There are scenes in The Program, which tells the rise and fall of disgraced cyclist Lance Armstrong, where the athlete’s pals speculate which Hollywood golden boy will play him in the inevitable movie celebrating his miraculous battle against cancer and record seven consecutive Tour de France victories. Matt Damon? Jake Gyllenhaal perhaps?
Ben Foster can play heroes, too, but his are always complicated, conflicted heroes. That’s why director Stephen Frears tabbed him for the role after Armstrong’s inspirational life story was corrupted by his admissions that he’d been a drug cheat, a bully, and a bold-faced liar. It was either the perfect casting match or a recipe for personal disaster — or both — what with the famously intense actor digging deep in to a character as obsessive and driven as himself. Foster doesn’t disappoint, fixing that unnerving stare of his on Armstrong’s cycling rivals when he says things like, “I have the money and the power to destroy you.”
There are moments in The Program where audiences might do a double-take — Are they using archival footage for this press conference? — because Foster molded himself to resemble Armstrong. It’s not just his body, which thinned dramatically, but it’s his cheekbones and the way his jaw coils with tension as he awaits some journalist to finish an accusatory question. This is a man who is going run you over, leaving tire tread marks on your face, and Foster — who memorably starred in Lone Survivor, The Messenger, and 3:10 to Yuma — knows how to do that as well as any actor alive. Last week, he made headlines when he told a British reporter that his prep to play Armstrong included experimenting with the same performance-enhancing drugs that made Armstrong a champion. In this conversation with EW, he explains why he needed to go to such lengths, and how close he got to sitting down with Armstrong himself.
The Program, which premiered at Toronto and just opened in France, will arrive in the U.S. in 2016.
ENTERTAINMENT WEEKLY: I know you’ve portrayed actual people before, like William Burroughs, but I don’t know if any were living and breathing at the time. Was it imposing for you to take on someone who might actually see your movie?
BEN FOSTER: It’s different, playing someone who’s living, whose story is going to continue — it’s not done yet. This is such a complicated study, and it’s something I knew very little about, but working with Stephen Frears trumped any hesitation I might have had because hesitation at the end of the day is wasted energy.
Remind me, did you sign up with Stephen before or after Armstrong went on Oprah’s show and admitted he lied and cheated?
That had happened. In fact, that was part of the conversation we had. It was a secret meeting. He said he wanted to speak to me about a project, unspecified. We met in New York and he said, “What do you know about Lance Armstrong?” And I said I knew he was supposed to be a great cyclist, now he’s a doper. I know he was on Oprah recently, which I hadn’t seen. I hadn’t followed cycling.
It’s interesting to me that you hadn’t really followed his career and that you mostly knew him just as a cheat. What did you find fascinating about him, as a quote-unquote character, that made you want to play him?
The more I studied the subject, the more I read up on it, the more interviews that I conducted with people that he had ridden with, and friends, and people who are no longer his friends, the more complicated his character becomes. It may not be that clear on the surface, but I find him an incredibly complicated, empathetic character. If you can get past the surface level concepts of good and bad or a cheat, if you just look at his narrative, this is a young guy with incredible talent, incredible drive, and he faces cancer at a very young age. And he faces that potential death sentence and I do believe it changes you. I think with full sincerity in his heart, he started this foundation because at his core, he believes in human potential. Whether or not he’s a nice guy isn’t for me to decide, but I do believe he believes in mankind’s potential. And his foundation is built, an enormous empire, half a billion dollars raised in cancer research. This is a monster. Sitting on a powder-keg, a time of massive doping; you have to go down 18 riders [in the Tour standings] to find a clean rider. The lives that he destroyed in terms of business, those were people who were threatening his empire, and that empire was actually saving lives. So the deeper I went into this story, the more I was interested in, “What would I do?” “What would you do?” And I’m still interested in it.
I was so glad there was that scene early on in the film where he’s realizing his dream, riding in the Tour de France for the first time, and one of the friendly bicyclists tells him he has absolutely no chance because everyone else in the field is cheating. The race is a joke — it’s all about who has the best chemist. To have his eyes opened that way, I’m sure that was a very formulative moment for him.
It has to be. But you can’t just take drugs and win the Tour de France. It doesn’t work that simply. It’s nutrition and the organization of the team — he just did it better.
Ever tempted to reach out to him? I suppose you don’t need to because there’s so much footage of him, but was there any part of you during the research where you said, “Well, I may as well give this guy a call and see if he wants to have coffee?”
I did reach out — against Stephen’s wishes. Stephen said basically, “I didn’t need the queen to make The Queen.” Fine, but then I talked to one of our consultants on set who is close with him and I just set, “I’d love to meet him, I’d love to talk with him. Do you think he’d be open to it?” And in so many words, [laughs] he wasn’t interested.
What was your life like when you were Lance? I know you are very intense with your work, so I was trying to determine whether playing someone as equally focused and obsessed was the perfect match for you or the worst possible match for you?
[Laughs] You’ll probably have to ask people who were in my general surroundings. It was a physical grind, that’s for sure. At the same time, so is the sport. I don’t think there’s a sport on the planet that’s as psychologically brutal as it is physically. There’s something so self-flagulating about the sport. There’s almost a religious quality to it. It’s a thrill for someone of my temperament, a subject which I can tear into, where there’s no bottom. You never hit hit a wall with this; I certainly didn’t. And it was a living story. There were new facts coming in every day, so the script was evolving. It certainly fed my appetite.
When I begin investigating a role, I’m just following leads. You read the script, it might change, it might not. I do some interviews and hope someone will send me to somebody else and then somebody else, and that’s the joy of the job, finding the perimeter and gathering intel on the subject. The people that I was speaking with had ridden with Lance or had ridden in that time of aggressive doping. It just felt like a natural curiosity, and I was able to get in touch with his nutritionist and a wellness doctor, and I took a calculated risk because I wanted to literally experience what we were investigating on a cellular level. It was something private for me to understand, this ritual. It’s not as though if I were playing a serial killer, I’d go out hunting people. But this particular job offered an opportunity to faithfully explore this world, and I did a contained version of what Lance and his teammates went through. And as I said before, the drugs work. Doesn’t mean I can win the Tour de France, but the drugs work. It shapes your body. You don’t stop when ordinarily you would, you don’t gas out. But the fallout of not taking the drugs when you’re done is when it’s most hazardous. Your body no longer produces [that amount of oxygen], so you’re in that deficit position and getting those levels back to normal is a bit tricky. It’s not something I recommend, to other actors or anybody not under very, very severe doctor’s supervision.
It seems like your weight fluctuates quite a bit in the film as well. There’s that early scene where Dr. Ferrari tells Lance that he doesn’t have the right body for cycling: too bulky. You had some weight on you, some muscle. Then obviously you thinned down. How much weight did you end of losing?
I had to lose about 30 pounds in six weeks with cannibalizing diets. It’s a level of starvation and cardio where your body starts eating itself. We didn’t shoot in sequence, much to my frustration. They’re like, “We need you really strong [at the beginning] and then we’re going to need you riddled with cancer, and then put on some wight again. You figure it out.” There were many diets throughout.
Armstrong was the alpha dog of cycling for almost a decade. As the film shows, he never hesitated in using the power he had to keep things rolling for him. When you’re on the set playing such a character, is that something that you turn on when the director says action, or do you really have to absorb that kind of confidence and intimidation so that it’s on all the time?
I think it’s varying degrees of keeping it warm. I’m not built in the way of just turn-on, turn-off. And that’s not to say that I need people to call me Lance on the set either. It’s a feeling level, and it’s a behavioral pattern that one must acquaint themselves with intimately and quickly. So I don’t know if that answers that question.
I guess I was just thinking how Armstrong and Floyd Landis eventually crossed swords, so I was curious if that is something actors play with — don’t necessarily be adversarial but, “You know what, I’m not going to hang out with that guy, I’m not going to hang out with Jesse on the set because I want to have something between us that the camera can pick up.”
[Laughs] 1000 percent. 1000 percent. With Plemons, he’s such a wonderful actor. We went to cycling camp together, and it was easy to care for him. But yes, the path of least resistance is I think a pretty fine technique to use… “keeping it warm” is what I call it.
Are there similarities between Armstrong’s drive and the dilemma to be great at all costs, and being an actor in Hollywood? Are there parallels?
I’m sure there are. In terms of being obsessed with a subject, I can quietly relate to that. Taking a job on is like falling in love. It consumes your every thought. It keeps you up at night. You’re in this heightened state. In terms of the industry itself, I’m sure there are people who want to be considered the best. I don’t think art or film can be quantified that way. There’s a general cultural appreciation for what some people do at a certain time, but it’s not like racing up a mountain first. So my competitiveness is always with myself rather than my community. I think Lance, on the other hand, was really fighting the world, and in his own way, trying to save it.
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