Portions of this interview about “The Survivor” were used in the Down to the Wire: Drama issue of TheWrap’s awards magazine.
When Vicky Krieps arrived on set for Barry Levinson’s drama “The Survivor,” the film’s star Ben Foster had already spent time shooting all of the film’s scenes set inside a concentration camp. So when the actress finally met her costar, she described him having put up a “wall” that contained all the character’s own horrors of the camps.
“It was not just a wall of preparation of him as an actor, he had been trying to incorporate the horror of the camps. His body had lost weight, and he had come close to feeling how those people had felt,” Krieps told TheWrap ahead of the film’s premiere at the Toronto International Film Festival. “He was like a sponge, he had soaked up this horror and this energy, and when I met him, he was this, and I didn’t know how to talk to this thing. It was very scary.”
Foster underwent an enormous physical transformation for the role of Harry Haft in “The Survivor,” the true story of a Jewish prize fighter who survived the Holocaust by being forced to fight other Jewish prisoners within the camps.
Foster lost nearly 60 pounds to film the scenes inside the concentration camps, then bulked up for the scenes in which he would fight as a boxer, including eventually landing a fight against the champ Rocky Marciano. And when Krieps met him, she describes that he was practically unrecognizable in more ways than one.
“When I met Ben, he was not Ben anymore,” she said. “We weren’t doing any small talk at all, and I’m standing there with my coffee, ‘Okay…’Meeting him as this survivor was really really something. I in my way had to dance with him.”
Both Levinson and Krieps were drawn to the story because of its contradictions of this man’s controversial legacy, but also because of their own family history with relatives inside the camps.
“Several things happened,” Levinson said. “I got the script, and it recalled a moment in my childhood in the late ’40s, living in Baltimore with my parents and my grandparents. A man showed up at the door, my grandmother’s brother. I never knew that she had a brother, but he stayed with us for about two weeks. They put him in my bedroom on a cot. I woke up one night and he was tossing and turning and yelling in some language I didn’t understand. It went on for almost two weeks, every night with these nightmares.
Then, 16 years later, I was sitting with my mother talking, and she mentioned Simka — that was his name—and the fact that he was in a concentration camp. I thought back to my youth, and thought, that’s what must have been going on with those nightmares. And now we get Harry Haft. Harry suffers what we now call post-traumatic stress disorder. What happened to him in those camps, how did it affect his life afterwards? I thought, this is a rich story to tell.”
The resulting story mixes elements of a boxing movie with those of a Holocaust film, which was one of the reaosns it appealed to Levinson.
“I think that’s what makes it compelling,” he said. “This is what happened to this one man, and the contradictions add to our involvement. It’s not a simple tale. How do you deal with the shame of it, how do you deal with getting on with your life, with relationships, with all of those things? I never think of the movie, in a sense, as a Holocaust film, because that’s only about 20-some minutes of the movie. It’s the remembering of horrific moments. I remember watching a show on TV about the remembrance of 9/11. Twenty years after the fact, and some of those people could hardly get through explaining certain things without breaking down.
“Whether it’s that, or what’s happening with refugees in Afghanistan, there will be psychological damage. The issue of post-traumatic stress disorder lurks in the air now more than ever, and now at least we have a name for it and a bit of an understanding of it. In the past, all people basically did was say, ‘Don’t talk about it. Whatever it was, don’t talk about it.’”
During the filming Levinson encouraged his actors to trust their instincts and see where their interactions would take them, including in one powerful scene that became much improved because of Krieps’ note on the script.
“She has to learn as the real woman would have step by step by step. Because we shot in continuity, I think helped for the piece,” Levinson said. “That’s what happens sometimes when you get two really talented actors who connect to the material.”
“I really just looked at his eyes, I was trying to go all into his eyes so I could go past this wall. It worked really well,” Krieps added. “Ben and I are similar in that we both work really instinctively. Not talk about it for hours but just go and see what happens.”
“The Survivor” was aired by HBO nominated for an Emmy in the Outstanding Television Movie category, where it was the only nominee not adapted from an existing television project. (The other nominees were “Chip ‘n Dale: Rescue Rangers,” “Ray Donovan: The Movie,” “Reno 911!: The Search for QAnon” and “Zoey’s Extraordinary Christmas.”)
Check out the full interview with Vicky Krieps and Barry Levinson discussing “The Survivor” above.