In the HBO series Six Feet Under, Ben Foster played a bisexual who was clearly confused about his sexuality and battled a number of inner demons. It was an intense role that set the stage for a series of intense roles for the 29-year-old actor. He then played a crystal meth addict in Alpha Dog, an outlaw in 3:10 to Yuma and an afflicted angel in X-Men 3. Now, he's taken on another challenge, portraying Staff Sergeant Will Montgomery in The Messenger, a movie about a troubled officer assigned to the Army's casualty notification service.
"[The Messenger] was one of the only war movies or films that dealt with the subject of war that didn't feel like it was lecturing or pushing a political agenda," says Foster. "I met with [director] Oren [Moverman] and felt really comfortable with his intention to ask difficult questions in a humane way."
Woody Harrelson — who plays Captain Tony Stone, Will's superior — wasn't attached to the film when Foster was cast, but when Harrelson's name came up, Foster says it was "a natural fit." A recovering alcoholic, Tony teaches Will how to approach grieving families, and the two often disagree on the best way to notify next of kin with the news of a death. Co-written by Moverman and producer and film critic Alessandro Camon, the film goes to great lengths to be an accurate portrayal of a casualty-notification officer's life.
"We spoke to soldiers who have done this extensively," says Foster. "The film was actually supported by the Army. We had a lieutenant colonel on set every day keeping us on point. [As a country] we've had a lot of experience in the past eight years and time to refine the process of delivering this news. These days, they're operating with a chaplain, but it's always two soldiers, and the procedure is the procedure. The manual is the manual. Woody's character seems to have an opinion and, as Oren directed Woody, 'Even if you don't have an opinion, you can make one up.'"
Tony is a by-the-book guy; Will is introverted and sullen but ultimately more compassionate. The two clash on more than occasion, especially after Will falls for the widow (Samantha Morton) of one of the dead soldiers. They try to have a relationship but grief gets in the way.
"In terms of the dynamic between [Samantha's] character and my own, there are times we feel like we're connecting but we don't know how to do it," says Foster. "We don't know why but we're drawn to each other. Oren was a master at making us feel safe and telling us to just listen. He's not interested in easy answers or the kind of filmmaking that lectures you on when to feel and how to feel and what to think and when to think it."
And while the movie certainly shows how difficult it is to deal with the casualties of war, it also strives to present a broader theme about mortality and the human condition.
"It's that terrifying inevitably that we lose people, and as we get older, we lose more," says Foster. "We get those phone calls, and we make those phone calls. If we simplify it, it's a universal experience. It's one that we don't like to address, but these men have to face that every single day."