There was a time in Jodie Foster’s life when she was on the verge of giving up acting. She no longer found it rewarding, this business of saying someone else’s lines as if they were her own; she found herself wishing for a profession that would challenge her and make use of her considerable analytical gifts.
“I had been feeling there was something kind of not intellectually valuable about being an actor,” she says, settled into the sofa at the Beverly Hilton as comfortably as if it were her own. “It had started to seem like a really dumb job.”
But then one day it hit her — “like a lightning bolt” — that it wasn’t acting that was the problem. “It was me,” she admits. “It was my fault. I wasn’t bringing enough to it. I hadn’t realized that it was my responsibility to go deeper, to really build a character from the ground up; that to really be a good actor, you had to be able to discuss a movie, any movie that you’re taking on, and to see the literature in it.
“Then it becomes fascinating. Then you get better as an actor. Then you learn to really love movies.”
She figured this out, she says, and rededicated herself to her work.
She was 12 years old.
Jodie Foster isn't one of those people who stumbles through life unconscious of who she is and where she’s going. Nor is she one of those actors who have no idea how or why they work their magic, and who can sound endearingly insecure in interviews. For Terrence Howard, Foster’s co-star in her new film, The Brave One, his process remains so utterly mysterious to him that he apologizes to the director after each day’s work. Foster, on the other hand, can articulate in complete sentences punctuated very occasionally with French — sometimes pausing to search for a translation of a certain French word — exactly what she does and why she does it. “I plan,” she says with a determined edge in her voice. “I plan. I plan what every detail means.”
That cerebral approach can sometimes be frustrating to directors. “I’m not this big ball of emotion, you know, I’m not Sean Penn. I’m not, like, free — you know, FREE! Like in one take I’ll just take my shirt off, and in the other take I’ll CRY!” But Foster’s love of what she calls “the thinking part” of moviemaking comes in handy for promoting a film like The Brave One, a confounding thriller in which she plays a radio personality named Erica Bain who turns vigilante after witnessing the beating death of her fiancé. The death of this beautiful, basketball-playing male nurse, played by Naveen Andrews, is horrific in the moment and excruciating in the aftermath; when Erica, bludgeoned nearly to death herself, wakes from a three-week coma and learns of her lover’s loss — “But I want to see him!” she demands, her entire body trembling — her grief resonates so sharply across the screen you fear it might crack down the middle.
Foster gives a delicate, extremely internal performance in The Brave One, a performance sickening in its muted agony. It’s precisely because Erica is not a big ball of emotion, but instead a credible portrait of an emotionally isolated, intellectual woman in the throes of suffering, that you do not for a moment doubt her motivation to acquire a gun and patrol the streets of her once-beloved New York City. And that’s finally what makes The Brave One — a story as deliberately constructed as a parable — so hard to digest. Once people start dying at the end of that gun, empathizing with Erica no longer seems like a constructive response.
Foster knows this; she knows it as clearly as she knows that every one of her interviewers wants to ask her about those days after John Hinckley shot President Reagan purportedly to impress her, and whether she is in fact a lesbian. But not only does Foster seem to feel bound by a personal and professional duty to help journalists resolve the moral quandary of The Brave One, it’s something she wants to talk about.
“I know the movie’s subversive,” she says, “and there’ll be lots of opinions back and forth, not necessarily about the movie, but about the perspective of the movie. I get that. I get that there are certain people who just don’t want to go to that place. They’re not happy with the ambiguity. And I’m ready for it.”
There will be the inevitable comparisons to Taxi Driver, Martin Scorsese’s 1976 film that earned Foster her first Oscar nomination for her performance as a 12-year-old prostitute (her decision two summers earlier to take acting more seriously apparently paid off fast). Like Vietnam vet Travis Bickle, Erica scores her first kill in a convenience store, an act that in both cases might qualify as self-defense. At one point, she even tries to rescue a young prostitute from an abusive captor, with a similarly tangled outcome. But Erica Bain soon progresses from accidental encounters in New York City’s last remaining tough neighborhoods to the deliberate stalking of villains. And the empathy you feel for this wiry, taut-jawed huntress, the empathy the film carefully cultivates in its first few scenes, does not easily ebb. In an era of political powerlessness, there is something undeniably satisfying about watching a tiny blond woman split a white-collar criminal’s head with a crowbar.