Ben Foster Interview

07 January 2009

'Liberty's' feature first-timers Foster, Johnson nothing like their screen personnas

'Liberty's' feature first-timers Foster, Johnson nothing like their screen personnas

(Some questions in this interview came from other journalists present for the Q&A.)

Meeting Ben Foster and Rebekah Johnson comes as a bit of a shock only 48 hours after seeing them play to two 1950s teenagers in Barry Levinson's "Liberty Heights," a comical, retrospective on segregation and discrimination.

It's late afternoon in San Francisco, and Foster looks like he partied with Haight Street punkers last night and slept in his clothes until about half an hour ago. Sporting a Jack Daniels T-shirt, a whispy goatee and blond hair solidly gelled in an upright position, until the 19-year-old actor cracks a disarming smile, he looks like someone his character -- a clean-cut Jewish kid from Baltimore, circa 1954 -- might dart across the street to avoid.

But looks, of course, can be deceiving. Except for being a little edgy from too few cigarette breaks during a long day of interviews, he is, in fact, a congenial Christian Slater/Seth Green hybrid, complete with the requisite Puck-ish manner and the wit of an East Coast actor trapped in Hollywood by his choice of profession.

"I can't deal with the L.A. scene," he grins predictably through clenched teeth, saying he would bolt New York if it weren't for his budding career and his part on NBC's acclaimed "Freaks and Geeks."

Dressed in a cashmere turtleneck and with her naturally curly hair pulled back from her face, Johnson isn't as much of a jolt -- but she's clearly not a girl who would ever wear the pageboy bob and poodle skirts favored by the conservative, black schoolgirl she plays in the film, who has been uprooted by desegregation and dropped onto a new campus full of WASP-y suburbanites.

Having moved to Los Angeles after dropping out of Vanderbilt ("I went there literally fearing my dad's wrath," she laughs), she worked in theater for a few years before breaking into television with a guest spot on "My So-Called Life." She's acted in movies for HBO and Showtime but her first love is music, and she's about to go into the studio to record a follow-up to her 1998 pop album "Remember to Breathe."

In town to talk about their feature film debuts in this fourth Levinson film based on his upbringing in a Jewish enclave of Baltimore (it's preceded by "Diner," "Tin Men" and "Avalon") Foster and Johnson both say they feel privileged to be the central characters in this movie, in which they play unlikely friends full of romantic temptation, who face none-too-understanding parents and a racially-charged atmosphere.


Q: What was it like to get that call that you got the part?

Ben Foster: It was so surreal just to audition for it to begin with. When I got the call I was passed out. I was at my family's house, just taking a break from my apartment, and my mom came and knocked on my door. I said, "Leave me alone!" (he mimes rolling a pillow over his head) She said, "No, wake up!" I had drool down my face, I picked up the phone, and my manager said, "You got it"...and I proceeded to do a parade around the house in my underpants for a good couple hours.

Rebekah Johnson: I wasn't in my underwear, but I was very happy.

Come on! More underwear stories!

Johnson: (Laughs.) It was like the lottery! I mean, I just felt like, I won! I did it! I was just so happy, because it was such a quality script. A straight "A" type of project.

Ben, your character was based on Barry Levinson and his cousin. Was he generous with tips on how the play your part?

Foster: It was scary. It was really frightening because it's such a personal thing. You don' t want to piss them off and have them say, "I wouldn't do that!" The script is pretty strong and it defines the character pretty clearly, (and) his way (of directing) is like slight of hand. You won't know what's going on, but by the end of it when he says "Cut!" you realize he's pulled everything out of you without even being aware of it. He makes the acting process so easy, so real and so relaxed that you can't help but fall into this rhythm. It's contagious.

Did either of you have a problem getting into the segregation mindset?

Johnson: It wasn't that hard. It does still exist. I grew up in Cleveland, which is a similar type of town to Baltimore, and there are specific neighborhoods. This is where you live if you're Jewish, this is where you live if your black, this is where you live if you have money, this is where you live if you're poor, this is where you live if you're Puerto Rican. So it wasn't that much of a stretch, except that I had to imagine that (desegregation) just happened this year, and before this year I couldn't have gone to this school. That was kind of eye-opening in a way.

What did you do to prepare?

Johnson: I talked to my parents. Actually, I just listened to them for once when they saying, "When I was young..." (laughs). It was, like, what was that you were saying all those times I didn't listen to you? It made me just really appreciate my parents more and appreciate how hard they've worked, how much they've done to give me more than they had and make my life easier and better. It made me really appreciate the freedoms and rights that I have, that I (may) have taken for granted 'til I did this movie.

Foster: The big goal for me was just to get the mental state of mind, this kind of pure innocence. My generation is pretty jaded, pretty cynical. Everything happens really fast. Too much, too fast. So I got all the Life and Look magazines from '54 to '55 -- stuff that would be at the family's house, on the coffee table. I listened to all the Columbia years of Sinatra, stuff that would probably be on the radio. I talked to my grandmother and looked through her photo album. I talked to my dad.

Do you feel Levinson was going for a moral-of-the-story effect with the era's racial issues?

Foster: I think 1954 is just a backdrop for very universal issues that are very relevant today. I mean, anti-Semitism, racism, family, class -- these are prominent issues in our society. The nice thing about the film is that it doesn't preach. It doesn't bang you over the head. It just displays people going through their lives.

What I took from the film was something I was raised with, which is (to) never judge anybody by this (pulling at the skin on his cheek) or God or where you live. People are people and that's how you should connect. From the heart. From the mind. From the intellect. This dies (indicating the body), all this is going to go away some day. And while we're here, we have to communicate with this (hand over heart) and this (tapping his head). Not to sound too hokey, but that's what I took from it.

Did you have any difficulty getting into the scene where you -- playing a wiseacre Jewish kid -- dress as Hitler for Halloween?

Foster: Yeah. It really f***ed with me. It really did. It's shocking.

But it's also a little bit funny.

Johnson: It's very funny.

You laugh, you realize you're ashamed to be laughing, then you laugh again.

Foster: That's the best kind of laughter there is. (But the negative reaction), it's primal, man. It taps into something that's deep. I mean, Hitler designed the Nazi uniforms. He designed them! There's something deep in our subconscious.

As it should be.

Foster: Yeah, yeah. It was scary walking from the trailer to the set in my costume...

Johnson: He almost got beat up.

Foster: were slowing down...Most people don't registered the difference between acting and the actor. They see someone in the film and they think, "Oh, so that's what he's like."

What was it like doing the scene where you two go to a James Brown concert? Levinson really got the atmosphere out of that scene.

Johnson: Didn't he? We had so much fun. It was like a big party the days that we were doing that. They didn't even have to tell everyone to scream. Everyone was so good, everyone was in costume, and you want to pretend you're at something that fun and that, kind of, historic. Because that was before he was so...James Brown.

That was one of the things that really impressed me about the movie, was the sense of time and place was remarkable. On the set did if feel like you'd stepped back 40 years?

Johnson: As much as it could without knowing what that would really be like.

As much as it could with all those Teamsters standing around!

Johnson: Yeah! (Laughs.) It didn't feel like now. The biggest thing was when I actually saw it, and I was like, Wow! This is really well done. This is really where you are for two hours.

That must have felt good to have that happen even though you're watching from the point of view of seeing yourself perform.

Johnson: It really felt like it wasn't me, in a way. Like I was watching some weird version of my grandma or my mom. I was able to really get outside of it in a way.

Have you been receiving a lot of offers since the word got out about "Liberty Heights?"

Johnson: The scripts are coming in now.

Foster: A lot of bad scripts!

Johnson: Something like this almost spoils you. We're both pretty much on the same page about having high standards, not wanting to do stupid teen things.


Until Foster and Johnson each find new film projects that might satisfy them, Johnson is recording her second album (which will be a hybrid of rock, folk "and a little trip-hop") and Foster is content with his role on "Freaks and Geeks."

"'Freaks and Geeks' is not regular TV. I gotta do a lot of research for that. It's such a strong show, in my opinion. I'm really proud of that show."


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