Magazine article The New Yorker

Out of Character

Magazine article The New Yorker

Out of Character

Article excerpt

Out of Character

Ben Foster stood by the entrance to the Diane Arbus exhibition at the Met Breuer. "Are you hip to how it works?" the actor asked. "There's no order, you just explore." The room held a grove of gray columns, each displaying one of Arbus's early photographs. Foster, slight and serious, wearing a black T-shirt, chinos, and work boots, paused before "Wax museum axe murderer, Coney Island, N.Y. 1959," his expression veiled by his end-times beard. He cricked his neck, then shivered like a dog emerging from a cold pond. A few columns on, he laughed softly, surprised to encounter "Child with a toy hand grenade in Central Park, N.Y.C. 1962." He studied the famous image--a grimacing boy, his hands curled in clownish distress. "This one was my door into her," he said. "It makes you feel less lonely."

Foster, thirty-five, is the character actor's character actor: his body a grenade, his face the pin. He was a prissy killer in "3:10 to Yuma," a seething, searching Iraq War hero in "The Messenger," and a volatile ex-con named Tanner Howard in "Hell or High Water," a modern-day Western, which just opened. Tanner and his younger brother Toby (Chris Pine) rob banks in West Texas so they can avoid foreclosure on their late mother's ranch. It's Toby's plan, but Tanner's movie--the way Foster licks every finger after meals makes it clear that Tanner knows his pleasures are numbered.

Foster studied "Couple arguing, Coney Island, N.Y. 1960"--the woman in full cry, the man beleaguered--then said, "Look how she's grabbing his arm. That one hurts." On his way out, he turned back to canvass a few columns that he'd missed. "I didn't want to leave anybody out," he confided.

Upstairs, over a cold-brewed coffee, he said that it was "Hell or High Water" 's laconic script that hooked him. "Most scripts are overwritten, too fucking chatty." He flapped his fingers against his thumb. "Usually I'll drop twenty to forty per cent of the dialogue--you can do so much with gesture. I'm still waiting to do a silent film. But apocalypse porn is everywhere and silent films aren't in season."

Looking down at his tool kit--his pelt of chest hair, his workman's arms covered with tattoos--Foster said, "What I am is a hard-ass who gets his heart broken easily. …

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