‘The Survivor’ Star Ben Foster on Altering His Body to Play a Role That Echoed His Family’s Escape From Persecution (Guest Column)

Ben Foster
Courtesy of Ben Foster / Jamie Kelman

Boots stormed into the living room, dust falling though the floorboards onto the Tzigel family. Jews were being exterminated, and my family was hiding in the basement of a sympathetic neighbor. They couldn’t stay long. Romania in 1926 was getting a glimpse of what was to become one of the darkest chapters in human history.

Tsipora was 8 years old when she and her parents received their visas for the United States. While waiting to for their ship to set sail, a baby was born, and they were unable to get papers for the infant in time for their departure. They had a choice to make: stay and face a likely death by the genocidal pogroms, or get on the boat and risk having the newborn discovered. Tsipora was charged with the task of caring for and hiding the undocumented child in a straw basket.

They traveled in steerage, among thousands of immigrants, the men separated from the women. On Thanksgiving Day, they passed the Statue of Liberty. She called out in Yiddish, “That’s my lady!” After the boat docked, they waited in lines for inspection, terrified they would be turned away due to an unknown illness, or the discovery of the smuggled baby. They had made a pact – if one family member was caught or turned away, they would all return together. They made it through all the checkpoints, were stamped and approved. Our country gave them a new life and a new name. Tsipora Tzigel became Celia Segal.

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Tsipora, living in Romania before escaping to America. Ben Foster

It’s difficult to compare my family’s story of escape and survival with the extreme hardship that Harry Haft endured — and the damage he inflicted. When I first read “The Survivor,” it shocked me. This was not another story of stoic victim. He was fraught with moral ambiguities. One Jewish man, forced to fight his fellow Jews to the death for the entertainment of the Nazis. Seventy-three lives passed before his bare knuckles. He lived to tell the tale to his son, Alan Haft. It is this true-life account on which the script and film “The Survivor” are based. Before filming began, our team flew to Auschwitz. As the wheels touched down, we chuckled about what the Nazis would think about the sight of us now. Five Jews returning to the camps on a jet for movie research. The grim humor faded quickly. It’s one thing to hear about the systematic murder of six million Jews, it is another to touch the train tracks on which they arrived. To see the piles of discarded personal items: thousands of toothbrushes, heaps of old suitcases, and the mountains of baby shoes. These are thing you cannot unsee. Months after we wrapped principal photography, I would wake up in cold sweats, imagining I was still there.

When we first discussed portraying three seasons of Harry’s life, one producer suggested that digital effects could solve the problem of Harry’s physical transformation. I was told these new effects could make me appear young and old, emaciated and round. I told them that, if this was their approach of the film, they had the wrong actor. I knew that if I was to take on this role, I had to drop and gain the weight make the physical transformation myself. Most people don’t have a choice to go hungry. When I’m asked if it was hard, I say choice is a luxury.

We worked with the Shoah Foundation, who generously opened their audio and video libraries to us. Much of my work in preparation was listening to other survivors’ testimonies. I would pound out the miles on a stationary bike, wheels turning, calories burning, the voices of the survivors echoing in my mind. Though we have Harry’s testimony I didn’t want to mimic or do an imitation. I was searching for an essence, and the more I listened to other survivors’ stories, I began to find the man within myself. By the first day of filming, I had lost 62 pounds, matching Harry’s lowest weight in the camps. When the story takes Harry to NYC in the 1940s, we took five weeks off so I could build back up. I gained 50 lbs. of muscle to match his light-heavyweight stature. During the third decade of Harry’s life when he was confronting his past, food became his comfort. Though it was in many ways his most volatile period, it was physically the easiest for me. What’s not to like? I ate a lot of pasta and drank vodka. It is curious what hunger does to you. No matter how much you gain later, you always bring that skeleton with you. I believe this was a door to understanding on some small level, how Harry Haft faced each day in his later years.

According to Alan Haft, Harry’s son and biographer, it was not easy growing up in the house of a survivor. They didn’t have the term PTSD then. They called it shellshock or war fatigue for the soldier. But Harry wasn’t a soldier, he was man who had to make a choice every day. Those choices haunted him for the rest of his days, and the generational trauma cannot be underestimated. Our production team has all been touched by war and survival. Matti Leshem, our lead producer is the son of a survivor himself. Jamie Kelman, my long-time make up artist, who created the looks of Harry throughout the years, comes from a long line immigrants who escaped persecution. Kreka, our legendary production designer, hails from Serbia and has seen his share of profound human suffering. Hans Zimmer, touched by his own origin story, dug into the shadows and brought forth a humane and deeply felt score.

Music was important to my Nanna. Her name Tsipora, which in Yiddish translates into “Little Bird.” Haunted by the memories of her own past, she would sleep with a radio under her pillow till the day she passed away in 2010. The music, she said, kept her mind from imagining the boots of the soldiers in the pogrom storming above her back in Romania.

John Snow and Rob Sale taught me to fight at Trinity Boxing NYC. Clayton Barber choreographed the fights. We studied grainy footage of renowned Jewish boxer Max Baer. The style was less of a sweet science than brutal brawling. Much of my training involved toughening up my depleted body. We would begin with my arms held high above my head, taking punches to my ribs and stomach. Because it was bare knuckle, I learned to fight without gloves. I considered it a privilege to meditate on his experience. His endurance inspired me and drove me past my own physical pain. His story reminds us all to keep moving forward. Never step back, lean in and never give up.

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Harry in NYC before the big fight. Courtesy of Ben Foster/ Jamie Kelman

My papa, Frank Foster, the son of Ukrainian immigrants, boxed. He would later marry Celia and have two children, my aunt and my father, who is an avid boxer. I intend to keep up the tradition. In the film, there are no stunt doubles, and the punches are full contact. We wanted to make it as authentic as possible. I worked closely with the dialect coach Eric Singer and Yiddish expert David Braun to help identify the specific accent of the town Belchatow, Poland in which Harry grew up. We then developed the dialect as he aged, allowing it to become more Americanized.

Reuniting with Barry Levinson after 20 years was a great joy. He gave me my first film role in “Liberty Heights,” the fourth installment of his Baltimore series that also includes “Diner,” “Tin Men” and “Avalon.” In these semi-autobiographical films, he explored the 1950s Jewish immigrant American dream. “The Survivor” is in many ways the origin story. Barry creates an environment that revels in idiosyncratic behavior and language. Many of the scenes evolved out of improvisations. On set, he would tell stories and jokes. The cast and crew were always grateful for these lighter moments Barry shared with us. And ultimately, he found ways of working them into the film. The last day of filming, we were at the beach in Georgia. It’s a scene where Harry, having come from reuniting from the love of his youth, returns to his wife and they hold hands. It was a gray day, not the picturesque beach scene you expect to see in the movies. Right before we rolled, Barry leaned into me and asked, “You remember the hat joke?” I nodded, and without rehearsing, I retold the joke. It’s not so much that it’s a knee-slapper, it’s just a very Jewish joke. Somehow in this moment, Miriam, played by the sublime Vicky Krieps, and I burst into laughter. It wasn’t planned but we, the characters, or both, needed this catharsis. It serves the film well. I think of Barry as a great jazz conductor – he has a high bullshit meter and is relentless in finding the truth within the music.

“The Survivor” was first film to be screened at the White House under President Biden. It was a somber and hopeful evening in observance of Yom HaShoa. Barry and I stood on either side of President Biden in the rose garden as he addressed the other guests. “We must honor the memories of victims and experiences of survivors and share the truth with every new generation.” He looked directly at Alan Haft, Harry’s son and biographer, and said, “Just as you told me our forefathers came to this country to give us a better life of opportunity and growth despite hardships.” The theater seats were a red plush velvet. We were served popcorn and chocolate stamped with the White House seal. I kept thinking, if only Harry and my Nanny could see us now. At the end of the film, “God Bless America” is sung in Yiddish. The old world singing in the land of the free. With the current international rise of antisemitism, it is a bittersweet moment. There was not a dry eye in the White House theater that night.

I too broke down in that dark room, thinking of Tsipora, Celia, my Nanna. I thought of that little girl who came to this country without a word of English and made a fine life for her and her family. That’s my lady.

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White House screening of “The Survivor” with President Biden. Courtesy of Haddad Media

Though the film touches on staggering inhumanities, it is only one story of survival. This is not a Holocaust film, nor a boxing film. It the story of every immigrant who escaped a war, and the impossible burden they carry inside. It is a reminder that generational trauma will be passed forward if we do not face the past. I am grateful to have had the opportunity to explore this material and experience my own family’s heritage. My two young children are now the result of my great grandparents’ courage to escape war and find safe harbor in America. We are only here because of the choices of those that came before us.