The rise and fall of Lance Armstrong is dramatised in the film The Program. Phil Taylor and Russell Baillie report on how its star and director turned the sports scandal into a heist movie.

"Cyclists are dinosaurs." Actor Ben Foster is on the phone from his home in New York. He should know. He played the most famous, most infamous one.

Foster stars as Lance Armstrong in the movie, The Program, a drama based on a book, Seven Deadly Sins: My Pursuit of Lance Armstrong, by Irish sports reporter David Walsh who is portrayed by Chris O'Dowd in the film.

For veteran English director Stephen Frears, this is his second movie in a row - after 2013's Philomena - involving journalists.

"I know, it's shocking really. These are the crosses I have to bear," he laughs down the line from the Toronto International Film Festival.

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Frears became fascinated by the story after reading a review of the book The Secret Race: Inside the Hidden World of the Tour de France by onetime Armstrong team-mate Tyler Hamilton.

He unsuccessfully pursed the rights then opted for Walsh's story.

Frears says it took some time to translate Sins into screen drama. Though he figured early on, this wasn't to be a biopic about the demise of a sports champ, it was more a crime movie.

"I always knew right from the beginning it was a sort of heist film - this guy comes to Europe and stole the Tour de France for seven years. It was like stealing the Mona Lisa. It was actually brilliant."

But back to dinosaurs. The casting of the relatively unknown Foster as cycling's very own movie star wasn't complicated.

"Someone said 'the person you want is Ben Foster'," says Frears. "I never bothered to argue with them. I met him and thought he'd be great."

He is. Foster is clearly a method actor. He sweated through seven or so weeks in the French Alps under the guidance of the film's cycling adviser, former British professional David Millar, learning to look the part. He lost 12kg in the process, most of it carved from his upper body. "Tyrannosaurus rexism. That's how the bike shapes you."

What also sticks in Foster's memory is, "How I never want to see another bicycle again."

He'd not had a lot to do with bikes, had never worn those cycling shoes that lock into the pedals of those svelte racing machines.

"It is extraordinarily claustrophobic when you are getting used to it and hazardous to say the least. You fall an awful lot, which doesn't do much for your pride going into a picture hoping to be the greatest cyclist of all time, and you're on your ass."

Millar, who can take a dollop of the credit for the cycling in the film looking pretty authentic, didn't laugh when Foster took those novice's tumbles. "David is an absolute gentleman but the other cyclists certainly didn't hold back."

Lance Armstrong pictured on the Tour de France in 1999, (Getty).
Lance Armstrong pictured on the Tour de France in 1999, (Getty).
Ben Foster portraying Lance Armstrong riding in the 1999 Tour de France.
Ben Foster portraying Lance Armstrong riding in the 1999 Tour de France.

Foster knew little about the sport and not much about Armstrong.

"I knew of Lance peripherally. It was an extraordinarily learning process."

Getting the opportunity to explore a current topic with someone who evokes very strong opinions on both sides of the argument, those sort of roles don't come along very often, so I jumped at it."

"Good lord, when I [shaved] it looked like a bear had been shot in my bathroom. I'm half-goat by the way. It is not a glamorous industry unless you like shaving your legs in which case, bravo!"

How different was the role?

"Well, yeah, I hadn't spent a lot of time in Lycra." Nor had he shaved his pins. "Good lord, when I did that it looked like a bear had been shot in my bathroom. I'm half-goat by the way. No, not a thrill. It is not a glamorous industry unless you like shaving your legs - in which case, bravo!"

He has put the weight back on and not ridden a bike since filming 18 months ago. "I went and did A Streetcar Named Desire, the play, so I put on a bunch of weight for that. Each job has its different demands."

Foster is uncannily good. He has Armstrong's facial tics, his bloodless stare and, ultimately, his vulnerability down pat. "His life was brutal, brutal," he said of the cyclist who was eventually banned for life for doping.

He's the centre of a film, which, while occasionally dipping into archive footage - Foster is edited into Armstrong's confessional interview with Oprah Winfrey - creates its own convincing depiction of pro cycling's milieu.

"You had to create this believable world," says Frears who knew nothing about the sport beforehand. "I discovered that this world was quite unique and that it behaves in this quite obsessive way. You simply had to get it right and sometimes I feel foolishly optimistic that I have got it right."

Foster's portrayal came from painstaking research. Though he didn't meet Armstrong, who had no personal input into the film, he spent hours interviewing those who were close to the man, his team-mates, his mechanic, his nutritionist, and studied video.

"He wasn't shy of the camera. There is a lot of footage around."

"Alex Gibney [maker of 2013 documentary, The Armstrong Lie] talked to me." That led to others. "Like a journalist, you follow your instincts and hope someone gives you a lead which provokes another line of thinking. I see this work as being very similar; you've just got to ask a lot of questions. If your interest comes from a good place, people will tell you anything."

Is it a modern example of the morality tale, Dr Faustus?

"It is, and yet his story is not over and I believe the will of the man will persevere. In many ways what was his greatest strength became his greatest weakness, his will. He just doesn't strike me as someone who gives up and I look forward to seeing what he does next."

Chris O'Dowd asd journalist David Walsh in The Program.
Chris O'Dowd asd journalist David Walsh in The Program.

O'Dowd, who plays Walsh, the journalist trying to expose the hidden truth, sees Armstrong as a dark character. "The reason I think he is an interesting character isn't necessarily that he was cheating, but the fact he was a manipulator. He ruined people's lives and ruined people's careers just to get ahead. That's more unforgivable than anything he put into his body."

Foster sees some light.

"It's not, I'd say, a warm film. But I believe he created a [cancer] foundation from his own experience and that's a sincere and very real place, facing cancer at a young age. I hope the film is fair in that it shows different sides to the man.

"No one is good or bad entirely. He is a complicated man who did a lot of good. He raised half a billion dollars for cancer research and awareness. That means real lives were being saved, so whether or not he was a bully, he was protecting an empire that was saving lives.

"I'd be hard-pressed if I had the opportunity to bring back a family member whom I'd lost from cancer and the only way I could do it was to lie about my job. It's not a very difficult answer. We are great at that [morality]. Humans are great at putting people on pedestals and even better at tearing them off them."

Frears is blunter: "I think he was a very very clever man who did a lot of stupid things. I mean taking drugs is one thing. But the bullying and the lying and intimidation is probably what I feel most upset about."

The film dramatises the Armstrong the public never saw - a threatening, obsessive character.

The Program might be a heist film but the man isn't just a clever, super-fit thief - he's psychotic.

"You said it. Not me, " says Frears.

Director Stephen Frears with Ben Foster (Supplied).
Director Stephen Frears with Ben Foster (Supplied).

Lowdown

What:

The Program

When:

In cinemas from November 26