Ben Foster on his role in indie hit "Leave No Trace": Stripping down to "whatever is essential"

Acclaimed character actor on his star turn as a homeless vet who tries to raise his daughter in the forest

Published July 6, 2018 4:05PM (EDT)

Ben Foster (Matt Smith)
Ben Foster (Matt Smith)

Ben Foster is one of those people who could disappear in a crowd -- until you see him on screen. Arriving at Salon's studio in lower Manhattan, Foster could easily have been a video editor or software engineer showing up for work in one of the numerous companies that share our building. He's a white dude of medium height with medium brown hair, who's neither old nor young. (He's now 38, and has been acting constantly in film and TV since starring in the teen sitcom "Flash Forward" in the mid-'90s.)

Approximately nobody would spot Foster in the elevator and identify him as a movie star -- largely because he isn't one. Instead he's one of the most powerful and versatile character actors of his generation, a master craftsman whose job involves "asking questions and feeling things," as he puts it, and whose lean, intense performances are about stripping down dialogue and action to "whatever is essential."

Foster had something of a dramatic breakthrough in director Oren Moverman's film "The Messenger" in 2009, playing a traumatized Marine sergeant who gets reassigned to a military task that literally no one wants: Telling civilian spouses or parents that their loved one has been killed in action overseas. There might be a certain thematic continuity between that role and Foster's performance this year in director Debra Granik's moving and memorable indie hit "Leave No Trace," which may well put him in major-awards territory for the first time.

Foster plays a man named only as Will, a military veteran who is clearly suffering from some version of post-traumatic stress, although this isn't the kind of movie that's going to fill in the back story or answer all his questions. For reasons of his own, Will lives with his teenage daughter, Tom (the remarkable teenage actress Thomasin Harcourt McKenzie), in a forest park just outside Portland, Oregon. Will and Tom don't think of themselves as homeless; if anything, their bucolic life together will strike many viewers as a highly viable alternative to the overscheduled, electronic-cocoon existence most of us lead.

Society, of course, does not agree. You're not supposed to go live in a park, no matter how good your outdoors skills may be. Foster joined me recently to discuss the conflicts and challenges of his role in this remarkable film. Our full conversation is embedded below; the transcript that follows has been edited for length and clarity.

Salon Talks: Ben Foster on "Leave No Trace"

"What do we actually need to live a life that's fulfilling?"

Ben, your new film, which is now in theaters, is called "Leave No Trace," directed by Debra Granik. It's already one of the best-reviewed independent films of the year. Tell us a little bit about it.

This movie follows a vet who has been living in a national forest park with his daughter, in the Pacific Northwest right outside of Portland. It's based on a true story. The reverse narrative is that they get caught. Society doesn't agree with people who don't want to live in a house, so they give them a house. Really, it's about how society influences their relationship and starts pulling them apart.

You know, I still think of you as this exciting young actor who’s new on the scene, and here you are…

Broken. [Laughter.]

Or at least old enough to play somebody's dad. 

It happens! Time is wicked.

Now, the director of this film, Debra Granik, has a little bit of a following in indie circles. She made a film a few years ago called "Winter's Bone" that introduced a young actress named Jennifer Lawrence to the world. Was it working with Debra that drew you to this project? 

Yeah. It was her first film, "Down to the Bone," that just knocked me out. That was with Vera Farmiga, and she's just ... They made it on a shoestring budget. That's about addiction. It's just a wonderful, a wonderful film. I had seen her documentary, "Stray Dog," as well. When I heard she was doing this film I was just excited because she doesn't make them very often. There's like five, eight years in between each one.

When I read this script, I had just gotten word that my wife was pregnant. I finished the script and just burst into tears. I was like, I’ve got to ask this lady if she'll take a walk with me, so I can convince her to give me the job.

Without giving too much away -- I mean, this guy is a complicated character. He's generally sympathetic and he loves his daughter, there's no question. But he doesn't always make the right decisions. How did you think about him when you approached playing the character?

Our job is to defend the people in the story. I agree with a lot of what he's saying. There's part of me that says, “Yes.” His way of dealing with trauma -- and it’s only suggested, but what he experienced in war has left unseen scars. In a way, he negotiates that by removing himself and his daughter from society, [where there are] less triggers. But also the philosophy being: Is it a want or a need? What do we actually need in life to live a life that's fulfilling? These are questions that I am asking as a parent, as a man. every day.

This is not the kind of big-budget movie where we're going to have some elaborate flashback to Iraq or Afghanistan or wherever that fills in the story. What happened in the past has to be filled in by you guys. In fact, let's mention Thomasin McKenzie, the 17-year-old actress who plays your daughter in the movie. She's kind of a discovery. 

Completely, yeah. Thomasin is just terrific, a wonderful actor. Our rehearsal process wasn't a traditional one, and that was very appealing. The way I like to work is, you go learn the thing, and then you go do the thing. This was about learning the nature thing, so we spent time with a survivalist trainer and primitive skills, along with someone I worked privately with who would teach escape and survival techniques to special ops guys.

After learning these skills, I asked to go in early in order to be able to teach Thom a few things, just to create a dynamic. Just to spend time out in the woods together making a fire, collecting sticks for a shelter, basic tasks. That created a really beautiful shorthand. But she's hard not to connect with. She's just… I mean, you see it on screen.

What were the important elements to learn about for this character about learning? What did you have to learn about living in the woods that you didn't know before?

A lot. A lot. These people are totally off the grid. The joy of the job is similar to being a journalist. You get to say, “How is that?” “Why is that?”, “What is that about?” “How do you do that?” I worked with someone named Dr. Nicole Apelian for these tribal skills, or primitive skills rather. Nature becomes legible. You get into the forest and it's not  just trees. You're saying, “Oh, that could be a shelter. That could be a rain catchment. That's edible.” You start seeing resources in your surroundings where before it was just green and brown.

It was very, very exciting. Everything that we did in the film is stuff I learned how to do practically. It just makes my job easier, if I can do the thing.

I'm struck by the fact that these people don't consider themselves to be homeless, right. Because a shorthand way of describing this movie is that this father and daughter are homeless and living in a park. But that's not how they would describe it.

Yeah. They have a home. They have each other. Sometimes, it's hard for parents to let go of their kids.

How do you think about this issue personally? There's this collision between what they believe is OK for them and what society believes is OK. I mean, legally, you can't just go live in a park

Well, I responded to his philosophy. Society offers us a real healthy dose of toxic nonsense every day. As a new parent, me and my wife, we're going to be negotiating these waters: How do we protect our child and give them the most enriched life they could have? This was an interesting statistic that I read today, that North Americans spend an average of 25 percent of their day looking at their smartphone or a tablet.

I'm almost surprised it’s that low, honestly. But that's still scary.

It's scary, so that's four hours a day, roughly. When did phones come about? Would you say the smartphone has been around for 10 or 15 years?

Just about. No longer than that, yeah. 

If we look at that statistic and we look at that time frame and then we look at the soaring heights of anxiety and depression that are going on with our children, it coincides with this thing, this machine. If that's what it's doing and we don't know how to negotiate these dopamine hits -- what if we take some of those things out? What if we return to something natural? I find that very appealing. It may be extreme, certainly for my own life. But some of those philosophies are very appealing. There's an appeal to that right now that I think people will connect with.

In terms of talking to veterans who've been homeless, or who have maybe dealt with mental health issues, did you do any research along those specific lines? 

Over the years I've become friends with men and women who have served and returned and struggled with re-entry. Debra and I both have accumulated, I guess, stories, narratives, personal experiences with our friends that they share with us. I felt pretty connected to this guy fairly quickly. The biggest door in was a line in the script which is, “Is it a want or is it a need?” That was the line.

You know, you read the script a hundred times. It's like developing a photo. You just keep putting a wash on it and patterns will come up. After reading that line, I brought it back to Debra and said, "So let's do a pass of the script through that lens." The game is this: If he doesn't need to say it, he doesn't say it. She was game, so we just redlined the script.

We cut out a fair amount of stuff. What can we get away with and still transmit, still communicate through behavior and context, who this man is, and where he came from? That was exciting.

What I was about to say earlier was that this isn't the kind of movie where we're going to get the back story that has lots of explosions and the guy's friend getting killed in Afghanistan or something. 

Yeah, there's no third-act monologue. [Laughter.]

Yeah. We don't get that here. That's something you guys had to provide without explicitly providing it, just enough sense of context for this person's life.

There was this joy in just deciding to strip it. The same way that he’d approach his belongings, we wanted to do that linguistically. Just whatever is essential, and see what we get away with.

One of the things about Debra Granik's movies is the sense of place is always so strong. Was there a way in which those woods -- they're very specific, the gorgeous, damp, sometimes bone-chilling forests of the Pacific Northwest. Did that shape how you guys played the roles?

For sure, yeah. If you're on a beach you feel a particular way. If you're in the forest you feel a particular way. I return to the idea that as children we'd go play in a backyard or in the street. We just imagine wherever we were is where we were, and cultivating that "what if" scenario is our job. It really helps when you're in the actual place.

Yeah. You've made movies at different levels of budget. It must be very different, doing something like this versus doing a big-budget, green-screen movie where you're just acting in a room, basically.

Yeah. It's more akin to playing in the backyard, except the stick that you found is actually made by a big company. It's a very expensive stick. Those green screens are … I like different kinds of movies. We start off as fans first. The filmmakers that I've been able to work with have worked at different budgets. I don't really think too hard about it. It's freelance, right? Every few months I'm looking for another job.

That's funny. You're part of the gig economy, in other words.

A thousand percent. I think of it more like catering. You cook it up, you build, you collaborate, and then you serve it up for the menu that was asked for. You put your thing on it and you hope people enjoy it, and then it's on to the next one.

You talked about getting to know people who served in the military. You've played either active-duty military people or veterans a number of times. Do you have a personal connection to the military. or is this something that came up accidentally?

I think it's from just being terribly moved by anyone who decides to serve in whatever capacity, whatever the uniform. Somebody says, “I am here in service of…” is so moving. It's also my generation’s war, the desert wars. Iraq and Afghanistan, these are our peers. And those that are returning and their stories need telling. In terms of drama, these are topical, meaningful subjects that I'm drawn to for various reasons. This particular story of someone who's re-entered and is trying to find healing, we felt like new ground or more like part of a series, I suppose, asking questions.

I think that's a very good point that your generation has had this specific experience with the desert wars. My older brother’s generation went to Vietnam or resisted the war, and we had a whole bunch of movies about that. But there are lot of men and women around your age, I guess, who were in Iraq or were in Afghanistan, and are back now trying to deal with that experience when most of us don't want to talk about it. 

That's right. Again, going back to the freelance, it's what crossed my desk and moved me at the time. It felt like time well-spent to go ask these questions together. And, yeah, I suppose that has come up in "The Messenger," in "Lone Survivor," in "Rampart," where it was a small role, but a homeless vet in a more traditional sense. Addiction and mental illness was being unpacked in a more straightforward way, I suppose, than in this film. 

You talk about time spent with Debra Granik as time well spent. Is that the idea? You work with a director you like, where you're going to learn something?

You hope. You hope to go to work with people you like. It doesn't always work that way, no matter what your profession is.

But getting into conversation with somebody that knows far more about the thing that you want to learn and they're willing to share that with me -- it's the greatest thing in the world. You want to be able to ask those questions with people that you have a rhythm with, a shorthand with, a curiosity and appetite, and an attitude towards asking questions. It's a short amount of time, but it's rigorous. It's not a hard job. It's not hard. There are no bullets, real bullets flying. But if you're going to spend that time asking questions and feeling things, you want them to be with people you like.

You do seem to enjoy or relish going at characters where there's a lot of weight on that person. You've mentioned things like mental illness, substance abuse, issues that come up with some of these characters. When a character has to carry something heavy like that, is that a challenge you like? 

It's drama. Drama is conflict. Yeah. They just don't cast me for the pretty girl next door, so I’ve got to take what they give me, man. I know I'd rather laugh when I'm watching a movie, but I haven't been able to do a lot of that. I'm looking! Every time I see Judd Apatow, I'm like, “Dude, God. Let me in, man. Let me in!”

It's not working?

Not yet.

By Andrew O'Hehir

Andrew O'Hehir is executive editor of Salon.

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