The most striking entrance in John Korkidas’ pre-Beat Generation saga Kill Your Darlings belongs to Ben Foster. Playing William S. Burroughs, the slightly older member of the Beat crowd who would go on to notoriety as an outlaw, a drug addict and the influential author of Naked Lunch, Queer and Junky, he is introduced to the teenage Allen Ginsberg (Daniel Radcliffe) inhaling from a gas mask, courtly mannered and clearly high.
“He designed his character,” says Foster at the Toronto International Film Festival where Kill Your Darlings screened as a gala presentation. “He was an awkward, shy man with an unusual appetite to question cultural norms. He was interested in the identity of explorers and philosophers and doctors and psychologists in his young period. He was constantly seeking. I think from a very fragile sense of a heart and mind, he created the character of William Burroughs, the detective, the man of authority. He created this persona.
“He was one of the most forward-thinking minds we have had. We can feel the waves of his influence today.”
Since making his big-screen debut while still a teenager in Barry Levinson’s nostalgic 1999 comedy-drama Liberty Heights, Foster has gone to forge a singular career with such memorable turns as the mute angel Cod in Michael Polish’s Northfork; sensitive, sexually ambiguous Russell on TV’s Six Feet Under; an out-of-control meth head in Alpha Dog; the mutant Angel in X-Men: The Last Stand; Russell Crowe’s vicious confederate in 3:10 to Yuma; a troubled Iraq war veteran on death-notification duty in The Messenger; and most recently as a smitten sheriff in Ain’t Them Bodies Saints. Earlier this year he made his Broadway debut replacing Shia LaBeouf as a volatile street thug in Lyle Kessler’s Orphans.
“I just like telling stories,” Foster says. “I like interesting minds. There are some good people out there. We’re all kind of, ‘Send us a smoke signal of something that doesn’t feel like it’s going to cost our hearts.’
“Korkidas is a special filmmaker,” he adds. “You find your clique. High school sucks, but you find your clique. It’s the same thing.”
Signed on a few months before Kill Your Darlings started shooting, Foster threw himself into researching the role. He was already familiar with Burroughs’ writing; now he had to get to know the man.
“As a fan, a great admirer, an appreciator of Burroughs, there is an inherent responsibility and fear that you’ll disappoint him,” Foster says. “It was a thrill, just as a human, just saying, ‘I’m going to spend some time considering this man and his life and work.’”
In addition to reading biographical material, Foster also spoke to Burroughs’ friend and literary executor James Grauerholz, who offered the actor valuable insight into the writer, particularly his sense of playfulness. More vital still was Burroughs himself captured on film in performance and interviews.
“I was more interested in the documentary footage,” Foster says. “That felt very intimate. The stuff with Warhol was wild. He’s so discontent, sitting at the table making pleasantries, trying to be an aristocrat. He is an aristocrat in a vapid world. You can see it eating his guts.
“I wish there was more film. It was a nice excuse to fall in love with him.”
Foster shares the screen with actors that in addition to Radcliffe include Jack Huston as Jack Kerouac; Dane DeHaan as Lucien Carr, Ginsberg’s Columbia University classmate and the friend who brings future Beats Ginsberg, Kerouac and Burroughs together; and Foster’s Six Feet Under costar Michael C. Hall who plays the Carr-obsessed David Kammerer. The cast is impressive; and Foster is as taken by Krokidas, whose dedication to a film that took years to get off the ground he admires and whose energy on the set he enjoyed being around.
“It’s fun to participate with someone who’s had the endurance to fight for a project,” he says. “It feels good.
“It’s a crush. It’s like falling in love, making a movie, or like camp, however you want to frame it. It’s very intimate. I wouldn’t call it hard work, but you have to be dogged in your focus, which is great. If you’re working with like minds, it’s a wonderful experience. We were fortunate to work with people like Mr. Radcliffe and Dane and Jack. We got lucky on this one. These guys are top drawer, really sweet, thoughtful, caring, intelligent young men, these guys and Michael – what I like to call lunch-pail guys, guys who bring their lunch, ready to work.” – Pam Grady