it’s a very different story. He’s here to promote Debra Granik’s long awaited follow up to Winter’s Bone, Leave No Trace.

“When I read the script, me and my fiancé found out that she was pregnant and with a girl. The natural thing as a father, is to think how we are going to take care of the kids. How am I going to be a father, how can I protect my child? Once you start walking down that icy staircase without a railing, of saying, ‘wait a minute, how do we get out of this city if there’s a bomb that drops? How do I feed my family if the supermarket is closed?’ Most people don’t want to think this way, they call it extreme. But it’s not extreme if you travel the world. If you’re stuck in Los Angeles, sure, it’s impossible. There’s a great grocery store every few blocks, Starbucks on every corner, you’ve got everything you need, everything’s a smile, Crest toothpaste all the way. But if you leave that area and you see the rest of the world, it doesn’t work like that.

“The blessing of doing what we do is that we get to travel, and we get asked questions. The birth of the child, or the expected child, now removes me from the selfish actor mentality, which is ‘I am going to play the person and learn the thing…’ That guy is going to die! So, I’m not saying don’t honour your job, but these questions came to the surface so ferociously when I read the script. What happens when they turn off the water. Is it paranoid or is it a circumstance worth considering? So, I was thinking about off grid, self-sustained living as a confidence in this life. There’s so much anxiety in this life, there’s so much disconnect, there’s so much that separates us from each other. So, yeah, independence has been very front and centre in anticipation of our daughter.”

The story of a veteran father living off the grid with his daughter (Thomasin McKenzie) obviously resonated with Foster, as did Granik’s general approach to making Leave No Trace.

“It was beautiful, it was sparse, it was based on real people. And then it took a life of its own. And the more wilderness training we did, the more we realised that we could say less and do more. And that behaviour would tell the story, rather than the exposition where the wife was or what was war like, we could transmit that experience rather than saying it. That’s to Debra’s credit. She and I worked rigorously to cut out 40% of the dialogue.”

 

What kind of background do you have when it comes to connecting with nature?

I was raised in a small town in rural Iowa. I grew up playing in forests and corn fields. My relationship to nature is fairly healthy. I wouldn’t say it’s as extreme as what Will [his character in the film] has chosen to live his life. The forest has always been medicinal to me; the way that looking at the ocean makes you feel better. We’re in here watching movies, but to be able to bring our attention out, is medicine.

Was it hard to get into the state of mind of your character?

I have several friends who served. PTSD is not solely corrected to war, as we know. Trauma effects all of us in some way, one time or another. We lose someone, or we witness violence in some fashion… it’s part of life. How we negotiate that trauma is just what defines us as a person. Living in a space that is self-medicating, not in a drug or alcohol or sex, it’s the lack of stimulus. He’s taken himself out of society in order to hear himself better, is my belief.

Would you say it’s a sign of the times that this story of being off the grid is being told?

Absolutely. I think this tale… the ornaments are this kind of technology. But I imagine, there’s always a bit of technology that seems new, and cuts off a community of that time in a way from the good old days of doing it the right way. I think somebody defending his philosophy with his family is not a new story. What’s exciting about it, though, how surprised I was when I read it and what Debra did with the script is that there’s no bad guy. There are good people in the world.

Do you think it says something about contemporary America?

For sure. My instinct is to go really cynical, and feel cynical about it, and feel ashamed. When I speak with my friends who lives overseas, and not in America, we’re brutally ashamed and frightened. What I’d like to say is that I really appreciated Debra’s hand of saying that it’s not American story, it’s a universal human story. There are good people everywhere who are ready to do the right thing instinctually, and that’s very hopeful.

If you think of your career right now, you’ve done these interesting smaller movies, and bigger ones as well. When did this part of your career begin and where will it lead?

I don’t know. I like to work. I like to collaborate. Like a journalist, the joy is in saying I don’t know. What do you think? That’s the pleasure of doing what we do, is not knowing, and then learning. But if I look back, I’d say I like all kinds of movies. I like big movies, small movies, all genres. We need story, and if I can play them then fucking great. It’s a good life today. Today’s good.

And how’s fatherhood?

I’m so happy man. I’ve been home for a year. Haven’t worked since. Just changing diapers.  

Leave No Trace is screening at the Adelaide Film Festival and is closing the Brisbane International Film Festival.

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