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Ben Foster talks about his role in ‘The Messenger’

Americans acknowledge that freedom is not free. The cost is often paid for in human lives, and families forever struggle with a profound sorrow. Several films have been made about the Iraq war; none have achieved great box office results. “The Messenger,” opening this week at the Landmark Village Theatre in La Jolla, sheds a light on the war from a perspective rarely seen or addressed on TV or in films.

Ben Foster (Staff Sgt. Will Montgomery) and Woody Harrelson (Capt. Tony Stone) star as soldiers assigned to the Army’s Casualty Notification service. Like other officers across America who wait for the beep on their phone, Will and Tony travel to homes to inform families that their loved one has been killed in service to our country. Will, himself just returning from service in Iraq, is a new assignee to this job and is not happy about the assignment.

Foster is quickly gaining a reputation as an actor with incredible talent. He garnered critical acclaim as outlaw Charlie Prince in “3:10 To Yuma” opposite Russell Crowe. He played two characters in “X-Men: The Last Stand,” held his own in the thriller “Hostage” and is well known for this role in TV’s “Six Feet Under.”

He said he contemplates new roles seriously, but never hesitated after reading the script for “The Messenger” and meeting with director and co-writer Oren Moverman.

“One reason (I took on the film) was getting the opportunity to address the war in a way that didn’t feel like it was lecturing the audience or pushing a political agenda,” Foster said. “Also, Moverman and Alessandro Camon’s script was very spare, human, and shockingly funny and universal. We all know what it’s like to lose somebody, and it felt like a wonderful question to be asking people that I so respect.”

If Foster had the smallest inkling of what his role would require, he was in for a surprising realization. He and Harrelson were given a tour of the Walter Reade facility that houses wounded soldiers returning from war. Foster said he was deeply impacted by the visit. Even his answer to this question comes through a soft-spoken voice with pause — reflective yet earnest.

“We saw a side of war in action — the action of healing,” he said. “Everybody has their political opinions, and from my experience, I’d hear ‘the names of the dead.’ That rattled me, but they were just names. Then you see these boys and girls, who are brave, but they are children, with missing limbs and vision, and you don’t get those images out of your head.”

Will and Tony have an interesting relationship throughout the film, and both actors offer tour-de-force performances. Foster was excited to be working with Harrelson and surprised by the depth of his performance.

After making several calls on families and witnessing their horror or being hit or spit on, Will believes he can handle anything. He learns differently when he calls on Olivia Pitterson (Samantha Morton) to inform her that her husband has been killed. The 9 1/2-minute scene in the kitchen between Will and Olivia is nothing short of amazement in the way their eyes waltz about with looks of what might be or could have been.

This is even more poignant knowing there were no rehearsals for this film.

“It’s her (Morton) notification that she’s notifying Will,” Foster explained. “She’s one of the great actors ... so professional and intuitive, and dangerous in her performance in a very restrained way. Some people just happen to tap into it. She’s just magic.”

“The Messenger,” which has already racked up many festival awards, has strong sentiments, and feelings between the actors and director grew significantly during the filming.

‘The Messenger’

Opens Nov. 20

Rated ‘R’

Landmark Village Theatre

8879 Villa La Jolla Drive, La Jolla

(619) 819-0236

www.landmarktheatres.com