Interview: Ben Foster, actor and producer

Ben Foster as General Terry with Woody Harrelson in Rampart
Ben Foster as General Terry with Woody Harrelson in Rampart
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He’s among Hollywood’s most in-demand young stars and now he’s learning the ropes as a producer. Alistair Harkness talks to Ben Foster, an actor quick to appreciate his many blessings

BEN FOSTER has a confession to make about his new film Rampart. “I really didn’t want to be in it,” says the 31-year-old actor of the corrupt cop drama in which he plays a small but crucial role as a crippled, homeless war veteran-turned-snitch.

This reluctance had nothing to do with the quality of the film. How could it? It was directed by Oren Moverman, with whom he previously worked on The Messenger; it was co-written by LA Confidential author James Ellroy; and it boasts a spectacularly deranged lead performance from Woody Harrelson as an on-the-edge cop melting down after being caught on video beating a perp.

Rampart – which is also set against the backdrop of the titular LA police division’s misconduct scandal of the late 1990s – is exactly the type of movie in which Foster excels.

Indeed, having given both Russell Crowe and Christian Bale a run for their money in the ferocity stakes in 3:10 to Yuma, gone toe-to-toe with Jason Statham in The Mechanic and played a succession of weirdos, mutants and outcasts in various comic-book movies (30 Days of Night, X-Men: Last Stand, The Punisher), Foster’s scaled-back part is out of step with his industry standing, especially after his blistering turn as an emotionally scarred soldier reassigned to bereavement notification duty in The Messenger showcased what he could really do as an actor.

Ironically, though, it was the blissful experience he had making that film that is the real reason he’s hardly in Rampart. Inspired to form a production company with Moverman, the film marks his first outing as a proper producer.

“It was really an opportunity to learn the ropes,” he says. “There were a lot of other producers on the movie, so I felt like I could have my hand held all the way through.” What kind of a producer is he? “I’m not making deals,” he chuckles. “I’m more of a creative producer, I guess. So I’d go out and do a lot of research and be there as a support for Oren. But you know, I’ve been doing this for 18 years. I think I might know how to make something.”

This isn’t to say premature retirement from screen acting is on the agenda. After getting hooked on performing while doing school plays as a kid in Iowa, he’s become one of Hollywood’s most in-demand young stars, so much so that reports keep surfacing about involvement in huge movies for which he’s never even auditioned. “No I’m not in Prometheus,” he says in reference to multiple claims suggesting he’s been filming Ridley Scott’s Alien prequel. Has he heard that Variety have pegged him as a frontrunner to play Bruce Willis’s son in the next Die Hard film, A Good Day to Die Hard? “I didn’t hear that, but I heard the title. That I enjoyed.”

Foster already has a pretty full slate of actual films awaiting release, all of which attest to his mercurial talents. In addition to Rampart, he co-stars in the forthcoming Mark Wahlberg heist thriller Contraband, and, later in the year, he can be seen delivering a wired turn as a newly released sex-offender in the Babel-esque 360. Then there’s Here, a more avant-garde film about a mapmaker travelling through Armenia that has been making its way around the festival circuit.

“I just like character work,” he says. “It has different responsibilities and usually leading man roles can be, I don’t want to say underwritten, because, for instance, Dave Brown, who Woody Harrelson plays in Rampart, is a tremendous role and it was a perfect fit for him, but I just go where the material calls.”

I wonder if this suspicion of leading roles stems from being briefly positioned as the teen star of the endearingly goofy Shakespeare-themed high school comedy Get Over It. His subsequent projects – working for eccentric indie oddballs the Polish brothers in Northfork, playing a disaffected art student in HBO’s Six Feet Under – seemed like deliberate attempts to distance himself from anything approximating teen idol status.

“Ha, I don’t know, I made some threatening remarks during that one,” he says of Get Over It, which also gave early breaks to Kirsten Dunst, Zoe Saldana and Mila Kunis. “There was some film script about a redneck El Camino-driving lunatic that I really liked and I believe it was a Miramax property at the time. I basically turned Get Over It down four or five times, saying: ‘I don’t want to do this, but I’ll do it if you let me do this hillbilly movie.’ And Harvey Weinstein said: ‘No, but you’re going to do this movie and we’ll work together in the future and anything I can do to support you I will.’ So, I did Get Over It, and it was actually a fun movie. At this point I would actually love to do something like it again, but at the time I was very up-my-own-ass about it.” That he had this attitude is perhaps not surprising. Foster first came to prominence in Liberty Heights, a semi-autobiographical coming-of-age drama by Barry Levinson whose earlier, Baltimore-set classic Diner had launched the careers of Mickey Rourke and Kevin Bacon. Was he thinking in those terms?

“It wasn’t that specific,” Foster says. “I just like good acting and well-made films. I also like stuff that blows up. It’s nice to work with people who have a certain type of rigour.”

As Foster tells it, landing the lead in Liberty Heights, which revolves around a Jewish community in 1950s Baltimore, actually meant more to his family than him. “Diner was my parents’ favourite movie,” he says (his mother is from Baltimore), and his Jewish grandmother had emigrated from Russia, so understood very well the world it portrayed. “My Nana probably saw that film 100 times. It’s about Jews in the 1950s, but it’s not even a religious thing; it’s a cultural reference point for someone who came over from Russia.”

There’s a chance Foster could soon be re-teaming with Levinson for Gotti, an epic biopic of New York mobster John Gotti starring John Travolta as the loathsome boss of the Gambino crime family and Foster as his slippery son, John Gotti Jr. Financing for the film, however, keeps falling apart. “I’ve been getting a lot of phone calls saying ‘yes/no, yes/ no’,” says Foster. “I put on about 30lb in two months and then said to myself, ‘Alright, my sciatica is acting up, there’s too much weight on my lumbar spine and there’s nerve damage going on, so let’s wait to put any more on until financing is secure.”

In the meantime he’s just thankful to be working. “I haven’t gotten bored yet,” he says. “I’ve been doing this 18 years and I see a lot of guys get very famous very fast, and then they’re not working two years from now. But the fact that I can keep getting jobs and I keep finding my way clumsily through this very confusing industry full of guns for hire … I count myself as one of the luckiest bastards out there.”

Rampart is in cinemas from 24 February.