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Ben Foster Discusses Apple TV+'s 'Emancipation', Skipping Will Smith on Set and 'Six Feet Under'

CLEVELAND, Ohio — Inspired by the 1863 “Whipped Peter” photos, which contributed to growing public opposition to slavery, “Emancipation” starring Will Smith is now streaming on Apple TV+.

The film follows Peter’s escape from slavery and his journey to freedom. But it also explores the hatred that was at the root of slavery.

A taste of that hatred is exactly what director Antoine Fuqua (“Training Day,” “The Magnificent Seven”) offers viewers in the Civil War-era film that also functions as a modern action-thriller.

Emancipation is now streaming on Apple TV+.  (Courtesy of Apple TV+)

“Emancipation” is now streaming on Apple TV+. (Courtesy of Apple TV+)

Peter is pursued by the ruthless and cold-blooded slave hunter Fassel – played by the inimitable Ben Foster – through the unforgiving swamps of Louisiana.

Without saying too much, there is a quiet, memorable, and important scene with Fassel discussing how his father taught him to hate, which will invariably haunt viewers in the future.

We recently caught up with award-winning Foster to discuss the brutality of “Emancipation,” why he didn’t speak to Smith on set, and his memories of “Six Feet Under.”

Hello Ben, congratulations on the film. It’s a brutal but necessary watch. What initially attracted you to the project?

I was a fan of Will Smith, who was already attached. And then, Antoine, I mean, “Training Day”, I’ve seen him several times, so I’m a big fan of him. The script was nice and tough, and I wanted nothing to do with it. My grandparents were immigrants from Eastern Europe. Having escaped the pogroms, they fell into the civil rights movement and marched with Martin Luther King. My dad walked with Martin Luther King a month after Selma. That’s how I was raised so I had no interest in being the face of the white devil. As written, it was a very good screenplay and a very colorfully written Fassel. But when I spoke to Antoine, I said I wanted to lift the veil.

As gruesome as the film’s realistic portrayal of slavery is, Fassel’s origin story of hatred proves to be equally devastating.

It occurred to me that the way to lift part of the veil – to talk about how systemic racism, anti-Semitism and violence are popping up all over the world now – is to do something very simple and take all that I call character sugar. I said, ‘Let’s put it in the Midwest. Let’s make him look like a farmer instead of having a skull on his hat, a ruffled shirt, a big mustache and snake boots. We’re never going to like this guy, but we can lift the veil a bit if we explore how hate is learned. It was our thesis. You weren’t born that way. It can be generational. It can be taught. And if it can be learned, it can be learned. So we’re honing Fassel throughout the filmmaking process, really keeping an eye on the fireside chat of what would happen instead of just being bloodthirsty. It’s down-to-earth cattle work to work with people. Maybe when he was a kid he had a friend who was a person of color. And his father taught him a lesson and turned him into the man he is.

How important was it to shoot “Emancipation” in Louisiana?

I made a movie called “The Survivor” about a man who escaped from a Nazi prison camp. It’s a true story. We visited Auschwitz in preparation. Walking on those plants (from Louisiana) that we shot on had a similar feeling. You feel that grief and see that the hanging trees are still there. And if you actually consider lynching in America legal, it wasn’t that long ago.


Ben Foster plays Fassel, a ruthless and cold-blooded slave hunter, in the new Apple TV+ feature, “Emancipation,” starring Will Smith.Courtesy of Apple

There’s been a lot of talk about how you didn’t talk to Smith on set. Is it part of your process as an actor?

It wasn’t on purpose. That was not planned. It was not strategic. It was just, I walked on set and saw a man go deep. I didn’t feel like I needed to talk to him. He didn’t go out of his way to talk to me. It seems natural. Much of the work is discovery. You do your homework and hope there’s chemistry or something on your side so you can be of service. It just seemed intuitively. So Will and I didn’t speak for six months (laughs). Not a word. And, I think, at the end of the day, we both listen to our guts without thinking too much about it, just let it serve the story.

Next year will mark the 20th anniversary of your first appearance on ‘Six Feet Under’ as a student at the Russell Art School.. How did working on the hit HBO series influence your future acting career?

It was a huge change for me on “Six Feet Under” and that’s down to Alan Ball. I freaked out doing the show. It just says “Claire’s sexually ambiguous love interest” (Lauren Ambrose). After six episodes, I have a nervous breakdown. As a child, I was a young actor. I didn’t do serious work in a dramatic way. I was like, I don’t know how to do this. I was nervous as a young actor. Thank goodness it worked, which has a lot to do with Alan. After months of asking, if I remember correctly, Alan took a meeting with me. I said, “Alan, can you tell me where the character is going?” He just looked at me with kind eyes and said, “Do you know what’s going to happen in two minutes?” I think, you’re gonna fire me. He said, “Me neither.” So I took that with me to be OK without knowing.

Finally, what do you think Russell would do now?

Oh, Russell, I hope he found some joy and calm in his life. I hope he is okay with who he is.