Many of Foster’s characters exhibit her mother’s meddlesome drive. In her 1991 directorial debut, Little Man Tate, she played a rough-edged single waitress who struggled to raise her brilliant but socially inept son, reluctantly ceding his education to the intrusive, yet well-meaning, director of an institute for gifted children. Four years later, in Home for the Holidays, she directed the late Anne Bancroft as the chain-smoking, smothering, sabotaging, but deeply devoted mother of a dysfunctional brood not terribly unlike Foster’s own family. Though the film got spotty reviews, it remains one of the actress’s favorite works. "It’s true to everything I think and feel," she laughs. "They really can’t take the satisfaction of it away."
As the "thoroughly unrebellious" youngest child in a household perpetually short of money, Foster absorbed her mother’s anxiety — and a sense of responsibility for relieving it. "I remember as a kid at Christmas taking the presents and going, ‘I don’t want it,’ because I’d feel like we might go broke. I’d lie there, not being able to sleep, and think, ‘Someday when I’m older, I will never, ever feel like this again.’"
Foster finishes her sandwich and orders a latte. As if on cue, she grabs the stack of quarters and zips out the door. Two minutes later, she’s back — as is the latte — and resumes the conversation in midsentence. "It’s been nice as an adult, even though she’s the Black Hole of Calcutta, to be able to say to my mom, ‘This worrying is your bullshit; you don’t ever have to worry again.’"
A Mother’s Blessing
Yet for all the torment, the actress also credits her mother with helping her construct a life today that is "meaningful" and "substantial," two words she uses frequently. "She wanted me to be taken seriously as an actor," Foster says. "She wanted me to work with the directors she admired. She wanted me to go to an Ivy League school. They were vicarious thrills for her." Foster, too, lives vicariously through her children, but instead treasures the squirtgun-wielding innocence of their boyhood. "I had to have such discipline as a young person, to do 25 or 30 takes and then run back to school and do a half hour of math," she says. "I can barely get my sons to focus on their shoelaces. And it’s wonderful, because when I was little, I didn’t know I could say ‘no.’"
One of the central lessons Foster absorbed from her mother (who worked briefly as a publicist) was to know when to shut the door. "If you are raised being intruded upon, you have a really keen sense that you are not going to give up your personal life," she says. "That’s been a priority in how I planned my life." Foster has been through enough interviews to know that we are nearing the no-fly zone. Her publicist has warned that "questions of a personal nature" are off-limits. As she calmly sips her latte, Foster’s air-defense system flips on.
Foster Stays Mum
Despite Hollywood buzz, Internet gossip, and even friendly fascination, she will not do the celebrity mom thing and talk about who fathered her sons — or how the deed was done. "Years from now, when my kids say, ‘Why did you do it this way?’ I hope they know that my character is somebody who had to safeguard a real life," Foster says. "I didn’t want to live a kingly life. So a lot of the decisions that I made for myself, and by extension, for them, were about keeping our lives real, about letting them have privacy and dignity. And in terms of their paternity, I say the same thing: When they’re 20, why don’t you go ask them? They’ll tell you or they won’t. But it’s really their business."