Jodie Foster Makes It Work

From Hollywood to Yale, from 'Taxi Driver' to 'The Silence of the Lambs,' Foster has always been willing to take a risk

March 21, 1991
Jodie Foster
Jodie Foster on the cover of Rolling Stone.
Matthew Rolston

I really liked the autopsy scene."

Jodie Foster spears some fat, glistening cannellini beans from the antipasto plate and describes a satisfying day's work on her upcoming film.

"There's a body on the table, murdered, with grotesque mutilations," she says. "So there's a certain basic horror, of course. And compassion for the victim. But the more my character gets into the work, she experiences a kind of – I know this sounds weird – a kind of exhilaration. She's excited. She wants to get inside the skull of the man who did this. Particularly when they discover that, um, thing inside the body."

"Oil and vinegar, miss?"

Over the pretheater blare of this jammed Manhattan trattoria, Foster is assessing the grisly leavings of psycho killers. Amid the gaunt models in cat suits, the clipped and pomaded men in J. Press, she sits drinking red wine and chatting knowledgeably – con brio – about cannibalism, sexual psychosis and ritual dismemberment.

Jodie Foster's Golden Globes Speech: 'I Came Out a Thousand Years Ago'

In recent years American serial killers have kept forensic scientists busy indeed. And Foster has kept up with the literature. "I had been kind of obsessed by the subject," she says. Sure, she knows that Hollywood was built on Panavision corpse counts, from Bela Lugosi to David Lynch. She understands the bankability of Black and Deckered body parts. But Foster, the thinking actor's actor, wanted explanations about these creeps. Explorations. She wanted to see the deranged stalker analyzed, not Freddy Kruegerized on film. Couldn't somebody do it smart?

Which is why she ended up acting in the aforesaid autopsy scene and others equally grim in director Jonathan Demme's thriller The Silence of the Lambs, which opened on Valentine's Day. The film is based on the best-selling Thomas Harris novel of the same title. Foster stars as Clarice Starling, an FBI trainee specializing in behavioral science. She is engaged in trying to catch Buffalo Bill (Ted Levine), a particularly resourceful serial killer. Helping her is the lethally brilliant Dr. Hannibal "the Cannibal" Lecter (Anthony Hopkins), a jailed maniac whose culinary skills with a human pancreas are three haute stars above Sweeney Todd's meat pies. Onscreen, Silence is make-you-sweat scary, with an unusual literacy and what Foster describes as a "progressive, politically correct" subtext. Marketwise, that's smart indeed. "I think it has real commercial potential," saysFoster as she ponders the dessert tray. "It's the first time I've done anything like that. I mean, my movies nobody ever goes to see."

That's bullshit," says Jonathan Kaplan, who directed her in The Accused. "She's a much bigger star than she realizes. You can't tell her that, though." Enough academy members saw Foster play a gang-rape victim in The Accused – a low-budget, politically correct film shot in Canada – to give her the 1988 Best Actress Oscar. "She has a huge following in Europe," Kaplan says. And here? "Go to a film festival with Jodieand some other actor that's suddenly the hottest thing ever, and Jodie is swarmed over. They've watched her grow up. They've known her. They feel that she's theirs."

By and large, it's a benign possessiveness – with a single notable exception. Though her 1976 performance in Taxi Driver as the preteen prostitute Iris also earned her an Oscar nomination, it was the devotion of just one very immoderate fan of that film, John Hinckley, that put her in the headlines five years later when he tried to kill the president in her honor. The ensuing news coverage and her deposition in Washington, D.C., made for a tough double bill to follow. But Foster went back to work shortly after and has averaged about one film a year. She describes most of her recent films as nonmainstream, art-house offerings, small movies like Stealing Home, Five Corners and that baffling film noir Siesta. She's never been HOT – just maintained a consistent simmer. She's done more films than Meryl Streep, than Kathleen Turner or Debra Winger. But in the quarter century she has spent before the cameras, no one can accuse Jodie Foster of going for the flashy glamour-girl roles. No chest-heaving blockbuster babes. She is a beautiful woman, but there has been little pretty about her work. Not since she was twelve and tugged at Robert De Niro's fly, saying, "So how you wanna make it?" She doesn't make the gossip pages with ego crimes and misdemeanors. Directors, actors and producers consistently describe her as one of the most respected actresses working. The smart one. A Yalie and magna cum laude. Crew members call her likable and never stuck up.

"Jodie spends more time on the set than anyone I've ever worked with," says Kaplan. "You can't get her off. And she's not an elitist – 'Where's my driver, where's my trailer?' Jodie has very close relationships with a second assistant cameraman, a grip. In her bones, she really does consider herself a member of the crew."

All that R-E-S-P-E-C-T is swell, but does it play in the new Hollywood, the one where the studio board in Tokyo wants to hear only cash-conversion names like Schwarzenegger? How much does it count for in the high-testosterone Tinseltown that insists no woman can "open" a movie big?

Foster shrugs. "I have yet to do a movie in the last four or five years that was offered to me," she says. Holding out for the good ones, she says, may mean not working a lot. And you have to be willing to go after the plums, lunching with the development debs, chatting up writers. When it comes to hunting down the smart properties, she can be a savvy woman warrior. "I took all the right business courses," she says. "I feel it's my responsibility to know every single film that's a go project. What else am I going to do – go to the gym? That's my job."

Once she found that Silence was a go project, Foster says she had to "kind of fight" to get the part. Long before the screenplay was done, she lobbied the screenwriter, Ted Tally, Orion Pictures and, later, Jonathan Demme, who first offered the part to Michelle Pfeiffer.

"Michelle read it," says Demme, "and it became apparent that she was unable to come to terms with the overpowering darkness of the piece." That same quality intrigued Foster, whose interest had been made known to Demme on several fronts. "Not being a dummy," says Demme, "I got together with Jodie. She helped me understand the character better. Frankly, she connected me with some of the scenes I became preoccupied with in the movie. And she made me realize that we'd be very fortunate indeed to get her to play the part."

"You fight for the ones you have serious personal connections with," Foster says. And so it is that having won, she now contemplates a pastry-covered baked apple, talking about the rare ecstasies of precision flaying. (Buffalo Bill is fond of skinning his female victims and using their hides to . . . never mind.) "Remember when they remove the bug larva?" she says, going back to the autopsy scene. The couple to our left has abandoned all pretext of eating their tiramisu.

Here Foster explains what she found so compelling about that forensic dalliance. It contained a two-second passion play of heart and head. In one close-up, the rookie Clarice had to show the extreme compassion for the victim that made her choose this line of work, then slide into cool clinical thrall. "That's the scene where Clarice loses her virginity," Demme says. "She becomes an absolute professional."

It had also been the scene that Demme and the crew most dreaded for its appalling details. Take 1, a close-up of Foster's face, was done without the hideous prop. For take 2, the technical crew brought in the latex corpse, appropriately abused. They went in tight on Clarice's face, and Jodie Foster, the absolute professional, nailed it squarely. "Watching Jodie's face during take 2 was one of the most thrilling moments I've ever experienced on the set of any movie," Demme says. He says he likes Foster's Clarice "more than anything she's ever done. It's the first character I can think of where Jodie didn't have to hide the intelligence she possesses as a person. I think she's always had to mask that one way or another."

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