COVER STORY : She’s Always Been Out There : Jodie Foster turns director on ‘Little Man Tate,’ a story that should be familiar to anyone who’s followed her life and acting career
She is limping.
“I mean, how many times have I gone down those stairs? I know I have three stairs--right there!--in my house and I just forget they’re there. It’s like I become entirely physically unconscious. I go when I see red. I stop when I see green. I back up into poles. When I went into the emergency ward, they told me it was 90% ligaments and I was getting depressed because I’ve got Telluride and hiking and then Toronto and Boston. But I got the splint off and so this-- this!-- is nothing and I was telling everybody that it didn’t hurt and then it got better.”
That is how Jodie Foster comes into a room.
Ask her how she is--the grown-up child star who made Coppertone ads and “Taxi Driver” and went to Yale, the whole John Hinckley episode, and then “The Accused” an Oscar and “The Silence of the Lambs,” which made a lot of money, and now she’s directed her first film, “Little Man Tate,” opening Wednesday, all before she is 30. Ask Foster how she is and you get this right up-to-the-minute illustrated lecture on her ankle .
And if you’re not careful, Foster will segue, even as she is unwrapping her bandage, into the subject of film festivals and how much she loves them and Park City was so much fun the year that she was on the jury because she had a little backpack and it was cold and it was like going to college where you could meet your friends with their little backpacks on and. . . .
OK. OK. One thing Foster is not is reticent. That aspect of her life, at least, has been well documented. Jonathan Kaplan, director of “The Accused,” in which Foster played rape victim Sarah Tobias with a stomach-tightening verisimilitude that earned her the best actress Oscar, called her BLT for Bossy Little Thing.
Off camera she is loquacious. Or, as Foster might say, she demonstrates loquacity. She is the kind of person who uses adjectives from the William F. Buckley school. “Performative,” Foster says, when describing acting. Not that she is trying to show off how smart she is. Or trying to wear that Yale BA on her sleeve. She just carries herself in a best-student-in-chemistry-class manner.
Sitting here in her press agent’s office on a recent morning discussing “Little Man Tate,” her first film since “The Silence of the Lambs,"--which stars Foster, Dianne Wiest and 9-year-old newcomer Adam Hann-Byrd--the actress is brisk, efficient, crisp. Just in from a Paris vacation, she is lightly tanned with those startlingly blue eyes, dressed totally in white. Her conversation is a curious mix of the colloquialisms of a teen-ager (“cool,” “weird,” “freak me out”) that makes you think she is just one of the gang, then that Buckley-esque precision that reminds you she is not. You almost don’t notice that Foster is giving out lots of information without revealing anything. For one of our foremost actresses, she seems alarmingly deft at trafficking in public emotions no deeper than enthusiasm.
Colleagues attribute it to her professionalism, her ability to strip away anything not necessary to the task at hand. “She comes on the set with only a cup of coffee and a sense of determination to do a good job,” says Anthony Hopkins, her “Silence of the Lambs” co-star. “She is a complete professional.”
“The ultimate professional,” says screenwriter and playwright John Patrick Shanley, who worked with Foster on his film “Five Corners.” “She is deep as a well, but has a real ability to compartmentalize her life.”
Foster: “I’m analytical. I don’t think it’s the only thing that I am, but publicly, that’s how I exist with people. It’s how I got into acting. There’s the part when somebody yells action. And then there’s the part before--the intellectual analysis of emotion. The performative choices.”
She occupies a peculiar niche in popular culture, one of the few child actors to make the leap into adult roles and the only movie star ever to have a fan’s adoration transmogrify into an attempted presidential assassination. At 28, Foster has made about 30 films. At 13, she had three films shown at Cannes--"The Little Girl That Lives Down the Lane,” “Bugsy Malone” and “Taxi Driver.” The Coppertone baby had become one tough little girl, from her first film role as the wine-imbibing street urchin in “Alice Doesn’t Live Here Anymore” (1975) to Iris, her raccoon-eyed pre-pubescent hooker in Martin Scorsese’s 1976 “Taxi Driver"--a film that won her an Oscar nomination, a film that Foster says “changed my life.”
She disappeared for a time, made a few Disney movies and lesser films like “Foxes” and “Carny,” attended Yale University, hiding out among the ivy-covered walls (majoring in literature, not theater) until Hinckley refocused the spotlight.
“There has never been a time that I haven’t been in the public eye,” says Foster. “At times I thought I wasn’t, but I was. And it’s influenced my personality. I was sheltered from a lot of things, people protecting me, and it’s made me immature in some ways and very mature in others. You realize you can’t be like everyone else.”
Professional reprieve arrived three years ago with Kaplan’s film “The Accused.” Her standing in Hollywood was so low at the time, she had to read for the part. But her Oscar-winning performance announced that Foster--the actress--was back for real. Then, playing Clarice Starling, the nerves-of-steel FBI agent in Jonathan Demme’s successful psychological thriller “The Silence of the Lambs,” she reaffirmed what Sheila Benson wrote in The Los Angeles Times about her work in “The Accused”: “It is an extraordinary performance.”
Her roles, as she has said again and again, are homages to “the underdog"--victims, misfits, children, women. “It’s a story about those who are left out,” Foster says. “What’s heroic about Starling is how compassionate she is, how vulnerable she is and how afraid she is.” It is an equally apt description for her latest film, “Little Man Tate.” Encouraged to pursue a plummy post-Oscar role, Foster chose instead to spend the currency generated by her Academy Award directing her first film, rescuing Scott Frank’s much passed-on script from oblivion, and signing on as the film’s star only when she had Orion’s promise that she could direct it as well.
A “small movie” says Foster--"but why should I have to defend that?"--"Little Man Tate” is the story of Fred Tate, a 9-year-old gifted child, and his relationships with the two women in his life--Dede Tate, his flamboyant working-class mother (Foster) and Jane Grierson, a brilliant child psychologist (Wiest). The film takes place in one year of the boy’s life and focuses on events “small and subtle” as Foster explains, “a boy and his mother dancing in a window, orange birthday invitations scattered all over a playground--all images of disappointment.”
Foster says she was attracted to the script for three reasons: “The single-parent thing, it’s the portrait of an artist and it’s about a misfit . . . they’re all misfits.
“Dede because she refuses to be conventional, Dianne’s character because she is tragically bereft (of emotions). My favorite idea is that in trying to create a world where he fits in, he creates a world for the misfits around him. It is not a quest for conventional happiness.”
It could be a description of Foster’s own upbringing as the youngest and gifted child born in 1962 to Brandy Foster, a single mother working as a publicist in Hollywood? The actress seems braced for these kinds of comparisons.
“I wanted to do a film that reflected me, spoke of the things I cared about, but none of this is autobiographical or anything,” she says. “I like this because it’s not about a thousand years of mothers on the screen. This is a new parent, which is much more exciting to me. The single-parent thing is such a huge part of American life. It’s definitely been my entire life.”
Ask Foster about this idea of single parenting and you get a dissertation’s worth on the subject. “That’s what his life is about--men being raised by women; women are his models,” she says. “And they have roles with each other that in some ways are romantic roles because when you are raising a kid on your own you have to be everything--police person, friend, jealous (competitor). If you had a husband maybe he could be a buffer. Strange, ugly things happen between single parents and children. And also the most beautiful things. He is her art.”
Directing “Little Man Tate” on location in Cincinnati last year, the movie allowed Foster to “create the environment on the set that I wanted. Every director does that--and they should. It’s their party. (As an actor) you spend the first two weeks of shooting figuring out how the director wants to live his life and then you spend the rest of the shoot helping him live it.”
Her environment: “Eccentrics, lots of eccentrics. I like opinionated people,” she says. “We had a very communicative set and a lot of humor, but not gaggy humor, like the kind of set where people start to live for Hawaiian Shirt Day on Friday. That’s boring.”
Peggy Rajski, the line producer on “Little Man Tate,” says that “because she has spent most of her life on film sets, Jodie understands all the technical aspects of filming, like what the grips do. That’s an advantage that other first-time directors don’t have. And what she didn’t know, she wasn’t embarrassed to ask about.”
Jon Hutman, the film’s set designer and a close friend of Foster’s since Yale, calls the actress “a kinder, gentler director. She is very casual, but she moves with the kind of decorum that lets everyone know where the line is drawn.”
Although Foster had some doubts about her ability to direct and act in the same film, after ‘Little Man Tate,” 'I’m my favorite director,” she says with a laugh. “No one will ever say this, but I think this (film) is some of the best work I’ve done.”
Foster says that her approach to directing is similar to her attitude toward acting. “I can talk about why a scene isn’t working,” she says. “But I don’t like to be all fragile and tentative. Which is why I guessed I worked so well with Adam. I’d just say, ‘Stand there and move your face when I say this line.’
“Like when I was a kid,” she adds, “people would direct me like, ‘Are you ready?’ ” she says dropping into a sotto voce whisper. “It freaked me out. It made me very self-conscious. You know, just tell me what you want. More angry. Less angry. Do this thing with your face. Don’t do that thing with your face.
“When I’m treated preciously, then I can’t perform. I get self-conscious and I feel like I’m not part of the crew and they’ll laugh at me. I feel,” she says, “like I can’t be safe.”
Being safe is a lot of what Foster’s life has been about. She was born after her parents were already divorced. From the beginning, Brandy Foster’s youngest daughter demonstrated a precocity that distinguished her from her older siblings, sisters Lucinda and Constance and brother Buddy. By age 3 she was reading, comprehending scripts by age 5--a handy talent for a child star who would become the sole support of her family before she was a teen-ager.
“My mom is a pioneer in a lot of ways. She came from a divorced home where she was made to feel bad about it as a Catholic,” Foster explains. “The disappointment of not leading the perfect nuclear family, of not having the Betty Crocker rules of what it means to love somebody meant you have to create your own rules.”
“Creating your own rules” meant that Foster worked steadily, shooting commercials, appearing in dozens of episodes of prime-time television series, and landed her first role in a feature film “Napoleon and Samantha” when she was 8. By the time she was 10, she had a solid career in Hollywood.
“I’m not looking back on my life and going ‘Poor me,’ because I had like a great life,” she says. “It wasn’t like I had any great tragedy to complain about. I was a kid actor by age 3.”
She was also a gifted student whom her mother enrolled in a special program at the acclaimed Lycee Francais in Los Angeles, partly because of its reputation and partly because “my mom was obsessed with France,” says Foster. “I don’t think she ever wanted to live in L.A.”
She was fluent in French in a year, graduated as valedictorian. “I was this baby poet,” she says. “I was in this gifted program and, um, just really verbal. I wasn’t particularly good at anything else but talking.”
She attended Yale, the first in her family to go to college--a time that Foster still characterizes as among the happiest years of her life, despite the Hinckley assassination attempt on President Reagan in March, 1981, which he attributed to his desire to impress Foster.
She wrote an essay for Esquire magazine entitled “Why Me?” in which she described her reactions, something she has declined to discuss since. Critics, however, have pointed out that many of Foster’s subsequent roles were rape victims--"The Hotel New Hampshire,” “Five Corners” and, most notably, “The Accused.”
That film, says Foster, was seminal for her as an actor, not so much for the Oscar it earned her but for the change it affected in her craft.
“When I went to college I was so busy being too cool to be an actor. My mom had been asking me my whole life what I wanted to be when I grew up and she was making it very easy for me to get out--you know, telling me actors aren’t that smart. So I thought the whole industry was dumb. ‘The Accused’ was the first time that I admitted there was very valuable stuff that I could only find in acting.”
Ironically, she thought her performance as Sarah “was bad. It almost repulsed me. I had never seen myself that uncool,” she says, adding “that ‘cool’ is a very pejorative thing for me. (As an actor) you can’t be too cynical and above it, you have to be in it and then it’s stimulating enough.”
Choosing to be in or out of a situation--whether it is an emotional state or a physical location--is fundamental to Foster. Talk to her long enough and the word that comes up most often is safe . She felt safe at Yale, safe at the house she owns in the Valley: “I don’t feel like people are out to hurt me there,” she says. Not surprisingly, Foster feels most safe on a movie set--where she literally grew up--because “it’s like a fraternity,” and because it’s the place where she can plumb her feelings, surrounded by like-minded colleagues.
About her ability to turn powerful emotions off and on at will, Foster shrugs. “I don’t know that I ever have them (emotions). I experience them as I say the words because I’m concentrated and you can’t help but experience them, but as soon as they say, ‘Cut!’ well, cut, " she says.
One of the better examples of that professional sang-froid occurred during the shooting of “Silence” in a key scene in which Hopkins, playing the brilliant serial killer Hannibal Lector, mimicked the Southern accent that Foster used as Starling. She was unprepared for the move and it nearly caused Foster to cry. “But the second Jonathan (Demme) said, ‘Cut,’ I burst out laughing,” she says, “and I said, ‘That was just the best, most hurtful thing!’ and both of us started laughing.”
It is, apparently the kind of experience that Foster misses. While she wants to direct another film, she says she “really needs to act now. But I’m starting to get worried. This is my time, right? But I can’t find anything. All the scripts I see are horrible or they have the wrong director attached to them or something. I have stuff in development, but it’s a year away.”
As for the dearth of women directors, Foster retorts, “Why aren’t there more women chefs, women anything? But it’s changing. The phases always change. When I made ‘Taxi Driver’ it was small edgy movies that made money. Now it’s ‘Terminator 2.’ I’m not saying all movies have to have fully developed female characters, but I think there should be room for us.
“You don’t change the system living in Montana and raising horses,” she adds. “It’s the responsibility of people who find themselves in positions of power to work within the system and change it. You have to go for longevity. If you hang on your phase will come back.”
However, Foster says that after 28 years, most of it spent in front of a camera, and with her Oscar in hand, she is ready to consider other alternatives. “A lot of people keep saying, ‘When I get a hit movie or an Academy Award then I’ll do whatever’ but when you’ve done those big career things, it makes you think a little bit.”
She is says she is contemplating “not living here all the time, living on the Continent. I have family there, a life there, half my education was about being there. I wake up everyday here and go ‘Aren’t I glad I’m rich?’ ” she says half-mockingly. “I don’t know if it’s worth it.”
Hutman cautions that “Jodie is a planner, she has a one-week plan, a one-year plan and a five-year plan, and none of them ever come true but she believes in them wholeheartedly at the time.” The one thing that has changed for the actress, Hutman suggests, “is that she has been able to make commercially successful films with strong female characters. That has been very fulfilling for her. It has made her career something other than a personal art kick.”
But the actress seems adamant that she is changing.
“I know I will slow down. There is only so long you can do this without becoming a strange person,” she says. “I want to act until my 60s, but the least interesting time period for women’s careers is between 40 and 50. As an actress that’s a really hard time . . . I mean you can fight it your whole life, but in this town you are a visible object and I don’t know that I want to be here at a certain age. This is a very strange town because (of its emphasis on) appearances. Everything you know about a person is on the surface. Yet in a very weird way, that can be relaxing.”
Foster is fiddling with a silver bracelet she wears on her right wrist. “This? This is the ‘Little Man Tate’ bracelet,” she says. “All the ‘Little Man Tate’ women have them. At the end of every movie I decide there is one thing that (represents) the movie and I don’t take it off until the start of the next film. It’s sort of like a lucky thing.”
For a moment the discussion returns to the film, the relationships between parents and children and finally the much speculated about relationship between Foster and her own mother.
“People get very fascinated with my relationship with my mother,” she says, masking her wariness with a laugh.
“Our relationship is changing. We don’t see each other as much, she doesn’t make my business decisions and she doesn’t read scripts for me,” says Foster, adding, “but there is really very little that she doesn’t know about me. So I keep stupid things from her just so I have something of my own. Like I won’t tell her the gardener didn’t come. There has to be something she doesn’t know about me.
“Women’s relationships with their mothers is very complicated anyway,” she continues. “Because I come from a single-parent family, my theory on intimacy is that it is this very ugly thing that you protect and all the ugliest things about yourself, when you experience them with someone else, that’s real intimacy. And when you have that relationship with your child--you can show them the ugliest parts about you, your child can’t leave, they can’t abandon you.”
The suggestion is made that this description might fit that of an an abusive or overly controlling parent.
“I don’t know,” she says. “My feeling about it is that children can take any piece of information you can give them, but they can’t take being lied to. You can say ‘Look, I’ve been in jail,’ and they can handle it because it’s information. Kids are very resilient that way. It’s the stuff that’s hidden that’s the most abusive.”
Is Foster speaking of her own life? “No, no. Not particularly,” she says. “We were totally open. Look, my mom is just more interested in her kids’ lives than in her own. We’ve always had a very hermetic life. It wasn’t about other people, the rest of the world. It was closed and very intense behind those four walls.”
Foster pauses. “But it’s changing, it’s always changing,” she says resolutely. “She’s older and I’m grown up now.”
Cover photo of Jodie Foster: Hair by Victor Vidal for Cloutier; makeup by Gary Berkowitz for Cloutier.