There aren’t many careers like Jodie Foster’s.
Turning 45 in November and being in front of (and sometimes behind) the camera for more than four decades, she occasionally finds that vast experience comes back to haunt her.
“With TiVo, I can plug in my name and it’ll have stuff from when I was seven years old,” says Foster. One lazy day at home with her two kids, she came upon Gunsmoke, the long-running TV show in which she appeared as a child. “I guess I must’ve done this ‘Gunsmoke’ when I was six or something, so I watched it with my kids and we recorded it. There’s a big close-up of me and then it goes to a wider shot that I’m in, and there I am, just picking my nose so badly. Of course, the kids made me rewind it a thousand times—they were screaming laughing.”
Though her performance in that particular production seems to have been unintentionally hilarious, Foster, as everyone knows, is best known for her mostly stellar performances in some of the great film dramas of the last 30 years. Among the most acclaimed actors of her generation—she’s won two Academy Awards and been nominated for two more—Foster returns to the screen on September 14th with director Neil Jordan’s The Brave One.
Playing Erica Bain, a National Public Radio-style on-air personality, Foster found a much deeper character than people might initially surmise. In the midst of an after-dark stroll through Central Park, Erica’s life is thrown into chaos when she and her fiancé, David (Naveen Andrews of Lost), are attacked. David is murdered and Erica is left in a coma for several weeks. Upon awakening, Erica quickly realizes that life will never be the same.
Scarred on the inside and out—it takes all of her resolve to simply leave her apartment—Erica buys a pistol with the intention of defending herself from further danger. Soon, however, she develops a streak of anonymous vigilantism that is shocking to both herself and the tabloid press.
At the same time, Erica befriends a cop named Mercer (Terrence Howard), who’s tasked with solving the string of apparently connected shootings. A closet fan of Erica’s radio show, Mercer is flattered when she asks for an interview about the murders. But his suspicion is piqued when small but telling details raise the notion that Erica’s interest in the investigation might be more than purely journalistic.
The movie is a searing portrait of a broken woman who comes to learn more about herself and her city than any of us would bargain for. Foster, speaking from her home in Los Angeles, says she realized from the start that the story had the potential to deliver a heavy emotional punch.
It hit her “immediately,” she says, “when I first read the script years ago—when the script was not nearly anything like this. I think that’s what you do: You recognize that there’s some little piece in there that’s just so powerful that you can’t let it go. At that time the script was very different, there was another actress involved, and I kept saying: If she ever falls out give me a call, but I think it needs a really, really long and arduous rewrite. So they called me a year later and said: ‘Okay, well, she’s out and now we’d like to start shooting in six weeks.’ I said: ‘No, no, no, I don’t think so.’ So we spent another six to eight months working on the script with Cynthia Mort [one of the film’s three screenwriters, along with Roderick Taylor and Bruce A. Taylor] and then brought Neil Jordan aboard.
“Neil was really the final person who was able to appreciate that there was something poetic and beautiful and monstrous that drew you in,” notes Foster. “I think he was really able to turn that into something that speaks in the language of the movies that he makes.”
In a sense, The Brave One is a story of limited scope—that of a woman who is tragically wronged and reacts with an outburst of violence. On the other hand, the movie deals with the sort of big themes—right versus wrong, living with fear—that mark it as a movie very much inspired by the post-9/11 era in which it was made. “Not just the time in which it’s made in America, but also specifically in New York,” Foster says. “I’ve never seen the movie as a revenge movie in any way,” Foster continues. “People kind of mention it and then [after seeing it] they go, ‘Yeah, I guess it really isn’t.’ It’s not really revenge; it’s a much deeper, monstrously existential journey.
“New York is not the same today as it was in the 1970s with Taxi Driver. That was a different time. The character of the city has changed, and of course 9/11 changed everybody. It is the safest city in the world, it really is. And if you are the one person out of a million who is violated in that way and feels powerless, does it make you feel any safer to know that you’re a statistical anomaly? But that fear/rage is very well put in the movie. Once you have encountered it, you realize that it’s been there all along, waiting.”
To prepare for the role, Foster hiked all over the city. “All in New York and almost all at night,” she says. “Most of my ‘research’ was just walking. I walked and walked for hours and hours. There’s something about that—about having your iPod in… or just listening to the sounds of the city with one of those new digital recorders. Going for hours and hours, there’s a kind of meditative, isolated quality to it.”
She also listened to a lot of radio. “I’m a big NPR fan,” she says. “I spend a huge amount of the day listening to the radio. Sometimes I just sit in my garage because I’m not ready to come into the house; I’ll spend 45 minutes in the car finishing up whatever it was I was listening to.
“I went to a lot of public radio stations. I saw everything, every kind of show… We kind of designed this idea of a radio show around the story of the movie and around this person who loves New York and is pulled in by the nostalgia of it. When this thing happens, suddenly her relationship with New York becomes completely different.”
Not surprisingly, given her studies as a literature student at Yale, Foster says the written word moves her like no other art form, which meant countless hours were spent with the script. “I sort of create a narrative in my head, I guess because I am very verbal and very language-oriented—that’s what moves me,” she says. “Somebody will put me in front of a gravestone and go, ‘Okay, that’s your grandfather. What are you feeling?’ And I’m like, ‘Uh, nothing?’ But if you give me a poem or you give me a beautiful sentence or lyrics to a song, that makes sense to me and touches me in the way that nothing else does. It’s this voice thing—this driving voice thing, this voice in your head.”
The work she puts in before a shoot even starts is a manifestation of Foster’s desire to continue her evolution as an actor. “I hope I’m different than I was 35 years ago,” she jokes. “I really do. Or 40 years ago, certainly.
“You know, it kind of takes what it takes, and every actor does different things in order to figure out how to get there and how to be inspired. I didn’t go to Juilliard, so I don’t really have that whole vocabulary—I don’t really know what you’re ‘supposed’ to do. And I don’t have any [preparation] exercises. But you come up with stuff as the years go on that makes you passionate. For me, I’m a real language person, so the text just means a lot to me, the script means a lot to me, the story that I’m trying to tell means a lot to me. I get kind of obsessed with that. Even though I can makes jokes and have dinner with my kids, it does change and inform your personality. It kind of makes you live with your heart on your sleeve a little bit during the shoot. I think as the years have gone on, I’m not so ashamed of that, and I’ve allowed myself to accept that a little bit, that I do get a little ‘actory’ when I’m shooting.”
The Brave One is Foster’s eighth film in 10 years. Though this is a respectable workload, Foster is not interested in churning out multiple movies each year, as some of her peers seem bent on doing. Asked if she’s become more particular about the parts she takes on, she says: “Definitely, yeah. Certainly in the last 15 years—10 years at least—I’ve been much, much choosier. A lot of it is just you get older and you have a different way of spending your time… You want to give it your all and you want to be able to go on location because the location’s right, but you also have to have a life. It’s very hard for me to compromise my life, so I have to really, really, really love it.”
The thing is, Foster has been famous for just about her entire life. By the time she was 10 she’d appeared in episodes of Bonanza, Gunsmoke, My Three Sons and The Courtship of Eddie’s Father. Not quite a teenager, she was already sharing the screen with Kris Kristofferson and Ellen Burstyn in Martin Scorsese’s Alice Doesn’t Live Here Anymore (1974). Scorsese came to her again soon thereafter, famously casting her as the young prostitute Iris Steensma in Taxi Driver—a role that would result in her first Academy Award nomination. Even before her 20th birthday, Foster’s talent would lead to work with directors like Alan Parker (Bugsy Malone) and Adrian Lyne (Foxes).
For a good part of the 1980s, Foster spent time making movies that would end up being largely forgotten, but by the end of the decade her performances began to remind critics and moviegoers that she was a hugely talented performer. Her portrayal of a rape victim in Jonathan Kaplan’s The Accused (1988) earned her an Oscar. Her turn as FBI agent-in-training Clarice Starling in Jonathan Demme’s The Silence of the Lambs (1991) earned her another.
In the 1990s and the first few years of this century, Foster has shown as much range as at any point in her career. She’s done period pictures (Sommersby, Anna and the King); science fiction (Contact); thrillers (Panic Room, Flightplan, Inside Man); a Western (Maverick); and at least one film that required the sort of intensely moving performance that could’ve only come from Foster (Michael Apted’s Nell, which culminated in her fourth Oscar nomination).
With this sort of career, one would expect Foster to turn up in the gossip sheets on a weekly basis. But she says her lifelong career has helped her learn how to work when work needs to be done and how to keep her personal life from the paparazzi.
“I’m older now, you know. I’m 44 years old—almost 45—and people don’t care as much,” she says. “Because I started acting when I was three years old, and by the time I was six I was on a pretty popular television show, it became really clear to me at a very, very young age that there was a way of staying sane, which was to compartmentalize your work life from your private life and to really make sure that you had these very strict rules about when was work and when was life, and that the two couldn’t invade each other—not just separating your private life out, but also separating your work life out so that other people can’t lay claim that it’s theirs. With my mom, it was wonderful to be able to say: ‘This is something that I do that has nothing to do with you, and I will not talk to you about my character. I’m not going to let you in because this is mine.’
“It was really important to safeguard my life or it would be eaten up… I remember being a young kid and they were doing a documentary on me, which I’ve got to tell you was one of the worst moments of my life. It was a real nice documentary, it was the BBC, but they followed me into my classroom and the kids had to act like the camera wasn’t there and it was just the most embarrassing thing I’ve ever gone through. I don’t know if it was that time, it might’ve been another time, but there was a discussion about a camera crew going to Disneyland with me and my friends. I was like, ‘Okay,’ because I didn’t know I could say ‘No!’ Then I came home and my mom said, ‘What’s the matter?’ and I just started crying. I said, ‘I don’t want them to go to Disneyland with me. I don’t want them to ruin that experience for me and make me feel self-conscious and have everybody looking at me and the camera.’ I knew then that I didn’t want to be a reality show. And as time has gone on, of course, there are so many events that just make that so much clearer.”
Foster, who directed 1991’s Little Man Tate, a drama about an exceptional child, and the 1995 Thanksgiving comedy Home for the Holidays, was recently preparing to direct her Taxi Driver co-star Robert De Niro in Sugarland. But the film, about the sugar trade and the workers who keep it running, has been derailed.
“It just fell apart,” she says. “It was scheduled to happen—as always with these movies I’m trying to direct, there was a weather window that was problematic. It has to be shot in south Florida, and you can’t shoot there basically from June to December because of hurricane season. So you need to go into prep at a certain date and get all your actors in line at a certain date and have the studio give you a green light at a certain date. If you miss that date you have to wait another year. So that’s the bind that we got into. And now I’ve got other stuff that I’ve said yes to, so I don’t know that it will happen.”
For now, she’d like to find another film to direct. “It’s my great disappointment in life that I haven’t directed more, and it’s really hard to figure out how to do it with the acting. I’m still a young director and I have a lot to learn. My movies are quite personal. “They’re not the $80 million productions starring Tom Hanks or whoever—they’re hard to get off the ground.”
It’s an odd thing to take stock of your career when you’ve yet to hit middle age and have so many of those personal journeys ahead of you. But when asked to do just that, Foster modestly complies. “I’ll tell you what I think is extraordinary about my career,” she says. “It’s not even so much the great movies that I have been terribly lucky to have been in or the great directors I’ve worked with. It’s just that I was able to do the 1960s, the 1970s, the 1980s, the 1990s and the 2000s. The 1970s, especially, is the Golden Age in American film. I was so lucky to kind of have been dropped in there at a time that is our proudest moment in American cinema, with all those people—Scorsese and De Niro—doing their best work. To have been there—I’m not sure how conscious I was, but at least to have seen all of them and watched all of them and been there at that exciting time.” MM
Photo courtesy of Village Roadshow.