Jodie Foster - A single-minded star who is nobody's puppet

Jodie Foster has been steadfast in her defence of her friend, and latest leading man, Mel Gibson. She opens up to Kaleem Aftab
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The Independent Culture

It's the last thing that Jodie Foster says before she leaves the room: "If I knew what I knew today, and if I was 17 years old and wanting to have a career, I don't know that I would pick acting. It's not about the acting; I could act all day long. It's the rest of it."

By "the rest of it," she means the media interest and public intrusion into private lives. It's an inescapable fact of Foster's spectacular film career that she has often been caught up in huge media scandals not of her making. The release of her third directorial effort, The Beaver, was postponed last year after its leading man, Mel Gibson, was taped hurling racist abuse at his former girlfriend Oksana Grigorieva, whom he admitted punching. The demise of the Braveheart star as a commercial commodity was heralded far and wide, a prediction that seemed to come true when The Beaver died at the US box office.

Yet Foster has been a rock in her support for her star. She walked up the red carpet at Cannes this year with Gibson and refuses to lay the blame for the poor American box office at his door. Instead, diplomatically, she puts the failure down to the genre. "I think this film does have a European voice to it, even though it's about an American family," she says. "I think in America we like our comedies and dramas in two separate movies."

The pair have been fast friends ever since they met on the set of Maverick in 1994. When Foster cast Gibson, he'd already been recorded making anti-Semitic comments to a police officer on an American highway but she put that aside, choosing the actor for his ability: "I chose him because I knew he could handle two things – he could handle the funny, witty guy-with-a-puppet side and he had the lightness of touch to be able to pull that off."

The Australian actor repaid the director by delivering one of his best performances in years. He plays Walter, a depressed toys-executive who, finding himself on the verge of suicide, opts for self-therapy and starts to communicate with his family, friends and eventually the world through a beaver puppet that sits on his left arm.

At the time of filming, the part must have seemed like the perfect redemption role for Gibson. Foster agrees, saying what most viewers are thinking as they watch the actor deal with his character's foibles on screen: "Walter's a lost man who is weak and can barely communicate. Even when he speaks through the puppet I always look at Mel. I don't look at the puppet when the puppet's talking. I look at the character behind him and what I see is somebody who is speaking through this character, but you can still see the pain behind his face."

The film deals directly with the impact of the media on people's lives. Feeling invigorated by his puppet beaver, Walter creates a toy that becomes the bestseller of the season and is invited on to radio and TV talk shows. Some stations don't mind when Walter insisting on speaking through the beaver, others treat him with disdain. The point is that, ultimately, the media are more interested in the story and don't give a monkey's about the welfare of the man.

Is the depiction of the media in the movie how Foster also sees them? "Well, it's a complicated thing. There's a theme in my movies, it happens over and over again – and I don't know why I'm attracted to this – but the characters expose themselves publicly and they're used in some ways by the media as a train-wreck. And in some ways they are exposing themselves in the deepest way, they're exposing their most vulnerable things." In fact, she knows precisely where the attraction to her theme comes from. "It's obvious why I'm drawn to that because of how I grew up," she adds on reflection. "It's a comment on how I grew up."'

It's a shame that the 48-year-old actress-director so rarely gives interviews. In person, she has the same ability to have you hanging on her every word as she does on screen. She's also one of very few actresses who are prettier in person than they appear under a layer of make-up on screen. Her blue eyes shine like they've been borrowed from a Bunsen burner.

Her career was the stuff of legend long before, aged just 26, she won her first Oscar, for her turn in The Accused. In that film she played a rape victim who is victimised by the media and the criminal system because of the way she dresses and where she's from. As an aside, Foster is one of those rare people who have won Oscars for the films that they deserved to win for – her second statue came for her tour-de-force performance as the gifted FBI trainee Clarice Starling in The Silence of the Lambs.

She was only 14 when she became an international star for her turn as a child prostitute in Taxi Driver. The same year she also appeared in Bugsy Malone and Freaky Friday. Trying to live as normal a life as possible under the glare of the media spotlight, she enrolled at Yale to study. But all hopes of normality were shattered by an assassination attempt on Ronald Reagan when the would-be assassin, John Hinckley Jr, claimed he had done it in an attempt to woo the actress, whom he had also been stalking on campus. Despite these problems and the fact that she wouldn't advise a young person to get into acting today, she says that she has no regrets about the path she chose.

"I don't think I would change anything if I went back to the Sixties and Seventies. I mean, how amazing – I made movies with fantastic people in the Seventies and all the amazing experiences and the people that I met and the great places that I've been, I don't think I would change any of that."

"Sometimes I wish I'd gone to grad school. I wish I could have fitted that in or maybe had a little time in film school. I think that it would have been fun to run around New York City with a camera. It would have been fun to have had that youthful experience of making movies with a tiny little camera and all that. I never had that. I always had responsibility."

It's clear that Foster's thoughts on her past, and running around with a camera, stem from a desire to direct more. She made her first film, Little Man Tate, about a mother (played by Foster) facing up to the difficulties of raising a child who might be a genius, in 1991. She chose not to star in her second effort in the director's chair, Home for the Holidays (1995), instead casting Holly Hunter as the single mother who is fired from her job just before Thanksgiving. Originally, Foster had not intended to act in The Beaver. Yet when she started looking for an actress to play Walter's wife, she came to the conclusion that she was the best woman for the job.

She was never worried about the difficulties of combining the two roles on set: "I think it's surprisingly easy to direct and act at the same time. There are things you miss out on, and there are sacrifices you make. You don't get as many choices from yourself as you'd hoped, you don't get surprises. You get what you planned, but you don't get the surprise that you might get if you were being directed by someone else." She clearly has no qualms about working with controversial figures. Her next acting role will be in Roman Polanski's new film, Carnage, co-starring with John C Reilly, Kate Winslet and Christoph Waltz. How will she approach that? "I think directing changes you on set [when you go back to acting]. It makes you easier to direct. You're there to serve the director and when you want to tell your own story, you can do that with your own film."

'The Beaver' is released on 17 June