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Jodie Foster: Chaos Control

(Photos by Kevin Scanlon)

(Photos by Kevin Scanlon)

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.

“I think what’s brave about the script,” for which Foster gives the bulk of credit to co-writer Cynthia Mort, “is that it doesn’t break character. It’s like a movie from the ’70s in that it doesn’t really make any judgment about her, even though she’s ashamed of who she is and hates who she’s become,” she says. “It just follows her journey without a bunch of tricks or dissolving to flashy things. There’s a real honesty to it. That will offend a lot of people.”

At the same time, Foster adds, “She is wrong to be doing what she’s doing. I mean, you know that, right? I hope you leave the movie theater feeling disgusted by her path, and by what happens to her. The fact that it’s not wrapped up in a bow might make it difficult for people to understand, but this is a movie about people who are wrong. I can’t say it any clearer than that.”

But is Erica wrong from the beginning, even when she confronts a man who guns down his wife in a 7-Eleven and then turns his pistol on her? Wouldn’t she have been killed herself had she not fired her Glock 9 mm at the villain?

“I’m not sure about that,” Foster demurs. “I mean, when was the last time you went into a 7-Eleven in Spanish Harlem at 3 in the morning? I mean, I’m telling you I’m not going into a 7-Eleven at 3 o’clock in the morning in Spanish Harlem. How stupid are you?

“For you to say she has no choice in the matter is a little naive,” she says, her voice quieting a little. “She does have a choice in the matter. She’s consciously moving in that direction because she lives in the night. She now lives in a world she had never experienced before. A world she walked by. A world where people get pissed off and kill each other. I think it’s a really interesting transition. And it’s very well constructed as a movie.”

You can forgive Foster her defensiveness, first because her combativeness is so good-natured. A lot gets lost in the movie version of her: Because she’s almost always in anguish — warring with an entire plane of passengers to find her missing child in Flight Plan, scrambling for her daughter’s insulin shot in Panic Room, being gang-raped on a pool table in The Accused — you never really see how pretty and funny and luminous she is, how at 44 (she’ll be 45 in November) her surgery-free face testifies to a life lived with conscious, self-protective discipline. (In other words, she has remarkably few lines.) A lot gets lost in the print version of her too. For all her serious talk, she has a big, pealing laugh that reminds me of the girls on the bus in junior high school who made you feel good about yourself if you were tough and smart, and very, very small if you were not.

She brightens up when you argue with her: “I don’t think Taxi Driver had an epigraph at the end saying, ‘You see, it’s really bad to kill people!’?” she fires back when I insist that Taxi Driver clearly didn’t endorse Travis Bickle’s vigilante rage in the way that The Brave One can be construed as endorsing Erica’s. “I mean, the guy becomes a hero and gets away with it,” she says, letting out a high, ironic laugh. “He looks in the rearview mirror and you know he’s going to kill somebody else!”

But you also might make room for her passionate defense of the movie because The Brave One is not a movie she stumbled upon; like Erica and the killer in the 7-Eleven, Foster sought this one out.

“As usual,” Foster says, “another actress was involved, and I read the script and said, ‘Wow, this is really something. I don’t think it’s ready, and I think it needs a lot of rewrites. But if for any reason it falls apart with her, call me up.’?”

That actress was Nicole Kidman, and things did indeed fall apart, as deals with Kidman sometimes do. (Foster took over for Kidman midshoot a couple of years ago on Panic Room.) Foster claims she had been bugging producer Joel Silver about the movie for a year, but when Kidman left to shoot The Invasion, he asked Foster to start shooting in eight weeks.

“And I said, ‘Oh, no, no, no!’ Remember how we talked about it needing a big rewrite?” She then spent six months in sessions with Mort, refining Roderick and Bruce Taylor’s original story, in which there was a “grain of an idea, not very well executed.”

The Taylors had written Erica Bain as a New York Times reporter, “and it was not good,” says Foster, a dedicated radio fan who has pulled her car over to listen more carefully to episodes of Ira Glass’ This American Life. “It was kind of Nancy Drew–ish and” — you get the feeling that she wants to say “flat” but catches herself — “I don’t know. Somebody who writes for a living spends time expressing themselves in a way that’s very different from someone who’s on radio. It changed the tone of the film. It added in the idea of somebody who’s up at night, who works at night, and who’s this voice in the night.”

Mort and Foster also reworked the relationship between Erica and Mercer, the NYPD detective investigating the attack on Erica and her fiancé as well as the case of the mysterious vigilante. “That was a big change too,” she says. “It was more of a cat-and-mouse detective thing before. It was clearly Cynthia’s leaning to create a more complex relationship between the two of them. There’s an intimacy, I think, and a recognition that’s very profound. I love those movies where the central relationship is not the romantic link in the film. It’s something deeper and bigger than that.”

The Brave One, says Foster, is “a movie with a literary quality to it,” a quality that she loves. Erica, she thoughtfully suggests, is a classic figure on an existential journey. “Here’s somebody who’s already shut off even before the movie started — somebody who says, ‘I’m just a voice, but I’m not a body, and I’m not a face.’ And this man she’s engaged to, who plays basketball and doesn’t shave and is a nurse — all those things that are very corporeal and real — he’s the body that she doesn’t have. And when he leaves her, she in some ways becomes a ghost. She has no body, and she becomes this sort of formless spirit walking through the night. And when she takes the gun, the gun materializes her — just for that split second. It allows her to re-create an event, and say, but now I’m going to change how it ends.

“It’s a breath, a breath of life. And as monstrous as that is, there’s something so essentially human about what she’s discovered.”

It’s an impressive exegesis on both the film and her character, that speech; I wonder how many times she’s given it. And I wonder how many characters she’s crafted similar speeches for. Foster laughs when I compliment her on it. “Everybody does their thing,” she says. “I didn’t go to drama school. I didn’t go to Juilliard. So there’s like a whole series of vocabulary words I don’t have, and I’m sure that had I gone to one of those places, I would have some other methodology to do what I do.

“I think as the years go on, you figure out what it is that moves you. And what I’ve realized moves me, what allows me to be able to be real and evocative onscreen, is to be able to see the movie as literature. I look for that really moving, shameful secret that great paintings have, that great music has. That thing you can’t put your finger on that’s just kind of nasty and true and human. The thing that reminds us that inside of all of us there is this monstrous thirst for that kind of power over other people.”

Foster sees The Brave One as ultimately “terribly, terribly sad. I think you should leave feeling sad. You should leave feeling sad that in that split second where she could have killed herself, like women do” — as the detective Mercer says, “They shoot themselves in the heart” — “she says, ‘I want to live.’ ” The problem, of course, is that it isn’t sad, because we want Erica to live too.

Aside from that, The Brave One will no doubt make audiences uncomfortable simply because it’s a tiny blond woman who’s taking out the criminals. Not a cop. Not Arnold Schwarzenegger. Not Charles Bronson. As co-star Howard bluntly puts it, “American audiences cheer Charles Bronson on to doing this kind of thing, because they want to see the cowboy save the day. But they want the little blond girl to say, ‘Please come save me.’

“I think,” he adds cautiously, “after watching this film, the kids who want to take advantage of women when they commit crimes might slow down a bit. You don’t know what that woman has in her purse.”

“I have this image of myself,” Foster says, “where I — I think I’d just had the baby — and I’m talking to someone through the door, and the dog gets out. The dog’s on another dog, and I know better than to get in the middle of the thing, and I’ve just had the baby, so I pee — I pee in my pants — and I figure if I throw myself on the ground and drag the hind legs out from under the dog, I can get her. I’m on the ground and I’ve peed all over myself — and the paparazzi truck comes by, so I try to get back in the house, but — I’m locked out! So I put the dog in the house and I’m talking to the lady about what happened. I’m locked out of the house and no one will let me in. I drag my ass over to the window and everybody’s like playing Monopoly or whatever. And they’re like, ‘Oh, hi, Mom.’ And the dog is totally asleep. Snoring. It’s just like nobody has any idea what you go through.”

Foster offers this story, embarrassing only in its superficial details — the actor peed on herself, her dog hated other dogs, her kids weren’t even aware she’d left — unbidden. I’d only asked if her children, 9-year-old Charlie and 6-year-old Kit, had ever bitten anybody, because Foster had said earlier how awful it is when you raise your kids right and they still bite somebody. (For the record, neither Charlie nor Kit has ever bitten anyone, and Foster is by all accounts an exemplary parent, deeply involved in her children’s lives.) There’s something distorted and self-conscious about that story, and besides, it doesn’t add up. How did she get the dog in the house after she’d locked herself out? Why did she keep talking if she’d peed her pants? And if she had just given birth, then who are the “kids” playing Monopoly?

It doesn’t add up because it’s not a real story. It’s a nugget of candor served up in the same way that a squirrel mother kills one of her babies and places it outside her den to placate the approaching rattlesnake. If I give you this, Foster seems to be saying, if I tell you what motherhood is like, and how I cried on the airplane reading Jonathan Franzen’s The Corrections, maybe you won’t feel compelled to ask me for more.

“Don’t talk to her about John Hinckley,” someone warns me on my way to interview Foster. “Is she really a lesbian?” someone else — everyone else, really, like a good three-quarters of my own supposedly enlightened friends — asks afterward, as if “Are you really a lesbian?” is a reasonable question to ask someone you’re meeting for the first time in a conversation you’re recording.

I didn’t ask Jodie Foster whether she was a lesbian, sorry, and not just because she was generous enough to tell me that she once peed on herself and locked herself out of her house. I know it rankles the activist gay community that if Foster really is a lesbian, she won’t say so, and that if she really has been involved for the last 13 years with producer Cydney Bernard, whom she met on the set of Sommersby, she won’t talk about it on CNN, as good lesbians do. I know that lesbians need role models with better politics than Mary Cheney’s and cuter figures than k.d. lang’s. But it seems to me that if Foster wants to keep the dogs who feed on celebrity suffering at bay, she has every right to do so.

In fact, her unwillingness to talk about her private life has less to do with confining herself to a closet than with having lived a life in the public eye long enough to know there are few rewards for giving it up to the press.

She’s “wincing,” she says, at the images of Lindsay Lohan with digital superpowered telephoto lenses trained on her sometimes-comatose face; she’s grateful that there was no Access Hollywood back in 1980 to track her own teenage hijinks. “I was 18,” she says. “I think everybody in those years has to come to understand boundaries by testing them. But at the time, there was no such thing as an 18-year-old who was making $15 million a picture, or a major star who was 18. At that time, we were relegated to kids’ movies. We really weren’t a valued commodity. And that was a good thing for me, because it allowed me to develop as an artist and do different things and different movies and show different sides of myself. By the time I hit 26 or 27, I had a body of work behind me; I didn’t just do a few films and go away.

“Now, even with male stars, they’re looking for that guy who’s got the abs and that beautiful profile, so they can get a Johnny Depp that’s cheap. After one movie, they’ll pay him $10 million — which is cheaper than Johnny Depp — and squeeze four big fat horrible career choices out of him, and then he’ll be done. Then they’ll go look for some other pretty guy. It’s just a different time.”

Foster was lucky, she says, to have a mom who was concerned about her psychological well-being. Her father, Lucius, left the family while Foster was still in the womb; her mother raised her and her two siblings alone. “But I didn’t want to be an actor. I happened to fall into it, but I didn’t want it. I never wanted people paying attention to me. I’m not interested in that life and I never was. And I don’t think I ever would have been.

“But I also remember being very young,” she says, “and going, ‘Oh, wow! This business could eat me up, and I’m not going to let that happen. Once there was a documentary crew that came in to make a film about me — a BBC documentary crew, very good, very reputable, very nice by the way. They came into my school. They came into my classroom. I was 13 years old. It was the most horrible, embarrassing thing I’ve ever been through in my life. And I remember going, ‘This is the most horrible thing. Whatever I have to do to avoid this in my life, I’m going to avoid this.’

“So I made a big decision to go to college, even when everyone said, ‘Your career will be over. There aren’t any child actors who live past 16 or 17 anyway. And here you are, taking off, and that will be the end of that.’

“And I thought, ‘Well, that will be the end of that, then! I guess we should sell our house and move into someplace smaller. Because I could see that if I didn’t go to school, that choice would be taken away from me. And once you get the feeling that your life will be taken away from you, you start preserving it at every instance.”

In the end, it’s Foster who brings up John Hinckley. “I mean, don’t forget that I was 18 when John Hinckley shot the president,” is how she puts it. “It’s not like I got off scot-free.”

She wrote about the Hinckley episode in a heartbreaking piece for Esquire, divulging in the process her quest for normalcy among her classmates at Yale, where she earned a degree in literature. “It was a terrible, very, very difficult thing for me to be an adolescent and a post-adolescent, in the public eye,” she says. “A terribly, terribly difficult thing.”

There are times in Jodie Foster’s life when she’d still like to do a different job. “I don’t think I was born to be an actor,” she says. “Some people really were. You can see them as little kids with the lampshade on their head, and they dress up in all kinds of little outfits, and you think, Wow, this kid was really designed to be an actor. But I’m always thinking of other jobs I could have. I’m thinking, they have these writers, like William Goldman for example, who the studios will kind of keep on staff for the whole year, and when there’s a problem, they’ll call him up and say, ‘Oh, we have a serious problem on this movie. We’re sending you to the set and you’ll spend two weeks telling them what’s wrong.’ That to me would be a dream job.”

In the meantime, there’s acting. She is currently shooting Nim’s Island in Australia, with Little Miss Sunshine star Abigail Breslin, “a total G-rated kids’ movie” Foster’s children can actually see before they’re 18, about a little girl who draws an agoraphobic scientist out of her protective lair. She would also like to do a Masterpiece Theatre–type series on French television about American movies from the ’70s, “this golden age of American movies. You’d do Lenny one week, and Straw Dogs another week and Panic in Needle Park the next, and then you’d do little documentaries also, and you’d highlight the movie and talk about certain scenes and say why this scene is that and pay attention to that.” The French, she says, are the only ones who could appreciate that series, “the only people who have an appreciation for an academic look at movies. Americans, unless they’re in film school, don’t really care. In America, sometimes talking about movies ruins it for people.”

She has tried her hand at directing, with Little Man Tate (1991) and Home for the Holidays (1995). (Another project, Sugarland, in which she would have been giving direction to her old co-star, Robert De Niro, has been put on indefinite hold.) “But it’s one of the great disappointments of my life so far that I haven’t directed more,” she says. She has been developing a biographical movie, a holdover from her now-defunct production company Egg Pictures, about Leni Riefenstahl, the controversial photographer who never joined the Nazi party but served it well with her documentaries Triumph of the Will and Olympia. “It’s an amazing, fascinating life,” Foster says, “and I think a really interesting stepping-off point for talking about the moral responsibility of the artist. Once again, it will be terribly controversial.”

If that movie gets made, and controversy follows, it will be a controversy that Foster, with her exquisite gifts for conversation and literary exposition, will be eminently well-equipped to answer. Just as she is proving to be with The Brave One.

“I know full well that if [The Brave One] were coming out on seven screens and starring Sandrine Bonnaire instead of coming out on 3,000 screens, we wouldn’t be having the conversations about it that we’re having,” she insists. “We have a different narrative standard for mainstream movies than we do for movies that attempt to talk about things in a more sophisticated way. And there will be lots of unsophisticated people who see this movie and have a reaction that’s different than what I would hope.

“But you can’t dumb down your movies so that everybody has their happy ending. You can’t make it so that everybody feels better. There are some things you just can’t control.”