Ben Foster is worried he’s underdressed.
“No one told me to bring black tie!” he grumbles, only half joking, while posing between life-size horse statues ahead of Ready to Race; The Hub Charity Gala Ball, at the Grand Hyatt, in Wan Chai. Wearing a charcoal suit and unbuttoned shirt, he looks more suited to the Cannes red carpet than a charity ball in Hong Kong, but he is far from scruffy.
It is late October and the American actor is in town to lend his celebrity to The Hub, a charity that supports the city’s disadvantaged children and runs a centre in Sham Shui Po at which young people can play, eat, exercise and get help with homework.
Every year since 2012, the foundation has thrown a grand fundraiser with a guest of honour. Previous balls have seen Carrie Fisher, Claudia Kim and Heather Graham appear; this year, organisers wanted a male star, and new father Foster was keen to be involved.
Before I arrive to meet Foster at the Grand Hyatt, the charity’s communications director messages to say, “Best not to ask regarding Harvey Weinstein, hope that’s OK.”
The communications manager and I meet in the hotel lobby and he repeats the message, whispering, “His management has decided that Ben won’t be answering questions about Weinstein.”
In the boardroom where the interview is to be conducted, I meet Australian businessman David Boehm, chairman of The Hub. “I’m not sure if you got the message,” he says. “But Ben won’t be answering questions about Weinstein.” I tell him I understand, but explain that it might seem remiss not to at least touch on the issue that has dominated the news all week, the Hollywood producer having recently been accused of improper sexual conduct.
Then in strides another Hollywood producer, John Penotti, who mines his connections each year to help recruit celebrities for the ball. “Hey,” he smiles. “Ben doesn’t wanna talk about Weinstein, I hope you understand. What more can he say that’s not already been said? It’s not really his world, you see.”
Feeling three pairs of anxious eyes burning into me, I draw a line through a third of my questions.
Foster enters, smiling widely through his strawberry blond goatee, and takes a seat while the others shuffle closer. As I turn on my recorder, the room falls silent.
I take a random stab: does the actor like horses? The onlookers chuckle, the tension eases. Foster seems relieved. “I do!” he exclaims. “Very much, I love riding. My lady used to have a ranch, but it’s not so easy to have one where we live in New York.”
The lady in question – he’ll refer to her by name just once during the interview – is Laura Prepon, Foster’s fiancée and fellow former teen star, best known for her role as the street-smart, tattooed inmate Alex Vause in Netflix’s Emmy-winning comedy drama Orange is the New Black, which has been hailed as a rare triumph for feminism and diversity in pop culture. In January, while at the Sundance Film Festival promoting The Hero (in which Prepon stars as a stand-up comedian who forms a relationship with an ageing Western movie star), the actress joined Salt Lake City’s Women’s March, adding her voice to millions of others throughout the world calling for women’s rights.
The couple, both 37, began dating early last year, though they have known each other since they were 18, and had their first child in August. Foster’s trip to Hong Kong (he flew home the morning after the ball) is his first decampment from family life since welcoming his daughter into the world. The pair have chosen not to announce their baby girl’s name or birth date.
“We wanted a child, we discussed it and we practised very hard,” the actor deadpans. “There’s no way to describe it … it’s a gut check. You hallucinate from a lack of sleep while your heart also expands. In acting, they say ‘cut’ and you can do it again, but [with parenting], the tape is on, and, however we’re behaving, our little people are absorbing it. There’s no redo.”
Foster’s on-screen roles tend towards deranged and damaged characters, not wholesome family types, so it isn’t easy to imagine what fatherhood looks like for him. But it appears he has taken to his new role with signature, single-minded gusto.
“Ever watched race cars on TV when they change tyres? I can do that with a diaper now, it’s like,” – he makes a whooshing noise and a folding gesture – “done! I may not be able to feed the child the way my lady can, but I can change a diaper.”
Having his own child has, he says, lifted a veil from his eyes.
“I’ve heard that, in Hong Kong alone, there are 200,000 children living below the poverty line. When you hold your own child for the first time, that statistic takes on a new meaning,” he says, his eyes glassy with emotion. “After discussing what The Hub is about with Laura, we both thought, if I was going to leave the house, this is more than a worthy cause to celebrate.”
Foster has no public social media profiles and, unlike Prepon, an avowed Scientologist, is guarded when it comes to his beliefs, so, is he keen to point out his endorsement of The Hub?
“For what I do, which is make believe, playing other people, the more I put myself out there as Ben – it’s more difficult to believe in me as somebody else,” he says, laying down each word carefully before he selects the next. “I have a difficulty with actors talking about politics – these are people who make believe for a living, so it’s like, why don’t you carry on make believing and stop talking about your beliefs? But then, it’s a great platform to discuss meaningful things and The Hub is really the first time I’m putting myself forward.”
Previous profile articles on Foster portray the actor as underrated, in a permanent state of being one role away from cementing his legacy. He specialises in a shape-shifting pliability that arrests on screen but allows him to pass practically unrecognised in the street or dine in restaurants without having to dodge paparazzi. His approach to acting is wholly transformative and immersive; a chameleon who melts so effortlessly into each role, the movie star persona beneath is almost an irrelevance.
While Chris Pine seemed a little out of place as a grubby yet chiselled bank robber in Hell or High Water (2016), Foster went to town as his brother, bringing a sense of delirious anarchy to ex-con Tanner Howard in a performance that earned him a gong at the Independent Spirit Awards, which are presented to independent filmmakers, usually on the day before the Oscars. Accepting his Best Supporting Actor award, Foster spoke of being a builder addressing a room full of builders – an analogy that speaks to the meticulous brick-by-brick approach he takes when preparing for a role.
While gearing up to play Lance Armstrong in The Program (2015), Foster risked his health by taking performance enhancing drugs, to better understand the disgraced cyclist’s psyche. Peter Berg, writer and director of Lone Survivor (2013), in which Foster plays a Navy Seal, said the actor had to be actually held back from doing his own stunts. To nail the gait and physical proportions of Stanley Kowalski for a New York theatre production of A Streetcar Named Desire, Foster took the aristocratic Blanche DuBois’ description of the wife-beater as “apelike” literally, studying photographs and footage of gorillas and baboons and bulking his upper body to mirror their top-heavy physiology.
“I’m not a crazy person; I just like to do my homework,” Foster says.
“I think the ‘underrated’ comment – maybe a few years ago, but not any more – is indicative of how he disappears into the role,” chips in Penotti, who has received praise for his work as executive producer on Hell or High Water. “The great thing about him is his ability to keep people on edge, and I think that’s what defines a great actor and storyteller.”
While starring in The Messenger (2009) and Rampart (2011), Foster made a lasting impression on director Oren Moverman, who summed up the actor’s movie metamorphosis by saying, “It’s almost like his chromosomes change”. In The Messenger, Foster plays a war hero who becomes a casualty notification officer, a role the actor found “hard to leave behind”. It wasn’t the last time Foster found it difficult to shake off a character after filming wrapped. During an interview promoting Hell or High Water, the actor, still in outlaw mode, declared that had he not found his way into acting, he’d “be in prison or dead”.
“I was probably in a particular mood that day,” he says, now. “Unfortunately, my mom probably read that, and that’s just disrespectful to her on all levels. It’s rude and I’m sorry.
“I had a great childhood, I really did. I’m not going to say those teenage years were pleasant. I got into the racket, the circus, young, for sure.”
Foster was raised in a Jewish family in Boston, then rural Iowa, before moving to Los Angeles to pursue an acting career at the age of 16. He got his break in the Disney Channel series Flash Forward, playing a goofy adolescent navigating the travails of teenhood, before discovering a zeal for playing unhinged characters, including a drug addicted robber in Alpha Dog (2006) and a cold-blooded bandit in the western 3:10 to Yuma (2007).
His sole directorial credit so far is for a music video (below) for the multi-instrumentalist Emily Wells, in which five interlocking storylines unfold as a tense emotional drama. It’s ambitious, and shows Foster is capable of producing impressive work from behind the camera. On the prospect of any feature-length plans, however, he is cagey, and this is one of several times in the interview when his body language and measured speech suggest he’s being prodded in a direction he’d rather not go. Often, he’ll find a way of bringing the conversation back to The Hub and the “200,000 children”.
“I like pushing words around,” he will say, on whether he has considered writing. “I write grocery lists: ‘more diapers’ …” He trails off and exhales loudly. “I don’t mean to be coy. If I’m not making something, I get restless. I was up at 6.30 this morning and wrote for about four hours, and I feel saner because of it.”
Sensing a breakthrough, I ask him what he draws inspiration from. He makes a whistling noise. “You’re pawing it out, you’re a good journalist.” He pauses again for a few more moments, mumbles something incoherent, then declares: “Stories!”
This clearly represents some kind of a lapse in judgment, for he adds hurriedly, “But I’m not yet talking about it in a real way – I’m superstitious. I’m just throwing around words.”
The wholehearted nature of his pre-production work must surely have been an easier process to go through when single. Foster is sketchy on details about his personal life and it’s often unclear whether he’s talking about past lovers or past movies. He appears to enjoy blurring the lines between the two.
“All in all, I’ve been very lucky to be with people who get that I like to go and do homework,” he says. “Each relationship is different. A film is a relationship, it’s relational. It absorbs your thoughts, dreams and time; you’re away from everybody and you give yourself to the service of this tale and the character and defend that character. Then it’s over.
“Some of them feel great and some of them leave a hole in your heart – and that’s OK.”
Foster excels within a certain archetype: the salt-of-the-earth yet flawed, all-American figure fighting to the last breath while doomed to fail. Although he’d rather not be pigeonholed, it’s hard to imagine Foster playing a ruff-wearing French aristocrat, for instance.
“I have my ascot, my monocle and my fez ready!” he laughs.
His face straightens, and his voice becomes solemn. “It’s humans’ will to survive that’s endlessly fascinating. And we need that. These are dark times. These are scary times. We need to see people’s will to continue, to do it with bright eyes and share that hope with others. No matter what their circumstances are, they need more of that. I need more of that.”
And with that, Foster smiles, smoothes down his jacket and stands, a slightly underdressed everyman ready to join a room full of black ties and ball gowns to raise money for underprivileged children.
As a charity ambassador, he’ll deliver, as he always does, with steadfast conviction.