Ben Foster tries something different – again – in ‘3:10 to Yuma’

Ed Symkus

One way to make it in films as a character actor is to play as many types of people as possible and do it so convincingly that neither casting directors nor audiences will recognize you from one project to the next.

Such is the case with Boston native Ben Foster who, at 27, has been all over the place in exquisite portrayals of a variety of characters. TV viewers caught him in a couple of episodes of “Freaks and Geeks” and “Boston Legal,” and he had an ongoing part as art student Russell Corwin on “Six Feet Under.” Filmgoers have seen him as a meek young man with facial piercings in “The Punisher,” as an out-of-control drug-addled fellow seeking revenge in “Alpha Dog” and as the white-winged Angel in “X-Men 3: The Last Stand.”

His newest role is as the dead-eyed and vicious Charlie Prince, the right-hand man to Russell Crowe’s villainous Ben Wade in the remake of “3:10 to Yuma.” It’s a part that Foster really sinks his teeth into, but one that he didn’t go after with much gusto. He spoke during a recent publicity stop in Boston.

How did you get the part in the film?

I met with the director, Jim Mangold. I was shooting another movie, in New Zealand, and I had to come back home for some family affair for one day. I was totally jet-lagged and starving and just wanted to see my girl. The last thing I wanted to do was go sit in L.A. traffic. Then I got lost going to the meeting, and I knew I would be about an hour late. I called my reps and said I wasn’t going, but they said no, and hung up on me. So that just sent me into a feral state. When I showed up for the audition, I was ready to take the room apart. I read the lines and walked out. Then I got a call the next day and they said, “OK, you’re the guy.”

Since this is a Western, with a mostly male cast, was there a lot of bonding? Was it fun to make?

It was my first Western, and it was really exciting and challenging. That is the real joy. I think all actors are professional dilettantes. We’ve got four months to learn a lot about a particular skill or specialty or subject. Learning how to ride a horse and how to manipulate these massive pieces of metal — and making that real — with the company we kept, was just extraordinary. Russell [Crowe] took great care of me on the set. He would take me off before filming, and show me how to ride, or we would go barbecuing. I think a lot of that has to do with the dynamic of our relationship. We didn’t talk a lot about the characters; it was more just getting a familiar vibration.

You’ve been in so many different kinds of roles, how do actually approach acting? Are you spontaneous on the set?

You try to put as much in the tank as possible. It’s more like each job requires a different kind of prep. At first you know nothing. You get a script and you say, “OK, I’m gonna do this for various reasons.” Maybe it’s a character who stirs something in you. And from there, you have to find him, and encourage that space inside to make room for that person. I use different things for each gig. For this one it was watching glam rock, rock ’n’ roll footage, mountain cats, and looking at matadors; that seemed to intuitively feel right. You go on gut and try to find it, and it’s always gonna be a feeling thing, those are visuals that feel right, rather than look right.

Nick Cassavettes directed you in “Alpha Dog,” and he made some interesting comments about you afterward. He said, “He’s highly emotional, highly charged. He’s what I like to call a power car as an actor. He sometimes has problems handling before he goes straight, really fast.” Any comments?

When you work with a director, you’re usually developing a singular character. It’s not like you’re in character all the time, but you do always have your hand in it to some degree. You can’t help but take part of it home. It’s like mud on your boots. You’re gonna track it in [he laughs]. The character he was referring to is a crystal meth addict skinhead who’s a tai kwon do champion. So I think that’s a very accurate description of the character I play. Very emotional, full power, has a problem going in a straight line until he’s redirected [laughs again]. But In terms of how I approach my own day, I wouldn’t call that as accurate.