Interview: Ben Foster

Actor Ben Foster tells Tom Huddleston why he took performance-enhancing drugs to get under the skin of Tour de France winner Lance Armstrong for new biopic The Program
Ben Foster

Ben Foster (The Messenger, X-Men: The Last Stand) is the most undervalued actor in America – but not for much longer. The 34-year-old is stepping out of the shadows with The Program, for which he slips into the snug Lycra shorts of disgraced cyclist Lance Armstrong. Foster plays Armstrong as a man driven by a near-psychotic need to win. It’s a fierce, Oscar-worthy performance.

How much did you know about Lance Armstrong?
“I came in so ignorant. All I knew about Lance was that he’s a cyclist and guilty of doping. That’s the best part of my job: the opportunity to spend time on something I know nothing about. I read book after book and met lots of people who had ridden with Lance, his mechanics, his nutritionists.”

You and Armstrong don’t look alike. What aspects of him were important to get across?
“His position on the bike. He looks like a bird of prey. The way he hangs his head, it’s predatory. When you watch Marco Pantani on the slopes, he’s dancing up the mountain. Lance looks like he’s trying to destroy the bike. That brutality was very important.”

Did you want to remind audiences of his charity work?
“It was important to ask: what’s the story? And the story is simple, it’s biblical. It’s Christ on a bike. He comes back from death and he saves the sick. He started this foundation – with profound sincerity, I believe – and raised half a billion dollars for cancer research. He saved lives, that’s a stone-cold fact.”

Why did you take performance-enhancing drugs for the role?
“I wanted to understand Lance’s drug program on a cellular level. It’s not illegal, I did it under a doctor’s supervision. Even the ritual of injecting yourself, it’s an experience I wouldn’t have known otherwise. I’m not suggesting anybody do this, but it was informative.”

What effect did the drugs have?
“The physical shifts are noticeable – your endurance levels go up. It’s not a psych drug, it doesn’t give you a high, but being able to push through your limits produces serotonin, which has its own addictive-bliss qualities. I took a calculated risk, and I’m glad I did.”

Did you get withdrawal symptoms?
“Yes, it fucked my nervous system up. I didn’t come off the drugs as carefully as I should have, and there were consequences.”

You haven’t had a huge number of leading roles in your career. Why?
“There just aren’t that many roles that are so interesting. I read scripts and I get depressed. I could be reading a book right now! I could be taking a walk!”

That implies you’re not as crazily driven as other actors are.
“Good! That’s wonderful to hear! I mean, I love this job, I love the opportunity to learn about things and experience them in a physical, emotional way. There just aren’t many people I want to spend that much time considering.”

The Program opened on Dec 25.

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