Actor Ben Foster has been in everything. Since he started acting at the age of 16 he’s steadily worked in television, film, and theatre. Whether fans remember him as the sweet young man with mental challenges Eli in Freaks and Geeks, or Claire’s bisexual art school boyfriend Russell in Six Feet Under, Angel in X-Men, or his highly underrated turn as Lance Armstrong in The Program he’s always a chameleon-like and versatile actor. Now in his late 30s he’s taken on the brand new role of fatherhood to a baby girl with newly wed wife, actress Laura Prepon. Understandably, being a father is the occupation he’s most proud of these days, but it’s also had a great influence on his acting, especially in his latest film acting role in Leave No Trace. In Debra Granik’s (Winter’s Bone, Down to the Bone) film Leave No Trace, Foster plays Will, a veteran and father of a 13 year-old daughter who wants to create a life for them both in the wilderness while society attempts to strip them of their freedoms. Ben Foster talked to BYT about being a “cool dad,” his diverse resume, and how Leave No Trace changed his viewpoint on nature.
BYT: So you’re a father now, do you consider yourself a cool dad?
BF: (points to his cell phone holster, laughing) So cool!
BYT: Oh, I hear you. I’m a mom too. At least we’ve both got tattoos!
BF: (laughing) We’ve been marked by time.
BYT: So on to more important things, what drew you initially to Leave No Trace?
BYT: I was going to ask if you were a fan of Winter’s Bone.
BF: My door to her was Down to the Bone. Vera [Farmiga]’s work in that is astounding. And Debra’s documentary [Stray Dog]. Just stunning work. I really liked Winter’s Bone, too.
BYT: Had you reached out to her personally to work with her?
BF: No, it’s just a script that was circulating. And I read it and I heard that there was some interest [in me] so I asked if I could please meet her. So we went on a few walks. I didn’t have the job right away. I plead my cases and we decided that we’d go play in the trees for a little while.
BYT: Had you read My Abandonment [the book which is Leave No Trace is based on] before filming?
BF: I read the book once I was hired for the job, then the work begins.
BYT: Before the job, did you consider yourself an outdoorsy person?
BF: The joy of the job, which I consider not too dissimilar from a journalist, is asking “why” and “how.” My relationship with nature was healthy. The learning curve was steep and beautiful. The joy of the job was learning this language, reading your environment. Where I ordinarily would have seen a bunch of trees, then it became, “Oh, I can build a shelter out of that,” or, “I can find water there,” or, “I can build a fire pit here.” I could create a home where there was normally just a nice walking path. Learning a completely different language. And it gives you confidence which I encourage everybody to take time to do.
BF: You have a really diverse acting resume, but this is one of the first roles where you’ve played a father, a father of a 13-year-old [played by Thomasin McKenzie]. How did you get into that parent head space and build that familial connection with Thomasin?
BF: We [Laura Prepon and I] had just found out my wife was pregnant. And we found out it was a girl and [Prepon] was going into her second trimester. So that had me thinking about a lot of these things: What kind of parent do you want to be? How do want to raise your kid? How do you want to protect them from certain toxic environments? And where might we, even with the best of intentions, get in ourselves and our own child’s way of developing in the best way possible? Looking at those things and feeling those things, I was coming to the table pretty raw and tender.
In terms of working with Thom, it was one of the easiest fits I’ve had. She’s a very present, very evolved being. And a pro and comes to the table very prepared and very ready to play.
BYT: You character Will is a veteran and I’m wondering in your preparation did you connect with any servicemen or women to really understand that sort of PTSD or reentry issues?
BF: For sure. I’ve had friends who’ve served so those conversations over the years have built up a compassion for that. And also recognizing that trauma itself–war doesn’t own that. Most of us, if you live long enough, will experience some form of trauma in one way or another, or traumas. And how we deal with those, and how we approach our own healing, is what defines our life and our life path. And how it effects our loved ones. Looking at it through that lens, it’s uncomfortable, but that’s the job. That’s the joy of the job.
BYT: I imagine that can take a heavy emotional toll. Did you carry that weight through filming or were you able to release it at the end of each day of filming?
BF: You don’t. But there’s also a trap to talking about this with actors. It’s like, “Oh, I’m so tortured”… like, it’s make-believe. That said, bad dreams can shake you. For all of us. Let’s say, if the movie is about baseball, you’re going to be thinking about baseball all day and you’re going to come home from work…
BYT: And see everything through the lens of that?
BF: Exactly. So that’s just one of the effects of the job. I haven’t worked since [laughs]. I’ve been a dad. Changing diapers.
BYT: How old is your daughter?
BF: Just shy of a year. It’s a real thing. It’s not our job. It feels like waking up. That’s what my lady and I talk about–having a child is like waking up. [Prior to children] you have your rituals. It’s not like that goes away, but it’s not, “This is my time and this is how I do it.” You grab that time [for yourself] whenever you can. That is so distilling and purifying.
BYT: Back to the work of acting, you played Stanley Kowalski in Streetcar Named Desire in Brooklyn a couple years ago and at London’s Young Vic. Any itch to get back to stage work?
BF: Oh, yeah. Sure. Stanley was such a privilege, especially to do it twice–once in London and then in New York. Because you get to keep asking it questions. You get to keep poking it and it hits you back. You don’t beat Stanley, you don’t beat the play, you don’t get a win. You just climb it every night and that experience is a privilege and it won’t come back in this life I imagine. I’ll happily read anybody and anything. I loved that theatre [St. Ann’s Warehouse in Brooklyn]. St. Ann’s is terrific.
BYT: I was also really curious–you did a music video for Chris Stapleton (“Fire Away”), how did that come about?
BF: He reached out. What an incredible talent. I love the outlaw country. Sturgill and Waylon and Willie and Chris. These guys just are beautiful communicators. So when Chris called up it was exciting to play. I’d never done a video before and the material itself was meaningful so I wanted to help tell that story.
BYT: There are rumors you have a directing project in the pipeline. What do you think you took from this experience working with Debra on Leave No Trace that you’d bring to your own project?
BF: I think it’s really interesting how she’ll mix her casting with people of the world that she’s filming and weave them into actors. I think that’s a really interesting approach. Sometimes it’s very successful and sometimes less so but her interest in bleeding those lines is something I’d like to explore.
BYT: How did you like filming in Oregon? How long was filming?
BF: I love Oregon. I think it was six, seven weeks. Standard shoot. I’ve been drawn to the Pacific Northwest since I was a little kid. Northern California. Any place with big redwoods, big trees has been medicine. So it feels great.
BYT: I’m really excited for this film and to see what you do next.
BF: Fatherhood. Diaper duty! [laughs] I thought I was interesting. It’s great. It’s great being a parent.