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Interview: Alpha Dog's Ben Foster

Ben Foster plays the antagonist of Alpha Dog. While Johnny Truelove (Emile Hirsch) and his friends play gangster, Jake Mazursky (Foster) has real problems. Addicted to meth and unable to hold a job, he's living a dangerous life. So when Truelove's boys kidnap his brother, it's not just playing to Jake.

Though the animosity gets heated in the film, the boys all got along swell. "We had such a good time on this movie," said Foster. "It was like a group of hungry guys. We all knew it and we were all like, 'Wow, this is really remarkable. All of us are here for the same reason. We want to tell the best story that we possibly can' and encouraging each other to raise the game."

Perhaps director Nick Cassavetes ensured that attitude with his unique preproduction approach. "We were pretty much with each other for two or three months prior to shooting, just working out every day for four hours which was part of the Cassavetes boot camp. Instead of rehearsal, he just had us lifting weights. And then when we were on set, most of us wouldn't be in trailers. We were just on the set hanging out. When we'd move around town, we'd be in the same hotel, eating, when we weren't working just hanging out with each other. It was a real special gang of guys. Timberlake proves himself to be just a wonderful actor and team player. Shawn Hatosy is an exquisite character actor. Chris Marquette, just these wonderful people coming in to do their very best. To tell a story that feels relevant to our generation."

Based loosely on real life young hoodlum Jesse James Hollywood, the characters in the film have many influences, from video games to movies to music videos. The film's perspective is that while all of these art forms may inform their behavior, the key driving force is a lack of parental guidance. So Foster is not worried that similar kids may see his movie and model his character.

"That further informs the problem which is not the movie and it's not the video and it's not the video game. It's the lack of guidance because there's always been violence in culture. There's always been violence that serves as entertainment in our world. Men being eaten by lions. But in the past, before the civilization crashed, there were teachers, philosophers, shaman that provided insight and leadership into negotiate these images and these experiences and be able to develop into strong human beings. Where these days, we have a touch and go relationship with our parents and come about that with images that without proper space to discuss and evaluate and consider, can be very destructive. It can be very destructive."

Because it is such a touchy subject, the film has had its release delayed and even switched distributors. That is frustrating, and Foster could not say whether now is best time for the movie or not.

"It's hard for me to tell. I don't know. I think it's just as relevant and now also going to court. It's definitely on people's tongues. But it's been interesting talking about it because we did start shooting this about two years ago."

Expected to divide the audiences, Foster has so far found all the viewers he's met unanimously getting the message. "So far it's been positive actually, surprisingly. Maybe it's just a freak thing out here in New York. I imagined that it was going to conflict a lot of people, the nature of the material, the nature of the lead characters are not the most likeable human beings, the line between romanticizing and presenting. It's dealing with a lot of frequencies."

Foster himself has played his share of troubled teens, partly due to typecasting at his age. But Jake is a unique creation for him. "I think he's an addict. It doesn’t make him a bad person in my eyes and of course the actor is going to be different playing the person who's inflicting suffering than the person that's receiving it. Every role, every gig, you have to find a quality and you have to love the person. And not just like him but love the person so you can care about what they care about. And he cares very much for his younger brother. He feels wronged by the world and in a world that he doesn’t seem to fit into and he's trying to some degree. He keeps failing at that so addiction is just a coping mechanism and unfortunately, the addiction of crystal meth is such a dangerous and deadly one. You can dehydrate, you don't eat, you don't sleep for days and you actually begin to hallucinate, and then you have the energy to operate in that territory. On top of which, this man was a national tae kwon do champion so it creates a very dangerous human being. But I think at its root is just a wounded individual."

All of those elements lead to several intense scenes, including a screaming split screen phone call. "Emile was on the other line. As an actor, I have a younger brother. He's four years younger. I'm not by nature necessarily a violent person but exploring the potential of that in that moment opened something up in me that I didn't know existed. And that I will go to the ends of the earth to protect my loved ones. I knew that in theory but I hadn't really experienced it so it was an interesting day. I don't know what you call it. It was just what it felt like. I mean , that's the ideal I think of anyone who participates in the arts is that eventually there's a catharsis rather than a damaging aspect."

Alpha Dog opens today. …