Jodie Foster: Shooting back

Jodie Foster's been here before, playing the wronged woman standing up for her rights. Typecasting? Not at all, the actress tells Gill Pringle
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Having spent much of the day with a gun in her hand, shooting a thug at point-blank range, Jodie Foster looks rather relaxed. Indeed, Foster has grown pretty comfortable with movie violence over the years, receiving her first Oscar nomination, aged 13, for her chilling portrayal of a child prostitute opposite Robert De Niro's crazed Travis Bickle in Taxi Driver.

Talking on the set of her vigilante thriller The Brave One, she says: "Taxi Driver is the movie I'm most proud of. It's a great American classic. For me, it's the proudest moment in American cinema.

"Whether it's Midnight Cowboy or Taxi Driver or Lenny or all those films in the Seventies, for me that was the golden age of American cinema. I think most directors today would love to be able to recapture that spirit, because it all comes down to character when you take away the visual effects and pyrotechnics. Even 30 years later, you still go 'wow' because Taxi Driver had such soul."

In some respects, The Brave One reminds her of Taxi Driver: "It deals with somebody who's a revenge killer, so it pretty much sets up Taxi Driver as a reference. Of course, New York has changed drastically since then. In some ways, it's New York that's gone through this cleaning phase. And September 11 made a big impact on who New Yorkers are and what fear means," says Foster.

Co-starring with Terrence Howard and Naveen Andrews, she plays a middle-aged New York radio host, Erica Bain, whose life is destroyed when an attack in Central Park leaves her badly injured and her fiancé dead. She prowls the streets in search of her attackers, showing no mercy to any brutes who cross her path.

Would she herself be capable of seeking revenge in this way? Foster nods. "I think we all have these ideas that there are lines we would never cross and people we could never be. And yet, you don't know who you would become in a certain circumstance.

"I think what's so beautiful about it is that she recognises she was one person and then one day she woke up and became someone else, somebody unrecognisable to her. But until you've walked in her shoes, you just can't know."

Foster's inner strength enabled her to survive a difficult Hollywood childhood, and then to move on with life after being the unwitting inspiration of John Hinckley Jr's 1981 assassination attempt on President Reagan while she was a student at Yale. "It was humiliating to be going to college and having guards. It destroyed every dream I'd had of being a normal student," she later said.

Foster's commitment to her work is largely responsible for her screen longevity. She won't churn out films for money. "After my two Oscars, I could have made a tremendous amount in an incredibly short period of time making movies I didn't care about. I'd be really rich, but I'd also probably have had a short-lived career."

Still, she earned about £7.5m for The Brave One, plus executive producer fees. "For me, being famous is unimportant. I've been famous since I was three. Having always been in the public eye, your private life becomes very important to you. Motherhood has also changed me a lot," she says.

Foster hardly knew her Air Force pilot-turned-property developer father Lucius, who left her mother, Evelyn "Brandy" Foster, and older siblings Cindy, Connie and Buddy a few months before she was born. She proved a gifted child, and made a Coppertone advert at the age of three.

Foster is proof that young actors can become smart adults, but she's in no hurry to launch her sons, Kit, six, and Charles, nine – whose father Foster never discusses – into show business. "I wouldn't actively encourage them. If they wanted to become an actor, I'd help them. I'd find a really good theatre school and maybe do it that way. I like kids to have their own identities and be proud of what they do because of themselves, not because they're associated with their parents.

"When I talk to them about movies I tell them about the camera, about editing, or the scene where they did the visual effects, and explain how they do it. I want them to love films because I love films. But, as their mother, my fantasy would be that they'd be on the other side of the camera.

"I accept I had a different childhood from most people, but it doesn't mean it was less healthy. I just had different problems. Some kids live too much, they're out there, living, doing stuff. I had to struggle to have a real life as a real person. But, hey, I did have a childhood. It was just different."

Foster was considered for the role of Princess Leia in Star Wars but couldn't get out of her Disney contract. If she's never expressed regret at missing out on that role, perhaps she privately thanks Michelle Pfeiffer for turning down Clarice Starling in The Silence of the Lambs, which won Foster her second best-actress Oscar. "I was 16 when I took charge of my career, and I have only portrayed people I can connect with. If I can't connect emotionally with a character, I won't do it. I could settle for making good movies, but why bother when you can make an excellent movie that changes lives? If I say yes to a picture, it's because I want to die for it."

The actress is often reported to be in a relationship with the production co-ordinator Cydney Bernard, a woman she met in 1993 on the set of Sommersby. In the September issue of US More magazine, Foster discusses her choice to protect her privacy: "I don't know if anyone appreciates it now... I think my kids will understand and respect it. In 20 years' time people will look back and I'll be 65 and Britney Spears 45, and I think then people will understand the value of privacy."

And she rejects suggestions that she's become typecast as the traumatised victim, with The Brave One coming after Panic Room and Flightplan. "Generally speaking, women don't kill people they don't know; they don't kill randomly, which I think makes this character's path all the more interesting. There's also something gratifying about holding a 9mm in your pocket, to have the power to know that with less calories than it takes to put a candy in your mouth, you can make a decision that says, 'I live, you die.'"

She dismisses criticism that The Brave One is a Death Wish for the 21st century. "When somebody is losing their mind, it's more about that than it is about a Hollywood get-out-and-shoot-them movie. The second you put a woman in a role like this, suddenly you have to ask different questions. It turns it into a completely different character than it might have been if it were a guy."

Foster today looks as good as you'd expect a Hollywood star to, but she's not hiding her age. Audiences don't want to see a fortysomething actress tweaked to resemble a starlet, and Foster, at 44, is smart enough to know that.

'The Brave One' opens on 28 September