The Finest Hours is based on the true story of a small Coast Guard crew who braved a massive, terribly destructive nor’easter off the New England coast on February 18, 1952 to rescue some 32 men from an oil tanker, the SS Pendleton, which had been ripped in half by the storm. Heading out on a 36-foot boat that was supposed to seat only 12, the Coast Guard team – led by an unassuming coxswain named Bernie Webber – faced 60-foot waves, zero visibility, freezing temperatures and the loss of their windshield and compass to somehow attempt one of the most daring rescues in naval history.
In director Craig Gillespie’s new film of that incident, Bernie Webber is played by Chris Pine and joining him on the boat is Richard Livesey, a terse, veteran Coast Guard member who goes on the mission despite his doubts about Webber’s abilities. Livesey is played by Ben Foster, the intense actor whose previous films include 3:10 to Yuma, X-Men: The Last Stand (where he played Angel), The Messenger and Lone Survivor, among many others. We spoke with Foster about playing a man of few words, working in cold and wet conditions for months and more, including his next movie Warcraft.
Den of Geek: I would describe your character as having a quiet intensity to him. Would you say that’s an apt description for him?
Ben Foster: I suppose there’s an economy of language. Particularly in dangerous situations, the best operators in the military, to my own limited experiences, are guys who are less talk, more do. I certainly appreciate a sparse script. I think some of these scripts are overwritten and serve the lowest common denominator emotionally. So you usually have to go through the script and lose about 40% of the words. Whereas, in this case maybe it was 10%, 5% of mine. It’s a hell of a script. I mean with the utmost respect. The physical actions are very clear. What these men represent are guys who do their job. They’re not looking for a compliment. They’re just doing their thing. I do respond to that quality of person.
When you don’t have a lot of dialogue to work with, are you more aware or conscious of every move you make with your face?
I’m not thinking about it. I’m not thinking about the moves I make. I guess the point is stripping it down to its essential. It’s remarkable how if you see something in your mind, if someone is listening, they can pick up a lot of communication that way. I don’t want to call it psychic. I don’t want to get into the supernatural. But I believe that a lot of communication is generated from within and you don’t need to hang onto so many words.
What were you able to learn about the real Livesey? Was there as much out there about him as there was about Bernie? Anything you could latch onto?
Most of these guys are gone. He was a very accomplished Coast Guard member, lived on the sea. It was suggested that he was a bit salty. This is not a representation of Richard Livesey. It’s a character called Richard Livesey. We built these guys — a version of them.
There has been that discussion that’s out there now about a lot of films where people seem to forget that these are not documentaries and your job is not to recreate exactly what happened. How do you answer any potential criticism if someone says, “Well, that’s not exactly how it happened”?
They all do. Everybody. That’s what happens. People just get riled up. At the same time, people can put movies on altars and they become false idols. So the short end is there are different levels and styles and approaches of film as there are filmmakers and actors and people. The demands are not always so cut and dry. You’ve got to feel your way through making a piece of art with a lot of collaborators. And this one felt like it was not as important to know how to tie every single knot on the boat — which can serve a performance. I’ve certainly taken that kind of approach in other ways.
This one felt more like a value system that was important to unpack. Because, really, they’re reduced to not having any of that equipment. So if the equipment was needed, we would have learned it. But these were guys who lose everything. It’s just like you’ve got to be on the boat, you’ve got to eat shit for the ride and figure it out as you figure it out. So just being present with that value system was what fueled me.
What did you know about boats, if anything, before you got involved with this? And did you learn anything that you could take away if you were in any kind of situation like this?
Yeah. Studying how swells work. I’m not going to go out on a limb and be like, “Yeah, I could face a 70-foot monster wave after monster wave after monster wave and go to the bar.” But I do enjoy being on boats and I would like to spend more time on them. This movie just made me want to be on more boats.
Even if you’re being doused in ice cold water?
Well, I’m not saying that’s like an ideal scenario for me being on a boat next. But, yeah, I like…I was just on a boat recently. It feels good. I like being near the water.
How challenging was that after a while to be in that tank and being constantly cold and wet? Does it settle in your bones for the duration of the shoot?
Yeah. Cold, after a while, does get in your bones. It will cool your core temperature. That’s a basic effect that hits you physiologically. And the results of that are many. The thing that warms the heart is that this is what these men do every day. We’re just storytellers. So anytime that we would feel just a flash of sorry for ourselves, we’d smile, like, “These guys are out there right now saving somebody’s ass, somebody’s life, somebody’s mom, somebody’s dad, somebody’s brother. Somebody right now is being saved by these guys. And all we’re doing is making a movie.”
You mentioned certain types of people — soldiers, firefighters, EMTs, whatever it is – who just go in and did the job. Is that a vanishing breed in some ways?
No. absolutely not. It’s alive and well in the world, to my view. I have a lot of friends in the military, friends in the fire department, EMTs, ER nurses, police, people who serve…the greatest privilege of my working life is spending time with those guys. Now, they are not all strong and silent. Some of them are really mouthy. But getting the job done, ‘can do’ people when it counts, it is not a dying breed.
Let me ask you about Warcraft. What do you get to play off in a film like that when so much of it seems like it’s created in computers?
The ad campaign, the teasers, they are showing some big battle sequences. The film has a much greater breadth. And (director) Duncan Jones, to his credit, has pushed the technology in this in concert with mind-blowing practical sets. I’ve never seen anything like the actual physical sets. So it’s a real marriage. What’s going on in the teasers, it’s not even a fifth of the movie.
Almost 10 years ago you played Angel in X-Men: The Last Stand. They’re actually bringing that character back for the next X-Men movie. I’m just curious about your memories of making that, and do you feel like you sort of have maybe a little unfinished business because you didn’t get to play him again?
I have no unfinished business. I wish whoever wants to make whatever they want to make whenever they want to make it, but I hold no leash or umbilical to that. I think we need all kinds of stories. What I like about (The Finest Hours) is that it’s not a mutant, that it’s not a superhero. It’s real people doing incredible things. I think both have a place. And I’m really happy about this one.
The Finest Hours is out in theaters this Friday (January 29).