Lone Survivor has surprised many. It's the story of Operation Red Wings – a 2005 reconnaissance mission which found four Navy SEALs ambushed by anti-coalition militia on an Afghan mountain – adapted from SEAL Marcus Luttrell's memoir of the events. Written and directed by Peter Berg, who last coughed up the hideous Battleship, it's everything that film wasn't: heartfelt and exciting in all the right places. No 1 at the US box office, it's doubled its $40m budget and garnered frenzied reactions from both ends of the political spectrum.
This was very much a passion project for Berg, whose father was a Marine. He'd been working on it since 2007; after getting to know Luttrell and the families of the 19 SEALs killed in Operation Red Wings, he embedded with an active SEAL platoon in Iraq for a month. Ben Foster, who plays sonar technician Matthew "Axe" Axelson, one of the four ambushed SEALs, recalls when he first spoke to Luttrell. "He said, 'You know I named my son after the man that you would play – you can't fuck this up.' I said, 'All right, I'll do the very best that I can.' And there was some stillness on the phone, and I said, 'Well, let's spend some time together.'" Foster collected Luttrell from Texas and over three days they bonded on the trip to New Mexico.
Foster has always lent a brooding, simmering presence to his films, playing loose cannons in Alpha Dog, 3:10 To Yuma and The Messenger. Currently in pre-production for Duncan Jones's Warcraft, he speaks slowly, with purpose. As much as he would have liked to, he didn't get the chance to embed with active SEALs, as Berg had. "He was kind of the last civilian they let do that," he says. "The Navy started locking up its doors. But because Pete had made the relationships and proven his intentions on telling the story, they've been very generous with us. So we were not allowed to embed in any real operations, but we did simulate operations with live fire."
Indeed, the key Lone Survivor cast underwent a month-long bootcamp, put through the wringer by SEALs chosen by Luttrell, who was on-set throughout. "He brought his guys," says Foster. "And you don't wanna let those guys down, as they've seen their brothers go. They are the wolf pack when they come together, it's a very distinct warrior philosopher mentality. It's 'You may be able to take me, but you ain't gonna take my buddy'. They didn't come with any kind of attitude. I've worked with people who just wanna puff up their chests, these guys aren't like that."
'My first [stunt]man – bless his heart – unfortunately, during his fall, hit a tree wrong and had to leave. He cracked his ribs and punctured his lung. So it wasn't a joke'
Foster literally threw himself into the role. Two of the film's most dynamic set-pieces involve the SEALs hurtling down cliffs, and Berg has said he had to physically stop Foster from doing it all himself, referring to him as "absolutely insane". Foster laughs. Does he generally like to do his own stunts? "As much as I can do I'll do," he says. "As much as they'll turn a blind eye, I'll take. My first man on that job – bless his heart – unfortunately, during his fall, hit a tree wrong and had to leave. He cracked his ribs and punctured his lung and he had to go home. So it wasn't a joke. At the same time, it's easy to say, 'Wow, look at that mountain, it's so fuckin' hard, doing that stunt,' but compare it to the source material, nobody's shooting real bullets at them. So if there's a tactical way that I could look at a fall, that's more than the guys we're representing had." Besides, he says, Luttrell was encouraging him. "He's a fuckin' riot. 'Do it! Come on fuckface, go!'" Did Foster get damaged? "You know," he shirks. "I'm not allowed to say. I'm still here, man."
At one point, Foster was also seen scoffing handfuls of dirt. I ask him to verify; there's a healthy pause. "You put yourself in a headspace, I suppose like [American] footballers headbutt each other to stay in the game. As actors you find moments to keep in line with what the day is demanding. I don't know, I might have been trying to help out the makeup department or I might have just wanted to eat some dirt. It's not like I wake up in the morning and be like, 'You know what I'm going to do today is just eat handfuls of dirt.' But… you do as it feels."
I ask if he found his month at bootcamp tough. "You're just not allowed to complain," he says. "Once you're in the presence of people who have put their lives actively on the line, repeatedly, you're never allowed to complain again. And I do, and we all do. But now I look at things a little differently." Making the film changed his life, he says. He speaks with Luttrell "at least once a week" and is still in touch with Axe's family, who loved his portrayal. After she saw the film, Axe's mother texted Foster: "Thank you for giving me my son back for a few more hours." When I mention it he exhales deeply, and has to collect himself. "They're quite a family," he finally says, quietly. "Quite a family. There's a lot to learn from the family of a soldier as much as the soldier. Actually, warrior is a better word. Warrior."
He uses the same word in reference to his next role. As Lance Armstrong in Stephen Frears's biopic, which wrapped in December, Foster trained in the Alps. "It was a rigorous experience," he says, "being a non-rider, trying in some small way to represent our world's most ruthless physical specimens." Despite Armstrong's scandal, Foster is firmly in awe of his achievements. "As for how he hurt people, I'm too deep in still," he says. "But the bottom line is there's never been a cyclist like him before or after. There are no clear answers, other than he is one of the most spectacular warriors that the sport has ever seen."
Foster as Armstrong is an exciting proposition. The characters he plays don't do things by halves, an attitude he clearly embraces. Maybe we could all do with eating a little dirt from time to time.
Dude is crazy, but I love him