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Woody Harrelson and Ben Foster in The Messenger.
The Messenger is the incredibly personal story of two soldiers whose daily duty is to inform families their loved ones have died in action. Injured Staff Sergeant Will Montgomery (Ben Foster) is spending his last three months as part of Army’s Casualty Notification alongside Captain Tony Stone (Woody Harrelson), a strong-jawed patriot who wants to stick to the script. As Will struggles with his new job, he also finds himself falling for war widow Olivia Pitterson (Samantha Morton), whom he and Tony informed about the death of her husband.
A striking debut from screenwriter (Jesus' Son, I'm Not There) turned director Oren Moverman, who co-wrote the film with producer Alessandro Camon, The Messenger puts a human face on the casualites of a war where photos of the dead didn't even make the newspapers. The result? A powerful portrayal of the everyday struggles of soldiers to return to civilian life, as well as the painful lives of the families who have lost loved ones. Having done the festival rounds, the film has already been nominated and won several awards at the Berlinale and the Deauville Film Festival, and Foster is currently up for a Breakthrough Award at this year's Gotham Awards. Tribeca Film had the chance to talk with Foster this week in New York City. He is as intense in person as his acting implies.
Tribeca Film: Tell me about getting involved with The Messenger and working with Oren Moverman.
Ben Foster: We just sat down and it was really easy. It just felt like somebody I'd known forever. You know, there's people that you meet and you're just like, "Oh yeah, I know you."
He just felt very familiar to me as a human being. And his intentions felt true. And I was already a big fan of the movies that he had written, I'm Not There and Jesus' Son and Married Life. He just has such a beautiful imagination and sense of humanity. And this is tricky material. I just needed to feel his intentions were the same as what was on the page, which is, he wasn't going to lecture the audience. He wasn’t going to push a political agenda overtly. [It was about] how do we deal with the universal experience of death and loss, and not in a grim way but in a way that suggests that yes, it's inevitable, we all get notified, but we can get back to life afterwards and we can find hope through connecting with people. And if we can't connect, we die inside. So these felt like important questions to ask just as a human being, rather than just as an actor.
Tribeca: That's the crux of your character—trying to connect with people. Your presence cracks open the façade of Woody Harrelson's character, Captain Tony Stone, and it becomes almost a buddy movie, if you will. And that's what I found most fascinating—the after-effects emotionally, Post-Traumatic Stress Syndrome. Can you talk about your research into PTSD?
BF: I did a lot of research…. We were supported by the Army, and we talked to soldiers and that kind of thing. We were surrounded; we were really trying to get out of our own way and serve these people who were really generous with their own experiences. And everybody came to the game, to the movie, with a feeling of being in service to them. So on those long days when we're shooting the notifications and you feel that you have nothing left, like in life, if we're only drawing from ourselves, there's a limited resource of energy. But if one feels that one is in service of something, you tap into this source and it feels like you can go forever. There's this unbelievable energy that you can draw from being in service of something.
Tribeca: How do you leave a part like this at work? How do you go home at night and not feel that and still inhabit that?
BF: It's like walking through the woods during the day. You get mud on your boots, and you go home and kind of track some of it back home with you. I don't know if I'm altogether back, but you know, I spent two months with Oren down here [in New Jersey, where the movie was filmed] before we shot and just moved into the apartment that Will lived in, and talked to soldiers and just kind of sank in. Sank into him, or got out of the way for him to show up. It's one thing if you don’t believe in the material as wholeheartedly as we do. These are questions that I don't want to get rid of. I don't mind tracking this in. This is stuff that I'm going to be asking myself the rest of my life, so it's okay if I can't sleep.
Tribeca: When you put in a performance like that, I would almost hope you can't shrug it off at the end of the day. This material is so personal. Because of Oren's military background especially, did that concern you at all? It's blatantly unpolitical, it's personal, but he was in the Israeli Army.
BF: Not a concern. It felt like a gift. Having somebody that's lived in service, you just, you feel like you're backed up. You just feel like you're working with the real thing. And you'd never know it; he's just the most gentle, beautiful human being, and a true humanist, and the fact that he served allowed me the courage to make believe it.
Tribeca: Woody Harrelson has said in interviews that through this experience, he's learned to still be against the war but "for the warrior." Do you feel the same way? It's not a movie about the war, but it engenders a discussion about it.
BF: It engenders a discussion, and it's been really a knockout, talking to soldiers who have seen the picture, and then talking to, as Woody would call himself, a hippie from Hawaii. The film allows for a discussion from both sides, so having the opportunity to spend time with these soldiers was extraordinary. It's not about statistics any more, in my head. It's touching the wounds of the boys and girls, physically touching these incredible, brave men and women. It adds a weight to the chilly statistics, which are tossed about.
Tribeca: Another fascinating aspect of the movie was your character's relationship with Samantha Morton's character, Olivia Pitterson, and how that comes across as very gentle and natural and healing and not crass.
BF: The script, it doesn't give easy answers. They don't even know why they're drawn to each other in an intellectual way; it's an instinctual recognition of trauma, saying, "You feel like I feel and maybe if we contact, we can heal." She's such an incredible, incredible actor. Getting to feel with her was just heaven. She's just exquisite, so falling in love with her, you try to make your job as painless as possible, or rather, try to get in as deep and as fast as possible, and she's breastfeeding in between takes, like, an amazing woman.
Oren Moverman, the director of The Messenger
Tribeca: Every aspect of the movie was filmed with such care, and that really comes across. Even just noticing how personal the scenes inside people's houses are, I could tell, okay, now they're using a different type of camera. It's personal.
BF: We didn't rehearse anything. We didn't know the people we were going to notify. We spent the time together as intimately as possible, without crew on set. It was just a cameraman, Oren, the actors, and us, and we didn't know what was going to happen, so if everybody's coming to play and play hard, the quality will show up. But it takes a lot of balls on Oren's part to make a film like that. A lot of trust.
Tribeca: I've read that you've been practicing Transcendental Meditation since you were very young. How does that inform your acting? The intensity you bring somehow seems meditative.
BF: Beautiful, thanks. Yeah, it's a technique—TM is an ancient technique, a technology, that you do by yourself, and I liken it to getting rid of the static and it's tuning in to a frequency which becomes its own channel. And I know we're flipping through a lot of metaphors, but if you have room inside, something can fill that space, and something can move through, so TM creates that space for me. And… if we're going to extend the definition of meditation, people do it every day and they don't have that technique. It's the ritual, I think, that's very important for people, be it taking a walk at the end of the day by yourself, take a bicycle ride, sit quietly [and] write down just the thoughts of the day. It can be tennis. But if you have a ritual in your life, it allows for a centering, and there's so many requirements in the day that people want from you and living in a world that's so filled with input, it's easy to get clouded and think that those are my thoughts, when in fact we're just picking up, you know, radio stations, so TM allows me to get quiet inside to hear a little more clearly what I'm thinking in a very unconscious, unjudged way, and I think that informs performance in terms of allowing something to come through without overintellectualizing it.
The Messenger opens in New York and Los Angeles on Friday, November 13. It opens across the country on Friday, November 20. Click here for ticket information.
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