SCOTT SIMON, Host:
"The Messenger" is the story of Staff Sergeant Will Montgomery, who's just finished a tour in Iraq and returns home to serve the last three months of his hitch in the Army's Casualty Notification Unit, where his mission is to bring the worst possible news to families whose loved ones have died in action.
(SOUNDBITE OF MOVIE, "THE MESSENGER")
SIMON: (as Will Montgomery) I've got bad news, Ms. Degrow(ph). The secretary of the Army has asked me to express his deepest regret that your son, Private First Class Leroy Burrell...
(SOUNDBITE OF WEEPING)
U: (as character) No, no, no. You got to go, you got to go. No.
SIMON: (as Will Montgomery) I'm very sorry, Ms. Degrow.
U: (as character) No. Listen, no. That's my baby. We can't do this.
SIMON: Ben Foster stars in "The Messenger" as Will Montgomery. Woody Harrelson, Samantha Morton, Jenna Malone and Steve Buscemi co-star. Ben Foster joins us from NPR West. Mr. Foster, thanks so much for being with us.
SIMON: Thanks for having me.
SIMON: What drew you to this role?
SIMON: It was the only script that dealt with the war that didn't feel that it was lecturing a political point of view. It was showing the results stateside. It was written by Alessandro Camon and Oren Moverman, who directed the picture.
SIMON: He's in the Israeli army, wasn't he?
SIMON: He was. He served for four years.
SIMON: Yeah. You and Woody Harrelson and, I guess, several cast members spent time at Walter Reed.
SIMON: I had been prepping with Oren for about two months in New York, and then Woody, where I met Woody; we took a train down to Walter Reed and spent time in the amputee wing. It was the first time that I had seen anything like that - these boys and girls coming back missing limbs. And it added a depth to the awareness of what's going on with the statistics in the news. It has no reality - it had no reality until I went into that wing.
SIMON: Did you - I mean, they knew if not who you were, what you were doing?
SIMON: Well, they would ask. They were just happy, I mean, just incredible spirit these men and women have. They were just happy to be visited and have people be interested in them. When we told them, one particular fellow named Will, who had lost his leg from an IED, he said, so what's your movie about? When we told him, he just laughed. He said, I'd rather be in combat.
SIMON: Boy. Were you able to spend any time with people in the notification unit?
SIMON: We were fully supported by the Army, and we were supervised every day by Lieutenant Colonel Paul Siner(ph), who was head of the Casualty Notification Office for the entire U.S. for two years. So he kept us in line.
SIMON: How do the people who serve in that unit see what they do?
SIMON: The Death Brigade is considered the most difficult job in the Army, and it's also considered the most honorable. Some can continue and make it their life's mission, and others just can't bear to break the news to a loved one that their son, their daughter, their child, their wife, their husband is gone.
SIMON: We mentioned Woody Harrelson is in the film. He plays Captain Stone, the partner of your character. And this scene is when the two of you are driving to your first notification.
(SOUNDBITE OF MOVIE, "THE MESSENGER")
SIMON: (as Captain Tony Stone) It should be in the next couple blocks.
SIMON: (as Staff Sergeant Will Montgomery) We should just ask someone.
SIMON: (as Captain Tony Stone) No. First of all, men don't ask for directions, much less soldiers. Soldiers on a notification definitely, positively do not ask for freakin' directions. No GPS. No MapQuest. We navigate. Second, you never want to park too close. They hear a car park, go to the window, see two soldiers getting out, it's just a minute of torture. Though I should warn you, some of them do have guns.
SIMON: Thank God for Woody Harrelson, who just brought so much to this movie. I think it's one of his finest performances. He really - he dug really deep for this one.
SIMON: Can I ask you a couple of biographical questions?
SIMON: By the way, we're talking to Ben Foster, who stars in the new film, "The Messenger." You were 16 when you left high school to become an actor. I'm just guessing some of your teachers and for that matter, your parents, might've said don't.
SIMON: We didn't have enough wherewithal to say no. It just fell into place. Just academics traditionally never - I didn't really excel in them. English made sense. Telling stories made sense. Math and science, I was completely in the dark.
SIMON: What did you feel that was so powerful that moved you to do that?
SIMON: Nothing thrills me more than a story. And if I could participate in some way in that, that beautiful ritual, then my life always made more sense that way.
SIMON: We should explain your character in this film, "The Messenger," develops feelings for one of the widows that he meets, played by Samantha Morton, whom you have to tell she's a widow. Are there protocols against that in the real world?
SIMON: Oh, certainly. Yeah. At one point in the script, the two consummated the relationship. It didn't necessarily serve our story, and it is very much frowned upon although we've heard, in whispers, that it has happened. There are serious repercussions.
SIMON: But two vulnerable people who share deep emotions.
SIMON: That's the most beautiful thing about Oren Moverman and his script and his ability to direct. He has this deep-rooted sense of humanity and care. 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 ourselves to reveal ourselves to each other, and not know why.
SIMON: I probably don't have to tell you, Mr. Foster, that you've made a film in what's generally considered a genre - not just war films, but Iraq war films, that have not exactly done gangbusters at the box office.
SIMON: This is true.
SIMON: Any trepidation about that?
SIMON: Well, no. What I loved about it was that it's about people, and you can take the military out of this film. 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. And the film 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?
SIMON: Ben Foster stars in the new film "The Messenger," in theaters now, speaking with us from NPR West.
Mr. Foster, thanks so much.
SIMON: Thank you for your time.
SIMON: You'll find clips from "The Messenger," along with Bob Mondello's review of the film, at NPR.org.
You're listening to WEEKEND EDITION from NPR News.