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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

Jodie FosterJodie 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.”

To prepare for Silence, both Foster and Scott Glenn, who plays her FBI superior, spent time with John Douglas, the bureau’s top specialist on serial killers. Demme worked up his own psychological profiles of his killer, Jame Gubb, and submitted them to Douglas for critiques. Glenn’s characer is based on Douglas, who offered the actors all sorts of study aids, including audiotapes made by real killers of their victims’ torture sessions. Foster did not listen to them.

“Scott did,” she says, “and lived to regret it.”

Foster says the film’s plot was grim all right, but here’s the really weird thing: “I was so happy on that set. On a film that’s about death and darkness. That was strange to me. But Jonathan really taught me that you don’t have to be miserable. It doesn’t have to be a horrible event to make a good film.”

She was also cheered by the fact that Clarice is a savior, not a victim. It was a welcome change, though it’s her screen casualties that she has the greatest affinity with. She has this victim thing. . . .

“Not that I want to overplay what I do in LIFE or any of that.”

This is one of many considered disclaimers that punctuate these talks, the conversational tics of a woman who’s compelled to speak her mind but wary of inflicting damage – to herself and others. “I play disenfranchised people that are in most cases pushed out of the way or cast aside,” she says. “Part of my agenda with that is out of some kind of need to save them. To be the representative of those people.” They are alienated schoolgirls and runaway teens, factory-town waitresses, carny hustlers and stout-hearted Appalachian white trash – American misfits, misunderstood and rarely short on pain. When Martin Scorsese cast her in Alice Doesn’t Live Here Anymore, it was as an achingly wise Tucson, Arizona, subteen compelled to explain her after-school wanderings. (“Mom turns tricks from three on at the Ramada Inn.”) A year later, when the director asked to meet with her in Los Angeles about the Taxi Driver part, the girl who had also played Becky Thatcher in Tom Sawyer showed up in her school uniform, with pixie-short hair.

No matter. Scorsese told Brandy Foster, Jodie’s mother, that he had never considered anyone else for Iris. The California Labor Board objected because of her age and ordered a psychiatric evaluation for her protection. After two hours, the board-appointed UCLA shrink emerged from his office, laughing. It was no problem. Jodie could handle it.

“I grew up three blocks from Hollywood Boulevard,” Foster says, describing that strip where hookers in fuchsia spandex blossom at every bus stop. Hers was not an especially privileged childhood; she is familiar with these marginal people. And she says she likes putting them on the big screen “to portray their stories in fiction and have them resolved and be heroes in the end.” They are by their nature flawed heroes and, as Demme noted, rarely the sort of people Foster could discuss Balzac with. The hardest part of The Accused, she says, was not in playing a victim but in being allowed to play a very imperfect heroine, a hard-working trailer-park honey who drank and smoked dope and spent her table-busing tip money on a vanity license plate that read, SXY SADIE. Foster says her concentration on Sarah Tobias’s K mart aesthetic was fine with Kaplan but not so popular with Paramount executives. Playing it the way she wanted to was, she says, “a big milestone for listening to my instincts. You have to take huge risks to create anything people WANT to see. They’d rather see comedies. They don’t want to see a drama unless it’s going to take them someplace breathtaking and controversial. Someplace they normally wouldn’t have gone. You have to take those risks or all you’re ever going to be is mediocre.” She makes a face at the last word. To Foster, who always got straight As, mediocrity seems to hold more horrors than the autopsy table.

What’s going on here?”

Foster jerks her head toward a loud posse of mink and sable leaving the restaurant. It’s nearly eleven, but the sidewalks are jammed. “Is everyone out?” she says. “I mean, it’s Wednesday. Working Wednesday.” Tonight Manhattan looks as gem cut and flawless as it does through Woody Allen’s reverent lens. Fifty-seventh Street is dressed for Christmas; the women are dressed for murder, Thierry Mugler style.

Except for Jodie Foster, working girl. She strolls along unrecognized, even beneath the megawatt marquee of Carnegie Hall. Her collegiate-looking beige coat flaps open over a blue-denim work shirt, with a sweat shirt beneath and khakis. A kitschy revolving RFK photo medallion bounces off her chest. She totes a book bag stuffed with scripts and novels. In her wake, a yard-long printout of messages from her hotel switchboard snaps smartly in the breeze.

She has an Oscar but no attitude; she has had two armed and psychotic admirers but no flying security force. She owns a chic rackful of Armani but prefers this uniform of the day. She’s working here in New York and came to dinner straight from the set. Having just starred in and directed her own movie, Little Man Tate (due out this fall), she says she was thrilled to leave the editing room for a week to come to New York for a very small part in the next Woody Allen film. “I’d do anything for him,” she says. “ANYTHING.” She laughs, throws an arm toward the traffic on Seventh Avenue. “Here I am, the California movie brat,” she says. “I’ve done – what? Almost thirty movies. But to have worked with Scorsese and Woody Allen. That’s IT. At least to me.” Besides, Foster likes Woody’s New York. Talky, kvetchy, neurotic New York. It was that Eastern-seaboard intellectual chatter that drew her to Yale, away from the beaches and her Angeleno roots.

“I talk a lot,” she says, “probably too much. Some of my friends do call me Miss Authoritiva, and I doubtless deserve that. But I need to talk. It’s not something people tend to do where I come from.” By now, we sense the disclaimer forming. “Don’t get me wrong, I love Los Angeles,” she says. “My family is there. My heart.” The BA in literature chuckles at her own archetype, the bifurcation of head and heart on either side of the Mississippi. Long before the creations of Fitzgerald and Wolfe, hardy Westerners have been ferried east to fall into love, art and trouble. For Foster, the thrall began in earnest with Taxi Driver. And Yale. “Yeah, the Foster Shuttle,” she says. “Check any excess baggage.”

The following morning, Foster sees her third dawn in Queens. Through the bluish rush-hour smog, it looks more like Scorsese’s New York – two-family brick fronts, warehouses and chain-link fences. But this is where Woody Allen builds many of his Manhattan fantasies, on a sound stage at the Kaufman Astoria Studios. Woody starts early, and Foster’s hair and makeup call was for 6:30. She is playing a small part Which We Cannot Discuss. Madonna also has a minor role. We can say that it’s a comedy. The majority of Foster’s week here is being spent in this small cinder-block-wall dressing room – under wraps, like the rest of the project. Allen’s obsessive secrecy makes her giggle, but she is happy to comply. “With Woody, hey, whatever works,” she says. “I mean, he is the greatest.”

A wardrobe woman arrives bearing a pair of pink silk stockings, hand painted and artfully distressed. Foster bends to put them on; her calves are hard and well sculpted by another past “obsession,” kick boxing. Her stage makeup is light; at twenty-eight, she has no reason to fear the morning sun and the harsh fluorescents that light the room. Curled tendrils of a long wig spill onto the collar of her big terry robe. Underneath is her costume, an antique silk teddy – peach and pale green.

Finally she has grown into the R-rated roles she was playing as an adolescent. Even then, Pauline Kael called her “an unusually physical child actress.” She had a deep, almost froggy voice and a hitchy, tomboy walk. During the agonizing years most girls cloister themselves for the duration of a single zit, Foster endured film scribes’ quips about baby fat. Once she got to college, they sniped about the visible consequences of junk food. As recently as the casting period for The Accused, she was asked to present herself for inspection, this time by coproducer Stanley Jaffe. “Jodie called me,” says Jonathan Kaplan. “She said, `Well, I met Stanley, and he saw I’m not fat.’ In truth, that was the [producers’] first concern.” Despite such plucky sang-froid, it is the one area of her professional life she seems less than comfortable discussing. But hey, okay, she will. “At some point, you’ve got to accept that you’re an object,” she says. “It’s not personal, but ultimately somebody’s going to say your voice sucks and your body sucks, too. You have to learn to make the personal not so personal.”

Growing up so publicly, Jodie Foster seemed as likely a candidate as any for the full-color, first-person confessionals in the supermarket mags: TEEN STAR CRASHES AFTER LIFE IN THE FAST LANE. Foster got her first job – a Coppertone ad – at age three and was the main support for her family by the time she learned to sign her name in script. Beginning a discussion about her childhood, she’s quick to point out that it was not normal. “You can’t shove Ozzie and Harriet down my throat and tell me to be happy, because it’s not me,” she says. For nearly two decades, Foster has had reporters dissecting her early years – particularly her relationship with her divorced mother and manager, Evelyn “Brandy” Foster. One interviewer even showed up with a psych book on gifted children. She didn’t mind when he read aloud from it.

“I get analyzed to death, and that’s okay,” Foster says, grinning. “That’s what I’m here for.” Talking about her childhood, she can do serious, she can do Freudian. And she can do jokes, just like her mom did every time she’d wisecrack, “HEY, where’s my DAD?” “Immaculate conception” was Brandy Foster’s stock answer, though Jodie knew her mother had filed for divorce before she realized she was pregnant with her, the fourth child. Born in the Bronx to a strict German family, Brandy Foster was raised in Rockford, Illinois. In the Fifties, she left home for Los Angeles, where she married Lucius Foster, an air-force officer who became a real-estate executive. The marriage lasted ten years. Jodie has seen her father only a few times. She is several years younger than her two sisters and one brother. While she watched cartoons, they went through the customary periods of rebellion. They had parties when her mom wasn’t home. Her brother was a surfer. The big kids had the big fun. (It was the late Sixties.) Jodie was good. “I was the model child,” she says. “I spoke three languages and got straight As, had no curfew, wore a uniform.” In school she was obedient, did her homework ahead of time. Though she tested as gifted academically, she says her real precocity had to do with reading people.

“I was born more sensitive to events and behavior and what they mean,” she says. “I paid attention to it. That’s part of what makes me a good actor, I think. And my history is very different than other people as well. I mean, I wasn’t raised in the nuclear model American family.” Understand, please. She would never call it tragic, never say she was deprived. It was okay. But she did grow up with people who had hard lives. They were mainly women – her mother among them – stuck in late-Sixties California with no husbands, plenty of kids and back-alimony blues. “The single-parent family obsesses me in some ways because it’s all I’ve ever known,” she says. “Everyone I grew up with was a single-parent kid. All my mom’s friends were divorced women, and they would sit around and talk about that asshole and that bastard, whatever.” Men might come and go, but the women were always there.

“There was Aunt this and Aunt that, and they’d pick me up from school, and she’d pick up their kids,” says Jodie. “It was like you had a new family – the nonnuclear American family. The casualties of divorce.”

She stops, and adds the customary punctuation: “It wasn’t horrible. It was just – what it was.” What all those fourth-estate analysts seem to miss, she says, is the less obvious reason for her closeness with her mother. It’s not so much that she was a child star but that she was the child of a single parent. “I do have a strange relationship with her,” she says. “When you are a single parent, it has edges and mixed messages that other people don’t have. It’s more intimate, and it gets uglier.”

Foster is voluble, almost evangelical on this subject – one she has just dealt with intensely as a first-time director. In Little Man Tate, she plays the single mother of a child prodigy. “The single-parent relationship is something people don’t understand,” she says. “How your son can be your son, but you dance with him. And you get dressed up for him. And sometimes you say mean things to him because you want to hurt him.”

It follows, she says, that her relationship with her mother is not perfect: “She pisses me off. We yell at each other. She says something cruel and mean to me, and I say something cruel and mean to her – typical Nancy Friday [My Mother/My Self] stuff.” Nonetheless, she cannot imagine life without her mother’s nearness. “She’s smart and she’s lived and she has things to tell me that I couldn’t know,” she says. “And I have things to tell her. We’re partners.”

They were alone together from the time Jodie was ten and the older children had moved out. They lived across from the Hollywood Bowl, in a house that stuck out amid the pastel bungalows. Its singularity mortified her at the time. “My mom painted our house terra cotta,” Foster says. “She wanted to make believe she lived in Italy or something. It was that time in the late Sixties when you didn’t want to be American.”

When Jodie wasn’t working, Brandy picked her up from school – the French-speaking Lycee Francais – and took her to movies by Truffaut, Chabrol, Blier, Fellini. She drove a Peugeot, stocked the refrigerator with borscht and Korean kimchi, hauled the kids to Thai, Vietnamese and Philippine restaurants. Wonder Bread was unknown. “We were the original sun-dried-tomato family,” says Foster.

Though she was frequently on TV – in Crest commercials, My Three Sons episodes and the like – the small black and white set in her mother’s bedroom was frequently unplugged and off-limits. She says it was not missed. And if Brandy helped expand her cultural and culinary horizons, she also taught her kids about personal boundaries. “She’s an only child, and she doesn’t like to be around people that much,” Foster says of her mother. “When I was a kid, we had a whole area that we weren’t allowed to be in. She’d go there, read her watercolor books, books on architecture.” Again, the sensor is going off. “I think that’s good. That’s cool.”

Foster says she finds this need for solitude just as compelling. “One of the things that worked well with my mom was that we left each other alone,” she says. “We could be alone together.” Often, weekends were spent just wandering around the house with books and magazines, eating takeout, watching old movies. “We were the pajama family,” she says.

By all accounts, she was never afflicted with a pushy stage mother. If Brandy prodded her daughter in anything, it was academics, since she had little faith in the actor’s life as a sustaining career choice. “I’m always at her,” says Brandy. “I want her to go back to school and get her PhD.” There’s so much downtime on sets and between films. Jodie can be so professorial anyway. She could stand up at a podium and preach. And so what if it took twenty years? She’d have something to fall back on. “I don’t want that kind of actor personality and neurosis to set in,” her mother says, and laughs. When Jodie was a child, Brandy always knew what she could handle.

Of the labor board’s protest over Jodie doing Taxi Driver, Brandy says: “It absolutely infuriated me. I knew morally how strong she was. She had been working years and years. And she’s always been taught that what you play is pretend time.” Even now, make-believe can get rough, and Brandy still travels with her daughter occasionally if the film location is attractive or the work extra hard. When Brandy read the script for The Accused, she decided that she had better pack for Vancouver. “The violence in that film really worried me,” she says. “It was devastating for her. She was bruised.”

She stayed with Jodie during the week the rape scenes were shot. After work, the two women would walk a seven-mile loop in a nearby park. A year later, they walked down the aisle together on Oscar night at the Shrine Auditorium, and when Jodie made her acceptance speech, Brandy sat gripping her grandson’s arm as her daughter thanked her before a billion people. “I almost lost it,” she says.

Family is one of Jodie’s happier obsessions, especially her five-year-old niece, Amanda, who lives with her parents outside Paris. “All of a sudden, she’ll say, `I just want to see Amanda,’ ” says Brandy. And Jodie is gone, on a plane across the country, across the Atlantic. She will always go the distance for children. She has always been a caretaker since she was so very small. Jodie always does Thanksgiving. Whenever she’s in town, she makes big, gloriously messy dinners for people, picks up restaurant and vacation checks.

Home is a new house “way out in the Valley,” not far from her mother’s home in Calabasas and a freeway eternity from any studio. It’s the kind of drive that often leads Jodie to wait out rush hour in the dark, alone in a movie theater, ordering dinner from the popcorn stand. She sees everything, is still mad for the movies.

Brandy says that if there is one thing she gave all her children, it’s a sense of honor. Jodie is very honorable. Brandy has never heard her be vicious or try to hurt anyone. If she can think of one failure with Jodie, it’s in not being able to convince her daughter, once and for all, that despite her energetic end runs around star treatment, she’s not allowed to be like everyone else. “I don’t think she has enough sense of danger,” Brandy says. “She can be very cavalier about walking in the street, not realizing that anyone recognizes her or would be any danger to her. And that’s frightening to me. She still will open up her front door without looking to see who it is.”

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.”


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.”

Early on, Wiest went to her director and requested a meeting. “I don’t like this,” she told Foster. At issue, she says, was “everything from saying ‘and’ instead of ‘but’ to character.” They worked it out. In the end, Wiest says, “I was glad for some of her strong-mindedness.”

“You know my reputation,” Foster says. “I’m not a pain in the ass. I’m bossy, but I’m not a pain. And anything I demand is always about the movie. It’s not about comfort or vanity.”

On Jodie’s Set there are rules, unspoken but very clear to those who know her. No prima donna trips. No personality dust-ups. And above all, no sucking up. “I don’t like people that are afraid of me,” she says. “It bugs me to have people who are obsequious. If someone’s humoring or manipulative, I won’t have it. The truth I can handle. I can’t handle NOT knowing what they’re thinking or feeling.” For herself, the golden rule was simple: “Never make an actor feel like shit.” It’s happened to her more than once – no names, thank you. “The director who says you suck, you’re ugly, and you can’t do a fucking thing,” she says.

It wouldn’t do, then, to play the heavy as director – especially with kids. For weeks before her nine-year-old star arrived in Cincinnati, says Jon Hutman, Foster “obsessed” over the right way to treat him. She says that in casting the child, she deliberately went for intense over cute. On Jodie’s Set, the child is far wiser than most adults. “In my movie,” she says, “this kid is also gifted in sensitivity. He notices who’s left out and who isn’t. Part of his intelligence is how broad and outreaching his heart is. He asks: ‘Why is that person mean to you?’ ‘Why do you continue to repeat that pattern?’ He says things that adults are really afraid of dealing with. He’s not just a child genius. He’s a genius of the heart as well.”

It is not, then, a dark film. But odds are it will be smart. “It challenges conventional values about intelligence,” says Rudin. “It’s about healthy stuff.”

What I’ve been obsessing about lately is this Styron book on depression.”

Foster is speaking of William Styron’s Darkness Visible, a harrowing and blessedly unsentimental account of his own bout with severe clinical depression. What she finds so moving and scary about Styron’s experience is the everyday nearness of the abyss and the ease with which a successful person can slip into it. “How it can happen in the midst of everything,” she is saying. “Like that dumb moment in It’s a Wonderful Life where Jimmy Stewart’s little girl is playing piano, and there are tears coming out of his eyes. Just that inescapable sadness – that grand sad echo.”

She says she has heard it, sometimes muffled, sometimes clear as a bell. It summons you There, to the place Styron went. “It’s a place that awaits everyone,” she says, “and you either end up there or not. This may be my naive spirit, but I believe that we’ve all manufactured ways not to go there. And that’s what human behavior is really about. Not going There.”

What makes her think that?

“Probably because I’ve been There. Styron was put away, and I was not. . . .” She’s not offering details, just a vague segue into how so many teenagers think about suicide almost as a matter of course. She says she’s fine and strong and happy. Nonetheless, the things she has to do to keep from going There seem a bit wacky to some people. For example, when she’s not working and spends a lot of time alone doing the maddeningly mundane. “Jodie doesn’t have an assistant,” says Hutman. “She cooks for herself, picks up her own cleaning. I think it’s ridiculous.”

“My time off is regeneration time, and I’m entirely selfish,” Foster says. “Somebody calls and says come out and have lunch, and I say no, because between 12:30 and 2:30, I eat in my car. That’s my thing. I EAT IN MY CAR.” Jodie’s Set offscreen is something she describes as a reverse fantasy. She doesn’t like to think she’s rich or different. She drove the same beat-up Volkswagen for years, rented a so-so apartment, though she bought her mother a lovely home. Recently she bought that house in the Valley, but it remains unfurnished save for a bed and a thirty-six-inch TV propped on a cardboard filing cabinet. Having the house has made her learn how to spend money, something she admits she has a problem with. Until recently, she preferred to pretend her wealth was distant and untouchable, like when she was in college and on a budget. Then, she could say she only had thirty dollars left for the week and couldn’t go out to dinner.

“I like to feel that’s the way I live, like all my friends,” she says. “I do create a lot of illusions for myself. I’ve created an entire fantasy environment. I say I’ve got a LOT to do today, gotta go to the post office . . . pick up my laundry. I don’t want to do all this other stuff that reminds me constantly of who I am. That reminds me of big-girl problems.”

She is the first to point out that all this romantic normalcy is a controlled fantasy – just like in the movies. Ask her about guilty pleasures and she’ll laugh and admit that her idea of naughty soft porn is the Williams-Sonoma catalog. “Anything to do with the kitchen I admit I’m a sucker for,” she says. “I love my Calphalon pans, my beautiful ice bucket. I love those luxuries like linen sheets, bath soaps, lace pillowcases. Really good smoked salmon, good Bordeaux, all of that.”

Stallone may live large, but Foster lives well – the pajama person’s best revenge. She calls it home hedonism. Others call it healthy. “She’s got a discipline about her life,” Jonathan Kaplan says. “She finishes a movie, then she goes back into her life in L.A. or Paris. She says: ‘I’m going to disappear for a month. Don’t worry about me. I’m going to do my mole thing. I’ll call you when I come out of my hole.’ “

She always comes out, and she always calls.

Over a tuna on rye from the studio commissary, Foster is talking about one final obsession: intimacy. She is not about to divulge romantic secrets. That part of her life is, and always has been, a closed set. Professor Foster is discussing intimacy as a Concept. In doing this, sometimes she cracks herself up. “I have this fascination with public personas and private people. The difference between when George Bush is on TV and when George and Barbara are sitting in the bathtub together in the TraveLodge – drinking cognac and puking or something.There’s that juxtaposition of image versus intimacy.”

Like a movie star eating enchiladas in a car hung with dry cleaning? She laughs and agrees that, yes, you do convey life’s intimacies with the tiny details. Just like a good novelist. “Small things, rather than explosions or lava flows,” she says. There are small but finely wrought things aboutFoster’s screen misfits. Like Sarah Tobias’s terrified courtroom walk in The Accused. And Clarice Starling’s visible aversion to noise in Silence. They’re insecurities writ large, and Foster, former Wise Child, has no compunction about dragging them out in front of company – say, several million people. “There’s something about real intimacy that I need to see onscreen,” she says. “That I need to do onscreen. Things that other people never see. Showing the pathetic.” She stops, listening to the hall commotion that signals the end of lunch break. “It’s very much an actor’s impulse,” she says. If she has to define her limits, it’s this: “There are certain parts that I cannot play. It’s not in my reservoir. True and absolute passivity. I can’t do it.” She can do vulnerability, will even manage a dumb blonde. “But I don’t know how to cry and be kidnapped,” she says. “I don’t know how to approach weak.”

She collects all the remains of her lunch, seals them neatly in the foil container. There is little to indicate she has occupied this dressing room all week, save for the street clothes tossed over a chair, a book bag, a novel and a paper trail of phone messages. Once again, there is a knock, a muffled voice: “We’re ready, Jodie.”


She starts for the door, wearing the silky costume wrap over her teddy, then changes her mind and returns to snatch up a big terry robe. “I never do this,” she says, wrapping it around her. “But you have to walk through the carpentry shop here. All those guys . . . they look at you.”

She shrugs and steps into the hall.

“Sometimes, it’s just not cool.”

This story is from the March 21st, 1991 issue of Rolling Stone. 

In This Article: Jodie Foster


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