Ben Foster, Taking On 'The Most Honorable Job'

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PND: Ben Foster in 'The Messenger' i

Besides his role in The Messenger, Ben Foster's film credits include X-Men: The Last Stand (where he played the winged teenager Warren Worthington III) and the bleak Western 3:10 to Yuma. Getty Images hide caption

itoggle caption Getty Images
PND: Ben Foster in 'The Messenger'

Besides his role in The Messenger, Ben Foster's film credits include X-Men: The Last Stand (where he played the winged teenager Warren Worthington III) and the bleak Western 3:10 to Yuma.

Getty Images

Actor Ben Foster has been drawing praise for his performance in The Messenger, a new movie about the how the costs of war get tallied up at home.

Foster plays a soldier who's just finished a tour in Iraq, and who returns to the U.S. to finish out his hitch in an Army casualty notification unit — the "Angels of Death Squadron" whose mission is to bring the worst possible news to families whose loved ones have died in the service.

The actor tells NPR's Scott Simon that it was the screenplay's approach, not any personal politics, that drew him to the project.

"It was the only script that dealt with the war that didn't feel like it was lecturing [about] a political point of view," Foster says. "It was showing the result stateside."

The Messenger was co-written (with Alessandro Camon) by director Oren Moverman, who served four years in the Israeli army. Foster spent roughly two months with Moverman preparing for the shoot, but he says it wasn't until he and other cast members paid a visit to the Walter Reed Army Medical Center that he really began to understand the story's full import.

"It was the first time I'd seen anything like that," he admits. "These boys and girls, coming back with missing limbs. And it added depth to the awareness of what's going on. With the stats and the news, it has no reality. It had no reality until I went into that wing."

Foster was struck by the "incredible spirit" of the patients on the Walter Reed amputee unit. They were curious about why the actors were visiting, Foster says, and glad to have people interested in their experiences — and not at all envious of their real-life colleagues on the casualty notification units, Foster reports.

"One particular man named Will, who had lost his leg from an IED, he said, 'What's your movie about?' " Foster says. "When we told him, he just laughed. He said, 'I'd rather be in combat.' "

Ben Foster as Staff Sgt. Will Montgomery in 'The Messenger' i

Foster told the Wall Street Journal that during the rehearsal period for The Messenger, he moved into his character's apartment and got to know the space — "because so much of the film is wordless and is just about people existing in space." Another decision that helped him and co-star Woody Harrelson get inside their characters' heads: Director Oren Moverman refused to let them meet the actors playing the families they would deliver casualty notifications to. Oscilloscope Pictures hide caption

itoggle caption Oscilloscope Pictures
Ben Foster as Staff Sgt. Will Montgomery in 'The Messenger'

Foster told the Wall Street Journal that during the rehearsal period for The Messenger, he moved into his character's apartment and got to know the space — "because so much of the film is wordless and is just about people existing in space." Another decision that helped him and co-star Woody Harrelson get inside their characters' heads: Director Oren Moverman refused to let them meet the actors playing the families they would deliver casualty notifications to.

Oscilloscope Pictures

'The Most Difficult Job In The Army'

"The death brigade is considered the most difficult job in the Army," says Foster, who reports that the Army provided an on-set adviser who had headed up the service's nationwide casualty-notification office. "And it's also considered the most honorable."

As The Messenger makes plain, however, the duty isn't an easy one.

"Some can continue, and make it their life's mission," Foster says, "and others just can't bear to break the news to a loved one that their son, their daughter, their wife, their husband is gone."

Foster's character, Staff Sgt. Will Montgomery, has his own complicated reaction to the job. Despite stern warnings from his more experienced partner (Woody Harrelson, in another widely praised performance), Will develops feelings for the widow of one fallen soldier. That, he points out, is crossing a line.

"It is very much frowned upon," Foster says, meaning real-life cases of such relationships. "Although we've heard, in whispers, that it has happened. There are serious repercussions."

Foster says Moverman handled the sensitive situation — two vulnerable people, sharing deep emotions, bound by both taboo and a strict military protocol — with admirable delicacy.

"He has this deep-rooted sense of humanity and care," Foster says. "It's not, 'How do we expose people's wounds.' He loves the characters of his stories, and he has this innate ability to allow [us] to reveal ourselves to each other, and not know why."

Discovering The 'Beautiful Ritual' Of Storytelling

Foster left high school at 16 years old to become an actor.

"It just fell into place," he says. "Academics ... I didn't really excel in them. [But] English made sense; telling stories made sense. Math and science, I was completely in the dark.

"Nothing thrills me more than a story," Foster continues. "If I could participate in some way in that beautiful ritual, then my life always made more sense that way."

Some analysts have suggested that even with largely positive reviews, The Messenger may not find an audience to hear its story; moviegoers have typically been skittish about Iraq war movies. Foster says he's not worried.

"What I loved about it was that it's a film about people, and you can take the military out of this film," he says. "Everybody gets notified. We all notify people. We all receive that call. We all make that call. And at some point in our life, someone will receive that call about us.

"The film," Foster says, "celebrates that confusing time of saying, 'I've lost the thing I care most about, and how do I get back to life? How do I connect again?' "

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