Jodie Foster first appeared in commercials at age 3; she’s been acting on and off ever since, with acclaimed Oscar-nominated roles in Taxi Driver and Nell and two Best Actress wins, for The Accused and Silence Of The Lambs. She’s run a wide gamut of projects throughout her career: As a child actor, she ranged from cute work in Disney films and Alan Parker’s kid-gangster musical Bugsy Malone to harsher roles like her adolescent prostitute in Taxi Driver and the eponymous girl-with-a-secret in The Little Girl Who Lives Down The Lane. As an adult, she’s often played the overwhelmed but persistent protagonist in thrillers (Lambs, The Brave One, Flightplan, Panic Room, Contact), with sidelines in historical romance (Sommersby, Anna And The King, A Very Long Engagement) and TV appearances (The Simpsons, The X-Files, Frasier). In 1991, she moved into directing with the well-received drama Little Man Tate; four years later, she followed up with the less-well-received rom-com Home For The Holidays. It’s been a long dry spell for her directing career, but she finally moves back behind the camera with The Beaver, a deceptively grim piece about a suicidal executive named Walter (Foster’s longtime friend Mel Gibson) who copes with his depression by interacting with the world through a beaver puppet. Foster recently sat down with The A.V. Club in Chicago to discuss how Gibson’s personal problems might affect the reception of the film, why her own spiritual crisis drew her into the story, and how she can zip from acting to chatting about food at the drop of a hat.
The A.V. Club: When you were first shown this script, what drew you into it?
Jodie Foster: Lots of things that fit into the signature of what I do, and that I’m fascinated by, and have been fascinated by for a long time as a filmmaker. And then new things that you discover along the way that you didn’t really realize were a part of your life. I feel like this film is the story of my life at this particular time, and so was Little Man Tate, and so was Home For The Holidays, and so will the next movie. It may be about Martians; it doesn’t have to be directly related to my life. But I feel like The Beaver is a movie about a spiritual crisis, somebody who through this spiritual crisis is about to evolve, although painfully, is able to change and transform, and become more of who he really is. That’s true of Little Man Tate and Home For The Holidays as well.
AVC: If you related to it that way when you first saw the script, how has your own life played out in the intervening time, as you made the film? Have the parallels continued?
JF: I don’t know. That’s a good question. Every movie changes you. The process of making a film changes you. You have to be obsessed, you have to get up at 3 in the morning and go “Wait, I have an idea!” You have to continually be drawn over and over again to deepening inside that story, and ruminating over questions: “Why would he say this to her? Why if he was standing there, would she go?” Every one of those answers has to come from some personal place, and in order to do that, you can’t sit on the surface. It changes you—you wake up two years later and go “Wow, I’m not the same person I was two years ago.” It’s such a big change that you can’t really explain it to anyone else. [Laughs.]
AVC: You’ve said that this is a personal film, but in what way?
JF: I feel at various times in my life that I’ve been at a point where I had to choose between a death sentence and a life sentence. And I want to live. What do I do to live? What do I do to be vital? And the answer is always creativity. The answer is always art. It sounds really philosophical compared to this movie—you know, a guy with a puppet on his hand, whatever—but I think that’s at the crux of it. The one thing that gets you through the loneliness that’s inherent in a deep life is connection, and I find that every movie talks about that.
AVC: Do you think there’s a parallel between what Walter is doing, in creating a personality that encounters the world for him, and what actors do in dealing with the attention by developing a public persona?
JF: Yeah, yeah, a survival tool. I don’t know about persona. I don’t know if that’s a direct parallel, but I do think that the beaver is a survival tool that helps him survive his childhood, it helps him survive pains that are untenable, suffering that’s untenable, that helps him feel vital and want to live again, and approaches the world in a way that he’s not capable of anymore. He would like to be remote, so he finds a beaver that is remote. He would like to be macho and blue-collar and all these things that would make him feel better about himself, and wouldn’t make him hate himself so much, so the beaver is the opposite of everything Walter hates about himself. Then when you do that, you come up with this persona that can kick ass, this is your survival-tool persona. It can win, to quote Charlie Sheen. [Laughs.] Walter is a loser, and he wants to win, so he adopts something that is bulletproof in some ways, but that survival tool will kill you. Eventually, you have to get rid of that and face who you really are, and evolve beyond needing that thing, which is hard, because that’s the thing that loves you, that’s the thing that sacrificed for you and killed for you and was there for you when nobody else was.
AVC: At what point did you decide to take a role in the film?
JF: When I brought Mel on. I suddenly had to start thinking about like, “Who am I going to have play his wife?” I was really worried, because I knew that her character would be the eyes and the ears of the audience. I couldn’t rely on a beaver puppet to be the perspective of the film because [Walter is] crazy, so you can’t do that, and he changes so drastically over the course of the movie, he’s not a reliable first-person [perspective] in some ways. I needed somebody who could really anchor the film and that drama, and wouldn’t be tempted by the comedy, the kitschiness at all, and was able to carry the film on her shoulders, and had to be age-appropriate, had to be somebody where you would believe they had spent 20 years of their life together. I also—once I brought Mel on, I know how he works, I know how easy he is to direct, and I know he doesn’t have any neuroses about being directed, and I just knew it wouldn’t be a problem for him the way it might’ve been with other actors. I’ve had that experience with other actors. It’s really hard being directed by the person who’s sitting across from you in the scene.
AVC: How did you approach that? Directing him as somebody who’s in the scene, and who’s a friend of his, and who’s also playing a character who’s mostly in opposition to his?
JF: Mel and I work the same way. Neither of us go into a trance when we’re shooting. [Laughs.] We are fully capable of having an intellectual conversation about the movie while we’re shooting, and we can talk about food and all sorts of things right before a take, and be able to immediately go into the thing together. There isn’t a lot of preciousness. There isn’t anything I wouldn’t say to him about the filmmaking process. I will say to him, “I’ll be doing this angle because of that, and if you move your head to the right because of this problem I’ve got over there…” I never have to worry that he doesn’t understand filmmaking, or that he needs, neurotically, all this other stuff to get the performance I’m looking for. I also knew that—every actor-director knows that you’re not responsible for your actors’ performance, you’re responsible for hiring them, and for being articulate about what you’re looking for, but boy, they do it all. Hopefully you hired the right person, because it’s a gift that they give you. I can’t take credit for his performance. That’s entirely Mel.
AVC: So neither of you is particularly into Method acting.
JF: No. [Laughs.]
AVC: How do you go jumping from talking about food to finding the middle of the character? Especially in such an emotional film?
JF: Well, you have your own way, and I think for both of us, it’s private. We like to do it privately, we don’t like to make it feel like some precious thing, and the second it starts feeling that way, we both get very self-conscious. So I know that about him, that we both work the same that way, and I know when he needs to distract himself by telling a joke, or by doing something stupid, or going on the Internet and buying something and then coming back. He has to distract himself, because like me, he is only able to go deep for short bursts of time. We need to not work him over for too long, otherwise he can’t go as deep.
AVC: Are you not a fan of rehearsals, or discussing the characters before shooting?
JF: Our rehearsals are pretty intellectual. We talk about the script and why it needs to change, why this line worked but this one didn’t, and “I felt that this was too long,” or “This needs to be half as much,” or “It needs to start out this way, but move to a different place.” It’s very articulate. There was some work, a little bit of that actor-y work that we had to do at the end of the movie, because stuff needed to happen, and there’s no other way to get it except to get actors together. And that’s exhausting, so you do that for very short bursts of time.
AVC: Do you ever find your needs as a director interfering with your needs as an actor? In this case, as a filmmaker, you have to find a sympathetic place for Walter, but you’re playing a character who’s offended by everything he’s doing.
JF: I don’t have a problem with that, but definitely, there’s a lot of trouble you come up against when you’re acting and directing, about your performance. Sometimes it’s hard to be objective about it. I will tend to get two takes and walk away. I don’t belabor it, and it’s important to me to have someone who says, “You know what? You should get another one, and maybe you should try it like that.” Not that [Gibson] had to do this very much, but occasionally he would nudge me and go, “I like take two, because I thought take five was a little…” and that’s when you’re grateful that you have people around you that know the process so well.
AVC: Speaking of objectivity, how concerned are either of you at this point with how people are going to interpret this film in light of Mel’s personal life?
JF: I don’t know. I think you have to throw up your hands at a certain point. There’s not much I can do about it. I don’t know that he can throw up his hands. I think he’s pretty destroyed, and I think you just have to… In his case, he just has to take responsibility for what happened and move on, and hope that if you are true onscreen, that you’d feel that. That’s the most you can really hope for. In my case, I got to make a movie, and that is extraordinary. Because it’s so hard to get a movie off the ground that I will always be grateful for being able to have one. I don’t direct so that I can have an identity, and so I can go on to CGI movies. I had a big identity as an actor, and that’s not what I’m looking for from directing. Directing is a whole different goal.
AVC: You’ve talked in the past about how people tend to walk out of your movies saying, “I’m not sure what I just saw. That wasn’t like anything I’ve seen before.” How important is it to you that your films be unique?
JF: It depends what it is, it depends what you’re trying to examine, and it depends on how you get there. Some films may be a tried-and-true genre, and they may follow all the steps of that genre, and yet they’re able to be keenly observed and transformative. Some movies are crazy energetic and have all the originality but don’t have the emotional substance, because they’re so busy trying to be different. It depends what you’re trying to accomplish. And you’re not entirely in control of the monster when it leaves the gate. Your film, very often, first thing I learned, it walks and talks the way it walks and talks. You can try and move it in a different direction, but in a way, you’re just doing a lot of harm to it.
That was true of Little Man Tate, where I have a little boy onscreen, 7 years old, and he’s in every single frame of the movie, and he has a plodding, awkward quality, and the film has a plodding awkwardness to it. If I wanted to beat it out of the film, there’s no way I could, no matter what I tried. I think that’s true of The Beaver. The beaver’s voice has a very complex pattern. He does not go A-B-C-D-E-F, he has a gruffness, and he has a part of him that’s trying to come up but he’s not letting himself, so there is a quirkiness to the tone that is because of Mel, and because of the beaver that is unusual. If I tried to beat it out of the movie, I never could.
AVC: You’ve said you learned a lot about directing from David Fincher. Was that primarily observational, or has he actually worked with you?
JF: Oh, entirely observational. I think every director I’ve worked with… But as a technician, I think he’s the finest technician I’ve ever worked with. My movies will be nothing like his, and his method is not at all like mine, but he opened my eyes to a lot of things I’d never considered before.
AVC: Did that play out in specific ways with this film?
JF: I think this film—whether people realize it or not, because hopefully the seams do show—has a much more assured visual hand, and the images and the trajectory of the camera, sound, and music is so planned and well thought-out in this film. Hopefully it doesn’t feel planned and thought-out, but it is, and much more so than in any of my other movies. It wasn’t appropriate for my other films.
AVC: Is it true that you’re interested in moving entirely out of acting and into directing?
JF: Yeah, I think that’s true.
AVC: Where do you want to go from here?
JF: I just want to learn more. I can be better; I’d just like to work more as a director. It’s distracting being an actor, because—there’s a lot of reasons. You find out you’re going to work about six months before you start shooting, and then there’s prep and there’s post afterward, and there’s stuff to do, and then suddenly you’ve gone a year without directing. There’s a part of me that has to not be tempted by that in order to commit more to the directing, because it was 15 years before I was able to go from Home For The Holidays to this. It requires you to be a little bit more nimble than that. Honestly, the big reason for me to act is to observe other directors and learn from them. That seems to be the biggest draw.
AVC: Over the course of that 15-year gap, filmmaking technology has changed significantly. How has that affected how you work?
JF: It doesn’t affect how you approach the film at all. I mean, I think storytelling, if anything—I think you had a real advantage when you made movies when they didn’t have Avid, when you made movies on a flatbed and you understood what the film did, and why a cut works and why it doesn’t. There’s a real advantage to having a lot of experience before digital technology, but it’s just better, faster, easier. Anything’s possible, and boy, I didn’t know any of that stuff. I couldn’t quite believe the difference between the stuff I had to go through to have a dream that was such a small thing now, to have that happen for Little Man Tate, and now, you know, I don’t even have to send it to the house, I can just do it on an Avid. It’s incredible.