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Jodie Foster Makes It Work

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For someone who's seen so much ugliness, she has too much faith.

Dark? You think my movies are dark?" Foster looks thoughtful as we tick them off. Taxi Driver, sure. And okay, there's Carny, an ugly little film in which a seventeen-year-old Foster straddled men and bunco laws and lit a sizzling fuse between two friends (Gary Busey and Robbie Robertson). And there was Foxes, Adrian Lyne's directing debut, about alienated teens in disco-era L.A. And Siesta, wherein her ditzy Sloane Ranger aristocrette counseled Ellen Barkin, a bewildered and bloodied stuntwoman in heat. And Five Corners, in which a deranged man became obsessed with her. She offers no argument about The Silence of the Lambs. And of course, The Accused.

She looks up from a grim perusal of the commissary menu and smiles. "I was very happy on that film," she says. "Very vulnerable all the time and incredibly happy. I couldn't explain it. I thought, `Well, you're a sick person, you're so happy on this film.' I realized it was because we were doing something that was really good and really true. As an actor, that's your biggest THING. To do something that's so provocative and real."

Here's the difference between the popcorn buyers and the Winnebago rats – those high-strung nomads who puke their guts out in location trailers and spread their legs in front of seventy people on a Vancouver sound stage. It's how the virgin becomes the absolute professional. You develop a jones for that glorious dirty work.

"I first understood it, first felt it on Taxi Driver," Foster says. That was when she realized that acting was an art. It was also the first time she had to play a character "that wasn't me." It wasn't a kid's role; she knew nothing of the life of a twelve-year-old prostitute. She says that Robert De Niro took her to the next plateau: "He didn't tell me anything. He doesn't really talk about things that way. He just grabbed me, pulled me into the scene. And we kept doing it, over and over. And over and over again. Until it was only us amid all those people and it was perfect, it was absolutely right."

Iris was her first featured American misfit, and she liked her – very much. "You have to embrace a certain darkness," says Foster. "You have to like that. And I love that. That's why I love doing dramas. I LOVE IT! Doing comedies is okay, but there is nothing like the end of the rainbow of a drama. Really hitting something, turning it inside out, making it ugly. And slapping it in people's faces."

So ugly can be uplifting?

"No shit."

Ten minutes, Jodie."

"Cool."

It's cool with Ms. Foster that though it's December, the air conditioning can't be stopped in her dressing room, the lunch order's a bit screwed up, and her big toe is sticking through the most recent pair of floral silk stockings that wardrobe has come up with. It's cool; it's okay, really. Much of her energy is spent reassuring people on that point, and sometimes, she acknowledges, her insistence borders on the significantly weird.

Best known, of course, is the time she tried to convince the entire world that she was cool and collected in the face of a madman's very public obsession. She was eighteen in March of 1981 when John Hinckley shot the president to win her love, and she handled it. She set to organizing her own press conferences, meeting with lawyers, FBI men, Yale officials. She appeared as scheduled in a campus play while a second madman sat in the audience deciding whether to kill her. (He was identified soon after through a written death threat slipped under Foster's door.) He confessed that after having watched her in the play, he had concluded she was too beautiful to kill. Federal authorities arrested Edward Michael Richardson at the Port Authority bus terminal, in New York. He was headed for Washington, D.C., with a loaded gun, intent on finishing what Hinckley had left undone. "Cool as a cucumber" was how one of her classmates described freshman Foster to People magazine, which ran a cover story confiding, YALE RALLIES AROUND FRESHMAN JODIE FOSTER AS HER ANGUISH DEEPENS. In large part, that vaunted anguish had to do with fellow students' blabbing to People about her sloppy clothes and missed classes, her nocturnal pizza habit and weight gain. The same queasy spirit that spawned shuttle-disaster jokes produced Jodie Foster jokes. They wafted around campuses, offices, newsrooms. She joked with them. But when she found herself lying on a Manhattan sidewalk with a bruised clavicle, sobbing while a pursuing paparazzo yelled, "I got her!" Foster understood that things were far from okay. More bewildering, she realized that she wanted the madding crowd to know it. What to do?

Not surprisingly, Foster opted for the comforts and logic of language. During a trip to Germany in 1982, she wrote an essay in two days detailing her ordeal, then fretted over what to do with it. She turned to Esquire, where she had done a student internship, and asked then editor Lee Eisenberg to take a look. When he offered to buy it "for a whopping 800 bucks," it was published on her condition that there be no cover lines, no publicity and no photos. She felt she'd done the right thing until a close friend said, "I understand why you had to write it, but why did you have to publish it?" That hurt, and she snapped back: "Right, so I could get PUBLICITY! I mean, what did you think?"

At bottom, her motivation was uncharacteristically childlike. She even explains it in a very small voice: "I wanted people to know that it wasn't OKAY. It was just NOT OKAY." Please don't get her wrong; she wasn't whining and complaining about what happened to her. "I really wanted people to understand. It's the same reason I act. It's a compulsion to continually try to be understood. To try and connect. That's kind of a neurosis. It's strange to always need to be understood and accepted."

She thinks she worked a few basic things out in that essay, and she says they've stuck with her. "It's stuff I carry into my work now," she says. "What it is to be a Technicolor celebrity. It colors my relationships with people, my attitudes, the way I walk – and that's the way it's always been." She bends down to fiddle with a small, ineffectual space heater and pulls her wrap tighter. "I'm not saying it's bad. It's just the way I am."

There is a place where it's cool to ask for things, where it's expected that people listen, that everything be better than okay for Ms. Foster. In her twenty-five working years, she has never felt better than she did in this place, and when she talks about it, the smiles come easily and often. "My favorite set is my own set," she says. "It's dictated by my neuroses and the things that make me feel good."

Jodie's Set was a series of locations in Cincinnati, where she directed and acted in Little Man Tate, playing the single mother of a child prodigy (Adam Hann-Byrd). Dianne Wiest is cast as a child psychologist at odds with the mother over the boy's best interests. Foster is editing the movie now. She says it was the dream exercise for a self-confessed control freak.

"Her greatest strength as a director was that she knew what she wanted," says Jon Hutman, a close friend from her college days who was also her production designer. "That's clearly why she wanted to direct. She'd done it other people's way enough times."

Scott Rudin, who coproduced the film, says he was impressed but not surprised: "I've worked with a lot of first-time directors. She was by far the most sure handed in what she wanted – and knowing when she had it. She has confidence beyond what most people have as an actor or a director. She has confidence in herself."

Jodie's Set ran well; her movie came in on time and slightly under its small ($9 million) budget. It ran pretty happily. She directed some scenes with a four-year-old on her lap; occasionally she cooked for the cast and crew on weekends. For Foster, it felt right. "Eighty-five percent of the time, I'm much happier being in control, being responsible," she says. "And being a benevolent queen."

This is not to say she is beyond letting a few deserving heads roll or, as a Silence crew member describes it, "throwing a wobbly" – going off in a most unexpected and explosive fashion. "She's unbelievably stubborn," Rudin says. "We mixed it up a couple of times. There were some casting and script disagreements." Dianne Wiest, who has also worked with a number of first-time directors, says hardheadedness goes with the territory. "The downside of it for me is that first-time directors tend to be very controlling, which makes me feel very suffocated," Wiest says. "We had some tension there. But if I were directing my first film, I'd want to be very controlling, too."

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