Jodie Foster’s Impressive Career
"Here," says Jodie Foster, passing over her soup spoon, which is filled to capacity with a glistening asparagus puree. "Try this." Thirty minutes earlier, she had pulled up to a Santa Monica hotel in her silver Prius, hopped out, and extended a friendly hand. Now she’s sitting at a restaurant overlooking the beach, not just giving away part of her first course but hand-delivering it on her own silverware. The act feels part reflexive maternal instinct (Foster has two sons, Charlie, 9, and Kit, 6), part happy 44-year-old Hollywood A-lister on a roll.
In the past two years, thanks to the success of the thrillers Flightplan and Inside Man, Foster’s box-office clout and status as an international film icon have both been reaffirmed. Mention this fact to her, though, and she’ll just laugh, somehow turning it into a self-deprecating joke about emerging from temporary retirement. "It’s because I decided to work more than once every three years," she says. For as long as we can remember — and she’s been at this for 41 years — Foster has been one of those smart, introspective public figures who have struggled to find new ways to maintain work-life sanity. If civilians can’t achieve it on her grand scale, they can still take heed: Since early adulthood, she has always followed up a movie shoot with an extended, battery-recharging break.
On Starring in The Brave One
Today, Foster’s beach-ready outfit — flip-flops, jeans, light blue sweatshirt — and flyaway blond locks are clear evidence of her recent time off. "I so need a haircut, it’s sad," she groans, running a hand through what just nine months ago was the short, modified Jane Fonda-circa-Klute shag she wears in her upcoming movie, The Brave One. Directed by Neil Jordan (The Crying Game, Interview with the Vampire), The Brave One is a tense, arty action film starring Foster as Erica Bain, a New York City radio talk show host who, after being viciously attacked, ends up trolling the city at night with a handgun, blasting big holes in every piece of menacing human flotsam that has the misfortune to get in her path. In a way, it’s as mesmerizing to see Foster onscreen as a compact, sunglasses-wearing vengeance machine as it is to hear the obvious zest in her voice when she talks about Erica, who, at the beginning of the movie, is a variation of the imperiled characters we’ve seen the actress play before but then morphs into something startlingly different. "Little by little by little, the moral exception she’s made starts permeating everything she does, and then she changes," Foster says. "There comes a point where the audience has to say, ‘Now, wait a minute, isn’t this stepping over the line?’ This good person becomes somebody you don’t recognize, and you follow the path of somebody who becomes a killer."
Considering a part of Foster’s past that she has rarely discussed — when, in 1981, deluded Foster superfan John Hinckley Jr., who’d watched the actress in Taxi Driver a few too many times, shot President Ronald Reagan to impress her — "vigilante assassin" isn’t the first role you’d expect her to gravitate to. "I did say that to Jodie," Jordan recalls. "I said, ‘You, of all people, put yourself into this situation? It’s kind of combustible, isn’t it?’ But she welcomes that kind of challenge."
Ask Terrence Howard, who plays a dogged but sensitive detective in The Brave One, why Foster is always 10 times more interesting when she’s portraying emotionally conflicted women, and without missing a beat, he explains, "Most people fear the dark side of humanity. She’s not afraid of the monsters under the bed."
"You bring your life, expressions, gestures, and what baggage people know about you to your performances," says Foster. So do her characters — like the peril-fraught moms of Panic Room and Flightplan — resonate more because we know her history? "I’m not quite sure why," she says with a slight shrug, "but people do relate to my struggles. I do have a sympathetic side no matter what it is that I’m playing."
One thing is clear: When Foster signs on for a movie, she will probably be the person on set who has logged the most experience in all facets of the film industry. A Coppertone model at age 3 and film actor-family breadwinner less than five years later, she now has a pair of Best Actress Oscars (for The Accused and The Silence of the Lambs) and has directed two movies (Little Man Tate and Home for the Holidays). "You can just tell she’s been doing this since 4 or 5," Jordan says. "She regards herself as an instrument. Like, ‘What do you want this thing to do now?’ This thing that can express emotion, this thing that can push the story to the left or the right?"
Mostly, on this clear early-summer afternoon, Foster wants to gaze at the gray Pacific Ocean, polish off a lobster roll, and muse over a variety of subjects: her son Charlie’s tabloid-photo aspirations, why going in for a nip-tuck isn’t for her, how shooting The Brave One resuscitated her love of moviemaking. "It’s been one of the best, most rewarding processes I’ve done in years," she says of the film. "There’s a lot about it that’s going to be intricate to defend. It’s not a general-public, take-your-kids, everybody kind of movie. It really isn’t. Of course we’re hoping lots of people will go see it, but it walks a very fine line. It’s bold and very subversive."
Q&A with Jodie Foster
The New York Times positioned your character in The Brave One as a female version of Taxi Driver‘s Travis Bickle. Does that sound like a fair comparison?
Travis Bickle is unconscious: He’s not a guy who can analyze his emotions; he’s not a guy who has been to therapy. He’s reacting emotionally to everything; she’s not. She’s an intellectual. She’s somebody who is noticing her changes as she goes through them, can’t stop it, and hates herself for it. That’s an entirely different character and, in some ways, an essentially female character in something that is traditionally a male genre.
When you talk about the movie, I can’t help but think that you thought a lot about John Hinckley Jr.
I don’t know that I did.
In an essay you once wrote for Esquire, you tried to get inside Hinckley’s head.
Clearly, there are themes that overlap, and with Taxi Driver as well. You know, the division between sanity and insanity is so arbitrary. Isn’t it possible that we all have that bit of insanity in us? That’s why I’m for gun control. Absolutely. Hunting, I get that — let’s protect hunting. But I don’t believe that people should have access to life-or-death situations at any emotional time in their life. I don’t really believe that a human being who feels [things] should have the option at their fingertips to use this many calories. [Mimes pulling a trigger]
Why do you think you are drawn to controversial material?
I like films where I’m forced to figure out the morality, what the movie stands for. When you’re younger, where you stand is more black and white. Then as you get older, your reflections on morality become more and more complex.
Speaking of the passage of time, you used to be something of a nomad, never living at the same address for very long. What happened?
I bought my house 12 years ago. This is the most settled that I’ve been. ... I’m not sure I loved moving around a lot. But I really loved location movies. I still do. I just don’t want to do them as often — it’s a big sacrifice from your life. When I focus on a movie, it’s very hard to figure out how to deal with life — and children and dogs and cats and all that stuff too. I get lonely. It takes a while to recover.
I didn’t go to Juilliard, and I don’t have some kind of voodoo method to what I do. Whether I like to admit it or not — and usually I don’t like to admit it — the stuff I do affects me. It’s this strange lonely thing. It’s hard to explain what it is to lie in a pool of fake blood for four days and just be thinking those thoughts. It’s not like I go off in character or something like that. But there’s a real sadness to it. So I don’t want to do that more than once a year. [Laughs]
What else would you do?
Well, that’s the big question. I’ve learned a lot of lessons over the years. One is that if I weren’t famous again and no one knew who I was, I’d be perfectly happy. I think some people around me would be like, "Oh, yeah. Just wait until you’re nobody and see how you feel about it." Well, in America, you get to experience that — every three or four years, everybody forgets who you are. So I know I’ll be fine. ... Maybe the year before Charlie was born, about 10 years ago, I felt like I wanted to have this plan where I wouldn’t be acting anymore. I’d just be directing. And I just couldn’t make it happen. That tortured me for a long time. Now I realize it’s because it wasn’t right. I kept getting sucked back into acting.
And here you are, still a big box-office draw.
I can’t believe that I grew up and stayed being an actor. I’ve been working for 41 years. It’s a really long time to be doing the same job. It’s not like I don’t feel ambivalent about it. There are times when I’m more ambivalent than others.
In what ways has your relationship with your sons changed as they’ve gotten older?
When my kids were tiny, I was caught up in the identity of being a mom. You’re still changing their diapers, and it feels like it’s going to last forever. Now I can see it all coming. My older guy, he’s almost 9. He’s reading; he’d much rather be with his friends. I like having these conversations with him where I talk about my passions and he talks about his. If I don’t have any passions, then it’s depressing.
Every once in a while I’ll have one of those days when I’ve fed the fish, cleaned 10 poops from the patio, taken the cat to the vet, sewn my son’s stupid karate stars on until my fingers bleed, and made sure that he has everything, and he wakes up and goes, "Oh, what’s for breakfast?" He doesn’t know, and why should he? Right? But there’s absolutely no sort of acknowledgment or reward for this — except for the intangible of my kids growing up to be wonderful people. I do find myself in the garage listening to NPR because I want to have a stimulating side to my life. ... The only thing about having kids that I miss is being alone.
What’s the upside of being 44?
I think the pressure’s off. The hardest part of my personal neuroses is that I feel responsible for everything. I put so much pressure on myself, and I always did as a kid. There’s a nice thing about turning a certain age where you’ve made so many life decisions; so many non-chosen paths are behind you, and you don’t have to worry about them anymore. All those arbitrary goals that you have as an actor and filmmaker, I feel like I already did them. So I can check them off.
When I interviewed you in 1994, you scoffed at the idea of cosmetic surgery. Now, as the crow’s-feet start to appear, have you adjusted your stance?
Nah. It’s not my thing. I don’t have anything against it for other people. Whatever they want to do, I’m fine with it. For me, it’s really a self-image thing. Like, I’d rather have somebody go, "Wow, that girl has a big nose" than "Wow, that girl has a bad nose job." I’d rather have a comment about who I am than about something that identifies me as being ashamed of who I am.
Your next movie is a family adventure called Nim’s Island. What interested you about that project?
I’ve always wanted to do a kids’ movie because my kids can’t see any of my films. They’ve seen Bugsy Malone, maybe half of Napoleon and Samantha, but I think that’s it. This is really exciting. Not only can they see the film, but my older son can read the book.
How do your kids react to seeing you on-screen or on the set?
Initially when Charlie was really young, he didn’t understand. He’d only seen movies of me when I was a kid, so he thought I went to work and became a child and then by the time I got home, I became an adult again. Then one time he came to the set of Panic Room, and everything was boarded up and everybody was wearing hammers. So he got this idea that I was in construction and I was building houses. I think now he’s figured it out. Now he’s trying to angle a way to be on film.
Let’s hear his pitch.
"I want to be in movies. Why can’t you get me a job?" Then I say, "You have to earn that. If you want to be an actor, you can start by doing a little theater." Then he says, "I’m not interested in that. I just want to be famous and see my face." Sometimes the paparazzi will come by, and Charlie will be like [Foster strikes a pose, throwing her arms out and making a funny face] and say, "Why can’t we? Why can’t I get photographed? I like it!"
Whose career path inspires you?
Katharine Hepburn had a really long career. I look forward to aging onscreen, to making movies when I’m 65, 70, to playing the parts of real older women. I’d love to have the career of Meryl Streep. But I’m not sure I’ll want to work as much as she does in her 50s. [Laughs]
On Family and Maintaining Her Privacy
Let’s talk about your ring.
This one? [Proffers left hand] It’s Tiffany, an eternity ring.
You’re wearing it on your wedding ring finger.
I am. I’ve always worn a ring. Even taking photos. Even on magazine covers. I don’t take it off.
Don’t you think wearing a ring like that raises questions?
Well, but that’s my life. I thought about this recently: I had a nightmare the other night. Well, anyway….
C’mon! Let’s hear the nightmare!
I was being interviewed by somebody, like an innocuous [press] junket thing. They were asking me questions about food I liked or whatever. Then they said, [in a high, innocent voice] "Have you ever written any homemade anti-Semitic cards?" And I was like, [horrified] "No!" Then she said, "Come with me," and I realized to myself, "You’re so stupid. Haven’t you ever seen that 60 Minutes thing where they ask you a banal question? You’re not supposed to say yes or no. You’re supposed to go, ‘Well, that’s interesting.’ Because if they ask you the banal question, it’s because they have some kind of document on you. And now you’ve got to go! And now the camera’s going to follow you!" Then my dream was over.[Pauses and reflects before continuing]
My life is my life. I’m not going to change my life for anybody. I don’t have any problems with it. I just don’t talk about my health, my dad, who I voted for, or what I think of the death penalty, because that would be trivializing my life, selling it for a magazine. I don’t have any problems with anybody reporting on my life. It’s just that I’m not going to bring my family into that. The number-one reason for that is: Why would I invite — encourage — more people to sit outside my door and wait for my children to go to school? I don’t have any desire to participate in it.
Are you happy with the life you’ve created for yourself?
I’m absolutely over the moon. Ten years ago, I was worried. You know how you worry, if I do this, will this happen? And, I won’t be happy if I’m not this. I’m so happy that this is what I chose. I was able to design a life where … you know, on Thursday, Charlie’s got this little school play he’s doing, and the second-grade summer birthdays, and last week he had the Olympics and he lost and he cried and cried and cried. And I thought to myself, what if I wasn’t here? Clearly, he’d be with somebody else, but it wouldn’t be me. I can’t live with delegating my life so I can work more.
Was "normal" what you always aimed for?
Oh, yeah. I insisted on it. It’s taken a lot of work, though. I insisted on it at 5 years old.
I knew as a young person that if I weren’t paying attention, they would take my life away from me. When I was 7 or 8, I remember them saying, "Listen, we’re going to go to Disneyland. They’re going to take a film crew. You’re going to bring a friend, and they’ll show you going on the rides." I wasn’t much of a rebel. But I was like, [sobbing] "I don’t want to go to Disneyland with a film crew. I just want to go to Disneyland." I didn’t want them to ruin that experience for me. I didn’t want to have the reality show of me going to Disneyland. And I don’t want to pollute my children’s lives.
Do you feel that people appreciate the choice you’ve made to maintain your privacy?
I don’t know if anyone appreciates it now. I’m sure there are all sorts of people who don’t like what I’ve chosen. ... I think my kids will understand and respect it. In 20 years, people will look back on my life and I’ll be 65 and Britney Spears will be 45, and I think by then people will understand the value of privacy.
Originally published in MORE magazine, September 2007.