If I need to introduce you to Jodie Foster, you need to go back to iamhopelesslyoutoftouch.com. Foster is starring in Flightplan, which opens everywhere this weekend, as a mother on a plane who discovers that her daughter is suddenly missing – and may never have been there in the first place.
One of the highlights of the Toronto Film Festival this year was getting a chance to talk to Foster at a very intimate roundtable, where I really got a chance to hog the proceedings with my questions about child stars and kiddie prostitutes.
Q: You’re considered a cerebral actress, but this role is particularly emotional. Did that appeal to you?
Foster: I think she’s a pretty heady person. I like the fact that she is continually trying to stay on top of herself and they [the other characters] continually try to project hysterical, hysterical, hysterical. There’s a wonderful progression to the character in that she goes from, I’m going to hold back, I’m going to stay on top of it, I’m going to be logical. I’m going to be polite and say, ‘Please will you help me.’ But as time goes on, almost primal instincts come out. The profiling, for example – we can be as global and international as we want, but in a time of crisis we revert to this very instinctual ‘It’s your fault, you did it,’ thing. So she goes through that.
Finally, in this place of final desperation, for a split second she ends up questioning her own sanity because the grief is so intense and it doesn’t make sense to her. She questions her sanity for one second, and when she gets to the other side of that, all of the politeness is taken away and she’s released and will take down anybody in her path. So yeah, I had to follow that as an actor, and the script had to be architected as that. It’s a profile of this woman, it’s not like Panic Room, which is a visual thriller, it’s about the camera and how the camera moves among the characters in that space – this is all about this person’s psyche. The point view of the film is her psyche’s point of view.
Q: You bring up Panic Room, which is similar not only in that it takes place in a confined space, but is all about what a mother will do for her daughter. Now that you’re a parent, are you more interested in exploring in films now, that maternal relationship?
Foster: I think anybody who’s over 30 plays parents, because that happens. It happens in your 30s, so it’s a natural progression. I’m drawn to it – it’s probably the most intense, passionate thing that happens to you in your life.
The confined space thing: I enjoyed both films, they’re very different films. I like it because you can’t cheat. You can’t cut to Big Ben and then cut to somewhere else in order to transition the film, to give the film its tone. It has to have it on its own, and the characters have to take you from feeling to feeling. There’s a real discipline to it, it’s like theater.
Q: Panic Room was the last film you were in, right?
Foster: I did the Jean-Pierre Jeunet film [A Very Long Engagement], I did a bit in that.
Q: So you’re not working that much lately. Is it because your first priority is being a mother, or is it that you’re very picky with projects?
Foster: It’s kind of a lot of things. I think definitely my kids are young and my life with them is really stimulating and full and feels significant. For something to take me away from them it has to be something equally significant. It hasn’t always been that way, because I worked for 40 years. Maybe in my 20s I would have had different priorities. And then yeah, because I’m picky, and I’m over 40 and there aren’t as many parts, so I only want to do the ones that really move me.
Q: Peter mentioned that working on that plane set was a little claustrophobic and smelly.
Foster: There were days. We were all pretty excited to get off the second. When we wrapped the second floor we were pretty excited. And then we got to the first floor which looks just like the second floor.
That is a challenge, but it’s kind of like theater. It’s like doing a play. I liked everybody. It was just a pleasant movie and the director is such a lovely man. He’s such a good leader and unassuming and very interesting. He knows all sorts of different things about punk music and recipes and opera – just a really interesting guy.
Q: Are you a good flier?
Foster: I go to sleep within five minutes. I’m a really good flier. I like airplanes.
Q: How do you deal with high stress situations?
Foster: I stay way calm. I’m a really calm, cool one. I sometimes lose it when it has to do with the kids. But in any other situation I’m like the perfect police officer. License and registration, please.
Q: Is it a challenge to find diverse roles?
Foster: It is hard. And as time goes on you realize you are better cast in certain things than in others. There are some movies that you’re not that well cast for. In your 20s people don’t know as much about you so they don’t bring the baggage to it, so maybe there’s a wider range of stuff you can do. But there are some things you know that you’re just not as good at.
Q: Do you feel a responsibility to make films with a meaning?
Foster: I think the artist’s responsibility is complex. It’s not just ‘Oh I’m only going to make movies with socially progressive issues.’ I think it’s a more complex question. I’m developing a movie about Leni Riefenstahl, so that sort of issue comes up a lot. What is the moral responsibility of an artist? Is it art for art’s sake or do you have to take into consideration the moral impact of what you do?
Q: Have you been able to answer that for yourself?
Foster: For me, definitely. You make mistakes, but you try to – hopefully – make people better and not worse. You start with yourself. You hope the movie encourages you to be more open and more involved and less narrow and better. You want to leave that movie after 55 days of shooting and feel like you’re a better person, not a worse person. That’s your first impulse.
Of course the first impulse is selfish. It’s good to be selfish, because if you’re an evolved person it extends to everybody else too.
Q: Where are you with Flora Plum? You’ve been working on it for such a long time.
Foster: I don’t know where that movie’s going to go. I hope it’ll get made some day. It’ll just be one of those stories where the film gets made ten years later. It’s been a tough one. It’s been a tough road.
Q: Is it going to get made with you?
Foster: I don’t know. I don’t know if there will ever be anybody who’s as passionate about it as I am. So I don’t know.
Q: The Riefenstahl project – is that for you to star in?
Q: Will you direct that as well?
Foster: I don’t think so. I prefer other people to direct me.
Q: What do you like about directing?
Foster: It’s really my language. It’s how my head works, how my mind works, it feels complete. Acting is so difficult because you’re always trying to accommodate someone else’s vision, someone else’s notes. You’re trying to cut out your intellectual side and keep in your emotional and physical side. Directing is complete. It’s as intellectual as it is emotional and requires a kind of wonderful, satisfying skill where, like a composer, you look at the whole symphony and then you pick up the drums and adjust the violins. You love the whole thing, but you can pick out the little parts. That’s so my personality, I love it.
Q: How has that affected you as a performer?
Foster: I think it makes me an easier actor to work with, because I know why he needs the things he needs. You’re bringing another pair of skilled eyes to the process. I think most directors would say that it works so much better to have actors who have directed before. The nice thing is that because I can direct my own movies, I don’t need to direct anyone else’s. I don’t want to step on their territory, and I don’t cede mine as a director. It doesn’t have to reflect my directorial signature to have my acting in it.
Q: Does not wanting to direct yourself come from Little Man Tate?
Foster: It wasn’t a bad experience but it was hard, and it rips the joy out of both tasks. You don’t get any downtime. As an actor you get shortshrifted – you don’t get any feedback on your performance and you end up playing safe because you get just what you asked for.
Q: You’re one of the few child actors who made it.
Foster: It took a lot of work. It’s not a given. It’s not something that you just get handed. You have to work on trying to control that.
Q: Because you managed to do that, do you feel a responsibility to young actors as a role model?
Foster: Yes and no. I want to be inspiring to myself, to my kids, to my family, to my friends. Sometimes I make mistakes and I do bad things – that’s part of the process too. But I don’t know if I’m much of a role model. I’m an idiot!
Q: I read something that made me really happy – that you love Bugsy Malone, a movie I thought maybe you wouldn’t be so proud of.
Q: It’s so weird.
Foster: It is weird.
Q: What are other films from your career that you’re proud of that don’t get talked about a lot?
Foster: You know, the film I produced, I didn’t actually produce it, I had nothing to do with this movie, but it’s the thing I’m proudest of that came out of my company. We sort of acquired it for American distribution. It was a French film called Hate, and I thought it was such a spectacular movie and I was so proud to be involved with that film.
I loved Hotel New Hampshire. It’s an acquired taste, that film. I think it made people feel really uncomfortable because it’s, like most John Irving things, it has a fantastical element and a really mundane element to it, and you don’t know which one you’re in at all times. But I love that about that film, and I guess I have such fond memories of Montreal. I keep friends from that film.
Q: You grew up on camera. What is it like looking back at those early films?
Foster: It’s like looking at a scrap book. The films I made when I was 14 or 15 I have a hard time looking at. The awkward years. I don’t think anybody can look at stuff they did at 14 and not wince.
Q: Looking back at some of your earliest films, I was struck by how you’re cast as a very sexual character at a young age. The precocious girl in Alice Doesn’t Live Here Anymore, the hooker in Taxi Driver. How does that affect you as a person? Were you separate from that?
Foster: I went to a private school and I wore a uniform. I wasn’t sheltered, because I saw everything and knew everything, but I was raised kind of conservatively. It definitely didn’t trip over into my own life at all. It’s like reading a book and interpreting a book. I always knew the distinction between real life and acting. I never had a problem distinguishing between the two.
The thing with child actors is that you either have the weird personality where you can do it and remain well adjusted and have a real strength of character or you just don’t have that make-up. It’s like being an astronaut – some people can handle zero gravity, some people can handle the solitude, some can’t. I could handle it.
Q: Did going to school and getting a degree help? A lot of child actors seem to put their career ahead of school.
Foster: It’s understandable that they would, because they want to be actors and those are their prime years. If you feel passionate about acting, you want to be acting. I didn’t feel very passionate about acting when I was in my teens, when I was 18. I thought I wanted to do other things. Frankly acting has never been this, ‘I have to do it!’ thing. I didn’t choose it. It wasn’t my personality. I’m in films because I love making movies. I love the language of films, and I would be just as happy being a technician or being a director, just to be involved in films.