‘The Survivor’ star Ben Foster on reuniting with Barry Levinson 22 years after his film debut [Exclusive Video Interview]

Ben Foster had only appeared in a few television projects – including the pilot episode of cult favorite “Freaks and Geeks” – when Barry Levinson launched his feature film career with 1999’s “Liberty Heights.” The coming-of-age drama, the fourth in a series of films Levinson made about growing up in Baltimore that started with 1982’s “Diner,” proved to be a breakout opportunity for the then-teenage Foster. In the years that followed, he parlayed the opportunity into a prolific film career that bounced between blockbusters (“X-Men: The Last Stand”), studio dramas (“3:10 to Yuma”) and indie favorites (“Hell or High Water”). 

Now, more than 20 years later, Foster and Levinson have reunited for “The Survivor.” The HBO film – which first debuted at the Toronto International Film Festival in 2021 – focuses on Harry Haft (Foster), who survived the Holocaust after being forced to fight fellow prisoners in grueling matches and later embarked on a boxing career in America.

“My first film, my first movie set I was ever on, was on Barry’s set, which of course shaped me. The experience, his approach to making films,” Foster tells Gold Derby in a new interview. “His thing is to kick the tires. His BS meter is very high. He is not interested in the perfect scene. He’s interested in the idiosyncratic behaviors of characters and how they butt up against each other. So his influence has walked me through the last 20 years.”

Written by Justine Juel Gillmer and based on Alan Haft’s book, “Harry Haft: Survivor of Auschwitz, Challenger of Rocky Marciano,” “The Survivor” takes place across three time periods – with flashbacks to Haft’s time in Auschwitz, his post-war life as a boxer in New York City, and his later years while he searches for a long-lost love who Harry hasn’t seen since before the war. But beyond being a film about the Holocaust, “The Survivor” deals specifically with the cost of Harry’s survival and the post-traumatic stress disorder his experience left him to reckon with for the rest of his life. It’s something Levinson himself has said he saw up close as a young boy, when a great uncle who had survived the Holocaust came to live with his family in Baltimore and would often wake up screaming in the middle of the night. 

“He hasn’t said it, but in many ways, it feels like an origin film to the Baltimore series,” Foster suggests. In addition to “Diner” and “Liberty Heights,” Levinson also explored the Jewish experience in America with 1990’s “Avalon.” “He was investigating first-gen Baltimore kids experiencing American life. And this is, ‘How do you get here? What’s the cost of getting here? What’s the thing that they don’t talk about?’ It was thrilling to work through.”

Foster is known for his dedication as a performer, but for “The Survivor” he arguably went to greater lengths to play Harry than in any previous project. Foster lost 60 pounds to play Harry during his captivity in Auschwitz and then gained the weight back to play Harry as a boxer. The physical transformation – and the training required to believably play a pugilist – was matched by his accent work, as well as the hours he spent doing research into not just Harry’s life but the Holocaust as well. 

“Transformation for transformation’s sake is obnoxious. It is,” Foster explains. “I work in these waters. The only way that it makes sense to me is if it’s in service of character. It’s not, ‘Check out how much I gained.’ It’s, ‘I need to feel physically empowered in that boxing ring.’ It’s selfish. It is. I needed it for me because the work that we do, this is it. It’s my body, I live in it.”

Foster says losing the weight allowed him to further step into the mindset of Harry while he was being forced to fight for his life in the ring. “When else am I going to get the opportunity to ask these questions?” he adds. “And I couldn’t face myself if I lost, like, 15 pounds. It doesn’t look like how they look. When you look at the horrors of the Holocaust. Sure, you can do it digitally. But I didn’t get into this racket to do that. I want to know about people. I want to know more about myself. I don’t get it. I don’t get fully understand this human experience. But I can get a little bit closer when I engage my body as fully as I can.”

HBO Max now has “The Survivor” streaming in honor of Yom HaShoah (Holocaust Remembrance Day). Foster is among the top contenders at the 2022 Emmy Awards in the Best Limited/Movie Actor category.

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