Playing Lance Armstrong would surely be no easy feat for anyone. But for actor Ben Foster, who’s notorious for taking his performances so seriously as to, say, eat handfuls of dirt for Lone Survivor, it’s been particularly difficult. In an interview with The Guardian on his upcoming role as the scorned cyclist in Stephen Frears’ The Program, he reveals how he decided to put his body through the doping-influenced weirdness that Armstrong’s body went through, in an attempt to likewise understand where Armstrong was coming from mentally. He told the journal, in a “don’t do this at home”-type warning to other actors:
These are very serious chemicals and they affect your body in real ways. For my own investigation it was important for me privately to understand it. And they work…Doping affects your mind. It doesn’t make you feel high. There are behaviours when you’ve got those chemicals running through your body that serve you on the bike but which, when you’re not…
Here, he cryptically trails off, noting how he “lost his marbles,” but opting for a symbolic description of all the places said marbles went as opposed to being explicit about the places his own mind travelled. Throughout the interview, he implies an attempt to get as deeply into an empathic understanding of the unscrupulous athlete as possible, noting how Armstrong’s battle with testicular cancer may make him even harder to understand:
When you go to war it changes you. That’s what Lance did – he went to war with his body. That shifts your consciousness.
Foster also comments on the polarity between mediatized versions of Armstrong — the heroized Armstrong who raised hundreds of millions for Livestrong, then the vilified Armstrong who ran the doping ring:
We just don’t like him because he was Jesus Christ on a bicycle. We’re mad he came back from the dead, saved the sick and then turned out to be full of shit. And we’re punishing him because he didn’t apologise in the way we’d like. Americans love a good apology.
To play a person who, in the collective conscious, rarely occupied a position outside of extreme good and extreme bad — and who, to a degree, fed these extremes — Foster, it seems, felt it necessary to do some very extreme acting in an attempt to, on the flip side, understand him outside of media archetypes. He claims he’s only “just recovered physically” from his own experiments with performance-enhancing drugs, and likely from the intense performance itself.
The Program, based on David Walsh’s nonfiction book Seven Deadly Sins, began filming in late 2013, and is screening at the Toronto International Film Festival.
Watch the trailer: