Jodie Foster: Anything is Possible
Following a Best Actress win for The Accused and another nomination (which would become a win) for Silence of the Lambs, Jodie Foster was riding high in 1991. Her Oscar win gave her the clout to pick an offbeat project for her directorial debut. Little Man Tate was the story of a child prodigy who goes to college when most kids are in second grade. Talking to Lawrence Grobel in the October ’91 issue of Movieline magazine, Foster discussed her transition from a child actor to an Oscar winning actress to making her directorial debut.
Jodie Foster gives me the choice: We can talk over breakfast or in the conference room of her publicist’s office. I’d rather opt for breakfast and see what I could learn by watching her eat, but an interview needs quiet. She comes in wearing a gray Armani suit, a cotton striped blouse and no makeup. She knows that I have screened her latest film, Little Man Tate, with my 7-year-old daughter in tow, and since it’s about a 7-year-old child prodigy, Jodie is anxious to hear not only my reaction, but my daughter’s. The film is something special for Jodie because she not only acts in it but she nurtured its development, talked it through meetings, and proved to any doubters that she could direct a major feature film.
When Jodie sits down, it’s not on the couch but on the floor, where she stirs a styrofoam cup of coffee and then twists and bends the plastic straw throughout our conversation. Since she’s been in the business since she was three, she is obviously used to talking. “I actually like doing interviews,” she tells me. “You get to work out how you feel about things.”
At 28, Jodie Foster has appeared in 27 films–a pace she deems slow because she feels she needs time to regenerate after making a picture. After spending her childhood years doing commercials, she followed that with TV, and did her first feature, Napoleon and Samantha, before she was 10. At 11 she played Ellen Burstyn’s daughter in Martin Scorsese’s Alice Doesn’t Live Here Anymore and a year later, in 1976, she chilled us with her portrayal of a child hooker in Scorsese’s tour de force, Taxi Driver.
A child prodigy herself, Jodie attended Le Lycee Francais, a private school in Los Angeles where she wound up delivering her graduation speech in French. Her mother raised her, two older sisters and brother by herself. Jodie grew up barely knowing her father, who remarried, started another family, and remained in Los Angeles.
When it came to making career decisions it was her mother who made them, with Jodie always involved in the process. She obviously made the right ones, for Foster’s career has never really faltered, even when she took time off to attend college at Yale.
She continued to make movies, appearing in Foxes, Carny, The Hotel New Hampshire and Five Corners among others, but it wasn’t until she let it all hang out as a rape victim accused of provoking her own rape in the 1988 film The Accused that Foster finally entered the ranks of major, serious performers. Her Oscar-winning performance brought her new respect within the industry, and she cannily managed to follow that triumph with another Oscar-calibre role, as FBI trainee Clarice Starling in Jonathan Demme’s huge hit, The Silence of the Lambs. She also got the go-ahead to star in and direct her first feature, Little Man Tate.
LAWRENCE GROBEL: Since Little Man Tate is the first film you’ve both directed and acted in, do you feel twice as much about it compared with any of your other films?
JODIE FOSTER: Oh absolutely. More than twice!
LG: And will you be doing twice as much publicity?
JF: I always do what’s appropriate for the film. I did so much PR for The Silence of the Lambs and for The Accused. But a movie like Little Man Tate needs a different kind of handling: It’s not a date movie, it’s not an action film, or based on a Stephen King novel, and I don’t want it to be sold that way. It should be done on a more grass roots level. I want to do high schools, I want to go to smaller film festivals, go to Planned Parenthood. That’s more appropriate for the film.
LG: Was it winning an Oscar which gave you the chance to direct?
JF: This project came before the award. But, yes, it is absolutely a function of clout: I would not be able to have gotten the kind of budget that I got if I was not in the movie, if I didn’t cut my price and appear on the head of the marquee in what is basically a supporting role.
LG: How long did it take for you to feel you were ready to direct?
JF: A lifetime. You can learn in five minutes what you are supposed to do technically, but it’s the going beyond what you’re supposed to do, it’s the imagination that takes really a lifetime–knowing what movies can and don’t do.
LG: Jonathan Kaplan, who directed you in The Accused, called Little Man Tate a very personal and brave first movie to make. In what ways was it brave?
JF: In his mind, it was brave because it doesn’t hit you over the head and say “Look at me.” It’s about people. They are not grand, they are not princely, there are no helicopter crashes…
LG: Not even a slap!
JF: Not even a slap–exactly.
LG: What are the main themes that Little Man Tate deals with?
JF: The most interesting thing about a child prodigy is not so much that they know math or something else, it’s that they are a herald to a new age. When the great prodigy comes, it means they are necessarily alone–and things will change from then on. Who will the next Renaissance man be?
I do like the idea of a movie that shows an unconventional relationship between a child and a parent. These are unconventional people, basically, who do not fit into society. They are misfits. It’s about these people trying to find an unconventional way in a world that keeps shoving ideas of conventional happiness down their throats. The movie is about love, but it doesn’t say that what the world needs now is love sweet love.
It’s also about intimacy, and that doesn’t necessarily have to be parental. A lot of this movie is about boy meets girl, boy gets taken away from girl, girl calls boy on the phone and he says, “I’m busy,” then the boy comes back and says, “I’m sorry.” It’s romance. It’s about two people who are in love.
LG: And it just so happens that the two people are a 7-year-old boy and his 30-year-old mother. Do you think that some who see this film will compare it to your own life, and interpret it as your valentine to your mother?
JF: In some ways that could be definitely true–although it’s not an autobiographical movie at all, it doesn’t have anything to do with my life. I identify with all the characters. Binary opposites are something that I’m obsessed with: People are continually dancing with opposites. The world of men and women shouldn’t be about women trying to be like guys and guys trying to be the same. Tate’s relationship with the two women in his life is about balancing two sides of himself: the masculine and the feminine. So it’s a very traditional dilemma in the formation of the self and the formation of the artist. You have to have the outer self and the inner self, the public self and the private self. Everything in my life is about trying to balance two very separate identities.
LG: How influential were J.D. Salinger’s stories on you?
JF: Franny and Zooey is my favorite book. It changed my life when I was a kid.
LG: Was it Salinger’s ambiguities?
JF: What fascinates me are layers of meaning. So much of what fascinates me about being an actress is what people don’t say, the things that are implicit. That’s why I was a literature major and why I stunk in history. 1917…like who cares? I’m not interested in facts, I’m interested in truth, which is different.
LG: Marlon Brando told me: “Shaw said that thinking was the greatest of human endeavors, but I would say that feeling was.” What do you think?
JF: I agree absolutely. It’s the continual saga of my life, anyway.
LG: Would you say you lean more towards romance, or cynicism?
JF: I’m both. “Cynicism masks an inability to cope,” said John Fowles. That’s quite true. It is a protection for people who are too romantic.
LG: Is the movie you shot the story you sold to Orion?
JF: The draft that I signed on to direct originally bears no resemblance to this movie at all. That was not a movie really about two people and a child, it was a movie about a little kid who went to college and did wacky things in fraternities. But I got fascinated by the two women pulling him from side to side. The screenwriter, Scott Frank, and I worked a lot together.
LG: You have a golden rule: Never make an actor feel like shit. How often have you been made to feel like shit in your career?
JF: Not as often as other people. I was very lucky. But yes, Little Man Tate does have a lot of overtones of subtle psychological abuse. How people deal with children, how people use children as props, how mothers sometimes use children against each other.
Acting is the perfect vulnerable childlike moment where you are in the hands of somebody and where it’s very easy for a director as a father figure, or as a parent figure, to subtly work away at your psyche. You don’t know who the director is until you get on that set. He could be Hitler. You’re not always going to have the greatest guys.
LG: Have you had to work with any Hitlers?
JF: I had a bad experience with one particular movie. I thought that I could take on anyone. I never considered myself vulnerable to any kind of psychological insult. And I got on this set and for some reason this director insulted my soul and it really took me a long time after that to be able to work again with confidence.
LG: You obviously don’t want to mention names, but was this when you were very young?
JF: Old. Twenty something.
LG: Right, old!
JF: The only thing you really have as an actor, the only armor you have, is confidence. And when that gets chinked away at, you can’t be good.
LG: Does directing satisfy your need for control more than acting?
JF: [Big smile] Oh yeah. But it doesn’t satisfy my need for performance. There is a side of me that needs to perform and that side will never go away. Only acting can do that.
LG: You got the nickname B.L.T. (Bossy Little Thing) on The Accused. Did they take out the “L” when you became a director?
JF: No, because I’m still so short. But in this one I told them to call me Boss Woman. Bossssss Woman!
LG: Now that you’ve joined their ranks, who are the directors you most admire?
JF: I’m a big fan of the French movies from the late ’50s. I had a French education, I spent a lot of time there and lived there, and there is a side of me that has a French sensibility.
LG: We’ll get to that part of your life, but sticking with directors, you recently worked in a Woody Allen film, Shadows and Fog. Did you learn anything from him?
JF: It was amazing how kind of okay I was about his very different, strange way of working. Nobody reads the script, nobody knows what the movie’s called or what it’s about. They don’t tell you where you’re going to be or what time period it is. Basically, it’s his movie–it’s in his head.
LG: What part do you play in the movie?
JF: I don’t have particularly any kind of character–I was just another character in a brothel discussing the universe. I couldn’t take the movie seriously because I didn’t know what it was about. Usually that would bother me because I don’t know how to act without telling the story, but that’s how he wants to work.
LG: Are there any other directors whom you could so trust to work so blind?
JF: Almost Scorsese, even though that’s a much more dangerous category. But both of those directors have a continuity to their work and that’s about the evolution of their character. As the years go on, each film evolves their character and the things that they believe in. And their vision. Most American directors hop on a movie, they go, “Oh, Days of Thunder, I’ll take that. Top Gun, I’ll take that.” Whatever comes around.
LG: Do you feel Scorsese is our best director?
JF: Yeah, I do.