When Ben Foster was approached by director Barry Levinson about starring in the drama “The Survivor,” about the life of Holocaust survivor and boxer Harry Haft, he was deeply moved by Haft’s story of resilience. But early on in the process, when presented with the notion of digitally trimming Foster down to portray Haft during his time at the Auschwitz concentration camp, the actor nearly quit. “I think I said if that’s how we’re going to do it, I think you have the wrong actor,” Foster told TheWrap in a recent interview about his work on the film.
It’s not that the “Hell or High Water” actor is opposed to digital technology, but in order to rightly honor the life of Harry Haft and the countless other Holocaust survivors and victims, he felt strongly he needed to physically transform himself. “We’ve all seen pictures of those that have survived in the camps, we’ve seen documentary footage, but if you actually examine, if you spend time with them, it felt that because we had time, I needed to lose the weight for myself,” Foster said. “And I wouldn’t be able to face myself in the morning if I [went the digital route.]”
“The Survivor” tells Haft’s story in two timelines – in the concentration camps where he was forced to box other inmates (sometimes to the death), and after the war in America where he’s trying to make a life for himself and discover the fate of a love he lost when Jews were rounded up in Poland. The concentration camp portion of the film was shot first, then production took a break so Foster could gain weight to portray Haft after the war.
It was the hope that his girlfriend was still alive that helped Harry survive his time at Auschwitz, and while conducting his research, Foster was struck by this recurring theme. “I listened to hours and hours of testimony of survivors, and each story is so deeply harrowing,” Foster said. “But there was a continuity that I heard in a few of them where they talked about the hope. The hope that a loved one was still alive. And that the shred of a chance that that loved one was still alive, that they might see that loved one again, gave them enough energy when they were depleted of everything. It gave them an energy inside to survive for another day. And that is so beautiful. That’s how Harry survived.”
During our conversation, Foster – who spoke gently and with great reverence for Haft and the victims of the Holocaust – discussed what he learned from the research process that informed his performance, and how he approached the disturbing camp-set sequences throughout the film. Foster also talked about working with Billy Magnussen, who portrays an SS officer in the film, to develop the complicated relationship between the two characters and how shooting in sequence led to one of the most emotional scenes in the film.
Check out our full interview below. “The Survivor” premieres on HBO and HBO Max tonight at 8pm ET/PT.
I’m curious your entry point in the project was. Were you were familiar with Harry’s story coming in?
Ben Foster: I wasn’t aware of it. Barry [Levinson] called up, and that’s an exciting call to get. He had given me my first film when I was 17, so that he wanted to work with me again, is, of course, a really nice feeling. And he didn’t say much about the project, he just said I want you to take a look at it. I read it immediately and called them up immediately was so deeply moved, and he said great. And then you have to start figuring it out, and that’s just through reading and research. The Shoah Foundation came on and they opened up their archives and access to survivors’ testimonies, and it was a pretty deep dive. We had five months to prep, so that was a luxury.
Were you able to meet with any of Harry’s family members at all?
Not beforehand. I watched Harry’s testimony, and his story is so complex. But I felt like it would be a disservice to try and do an impression or try to do Harry as Harry. So I read his Alan’s book about his father, but I had to find the man inside myself. And that comes with a lot of support, which is working with a Yiddish expert to make sure that Harry sounded true to the to Bełchatów, Poland where he was from, with his bringing on a lot of people to help guide us to make it feel lived in.
I’m curious about working with Barry and those early conversations with him about how you guys are going to approach this material, and what he asks of you or what you ask of him?
Well, the first element is how do we approach three decades of a man’s life in very extreme circumstances? It was suggested to me that we could do digital effects, when we got on a production call in the early days of the project. And they said, “Well, we can we can digitally make you small and skinny and then we can build you up to be the boxer,” and they seemed pretty excited about the new technology. And I knew immediately that that was not a path that I was comfortable taking. And in fact, I think I said if that’s how we’re going to do it, I think you have the wrong actor.
I say that because when you begin the research process — we’ve all seen pictures of those that have survived in the camps, we’ve seen documentary footage, but if you actually examine, if you spend time with them, it felt that because we had time, I needed to lose the weight for myself. And I wouldn’t be able to face myself in the morning if I [went the digital route.] There wasn’t like a number target of how much weight to lose, it was actually something that I noticed, looking at these humans, was the bones in their chests. And I felt that if I could carve myself down so I can see the bones in my chest, I was there. That was my aim.
I knew if I could touch that, if I could get to that place and still, for myself, still be able to fight – although there’s a choreography to it, you’re still taking punches – that that would inform the rest of the film. That I could take that feeling with me and I wouldn’t have to think about it. And then we took five weeks off after shooting the camp elements, and I was able to put on 50 pounds for the for the boxing elements with Marciano. And then it was just the best where I got to eat everything. I really, really encourage people to enjoy food if you can eat.
Did you have a guilty pleasure or something that you ate so much you got sick of that you were really excited about at the beginning?
(Laughs) Early on, when I was beginning to drop and was training to box, I wouldn’t remember but my wife would open up the fridge in the morning and she’d hold up like a brick of cheese that just had teeth marks in it. I guess I had just woken up hungry and unconsciously meandered over to the refrigerator and just ate like an animal. But no, there wasn’t one thing it was. It was a luxury to lose the weight, and it’s a luxury to eat. And it was a choice that Barry and I got on board with and he wasn’t pushing for it by any means. He was like, “Well you can lose a little bit of weight. Don’t be crazy about it.” And then we took a trip to Auschwitz together, a few of us, and that really tuned us up right before filming. It marks you for life, it changes you to touch the rails, to see the piles of shoes.
I’m curious about the experience of filming the flashback scenes, because the cinematography on those scenes is handheld and very intimate. What was that dance like with the camera in those harrowing sequences?
It is kind of a dance. It’s a horrible, terrifying dance. George Steele operates and he’s just a terrific cinematographer. And like all great cinematographers, they kind of treat everybody differently, but they’re very respectful and they have to do their job and we have to do ours and hopefully they catch something when it happens. It was a terrifying set. Our first day of filming was the burn pits, and they built this 360 degree camp. You have SS officers screaming and the dogs and smoking people in cages and it was very easy to fall into that nightmare. And at that point, you’re just trying to get out of its way.
What was your relationship like with Billy Magnussen on set? Because the relationship between those two characters is so charged and complicated.
He’s an extremely magnetic performer and very instinctual, which is always more fun. Everybody’s got a different style and approach. And if you’ve done your homework, you can kind of go anywhere, within reason. You want to be respectful of your collaborators, and you’re also defending your person, and that’s our job is to defend our person and hope something can pop. So I think the dynamics naturally of their relationship is unimaginably complex. And I suppose the trap is to outsmart it, and to let that complexity be. Live in the gray. I’m much more interested, at least in my trade, in moral ambiguity.
Stop trying to untangle the knot and embrace the knot.
Embrace the knot. Yeah, don’t anticipate the blade, lean in. Embrace the knot. We are complicated beings, the human animal, so let it be. If we can expose parts of that inside ourself, hopefully other people when they see it, it makes them feel less lonely.
This idea of choices comes up a number of times in the film. Choices that are forced, choices that are unforced, but choices nonetheless, and how they haunt. I think it does a lot to unpacking PTSD, and how the horrors of what happened affected these individuals for years to come. I’m curious if that was a gravitating point to you, if that’s a theme that you and Barry discussed at length while making the film.
Yes. Choices and living with choices and how those choices don’t just affect you. They affect your family and the next generation. If you live on the planet long enough, there’s going to be human experiences that leave you marked no matter what, some deeper than others. And if we don’t approach those points that have gone unresolved, they show up later. And in this case, Harry can keep fighting and fighting but you can’t fight the wound. The question is more important than the answer in this case. And in many ways that’s also very much part of the Jewish faith. It’s Talmudic. It is often in argument or in question of how could this be? Rather than a faith of saying, “Well, it’s all because of this,” the questioning is very much bound up in in the faith itself. So Barry and I talked often about it.
It was so beautifully written. A particular element is a story that Harry tells about one survivor who steals another survivor’s cap in the morning, and it just poses the question of, “What would you do? What would you do for love?” Hopefully the film, in many ways, makes us take pause. This is not a Holocaust film, I don’t believe. And I don’t believe it’s a boxing film, but it is a movie about resilience. I listened to hours and hours of testimony of survivors, and each story is so deeply harrowing. But there was a continuity that I heard in a few of them where they talked about the hope. The hope that a loved one was still alive. And that the shred of a chance that that loved one was still alive, that they might see that loved one again, gave them enough energy when they were depleted of everything. It gave them an energy inside to survive for another day. And that is so beautiful. That’s how Harry survived.
For the scenes later in the film, did it help having shot the camp scenes first?
It helped. To say such a thing, but yeah, having shot in this camp, having done these fights, having been to Auschwitz personally. There’s a scene towards the latter part of the film where we’re older Harry is in the kitchen. And as written, he’s supposed to be leaning up against the sink, and his wife Miriam is saying, “You have to tell your son about it.” And he says, “Why would you I do that?” And as written it’s because why would you put terrible things into a child’s heart and then said, “You don’t know the worst part of me,” and she’s supposed to get up and give him a hug. And this will speak to Barry and hopefully your question, and this is very much Barry’s style: He didn’t tell me, he whispered something to Vicky [Krieps], and she didn’t give me a hug. In the script she’s supposed to get up and give me a hug and make everything better. She didn’t. She sat in the chair. And she started antagonizing, and asking me questions. And from that Harry, or I, just started telling what I remembered from that fight. It wasn’t in the script, but we had already shot it. The only way that that scene could have happened is if we had shot it in that order. So it helped enormously and then it also helps enormously to have an actor like Vicky and Barry encouraging this kind of exploration in the scene.
“The Survivor” premieres on HBO and HBO Max April 27 at 8:00pm ET/PT