‘The Survivor’ Star Ben Foster Talks the Challenges of Playing a Concentration Camp Prisoner

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In Barry Levinson’s HBO film The Survivor, Ben Foster plays Harry Haft, who survived the concentration camps of Auschwitz by winning life-and-death boxing matches with other prisoners orchestrated by Nazis.

The director and star have a long-standing collaborative relationship — Levinson cast the actor in his first film role, in 1999’s Liberty Heights. The Oscar-winning director tapped Foster’s talents again for one of the most physically and emotionally grueling parts imaginable: Over the course of filming, Foster dropped 62 pounds to portray a concentration camp prisoner authentically, gaining the weight back in a matter of weeks to shoot Haft as he appeared later in life. Additionally, there’s the grave emotional heft of working within a full-scale re-creation of Auschwitz and spending months immersed in such horrifying, traumatic subject matter.

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THR spoke with Foster about his transformation process, the research and training he did ahead of the shoot, and how carrying this film changes a person’s relationship with the world moving forward.

What was your first impression upon receiving this script?

It’s exciting to get a call from the collaborator that gave me my first film so many years later. His way is very casual. He doesn’t show his cards a whole heck of a lot. [He said he] had this project: “It’s a special story, and I’d like your eyes on it.” I read it right then, called right back. It’s a tough one. It’s three seasons of a man’s life, going through very difficult circumstances. In many ways, it felt like an origin story for Barry as a filmmaker. Liberty Heights was the fourth installment within his Baltimore series, which is all about the Jewish immigrant, first-generation experience. It felt that Barry was investigating the shadows behind some of the loose, fun, awkward, snappy male identity in America in the ’50s. Where does that come from? What came before that? Those themes were really exciting to explore with him.

How did you and Barry work to protect yourselves in approaching something so unbelievably difficult?

I wasn’t afraid of getting lost. I think we all felt a real responsibility to be in service of this story, and furthering that, that survivors are going to watch it, that children of survivors are going to watch it, that the generational trauma is not done. And it has to feel credible. We surrounded ourselves with people who knew much more than we knew. We spent a great deal of time working with the Shoah Foundation. They opened up their libraries and answered as many questions as we had. As you come into a film, you don’t know what you’re doing. You have to follow an intuition. A collective sensibility. And part of that was saturating myself in the voices and the testimonies of other survivors — hearing their voices, hearing their stories.

Can you tell me about the physical transformation you went through for this role?

One of the producers said, “We have this incredible digital technology that can solve this problem. We can make you small, we can make you big, we can make you old, we can make you young.” I barked out and said, “If that’s how we’re going to do it, you have the wrong actor.” That just went against everything that I was beginning to connect with. I said, “Well, if we have five months, I can lose the weight. I know I need to do this. If you’re willing to let me go as far as I can go, I’ll go as far as I can and leave everything on the map.” If one is actually reading the news that’s outside of our general news feed, international news provides images of those who are suffering in ways we’re not so accustomed to here in the States anymore. But it’s available and it’s there. Once you start looking at those things, it felt fundamentally wrong for me, and irresponsible for me, not to do that. And beyond that, if you don’t believe the person is hungry, the movie’s dead. I wanted to feel credible. I wanted to see the bones in my chest. It ended up being a 62-pound loss, which matched Harry’s recorded weight in the camps. I put [back] 50 for the ring in about five weeks. We probably had about seven weeks so I could be in full fighting form. And as soon as those fights were over, I went bonkers at the buffet and just kept growing.

Foster lost 62 pounds to portray Harry Haft in HBO Max’s The Survivor. - Credit: Courtesy of Leo Pinter/HBO
Foster lost 62 pounds to portray Harry Haft in HBO Max’s The Survivor. - Credit: Courtesy of Leo Pinter/HBO

Courtesy of Leo Pinter/HBO

What was the boxing training process like?

I was fortunate that Harry’s not a great boxer, nor is he a refined boxer, particularly in the camps. This was bare-knuckle brawling to the death. It’s gladiatorial. As I was losing [weight], I was working with trainers — it’s not ducking and weaving, it’s none of the sweet science. It’s just: How do you box to the death? Those conversations were in our hearts every day, and anytime I got hungry — this is an experience I’m asking for. It’s not my life circumstance. And that’s a big engine. Once we were out of the camps, I worked with Clayton Barber, who did all the fight choreography for Creed. We got the great pleasure of studying boxers of the ’40s, which is not the boxing of the ’70s. It’s certainly not boxing now — it’s brawling.

I imagine doing something like this haunts one for a while after they are so immersed in this world, in particular.

When you’re done with the thing, it comes in waves. You don’t know where to put your thoughts when a job ends. You’ve had your mind trained to go to a certain place, and consider a certain thing. It’s been coming back. And I don’t mean that as Harry, but more of a worldview: I feel more tender, I think. Tenderized, when I read about Ukraine, read about current world events, being the result of people who escaped to come to this country — not in the Holocaust, but they escaped Romania, from the pogroms, and they would have faced certain death. On my father’s side, I’m Romanian and Ukrainian. I’d say I’m grateful for the experience, because it doesn’t make me feel apathetic. And that, maybe, is the greatest gift. I feel tender. I’m grateful to feel that.

Interview edited for length and clarity.

This story first appeared in a June stand-alone issue of The Hollywood Reporter magazine. To receive the magazine, click here to subscribe.

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