While more recent films about the Iraq war seem to weave in a particular agenda, The Messenger tackles a subject Americans know little about. The Army’s Casualty Notification service is a team made up of two soldiers who must go to the NOK (next of kin) of fallen soldiers and notify them their loved one has died in service to our country.
The movie stars Ben Foster as Staff Sergeant Will Montgomery and Woody Harrelson as Captain Tony Stone — the soldiers assigned to this service. Captain Stone has been doing this for some time and is strictly about procedure. Will, himself just returning from service in Iraq, is a new assignee to this job and feels inadequate to handle the assignment. “This mission is not simply important, it’s sacred,” he’s told by a superior officer.
Will replies, “Sir, I’ve never received any grief counseling, let along given it; I’m not a religious man, Sir.”
Clearly setting up an interesting dynamic that takes place between Will and Captain Stone throughout this film, Stone responds, “We’re just here for notification; not God, not heaven.”
Ben Foster, who acknowledged The Messenger made a life-changing impact on him, is quickly gaining a reputation as an actor with incredible talent. He garnered critical acclaim as outlaw Charlie Prince in 3:10 To Yuma opposite Russell Crowe. He played two characters in X-Men the Last Stand, held his own in the thrillers Hostage and Alpha Dog, and is well known for this role in TV’s Six Feet Under. Foster graciously agreed to an interview about the film. Like his attention to detail in transforming the characters he plays before our eyes, Foster was equally precise and most thoughtful in his answers. Soft-spoken, he often paused, was reflective, and yet came across as genuinely earnest.
You’ve stated you were impressed with director/co-writer Oren Moverman (I’m Not There) and his films. Was there something else that made you say yes to this film?
One reason was getting the opportunity to address the war in a way that didn’t feel like it was lecturing the audience or pushing a political agenda. Also, Oren Moverman and Alessandro Camon’s script was very spare, human, and shockingly funny and universal. We all know what it’s like to lose somebody, and it felt like a wonderful question to be asking people that I so respect.
I know you did a lot of research for this film including you and Woody taking a tour of the Walter Reade facility that houses the amputees. How did that visit impact you?
We saw a side of war in action – the action of healing. Everybody has their political opinions, and from my experience, I’d hear “the names of the dead.” That rattled me, but they were just names. Then you see these boys and girls, who are brave, but they are children, with missing limbs and vision, and you don’t get those images out of your head.
You also heralded Moverman’s filming style of not having rehearsals and going off book. Was there an AWE moment during the filming when you realized what Will was really about?
I don’t know if there was ever a click; it was more like feeling safe enough to be exposed (as a character) because of Moveman. That’s why he’s such an actor’s director. He has the whole thing down, and it comes from his own intention and intelligence and empathy. He’s not interested in the easy answers in life, or scripts or film. He’s interested in the messiness, and the beauty of that messiness is human beings trying to connect. He is awesome.
I was amazed by many of the performances in this film, especially Woody’s. Although there are some really funny moments in this film, we rarely see him in a dramatic performance. What was your relationship like on set?
I’ve been a fan of his for years. He doesn’t do that many dramatic performances, but he’s so powerful and his heart is so big. There were a lot of names discussed for the role of Captain Stone, but none of them were right. He’s [Harrelson] so humble about things, and it was only afterwards when we were done with the picture that we started talking about it. He’s turned it into a gift being incredibly funny. When he does choose to do dramatic work, he gives himself entirely. Getting to look at him through his eyes and fuel through him on a difficult subject … other than the bleeding guts of it all, the reality of it all, the feeling was as good as it gets.
I liked that this film is totally unpredictable, especially Will’s attraction to Olivia. You and Samantha Morton play these characters so confined. Every minute you’re together on screen we’re asking ourselves will they get together or not. Since you didn’t rehearse scenes, how do you account for this realism?
It’s her (Morton) notification that she’s notifying Will. She’s one of the great actors… so professional and intuitive, and dangerous in her performance in a very restrained way. Some people just happen to tap into it. She’s just magic.
You and Moverman seem to have a mutual admiration society going on. He said about you, “There is a maturity and longing to his acting that is so layered. It’s sympathetic but it’s also challenging. You can see the drive in Ben to achieve wholeness, which is precisely what Will Montgomery is trying to do.” How does a statement like that affect your work?
It’s like being at your birthday party where you hear friends say nice things. It’s terribly awkward and you wish they’d stop talking. [He laughs softly and pauses before continuing.] I have the utmost love and respect for Oren and his ability and courage to feel and his disregard for the need to know. It’s the kind of human interest in everyone involved from top to bottom of crew member to cast … he knows how to make you feel comfortable, he’s a master.
Bottom line — why should moviegoers see The Messenger?
The subject sounds really difficult, but what I like most about it if I was going to recommend it is the same reason why I was drawn to it, which is it doesn’t lecture. It doesn’t push a political view and it shows a face to the soldier in a loving but human way, and hopefully solders and serious lefties are able to have a conversation about it afterwards that’s productive. I hope those who see it feel entertained and have an experience that is not all grim because it deals with a tough subject, and they can have a conversation about it and get to know some people.
You started your career young; you were a director/ writer /actor of your own play at age 12. It’s clear this is a profession you were adamant to be part of and you’re made it happen. In your next film you play another character named Will. What’s Here about?
It was a short play [laughs]. Will is a cartographer, that’s someone who deals with satellite equipment and maps, or some say, a map maker. It’s an isolated job walking around the ground and using satellite equipment to check for inaccuracies. He’s around a lot of nature, but there’s a separation between technology and nature, so he picks up a girl photographer and they go on a road trip through Armenia.
Here is in post production and will be released in 2010. Foster will also appear in The Mechanic, an action thriller also starring Jason Statham and Donald Sutherland and slated for a December 2010 release.
Photos courtesy of Oscilloscope Laboratories