Best Actor

Ben Foster Delivers in 'The Messenger'

by Matt Mazur

17 December 2009


What was the physical preparation like for 'The Messenger'?

What was the physical preparation like for The Messenger?
It’s really about creating a landscape. I know it sounds deeply pretentious, but if I can’t see it, I can’t feel it. So one gathers as much information, and allows a mental landscape to develop. And you get down to technicalities. If you get hit by an IED, how does that affect the tendons? How does that affect your leg? Spending time settling with these images, over time, I suppose prep, enough prep, allows for a space where you can just be present. You don’t have to think about “what would he do?” or “what would it be like?” It’s just reacting to the environment. It’s almost a safety net so one can just go where one needs to go. Each role demands a different level of play. For instance, its different for each picture, there are different requirements that you need to honor.

Oren Moverman’s Jesus’ Son and Married Life greatly impressed me. What’s he like as a director and how does the way he frames a scene and paces it – I am thinking about the fantastic medium shot of you and Samantha Morton in the kitchen that unfolds so beautifully – affect you as an actor? He has such a unique rhythm…how do you get into that rhythm and how did he work with you to achieve this?
I worked extensively with Oren. I came to New York for about eight weeks before shooting. It’s a tuning process. It’s like getting to know someone. You allow yourself to fall in love and when you fall in love you can intuit what someone is thinking. You’re hungry before they know they’re hungry, you know? We shared books, documentaries, stories about family. It’s just getting to a point where we tell stories about ourselves, I suppose, and with the filter of this project, how we connect to those things and allow the lines to bleed a little bit. For a scene like the kitchen sequence, we didn’t rehearse anything for the film, there were no rehearsals. He would talk to the actors separately, and we would block, very loosely, with the cinematographer [Bobby Bukowski] just to get some tape lines if we both needed to be in focus. His approach is magical. He gives permission and encourages to go off book and just breeds a very quiet environment where people can just be together. What you see is the first take, unrehearsed, blocked loosely. There’s not too much chatter about it, you don’t want to “think” it to death. Once you start getting really philosophical about it on the day the heart dims and you can really outsmart yourself. Oren is a true master of giving you the confidence to just be.

I’d like to take a minute just to talk about your two main co-stars in the messenger because they are two people who blew me away: Samantha Morton and Woody Harrelson. How was your experience working with these actors?
Well, Woody… he’s a brother. He’s impossible not to love. I’ve had the fortune of working with – I wouldn’t just call them “famous”, but very recognizable. I had never been in the company of somebody who was just so universally beloved, and wherever you go people feel like they are on a first name, old friend basis with him. He chooses his dramatic roles very carefully and that’s come up on a lot of the press tour. People are like “well, you know, you usually do these silly, funny ha-ha comedies.” And if you spend time with him and watch him and feel with him, what is remarkable is that he chooses those roles carefully because it costs something. When you’re put yourself out there, it’s not so much putting yourself out there, it’s being brave with the frailty that we all feel. When he goes, he goes for broke. His heart is so damn big. And he’s so incredibly generous. But it costs something. It was exquisite to play with him. It is one of his finest performances among many. I couldn’t say enough about Woody.

Sam, I have had a severe actor crush on her for years. She was the only one that I could think of, the only one that Oren could think of. We were just attached to the idea that Olivia had to be Samantha Morton. We didn’t know how to get her the script or to go through normal avenues, but she’s breathtaking, just breathtaking. She is deeply intuitive, and brave and deeply intelligent and wild and centered. She’s a woman, you know? A real woman.

The Messenger is all about reactions. Of course, there are the reactions of the families who receive the bad news, but also yours and Woody’s reactions to their reactions. How did you film these scenes? Did you always know how the other actors would react?
Certainly not. In part, as far as reading the script, we knew that we had to deliver the news and they say this and you say that, but because we didn’t rehearse and Oren took it so much farther, in a very extreme way, where those we were identifying, we were never introduced to. We didn’t meet in the make-up trailer, there wasn’t a script read-through. The traditional ways of making films, particularly with these fragile and emotionally-dense sequences, it was really courageous on all parts. When Woody and I are knocking on the door, when we’re rolling film, that’s the first time we’re meeting. So it created an environment that gave us a lot more freedom to be present. It demanded it. You try to create an environment or do enough work where you’re allowing yourself to just be and those sequences were – I don’t want to say “easy” – but its more about inference, rather than trying to figure out. You just have to be with each other and feel with each other and then you do it again and again. All the notifications were filmed in single-shots, handheld, unrehearsed and maybe we did them three times, four times, single-shots, no coverage, nothing was planned and we were encouraged to go off book. It was raw.

Like any good journalist, I immediately went to Wikipedia and IMBD to see what you were all about [Foster laughs]. I was happy and interested to see that somebody mentioned that you were a really big fan of Gena Rowlands. I happen to think she’s one of the all-time best, too. What do you find so intriguing about her?
Well, I think Samantha Morton has very similar qualities. Its strength and fragility. A lot of people can be broken or rage and different actors have their “moves”, so to speak, but they seem to allow themselves to penetrate and be penetrated at the same time. It’s the most sexual act and it’s so heightened. It’s like how do you describe a Picasso? It’s just coming from a very refined and at the same time very primitive place. I think she and Sam have very similar qualities of experiencing.

I read that you were really into meditation, how does that help you find your way into characters? Especially one like Will who is emotionally isolated and so lonely? Is that even a tool that you use as an actor?
It’s hard to separate a tool for life and a tool for work. The technique is transcendental meditation; I’ve been doing it for a very long time. Those rituals are important. Whatever door works for you should be used. And that can be anything. This is one technique of many. For me it allows deep silence inside and it gets rid of the static, it tunes it out. There’s so much racket in one’s life – people and life demands. This technique without being religious is a technology to allow yourself to hear your own voice, rather than spitting back what people are telling you or demanding of you. On a practical, functional level, it allows for more energy. Thirty minutes in the morning or the afternoon is like having a three hour power nap twice a day, and I find I can sleep less, with a clearer head. If I’m going to relate that to work, if there’s more space inside, maybe than maybe there’s more room for someone to show up.

Catch The Messenger in theaters now, as it continues racking up year-end accolades and enjoy bragging to your friends that you knew all along that this phenomenal little indie was heading for big-time recognition.

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