Ben Foster entered movies as a subtly cutting high school senior in Barry Levinson's Liberty Heights. In Levinson's best Baltimore period piece after Diner, Foster played Ben Kurtzman, who declares war on a swimming club that posts a sign banning "Jews, Dogs, and Coloreds," but also outrages his parents when he dresses up as Hitler for Halloween and attends a James Brown concert on the black side of town. Foster captured comical '50s wise-guy attitudes and also expressed extraordinary sensitivity and sweetness when he developed a flirtatious pal-ship with an African-American schoolmate (Rebekah Johnson).
He played attention-getting juvenile delinquents in Hostage and Alpha Dog. But he's all grown up and gunning for bear -- or anyone who looks at him sideways -- in 3:10 to Yuma. As Charlie Prince, Foster's best role in the eight years since Liberty Heights, he slices through the Old West like a vicious whiplash: The only figure who earns his generosity and sympathy is his outlaw boss, Ben Wade (Russell Crowe). It's an amazing performance because Foster manages to be surprising within a character who could have been unendurably vile. Foster turns every aspect of a classic Western performance, from the draw of a gun to a swig of whiskey, into a virtuoso turn.
Foster's Charlie Prince is incredibly fast and accurate without ever coming off as "natural": He delights in the artifice as well as the reality of his tough-enforcer pose. In one dazzling offhand scene, when he snatches a coat and hat off a sleeping drunk and tells a whopper to a group of Bisbee, Ariz., lawmen, he conveys all the disdain a top outlaw feels for anyone living a square life.
Over the phone from L.A., Foster says he stayed away from the 1957 movie of the same name because if he saw Richard Jaeckel in the role, he was sure "on some level I'd be subconsciously stealing from his performance. I wanted to come in clean and find my own Charlie Prince. It really evolved naturally from going over archival photographs with [director] Jim Mangold and [costume designer] Arianne Phillips. We all felt that the outlaws were the rock stars of their time. And there's an inherent violence and sexuality, ... which was something we all wanted to explore with Charlie Prince.
"They were all self-made men, and they would really stir the pots of their own legends. And there were these penny papers that would go around, these Stars or Globes of the day, and the outlaws would check them out. The more flamboyantly they dressed, the more flamboyant their violence, the more famous they would become. There was a pride to them living outside the law. They were self-made myths."
When Wade signals that he's staying behind in Bisbee to woo a barmaid who's a ravaged beauty and a woman of substance, there's a homoerotic tinge to the jealousy and worry in Charlie's eyes. Foster says, "It was the only way I could rationalize someone going across the desert on a killing spree. Charlie isn't a sociopath to me. What he does in the film is an act of love. Jim and I didn't discuss the specifics of my finding this guy, and Russell and I didn't speak of it on that level. But it was all really rooted in love, and however that manifests itself was up to Russell and me and Jim on-screen and however audience members want to take it."
Foster feels that "the great power of the genre of the Western is that it's all about a man's code. Outlaws are outside the law. And as human beings we like to see people who are not tethered by government, so that they're in conflict with their own ethics and their own morals." We judge the characters in 3:10 to Yuma by how they keep their word -- how they follow through on it with their actions. "In the stark landscape of the desert, you're stripped bare. The drama is how you survive and take care of the things you care most about, and in Charlie's case, it's the boss."
On the other hand, the movie, and the making of the movie, has the zesty esprit of grown men playing cowboys and Indians. "We had some of the best stuntmen and horsemen working. And they were just a riot to play with. I'd never been on a horse before. Going into cowboy boot camp was a hell of an experience. You learn so many things just hanging around with these guys. If you lose a hat or a gun or mess up a take, you buy rounds for everybody, that's one of the laws. For the first three weeks, I was buying rounds for the boys every week. But it turned around. They got sloppy. Well, keep getting them drunk and they'll lose their hats.
"Oh, there were some pranks. One fellow, an actor, was being a bit too vocal and needy on a very complex day of shooting, so we left him a gift. We found a tarantula and left it in his trailer, under a bowl, and on the bowl we'd written 'Welcome to Yuma.' He was pleased to have a gift, of course, and suddenly we heard a nice little shriek. It was a testosterone film set and a riot."
As for Crowe, "he's one of the great actors that we have. He does have a reputation that has been threatening, but he's been so misrepresented."
Crowe and Foster became fast friends, on and off the set.
"If you're just running your mouth, you two aren't going to be pals. But he took tremendous time and care with me. He would take me on weekends, to make sure I felt good on a horse. I had that psychic bond with him that happens with people when they have a shared goal in a challenging environment. ... He can be a very intense man, but that comes from a great sense of care. It can be misinterpreted as egocentric or overly moody, but he's just the real deal."
From an adult vantage point, Foster looks back fondly on his big break, shooting Liberty Heights in Baltimore. "I was 17 when I did that. And I hadn't shot a real film before that. I'd ask Barry, 'What do you want me to do?' And he'd answer, 'What would you do?' and walk away. I thought he hated me at first, because he was letting me ruin his film. But once someone leads you off into the deep end, you find your way. One quality I've found with the best, the most rewarding directors: They have a very clear vision of what they want. But that's balanced with tuning into an actor's own instincts and supporting them."
Watch a preview of 3:10 to Yuma at baltimoresun.com/yuma