A love story seen through the filter of war

Ben Foster is standing on a boulder in a field in Armenia.

That’s not some trendy new Zen practice and he’s not shooting a scene (although he’s there working on “Here,” his next film); he’s just trying to manage some decent cell reception. Normally soft-spoken, he gamely shouts into the wind about his turn as an Army casualty notification officer in Oren Moverman’s “The Messenger.”

“If you can remove the filter of war, it’s about feelings we all have -- falling in love with someone in a difficult situation; we’ve all experienced loss; we will make the phone call to loved ones and have to break the news. At some point in our lives, someone will do that for us,” he says. “So it felt like a humble question of: How do we connect?”

In the film, which opens Nov. 13, Foster plays Staff Sgt. Will Montgomery, recently returned from Iraq after catching some shrapnel in the face and leg. The Army assigns Will to finish out his service in the company of Capt. Tony Stone (Woody Harrelson), breaking horrible news to the next of kin of freshly fallen soldiers. The directionless Will finds it difficult to remain detached from the bereaved, especially the widowed, enigmatic Olivia (Samantha Morton).


“We had the full support of the Army. We had the head of casualty notifications, [Lt. Col.] Paul Sinor, with us every single day. We spent time at Walter Reed hospital with the boys and girls who came back . . . ,” Foster measures the words, " . . . missing pieces. Some come back with visible scars and some are internal.”

He apologizes in advance for the cliche, then convincingly describes making “The Messenger” as one of his best acting experiences so far, especially because of his costars.

“It is its own kind of love affair, I suppose. He’s my brother,” he says of working with Harrelson.

“All the notifications were done in one take. Oren would talk to those we were going to notify and to us separately; we wouldn’t meet until that moment. When you go through something and you’re taking an emotional leap with someone else, you’re either going to connect or not. It just so happens that he’s a remarkable human being. I’ve never cried or laughed in someone’s arms so much as Woody Harrelson’s.”

For Olivia, Foster says he and Moverman thought only of Morton for the role.

“I’ve had a severe actor crush on her for years. So getting the opportunity to play with her -- she’s Samantha . . . Morton. A woman who’s very easy to fall in love with.”

In a key scene in Olivia’s kitchen, palpable awkwardness blossoms into a beautiful example of actors communicating. The scene wasn’t rehearsed.

“We did four takes, blocked it lightly, didn’t over-talk it. Oren created an environment where we had to listen to each other and be with each other. So, no, it’s not a traditional Hollywood approach.”

Between “The Messenger” and “Here,” Foster skipped off to Germany for some cinematic culture shock on “Pandorum,” the science-fiction thriller released earlier this fall.

“It’s a throwback, ‘70s, haunted-house thrill ride -- on a spaceship. I think audiences who like that will respond to it,” says the star of “3:10 to Yuma” and “X-Men: The Last Stand.” “But I’m happy to be off the spaceship and in Armenia. Standing on a boulder.”

Despite the distance, the actor still carries close the experience of making Moverman’s film.

“There wasn’t a day that went by on set when we didn’t feel exposed,” he says. “Working with Sam, working with Woody, with the day players who came in to be notified, I guess I still haven’t recovered from that job. And I hope I don’t.”