Ben Foster is no stranger to portraying real-life characters, taking on the literary icon William S. Burroughs in Kill Your Darlings and disgraced cyclist Lance Armstrong in an upcoming untitled biopic. The multi-talented actor takes on one of the most challenging roles of his career in Lone Survivor, debuting on Blu-ray and DVD June 3. The action-thriller is adapted from the best-selling memoir written by former Navy SEAL Marcus Luttrell (portrayed by Mark Wahlberg), who was part of a four-man mission along with Michael Murphy (Taylor Kitsch), Danny Dietz (Emile Hirsch) and Matt "Axe" Axelson (Ben Foster) to capture Taliban leader Ahmad Shah in 2005. Their mission quickly turned into a nightmare, as they were ambushed and highly outnumbered as they try to make it out of enemy territory in one piece.
I recently had the chance to speak with Ben Foster over the phone about taking on this heroic character, the training he went through, while offering updates on upcoming projects such as Warcraft and his Lance Armstrong biopic. Take a look at what he had to say in our exclusive interview.
I talked to (director) Peter Berg at the AFI Fest premiere, and he said he read the book over five years ago, when he was making Hancock. Can you talk about when you first heard about the project, and if you were familiar with the book beforehand?
Ben Foster: It was right around the same time. I met Pete, and I had just moved to New York, which I guess I'm coming up on six years now. I was actually moving into my apartment that day, and he said, 'Read this book.' The movie got pushed back and I got a call a few years later from Mark. Yeah, it was a good call to get.
Emile Hirsch also said that the SEAL training all the actors went through, was just a tiny fraction of what the actual SEAL's go through. What aspects of SEAL life and the training really struck you, that you may not have realized before?
Ben Foster: Moving as a unit, moving as a team, with live fire, was a very sobering experience. To trust the man in front of you, to trust the man behind you, to sense the guys on the flanks, how to move, how to communicate in high-stress situations, it was a great thrill to be a part of.
Did you also meet Axelson's family? Was that important for you to learn more about who this guy really was?
Ben Foster: It's been one of the greatest pleasures and privileges, getting to know Marcus and the Axelson family. They were incredibly generous with their time and their love for Matt. What else can you say? It's just a privilege just to sit amongst them and see how they deal with grief. The Axelson family, the way I see it, they celebrate their son. Of course, they miss him beyond repair, but they celebrate him, and they included me in some small way, in that love. There is a candle lit in my heart forever.
I was kind of surprised that this was shot in only 42 days. It's not terribly short, but for a production of this magnitude, it kind of is. Did the fact that it was such a tight schedule keep you in the right mindset of an ambushed soldier, where you might not have the time to really think about choices you're making?
Ben Foster: I didn't really think about how short of time we had. It was really about getting the tactics right on the day, and communicating with the guys who were on set with us, making sure we were on point. It was a very large, collaborative effort, getting this film to a standard that those in the community could support. I've had nothing but an overwhelmingly positive support from those in the community, so it wasn't just the actors, it wasn't just the producers, it was the guys who actually served, who were there, helping us make it happen, in a military fashion and in an efficient way, amidst the chaos. We were very lucky to have such a great support team.
When I saw this in November, what really struck me was their resolve. They've all been shot multiple times and they still find a way to carry on and fight. When you're in those scenes and backed against a wall, is there anything in particular you do to get into that right mindset? Do you think about a particularly painful moment that you endured in the past, to portray that on the screen?
Ben Foster: The guys who trained us, and Marcus, were there on set with us. We're not getting shot for real, but we talked to these men about what they saw and what they witnessed and, as comfortable as they were, and they were incredibly generous with us, with what they saw and their memories of war and battle. We hoped to best represent that. The job is to be caught up in a moment, and hopefully the camera can catch that, where you believe where you are, for a few moments. There is a belief in time, and the camera is there, but it felt really like a prayer, collectively, as a crew, rather than, 'I have to do something.' We're all paying attention to the inevitable. It's in the title. It was a strange feeling to watch some of the team guys have to walk off set, when it got too close, I suppose. I don't want to say that it's a complement, but there was a coherence of attention to detail, in representing this kind of warfare that seems to affect a community, which I'm very proud of.
Can you talk a bit about working with Peter Berg? This was obviously such a passion project for him, developing it over five years. Was that kind of passion something you could see right away when you first met with him?
Ben Foster: Yeah. He's just terrific. I love the man's energy, his attention to detail. I admire the hell out of him, for embedding with one of the teams for a month. He's a bad motherf---er, and he's not messing around, and he loves to celebrate these men of service. I just think the world of Pete. What a terrific mind. He's a jock, he's a poet, he's an instinctive animal, he's a hoot to be around, and he'll drive you. You can't ask for anyone better to helm that project.
Is there anything you can say about Warcraft? I believe production wrapped recently, but there isn't a whole lot we know about the story. Is there anything you can say about the character you play, or your experience on the set?
Ben Foster: It's big (Laughs). I just saw what the ILM guys have brought back, and the technology they're pushing in this film, is unlike anything I've ever seen. (Director) Duncan Jones did a hell of a job of bleeding the line between practical sets, props and performance motion capture. It's going to be, I think, a pretty darn exciting 3D event.
I'm also looking forward to the Lance Armstrong biopic. I imagine you didn't have the access to Lance like you did with the guys in this movie. Can you talk about playing a controversial figure like this, and the people you did talk to in preparing for the role?
Ben Foster: I kind of did the rounds. Before I had the job, I went to the Tour of Colorado, and somehow ended up embedding with the Garmin-Sharp team, and then I ended up meeting guys in the community. Guys are still racing, who were a part of that generation. Just getting into those damn shoes is a nightmare (Laughs). I have nothing but respect for the endurance to suffer so specifically like in cycling. Those guys go deep into suffering, in such a controlled way. It's something to behold. Have you cycled yourself?
I have not, no.
Ben Foster: It was a first for me too. There's so much to the community. I came in as green as could be, but once you get a taste for it, there's a lot to learn.
Is there anything you'd like to say to those who didn't get a chance to see Lone Survivor in theaters about why they should give it a shot on Blu-ray or DVD this week?
Ben Foster: I don't know how to advertise very well. I'd say that Marcus has devoted his life, being the survivor of this story, to celebrating his fallen brothers. What I'd say is this. I've never been a part of a picture that was supported so profoundly by those within the community in which we're portraying. The SEAL community gave us the thumbs up, and that's good enough for me.
Thanks so much, Ben. It was great to talk to you.
Ben Foster: Thanks for your time.