She's been in front of the cameras since the age of three, but now Jodie Foster is determined to move on. The A-list Hollywood star tells John Hiscock about her new film with Mel Gibson and how she plans to focus on directing instead of acting
Looking smartly elegant, sitting coolly assured on an upright chair in a Beverly Hills hotel suite, Jodie Foster gives the impression of being in control of any situation.
After all, she has been in show business for as long as she can remember and there is little about Hollywood and the world of filmmakers that she does not know.
And yet behind the confident façade of consummate professionalism are a fragility and uncertainty that belie the outer toughness and make her so appealing and intriguing.
She has, she admits, wrestled with inner conflict that she exorcises through her films. "I've had spiritual crises continually, every four or five years, and I have the ability to get through them by exploring them," she says. "Rather than running away from them I explore them completely, through art, and it gives me the opportunity to come out of them in a way that's more evolved."
Fittingly, she has always chosen dark dramas over romantic comedies, usually with a solitary woman as the central character: The Accused, The Silence of the Lambs (both of which won her Best Actress Oscars) and others. She has played a killer, a prostitute more than once, a bawdy speakeasy queen, a one-legged nun, a gambler, an FBI agent and many more feisty females, all of whom have one thing in common: they get by nicely without a man in their lives.
She has accomplished the rare feat of becoming an A-list star while shunning any on-screen romantic entanglements. A close examination of her CV shows that until now, in her 40-plus films, only in Sommersby and the unsuccessful Anna and the King has she come close to playing a woman in love.
"It's true the love relationships I have on screen are usually with my children and not with a partner," she says. "The thing about romantic films for me is that I don't understand why you would make one unless there is a whole other story behind it. You have to have a story, and 'boy falls in love with girl' is just not enough for me. I don't think it's interesting enough. Anyway, there are some things I'm not well-cast for and romantic films are among them.
"I've played divorced women, single mothers and widows. I do tend to play central characters that usually wipe the husband right out."
In her new film, The Beaver, which was partly financed by Imagenation Abu Dhabi (which is owned by Abu Dhabi Media, the parent company of The National) and co-executive produced by Mohammed Mubarak al Mazrouei, she is the exception that proves the rule. She plays a wife and mother opposite Mel Gibson's Walter Black, a severely depressed man who communicates through a beaver hand puppet he finds in a dustbin.
She originally intended only to direct it but, after casting Gibson as Black, she looked around for someone to play his wife, Meredith, and broke a vow she made back in 1991 after both acting in and directing Little Man Tate.
"I said I would never act and direct again [in the same film] and then, like an idiot, I've done it," she says with a laugh. "The reason was that when I brought Mel aboard I started thinking: 'Who am I going to get to play his wife opposite him?'
"I needed someone to ground the film in drama, who was the right age and who the audience would believe had been married for a long time. And then I thought: 'Why don't I just get myself?' I know Mel so well and I know his style of working. He's not neurotic and I knew he wouldn't be wigged out by having somebody playing opposite him who was also directing."
So she boldly went to Gibson's house, knocked on his door and asked him if he would mind having her as his co-star. Given their friendship that began when they played the the leads in Maverick in 1994, he agreed.
"I'm so proud of his performance and so grateful that he's in it," she says. "You really depend on an actor's talent to create that lightning in a bottle."
Foster, 48, is wearing a black blouse with lace detail over black Giorgio Armani trousers. She has piercing blue eyes and a warm, ready smile.
Unlike most actors, she says she is not emotional. However, she reveals she is going through a period of upheaval, not just because she has a new film out and is fending off questions about Gibson's personal life, but because she is determined to move on from being an actress to redefining her career as a director.
The Beaver is the third feature film she has helmed after Little Man Tate and the disappointing ensemble comedy Home for the Holidays. "I had a career as an actress, I had my production company, I had two kids and I make really personal movies and the combination has conspired to keep me away from directing," she explains.
But now her intellect craves for more opportunities to put into practice the directing techniques she has learnt over the years.
"From the time I was maybe six or seven years old this was something that interested me and I wanted to be a director," she says. "Since then I've been to the greatest film school anybody could have - I've been working for 45 years as an actor and I've not only made a lot of movies but I've worked with some extraordinary directors. For the last 10 or 15 years the reason I've chosen films has been to learn from great directors and to stand behind their shoulders and go: 'Why did he do this?' I believe that actors make some of the best directors because they are truly the only people in the film business who understand why a scene works and why it doesn't."
Despite her status as an international star, Foster manages to keep a surprisingly low profile. She protects her privacy, seldom appears in the gossip columns and rarely gives interviews. When she leaves her house she usually is able to dodge the paparazzi. Few people in Hollywood could tell you whether there is anyone special in her life at the moment.
Three years ago she ended a 14-year relationship with the film producer Cydney Bernard, who is 10 years her senior, and she dotes on her two sons, Charles, 12, and Kit, nine.
The youngest of two sisters and a brother whose father left home before she was born, Foster was raised by her mother, Brandy, who initially managed her career that began with a now-famous Coppertone sunscreen advertisement when she was three years old.
She appeared in the television series Gunsmoke and The Partridge Family and several Disney films, and took over Tatum O'Neal's role in the television version of Paper Moon. In 1974, she landed her first significant film role in Martin Scorsese's Alice Doesn't Live Here Anymore and then made an indelible impression in Scorsese's Taxi Driver as the Lolita-like prostitute who inspires Robert De Niro's deranged personal crusade. She followed that Oscar-nominated performance with appearances in several features, including Bugsy Malone, The Little Girl Who Lived Down the Lane and Carny.
"I had some great experiences when I was growing up and I had some rotten ones, too, but I would say mostly they were great," she says.
When she was 19 she went to Yale University, where she attracted the unwelcome stalking attentions of John Hinckley Jr, who attempted to assassinate the US president Ronald Reagan because, he said, he wanted to impress her.
Fed up and depressed by the publicity, the security that surrounded her and several forgettable films, she considered giving up acting, but decided on one last try. The film was The Accused and the role of the working-class woman who is gang-raped after dancing suggestively in a bar won her an Oscar in 1988. Her second Oscar came in 1991 for The Silence of the Lambs.
Motherhood has given her a new perspective on life and bestowed on her what she considers to be a new identity, too.
"I focus on my sons 100 per cent and my involvement with them is life or death, so it has great significance," she says. "Until the children my identity had always been that of being an actor and whether I was successful or not. Now there's something wonderful about having a second identity that in some way takes precedence, so it doesn't matter whether you're successful at anything else."
She and her children live in Los Angeles, not far from where she grew up. Her mother, 82, lives nearby and causes Foster some anxiety. She has dementia and, says Foster: "she's really a new person, not the mom I grew up with, and I have a real nostalgia for who she was. She spent years and years alone because she never remarried after my father left and she raised us by herself. She used to say: 'I'm an only child so I prefer to be alone', and she didn't keep up with her friends."
"I'm always worried about her because she spends a lot of time watching television and DVD after DVD. I guess it's all about a desire to have a solitary experience, matched with the fear of being alone and then being alone as you get older. That's a fear I definitely carry with me."
While she has committed to a small role opposite Matt Damon in the forthcoming science-fiction film Elysium, she is not bothered if she never acts again after that.
"I don't want to act very much anymore," she says. "I've done it for 45 years and it's a long time to do the same thing. It's a different world now than when I was a kid and so many things have changed. Paparazzi didn't have those long lenses and there was a real delineation between news and entertainment in those days. It was just a different time.
"Mel Gibson and I have said exactly the same thing. If we were 17 and knew everything we know now, neither of us would be actors today."
The Beaver is showing in UAE cinemas now.
The Foster file
BORN November 19, 1962, Los Angeles
SCHOOLING Lycée Français de Los Angeles, Yale University
FAMILY Father Lucius, a property investor, left before she was born; mother Brandy; brother Buddy; sisters Constance and Lucinda; children Charles, 12, and Kit, nine
HERO Her mother
LAST BOOK READ Shantaram by Gregory David Roberts
LITTLE-KNOWN FACT Recorded three songs that were included on the soundtrack of the French film Moi, fleur bleu
CAN'T STAND Special effects-filled movies