Ben Foster on His ‘Culty’ Upbringing and Finding Happiness: ‘I Feel Really Alive’
The ‘Leave No Trace’ star on how living in the woods, becoming a father, and finally embracing his ‘strange’ upbringing in a Transcendental Meditation community changed his life.
Ben Foster may be the first actor to actively, excitedly delete his own lines from a script.
He and director Debra Granik went through the Leave No Trace screenplay “compulsively” before the film’s damp shoot in the forests of Eagle Fern Park outside of Portland, Oregon, and put a red line through anything his character didn’t need to say. That character, Will, is a war veteran suffering from crippling PTSD that moves him to strip his life of all belongings, luxuries, and erroneous speech while raising his young daughter Tom (Thomasin McKenzie) off the grid, alone in the woods.
During prep Foster pointed out a key line in the script to Granik, who famously directed Jennifer Lawrence to her first Oscar nomination in 2010’s Winter’s Bone. Will and Tom are at the grocery store and Tom wants to buy a candy bar. “Is it a want or a need?” he asks her. “I said, that is the key to Will,” Foster remembers.
When we meet with Foster in early November, he’s doing a short sprint of press urging awards consideration for Leave No Trace, which was released this summer to raves, especially for Foster’s quiet yet seismic performance as a father caught in between his trauma-mandated lifestyle and doing what is best for his daughter. The script, even before he and Granik went at it with a hacksaw, was sparse. We laugh about the rare actor’s humility to prefer a performance given in silent stares and body language, rather than big dialogue moments.
But it also speaks to how much Foster has learned after two decades in the business. He knows what’s going to work.
“If Thom and I are listening to each other physically then maybe we could get away without have that third-act monologue,” he says. “When the tear drops at just the right point and it zooms in with the score. Maybe we don’t need that. Let’s see what we can get away with. And everyone was game.”
Not that Foster hasn’t performed those monologues before, or, as he says, won’t “climb that mountain joyously” again in the future. He’s had a career that’s spanned TV shows (Flash Forward, Six Feet Under) and big-screen blockbusters (X-Men: The Last Stand). He’s honed a reputation in recent years for a certain intensity—and intense commitment—yielding standout performances in Hell or High Water, The Messenger, 3:10 to Yuma and Ain’t Them Bodies Saints.
He’s the kind of actor who’s remained a tantalizing enigma while racking up a long resume, in the tradition of the business’s most appreciated “serious actors.” It’s not that he hasn’t been in the news, be it for his personal life—he was engaged, twice, to Robin Wright; now he’s married to Laura Prepon—or, more often, making headlines for the extreme method preparation he’s done for roles. He notoriously took performance-enhancing drugs to play Lance Armstrong in The Program, drilled out his own tooth for Hell or High Water, ate handfuls of dirt while shooting Lone Survivor, and slept on the streets before playing a homeless man in Rampart.
True to form, he actually built the camp his character lives in for Leave No Trace. Before filming he learned it all: how to gather water; how to make a fire pit; how to “range out,” which is finding resources for edible food; and how to read the birds, because, he says, “they are the gossips of the forest—they know what’s going on.”
The truth is that there’s something that feels different about Leave No Trace, both from an outsider’s purview and to Foster himself—that feels special, like it’s a moment.
In a piece timed to the film’s July release, Vulture wondered if the movie was “our first look at the real Ben Foster,” going so far as to ask if he’s “the best actor who’s never been nominated for an Oscar?” But it goes beyond a remarkable performance. The making of this film was more personal for the 38-year-old actor than most, if not all, of his earlier projects.
The opportunity to continue to explore how the trauma of war affects veterans was important to him, continuing what “felt like a triptych, or the way that some artists have periods musically or painterly” after playing military men in The Messenger, Lone Survivor, Rampart and on stage in A Streetcar Named Desire.
Committing to this character of a survivalist living in the forest triggered a bit of reflection of his time growing up in rural Iowa, where his parents raised him in a Transcendental Meditation community. It’s an upbringing he describes as “naturally strange” and has had a complicated, but ultimately formative impact on him. But it’s also one that informed his love for being outdoors “near the trees,” which he relished while filming.
Most powerfully, he found out that he and Prepon would be expecting their first child together right before shooting. Ella was born last August.
“It changed everything,” he says. “Or it simplified everything. Distilled everything is probably the word.” He says the timing of the project couldn’t have been better. Prepon went with him to Oregon for the shoot, though, “my wife doesn’t dig the rain,” he laughs. “She’s like, get us the fuck out of here. It’s beautiful, but it’s gloomy.”
Her presence, and that of the daughter they were expecting, became a part of his process while shooting. “I would put my hands on my wife’s big belly at night and feel our daughter kicking little kicks through her skin,” he says. “We actually had a device to put up so we could hear her heartbeat. We would listen to that before going to bed. Then in the morning I would get up early, go to the rainy woods and watch this being, this young woman [McKenzie’s character] find her own way and be so impressed by that.”
Granik does many things masterfully with her direction of Leave No Trace—channeling Will’s private feelings as he struggles through how to raise his daughter chief among them. But there’s something visceral in how she telegraphs the waterlogged chill of life in the Oregon forests. You feel the coldness when you watch. The extreme elements are almost tangible. For Foster, though, they actually were. It was freeing.
“I really have found great healing with the trees,” he says. He and Prepon currently live in Manhattan. He shudders when remembering a former life, more than 10 years ago, living in what he calls “The Other Place”—Los Angeles. “When I lived in The Other Place, I would have moments where I feel that I have to get out and it was always with one idea, which is go north,” he says. “I need to be around a tree. So I’d find myself needing a drive at 2:30 in the morning. Just jump in the car and go and end up in Big Sur or Marin near woods, and just go be with them.”
A brief Wikipedia factoid mentions that Foster was born in Boston, but moved with his family to “rural Iowa” when he was 4 years old after their home was robbed. We wondered how that upbringing contributed to that sense of security he had in nature, and his relationship to Leave No Trace and understanding of Will.
“It informs work in the way that I like big open spaces,” he says. “I like being near the water. I like being near trees.” But more surprisingly, he explains that his time in Fairfield actually helped him understand a different part of Will’s experience: being devout to beliefs or a practice that others have a hard time wrapping their heads around or are unable to understand. For Will, it’s raising a daughter in wilderness, cut off from society; for Foster, it’s being raised in a community described as “America’s Transcendental Meditation Mecca.”
“It’s a curious town that deserves more attention and longer conversation, which is based on the Transcendental Meditation community that my parents were involved in,” he says. “I don’t talk a lot about it in the press.” It’s true. He and Prepon, who has been linked to Scientology, are consistently private about their beliefs. “But you’re asking.”
Back on the East Coast, his father was a teacher in TM and his mother was a receptionist. “They were like, there’s this town that is going to raise evolved children and meditate twice a day, this old technique, and it’s going to be called Fairfield,” Foster says. So at age 4, Foster started meditating. He says it was a normal school, save for the 20 minutes in the morning and 20 minutes in the afternoon marked for silent meditation.
“There were some things that were naturally strange,” he says. “Culty, for sure.” He stopped practicing at one point as an adult, partly as rebellion, partly because he didn’t enjoy waking up before dawn. But now he’s back to taking that 20 minutes in the morning “of centering, so I can just hear my thoughts during the day.”
He understands that when you talk about it casually that “it sounds spooky,” and could be perceived as wacky. But he turns it back on me, and asks if there’s anything I do to clear my head during the day, like exercise. Sure, sometimes I run. That’s meditative, he says.
“I think that anybody who has a practice, there’s enough science behind that to say it’s good for you and it feels good and it’s restorative,” he says. “In a very crazy world with a lot of false urgency and manufactured momentum, you can get quiet inside and practice that, be it sports or walking, drawing, something—breathing, practicing mindfulness, whatever your deal is. I think it’s a great thing. So I take that that’s what I think about for Fairfield.”
After Leave No Trace, he was able to spend a year and a half at home raising Ella, changing diapers, and being a dad. When we finish talking, he’s going to go home to spend some time with his family before leaving the next day to go to Prague, where he’s shooting a big-budget project called Medieval. But he says he finally feels settled, and grateful for all of it.
“It’s really nice to miss somebody,” he says. “I miss my family when I’m not with them. I feel pretty settled. I think I was pretty ornery for a long time. You know, the young man disease of it all. I feel really alive right now, if that makes sense. It’s nice to have a job, but I do miss my family when I’m not with them. So today feels really good. Back to hard tomorrow.”