Actor Ben Foster on Body Transformation for Holocaust Biopic, Having Nightmares About Nazi Concentration Camp
Jewish actor Ben Foster committed to losing all of the weight necessary to play a Holocaust concentration camp inmate in the new biographical film “The Survivor,” telling Variety in an interview that the physical transformation shaped his experience of the role.
“I wouldn’t be able to look myself in the mirror if I was in the camp scenes and didn’t reflect some version of loss that felt credible,” the actor told Variety about shedding the weight, in addition to performing the film’s fight scenes with real impact punches. “We see the documentaries, you see the photos, and you can’t forget that. So that was an opportunity to explore. I wanted to just see how far I could go and still be able to fight.”
“The Survivor,” from Academy Award-winning director Barry Levinson, stars Foster as Harry Haft, who was forced by Nazis to box other prisoners at the Auschwitz concentration camp. After surviving World War II and moving to New York, Haft used his high-profile bout against Rocky Marciano in 1953 to find his lost love Leah. The film shows Haft during his time in the camp and also his present life, as he searches for Leah while living with trauma from the Holocaust.
The biopic, based on the book “Harry Haft: Survivor of Auschwitz, Challenger of Rocky Marciano” by Alan Haft, premieres April 27 on HBO.
Foster told Variety the film’s production team suggested using digital effects to portray the character’s weight loss and gain in the movie. But, Foster explained, “The one thing I knew was that I needed to lose the weight for myself, and fortunately, Barry and production were able to support that and we were able to shoot in order. So I was able to drop 62 pounds for the camp [scenes], and we took five weeks off, and I put on 50 for the ring. And then the last section of the film was the last decade with Harry and his story and I was able to indulge a lot more.”
Foster noted that while he would not encourage anyone to undergo such a drastic physical transformation, he is happy he took on the challenge.
“There’s a sensual element to the work that always draws me into a character. It’s got to be in the body,” he said. “So getting the opportunity to test myself, it’s kind of a selfish act, but for me, when you’re at such a deficit it makes my job easier. It’s easier to be hungry than to act hungry, right? And having that hunger inform the rest of Harry’s experience, I don’t think it’s something that you shake. The comedown of a role like this was much harder than getting into him.”
Foster admitted to having nightmares about the Auschwitz camp over the role, adding, “we’re dealing with very dark and challenging material that was always fun, alive and creatively dangerous, which is the best way to work for me.”
The biopic has also had a lingering effect on Foster’s Jewish identity, making him more aware of issues affecting the Jewish community.
“The [Jewish] holidays have a deeper resonance since completing the film for myself,” he said. “Each job is an opportunity to dig into something with blinders on. You’re just enveloping yourself in this subject, and because it’s touched our families, there is a deeper connection without question. But further than that, it’s made me so much more alert to what’s going on today. I just feel much more alert to the very dangerous times that we live in right now, and leading with compassion.”
Levinson spoke to Variety about the importance of Holocaust education, saying, “If we don’t pay attention to our past, then we are basically lost and we repeat ourselves over and over again.”
He added about Haft, “The human toll [of the Holocaust] is not just simply in those who have died, it’s those who have survived and have a difficult time to have a full life. This was an individual whose life was upended as a young man. And this is a journey he follows to find some kind of peace within himself.”