Ben Foster’s not a psycho, he just plays one on screen

The “Hell or High Water” actor enjoys walking on the wild side, but he’s just building characters

Adam Graham
The Detroit News

Ben Foster considers himself a contractor.

“Hell or High Water:” Chris Pine, left, and Ben Foster star as brothers who go on a bank-robbing spree.  Jeff Bridges earned a Best Supporting Actor nomination for his role as the lawman who tracks them.

The actor gets hired to do a job, comes in and does it, and then moves on to the next one.

“I get hired to come and build a guy,” he says, on the phone last week from Los Angeles, before chuckling at his own turn of phrase. “I build guys!”

The guys he builds tend to be intense, borderline crazies fraying at the edges. He’s played scene-stealing psychopaths in “3:10 to Yuma,” “Alpha Dog” and “The Messenger,” and he’s got another one on his hands in “Hell or High Water,” in which he plays a bank-robbing ex-con hooked on thrills, Dr. Pepper and Winston Lights.

“I guess what I’m drawn to is the outlier,” says Foster, 35, who says “it’s kind of boring” to watch apathetic characters on screen. “It’s not like I’m going out and looking for the wild card. I suppose it’s similar to musical taste: you like certain things and you’re drawn to them. You know it when you hear it, and I know it when I read it.”

But he’s not that way in real life. “I’d like to walk through a grocery store screaming about snakes,” he says, “but I don’t.”

Foster didn’t start out playing loons. He played a witty eighth-grader on Disney’s “Flash Forward” when he was 15 years old and graduated to roles on “Freaks and Geeks,” “Six Feet Under” and “X-Men: The Last Stand,” where he played the winged mutant Angel.

The exploration of characters is what first drew him to acting, when as an 8-year-old in southeastern Iowa, he saw his first school play and asked to be a part of it.

“And I’m still asking to be a part of it,” he says.

“I love stories,” Foster says. “And people are endlessly interesting and confusing and sensitive and wounded. The human condition, you don’t get to beat it, you don’t get to win it, you don’t get to totally understand it. So it’s a way to keep asking questions.”

Foster, who says he’d be a war photographer or a journalist if he wasn’t an actor, doesn’t find the answers to those questions in watching his own films. Most of the time he skips them, and usually finds them disappointing.

“Remember how when you’d hear yourself on an answering machine, how devastating that was?” he asks. “That’s kind of like watching yourself in a movie.”

He made an exception for “Hell or High Water,” and is pleased to report he enjoyed it. In it, he and Chris Pine play a pair of bank-robbing brothers who go on a spree of heists across West Texas while evading a pair of lawmen, headed up by Jeff Bridges.

Having just come off of the high seas drama “The Finest Hours” with Pine prior to filming, Foster was well acquainted with his co-star.

“We were hit with a fire hose for about three months in the fall, and you get to know somebody pretty quickly when you’re next to them and you’re cold and you’re wet,” Foster says. “I just like the guy an awful lot, and it was very easy to pick back up and dig deeper into a friendship and a brotherhood.”

Foster has been on a grind of late: “Hell or High Water” is his fourth film this year, following “Hours,” “Warcraft” and the little-seen Lance Armstrong biopic “The Program.” Next up he appears in Ron Howard’s latest entry in the “Da Vinci Code” series, “Inferno,” which is due out in October.

Following two-and-a-half years of working without a break — he capped off his run of films with a stint as Stanley Kowalski in a Broadway production of “A Streetcar Named Desire” — Foster recently took a few months off. “I ate a lot of good food and had a lot of good sex,” he says. “Now we’re gonna get back to the mud, blood and beer of it all.”

Foster starts filming “Hostiles” alongside Christian Bale and Rosamund Pike soon and is looking forward to whatever contracts his future holds.

“I can’t wait. Each year gets better,” he says. “Just being a person on this planet is confusing and exciting, and I feel very lucky to be alive.”

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