“It’s not that I’m cold or that I don’t have feelings,” Jodie Foster offers, her intense, steely blue eyes glinting in the late-day sun. “It’s just that my wheels turn first and I feel things second,” she continues, choosing her words carefully. “I really—honestly—don’t have the natural personality of an actor.”
It’s a somewhat curious statement coming from a two-time Academy Award winner whose talent for telegraphing complex emotions with disarming honesty resonates with audiences worldwide.
“I like moviemaking, but I don’t have a burning desire to act. The acting part is a big challenge for me, and it always has been,” she explains. “I don’t know that I would have chosen this if I hadn’t been an actor as a young person,” she continues, the thoughts racing like a news feed. “What I like to do is make movies. If I could do one thing all day, it would be to go see films, talk about them, and organize the setups in my head. Acting just happens to be my skill, but I think I’d probably be just as happy being a technician or entering into the movie business in some other way.”
She searches my eyes for a sense of understanding and then launches back into it, sensing that I’m not entirely convinced that she’d be just as happy working as a technician. “A lot of actors like to dance on the table or do impersonations, you know? They can’t wait to do it again and again… and in all different ways. That’s just not who I am,” she says, determined to drive the point home. “The way I process things that happen in my own life is through the head first. I’m more internal, and that’s good—it makes my work different from that of a lot of actors because I approach it differently.”
Part of what makes Foster such a different kind of actor is the fact that she’s carved out several roles for herself within the business, including those of director and producer. “Honestly, my brain works like a director. It just doesn’t work like an actor,” she says. “The way I speak to a director and explain how I’m going to organize a scene is a lot like how you do a book report: ‘This goes here and this goes here and this is why….’ I’m sure it can seem very cold, and kind of calculated. But then somebody says ‘Action,’ and I just have to be it and perform it.”
Whatever her process, Foster seems to have struck a successful balance between acting and directing. Her experience with producing, however, has not been the most satisfying one. “You want to be part of a lot of different sides of making movies, but producing is the worst job on a movie,” she admits. “In some ways you don’t ever really share the creative vision of the film, because it’s the director’s vision—and that’s frustrating for me. So I’m going to try to produce less and direct more.”
That said, Foster still holds an executive producer title on her upcoming film, The Brave One, and handpicked both her costar, Terrence Howard, and the film’s director, Neil Jordan. Howard has been on Foster’s radar since she was moved by his performances in both Hustle & Flow and Crash. “Terrence Howard is just one of the great discoveries of filmmaking,” Foster says. “We never showed [the part] to another actor. He was interested in the script before it was even finished, and I never considered anybody else.”
About Jordan, she’s equally enthusiastic. “He allows the process to be so organic—he doesn’t confine himself to what’s written or mapped out,” she says. “He’d say, ‘I don’t know if you’d just walk away… what do you think? I think you’d hail a cab.’ And then suddenly the production crew would be scrambling to get a cab there.”
Foster’s “new recipe,” as she calls it, involves “taking mainstream genre movies that I feel have a real heart to them, and having extremely talented directors from different walks of life approach them. To get Neil Jordan, who’s known for quirkier movies, to do a mainstream thriller… well, you get the best of both worlds from that.”
The “best of both worlds” for Foster seems to be her ability to guide a film from many different entry points, from casting to producing to acting. “The movies I make are all personal, and I have to feel completely involved in everything I do,” she admits. “I don’t just work because I need to work. I’m very, very picky about what I do, because I want my films to matter. That’s why making this movie was so satisfying. I really knew what we were doing was good.”
The Brave One was shot entirely in New York, and Foster, who has a home here, was excited to be back because she rarely gets to film in the area. Ironically, the city she loves becomes a dark mirror for her character in the movie, a psychological thriller about a woman who sets out on a perilous journey of self-discovery after a brutal attack almost takes her life. When we first meet Foster’s Erica Bain, she’s a successful radio host on a quest to capture the New York she loves, chronicling its personality and eccentricities through recordings she makes while wandering the streets alone and interweaving them with her own soulful musings. The film exquisitely—albeit too briefly—captures the city’s changing character, the loss of beloved landmarks, and the emergence of a new New York.
But when Bain returns to those same streets after the attack, she does so with a gun for protection. And it isn’t long before she begins to blur the line between self-defense and purposely placing herself on the path to violence. Bain’s journey quickly escalates into a vigilante-style killing spree with overtones of 1970s films like Death Wish and the real-life New York “subway vigilante” Bernard Goetz. The subject is certain to strike a chord with New Yorkers, and Foster is expecting a certain amount of backlash.
“I know that it’s going to be seen in a mixed light, but it’s ironic because I also know it’s the best work I’ve done in the past 15 years. It’s not one of those popcorny movies. I’ve made those, and I know I’m good in them, but they’re not really my style,” she says. “But I put so much of myself into this film. It’s really provocative and really subversive. I know I’m going to get some heat for this and I need to prepare myself for that, but I’m totally proud of it.”
As to what personal responsibility Foster feels for the film’s message, she’s frank and resolute. “My responsibility was to make an interesting movie that comes from a place of conscience. And I think the film does. It’s meant to be sort of a seventies anti-hero movie with a non-moralizing message,” Foster says. “The question is, will it be too sophisticated for audiences, and will young men be cheering at the violence? Maybe. But do you start dumbing down your material just because it’s coming out on 2,000 screens?” she asks rhetorically. “Do I think [my character] is wrong to do what she does? Of course! I’m not afraid to say that. I feel for her and I’m sad for her, but she’s absolutely wrong.”
What Foster does hope audiences will take away from the film is not an appreciation of what Bain does, but a need to understand why she does it. “It’s a solitary journey that is, at once, terrifyingly horrible and yet absolutely beautiful,” she says. “I think it will be difficult for most Americans because there’s this disgusting humanity she discovers in herself that’s appalling and frightening, yet it’s so essentially human. The other big theme of the movie, that’s present in all the films I’ve done recently, is this real well of loneliness that exists in so many people. These characters are trying so hard to connect to someone else, but they know that if the other person knew who they really were, they’d be disgusted.”
If one thing is clear, it’s that Foster is a study in contradictions. Her relationship with the media, for example, is a tricky one. How do you become one of America’s biggest stars without sacrificing your privacy?
“Celebrity culture now means that you’re a celebrity 24 hours a day. The current pressure of this connectedness between our jobs and our lives is unlike anything that’s ever been before,” she observes. “I started in the business when I was three years old, and by six or seven I already saw the dark side of it. I saw how the demands could potentially swallow you up.
And when I went to college, I did get thrown into the spotlight because of something nasty, and that experience, that attention, did really sour me.” She’s referring, of course, to the media frenzy around the attempted assassination of President Reagan by John Hinckley, the man who cited the desire to grab Foster’s attention as his motive for the shooting. “So it was a conscious decision that if I was going to do this movie thing, there had to be certain boundaries.”
Foster is reluctant to discuss the comparisons that have been made between her early career and that of Lindsay Lohan, the young actress who reprised her role in the Disney identity-swap comedy Freaky Friday. Like Foster, Lohan began as a fresh-faced, tomboyish star in a slew of Disney films. Says Foster now, “Can I just ask, where is her mother? I mean, really, where is her mother?”
And while Foster admits to being alarmed by the antics of young celebs like Lohan, she feels that the industry has a bigger part to play in what’s happening. “When I was that age, there were no big 18-year-old stars,” she says. “As a teenager, you were relegated to teen movies, which were small-scale by nature. And then as you got older, you had the chance to develop into an actor who, little by little, commanded that kind of pay. Now we want the 17-year-olds so we can bleed them for all they’re worth and squeeze as much money as we possibly can out of them—and then their career will be over in something like three years. It’s very true of the young male actors, because they’re always looking for the new Johnny Depp or Matthew McConaughey.”
Foster seems saddened by the thought that the moviemaking business she loves so much has also wrought so much destruction, and knows firsthand that it takes tremendous personal integrity to survive in the business.
“Often when you decide to be an actor, the personality is, ‘I want people to notice me, I want to sit in the front row and have pictures taken of me, and I want people to talk about how I look.’ But when you’ve been in the business your entire life, you safeguard your life tremendously. I consider myself an actor for eight hours a day. And after that I don’t put myself in any position where I have to go back to work at eight at night. I have a life away from the work. You need that time when you’re not an actor or a celebrity, so you actually know what it is to be a real person.”