BAKERSFIELD, Calif. (KGET) — Barry Levinson gave Ben Foster his first professional acting job two decades ago with “Liberty Heights.” They also worked together on “Hell or High Water” and “Leave No Trace.” That didn’t keep Foster from being scared when Barry Levinson called him to discuss the leading role in “The Survivor.”
Foster’s fears grew as he read the script and he eventually became overwhelmed by the story and the fact Levinson would trust him enough to give him such a demanding part to play.
The work Foster ended up doing can be seen starting April 27 on HBO. The film is based on the true story of Harry Haft, a man who survives being sent to the Auschwitz during World War II by participating in gladiatorial boxing matches with his fellow prisoners for the amusement of his Nazi captors.
What his captors don’t understand is that while they think they are breaking Haft, each match makes his will to survive grow stronger. His quest is to reunite with the woman he loves.
Foster says, “You discover a role in small steps. And the closer you get to the story, the more immense it becomes. And the way that I combat fear personally is the deep dive, is getting lost in the research. And I was surrounded by people who are very well connected.
“The Shoah Foundation guided us quite a bit. I watched thousands of hours – thousands of hours – of Holocaust survivor interviews, spending time with Yiddish experts, learning about this world, the responsibility to honor survivors. The immense responsibility to represent the complicated nature of this kind of trauma, I just had to not let the fear take hold and get lost in it.”
The film is based on Alan Haft’s book Harry Haft: Survivor of Auswitz, Challenger of Rocky Marciano. This examination of one man’s journey from unspeakable horrors to freedom and redemption is being released in honor of Yom HaShoah (Holocaust Remembrance Day).
Levinson thought of Foster for the role because he knew the role would require an actor who could be totally lost in a character. The role would need an actor willing to lose 60 pounds for the concentration camp scenes and then gain additional weight later.
“I think Ben is one of the few actors of his generation that can transform himself and literally become like another person. And that was a requirement for this particular piece,” Levinson says.
Levinson was not familiar with the story of Harry Haft specifically but had heard stories of how there had been boxing matches at the camps for the entertainment of the SS guards. Not only did Levinson familiarize himself with Haft’s story but he traveled to Auschwitz.
He learned a lot of information from local residents in regards to what daily life would have been like. The trip was necessary to make sure the film is as authentic as possible.
Levinson says, “To provide that authenticity certainly to Ben in the camp, so he can get a better idea of what trying to survive day by day by day and dealing with the guilts of ultimately having fights with the other prisoners for the delight of the SS. So I think it was just sort of absorbing a lot of things to give as much credibility as we could to the film.”
The film also stars Vicky Krieps (“Phantom Thread”), Billy Magnussen (“No Time to Die”), Peter Sarsgaard (“Jackie”), Saro Emirze (“Wilsberg”), Dar Zuzovsky (“Hostages”), Danny DeVito (“It’s Always Sunny in Philadelphia”) and John Leguizamo (“Latin History for Morons”).
Magnussen portrays sadistic camp officer Dietrich Schneider, who discovers Haft knows how to box. He then sets in motion the brutal matches.
After heavily praising Foster for his performance, Magnussen talks about why he took on such a dark character.
“The reason I took on the role more than anything was because of Barry Levinson and Ben Foster and then learning more about Harry Haft. And as an artist, I’m just a color in someone else’s palette, you know, as Barry’s palette,” Magnussen says. “I’ll just be blue or whatever, but I’ll try to be the best blue I can. And I don’t do justice for Harry Haft or Ben or Barry if I don’t bring myself fully to any role. I have to be the nightmare that Harry had to live with.
“So if I don’t do that justice and don’t put the amount of pain or challenge he had in front of him, I don’t think I’d bring justice to this story. So sadly, to recreate this character, I think it’s more important to go deep and be that monster. And I hope it only gives it justice to show the validity that lived within Harry Haft and Ben’s performance to lift it up to a beautiful level.”