Jodie in Need
Jodie Foster needs quarters. She pats down her pockets and roots around in her backpack, looking slightly distracted as she walks into a cafe on Melrose Avenue. A valet, who would no doubt be thrilled to park her car, is standing by. But no, there’s an empty meter down the block, and the woman who once reportedly earned nearly $10 million a picture is determined to snag it for her Toyota Prius. It’s not as if she couldn’t afford a parking ticket (or, for that matter, a car that costs more than $20,000), but there are principles at stake here. Soon, I, too, am dredging my purse for change. Moments later, a neat stack of coins at her elbow, a satisfied Foster settles into our booth.
With her tangerine-tinted John Lennon sunglasses and powder-blue bell-bottom cords, Foster looks a bit like a runaway from The Mod Squad. Before opening her menu, she notes the time so she’ll know when to feed the meter. "It’s cheaper," she says with a self-deprecating shrug. "I can’t resist."
Were this not Jodie Foster, it could be tempting to regard her entrance as a gimmick designed to give her a bit of Everywoman appeal. This is, after all, an actress so gifted that she earned her first paycheck at the age of 3, her first Oscar nomination at the age of 13, and two Academy Awards before she turned 30. Whether fame and wealth have altered Foster’s essence is something only she can know. But the fact that she defies the classic diva template has fueled the public’s fascination for decades. She exudes a grounding and intelligence that are impossible to fake. "I still feel like I’m almost over the hurdle," she says halfway through lunch, when I ask whether she finally feels entitled to her success. "But I’ll never feel completely secure. I think it’s just my personality."
Continuing to Transition
At 44, Foster clearly relishes a game of beat the clock. Whether it’s a $2 parking meter or a $25 million movie she brings in under budget, she has always displayed a shrewd ability to pull off her own life and career choices before Hollywood — or some fickle audience — makes them for her. Like the characters in her movies, things may happen to her, but Foster somehow always ends up controlling the action. In her 20s, she deftly navigated the transition from child to adult stardom, sitting out the most awkward years at Yale. In her 30s, she transitioned yet again, to producing and directing. At the peak of her power behind the camera, the unmarried Foster became a mother. Now, with two young sons to raise, she has crafted a working life that allows her to periodically disappear from the public eye and then reenter when and how she wants. "My mom told me, ‘By the time you’re 40, your career will be over and that will be it,’" she says with an impish grin. "I think I’m having the last laugh."
A Wonderful Performance
For those who have studied Foster’s infrequent screen appearances in recent years, it is impossible not to be reminded of her 2002 thriller Panic Room, in which she played a mother holed up with her daughter in a blast-proof bunker, while robbers rampage outside. In her 2005 project, the psychological thriller Flightplan, she starred in as a lone, fierce mother trying to protect her child from danger. "I admit I’m drawn to it," the actress says when I ask about her apparent obsession with maternal angst. "I choose what moves me. And that’s one nice thing about being over 40: It becomes very clear what interests you and what doesn’t."
Foster filed the flight plan for the current leg of her life’s journey seven years ago. Pregnant with her first child at 35, she resolved to close Egg Pictures, the company she formed after her Oscar-winning performances in The Accused and The Silence of the Lambs, as soon as her contractual obligations would permit. "There were a lot of lifetime goals that I had already reached by the time I was 30," she says, "so the search for significance came earlier for me."
Life as a producer had given Foster almost unheard-of creative control over her own projects, which included such family dramas as Little Man Tate and Home for the Holidays, as well as Nell and a controversial and still-unrealized treatment of the life of Nazi-era filmmaker Leni Riefenstahl. Though she had misses as well as hits — Sommersby, a Civil War-era love story with Richard Gere in which Foster starred but did not produce, was panned by some critics — she was routinely touted as one of most powerful women in Hollywood.
A New Focus
Internally, though, she had already moved on. "Jodie was wanting her center of gravity to be shifted," says Jon Hutman, Foster’s best friend from Yale, who works as a production designer on some of her films. "The celebrity identity was always a suit of clothes, a fancy ball gown she put on because it was part of the job, but it was never meaningful to her."
When her son Charlie was barely a week old, Foster attended the premiere of a television movie produced by Egg. "She walked the red carpet, did the interviews, walked right out the back door and went home to her baby," says Meg LeFauve, her former partner at Egg. "When she’s in the room with you, she’s fully present. And then she’ll say, ’2:30, got to go get the kids. Bye.’"
In September 2001, Foster’s second son, Kit, was born. By then, she had realized parenthood was not the fraught juggling exercise she had feared. "I used to think, ‘What if there’s an interesting movie and it conflicts with going to a new school for the first time?’" she says in a self-mocking whisper. "Well, I didn’t anticipate that that was going to be about a two-second dilemma. I didn’t know the choices would be so easy to make."
In early 2002, Foster closed her company for good, and now limits herself to one project about every two or three years. Last year, she signed on to direct and potentially star in Sugar Kings, about an avenging young lawyer, and just starred with Denzel Washington in Spike Lee’s hit hostage drama Inside Man next year. Foster knows that to do three pictures a year, as is required to climb today’s A-list, would mean having to "delegate away" the raising of her sons Charlie and Kit. "It means you have no idea what their reading skills are, or whether they stuck their finger in that other kid’s eye," says Foster. "There is all this daily, mundane stuff you are missing, and there is just no way in hell I was going to make that sacrifice."
Explorations of motherhood are a recurring theme in some of Foster’s best work in recent years, and the parallels to her own life are impossible to ignore. Her mother figures — tough yet vulnerable, often overbearing, yet determined to defy the odds — are much like her own mother, Brandy, with whom Foster has had a close but tempestuous relationship. It was Brandy who drove Foster’s childhood career, while raising Jodie and three older siblings after being abandoned by her husband. It was an upbringing that left Foster "neurotic as hell" in some ways, supremely confident in others, and ultimately, she says, grateful for the opportunities her mother created. Once Jodie began bringing in serious money, Brandy saw to it that her youngest daughter attended L.A.‘s prestigious Lycee Francais, traveled often to Europe, where she was exposed to the works of her idol, Louis Malle, and was mentored in Hollywood by such greats as Martin Scorsese and Robert De Niro.
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."
Nor will Foster put to rest persistent speculation in the industry and in some quarters of the gay community that she has chosen to make her life with another woman. But though she refuses to address that particular issue, she aims to be unguarded in her day-to-day life. "I think of myself as phenomenally open," she says. "My children would say that, the people who know me would say that, the people who see me in the park would say that. Because when you have kids, you have to be open. Otherwise, what kind of message would that send? You can make a choice that brings them dignity or you can make a choice that’s some hiding, shameful thing. I always choose dignity." While many scoff at her definition of "open," Foster clearly has no intention of feeding a media machine that subsists on celebrity confessionals. If her deliberately worded response is not enough to quell the curiosity, she is content to let her audience stew. "I live a tremendously open life," she repeats for emphasis. "However, I don’t feel the need to exploit via the media my personal life. I don’t want to bring them into my circus. For what? To promote a movie? That would be strange."
As for the Future…
Foster’s reticence, rare in a culture where other celebrities her age are jumping around on Oprah’s couch, is in no small part the aftermath of another off-limits topic, an experience that left her shattered and determined to be no one’s icon. When John Hinckley, Jr., tried to assassinate Ronald Reagan in a bid to impress Foster, whom he had been stalking, she was a freshman at Yale. She and her mother resolved to never talk about the tragedy in public, she says, because, "I want people to remember me as an actor, not some historical footnote." But the episode distilled for her the dangers of her chosen profession. "Suddenly I understood something I hadn’t understood before. I saw ahead of me the life I had been leading, and I didn’t want to be Tom Cruise."
Late on this Tuesday afternoon, long after lunch has ended and the plates have been cleared, Jodie Foster must qualify as the only woman in Hollywood who claims to look forward to aging. In coming years, she plans to direct more and maybe not work much at all, until the boys are older. "But at 65, I’m coming back with a vengeance," she warns with a sly grin. "I’d like to be a Simone Signoret-type actress, with the big old hooded eyes and kind of overweight and craggy, with gray hair." She tugs at her cheeks and pokes out her bottom lip. It’s hard to imagine gravity complying with her wishes. "There are going to be all these actresses pulled and pushed and dyed and Botoxed, and there’s going to be nobody to play the real parts." Even then, you sense, she’ll still prefer to park at the meter.
Originally published in More magazine, October 2005.