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Command Performance : Jodie Foster the Actress Has Enchanted Us for More Than Two Decades. Now She’s Bringing Her Icy Intelligence to the Business of Movies.

Hilary de Vries' last article for the magazine was on actor Gene Hackman

In our minds, she is the fearless one, a plucky scrapper in something like 30 films, a hero among the weaker sisters. So it is no surprise when she says with a straight face and a child’s earnestness: “Fear has no place here.” It is a bold statement, perhaps even comically so, given the setting--a recording session on a studio sound stage. But that is precisely her intent.

“This is not the time to panic,” she says, staring at the thicket of flutes and violin bows scything the air, bending them, it seems, to her will. “All those fear feelings--will the audience like the film? You can’t indulge them now,” she says, repeating her mantra in the darkened control booth. “This is still the time to be creative and fearless.”

Amid the chaos and fear-mongering that is Hollywood, Jodie Foster is a voice of calm and reason. Indeed, so logical is her mind that she might just as easily confide that Newton or Descartes or any other 17th-Century rationalist is her role model, rather than any mere actress. She hates weakness, as she will readily confess, an attitude supported by her numerous tough girl roles--Sarah Tobias in “The Accused” and Clarice Starling in “The Silence of the Lambs,” to name just the Oscar-winning performances among her films. After more than 25 years in front of a camera, the former child star concedes that acting is only possible because the window of vulnerability is so brief. She can only perform, she says, because it happens so fast. “They say ‘Action!’ and you just do it.”

To her mind, this is less of a mystery than a blessing. She despises the usual aura that surrounds stars of her magnitude, “when they treat you like this fragile bird.” And she is suspicious of her peers, “those women who became actors because they are this big box of tears.” Science, she wants to believe, is the source of her art. “I think,” she says coolly, “it’s a chemical in the brain that you’re born with.”

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Even now, when she is seeking to redefine her career, moving beyond mere stardom to directing, producing and financing her own films, hysteria, any loss of control, remains an anathema. She will be a player in the truest sense of the word, heading her own company, writing her own chapter of Hollywood history. Not since Bette Davis faced off with Jack Warner has an actress demanded and earned the power that Foster has wrested for herself. “I never wanted to be an actress, I just always was one,” she says, “and I have so much more to contribute than just being an actress.”

Like the women she has played, Foster strives to be fearless. Maybe even too much so. “I have to warn people, my friends, about this--explain that it’s not that I feel cold, but I cannot not be cold,” she says. “Look, it’s terrible, I know, but (weakness) really, really bugs me, to the point that if there is a wounded bird on the sidewalk, I look at it and I go ‘I think I’ll just kick it.’ ”

*

When I first met Jodie Foster in August of 1991, it was a few weeks prior to the release of “Little Man Tate.” It was the first film that the actress would direct, and it was opening the same year that “The Silence of the Lambs” had established Foster as a bona fide box office star. (The low-budget thriller would gross more than $150 million that year and eventually win Oscars for Foster and co-star Anthony Hopkins.) Although Foster was fresh from a Paris vacation and clearly enjoying her status as the star of the summer’s hit film, she was understandably a jangle of nerves about “Little Man Tate.” At the time she remarked: “This has been a weird time, when you give your film to strangers who have opinions about it. And then the marketing people are going like ‘We want to sell it like this.’ And suddenly I’m seeing myself as some financial entity, which I hate, because I think it’s the best work I’ve ever done. I’m my favorite director.”

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To anyone who knows her, that declaration was vintage Foster: the blazing self-confidence, the razor-thin patience for being second-guessed, a loathing of public exposure--all of it roiling under a veneer of just-plain folks. But her comments also revealed something about the ambitions and reservations of the woman who occupies a unique niche in our culture. Not only is Foster arguably the most acclaimed actress of her generation, one of the few child stars who has leaped the chasm into adult roles, but she is also the only star who has ever had a fan’s adoration transmogrify into an attempted presidential assassination. She has, as she admits “always, always been in the spotlight.” As she finished the 1991 interview: “I’ve seen everybody come and go, and all the office spaces and the breakfast meeting places change, and I know you have to go for longevity. If you cash in, you’re history, but if you hang on, your time will come back.”

So it was with some measure of expectancy that I approached our second meeting this fall. In three years, Foster had become arguably “the most powerful woman in Hollywood,” as Entertainment Weekly suggested in a cover headline. She is the only multiple Oscar-winning actress who is also a bankable star--and at more than $5 million per film is one of the four highest-paid women actors--who has a proven talent for directing and who heads her own independently financed production company, Egg Pictures. As one Hollywood producer put it, “There isn’t another actress who is having the kind of career that Jodie Foster is having.”

None of this was obvious, however, during the two days I spent with Foster as she wound down the post-production phase of her new film, “Nell,” a fictional drama about a female wild child that might be best described as a cross between “Rain Man” and “The Piano.” “Nell” is the first film to carry the Egg Pictures banner and is being released as one of the more anticipated, if risky, movies this Christmas season.

In the darkened control booth crowded with the rest of the “Nell” brain trust--Renee Missel, one of the film’s producers, Stuart Kleinman, a former ICM executive and president of Egg Pictures, director Michael Apted and composer Mark Isham--Foster, dressed in a black cashmere sweater and bright red jeans, sat in the middle of an enormous sofa and did the following: drank coffee; wrote personal notes on cards imprinted JODIE FOSTER; thumbed through a handbook supplied by the Division of Motor Vehicles and debated with her assistant as to whether she would need to take an actual driving test; planned a catered reception; finalized plans for a flight to Paris that night; proofread a fax from her attorney; returned several phone calls, and asked Kleinman to somehow retrieve a favorite ballpoint pen that had, in the confusing aftermath of a recent car accident, made its way to the driver of the other car. “I don’t want to sound petty,” she said, “but it was silver.”

Other than a murmured “That’s nice,” or her whispered “no fear” speech, Foster never once commented, in any boss-like way, on the day’s proceedings. Remarkable restraint for someone whose company had bankrolled something like half the film’s $24-million budget. Just when it was beginning to seem that observing Hollywood’s most powerful woman at work was about as revealing as watching a very efficient checker at a Ralph’s supermarket, Foster flung herself back into the sofa. “Don’t you just love this? I hate being alone, and making a movie is the least-alone thing I can do.”

On her own--that is to say without benefit of a powerful director husband (like Geena Davis and Renny Harlin) or powerful producer boyfriend (like Barbra Streisand and her ex, Jon Peters) or powerful director-producer brother (like Penny and Garry Marshall)--Foster is attempting what few, if any, Hollywood actresses have ever accomplished: to become a major player in the film business and do so on her own terms. But given the enormous power wielded by major stars, it is a surprisingly difficult transition. Her predecessors here are few and mostly male. Rob Reiner, Ron Howard, Robert Redford and Clint Eastwood all have forged respected second careers as filmmakers. But among actresses, the list of proven directors is nearly nonexistent, confined largely to Streisand, Penny Marshall and, if history is no barrier, Ida Lupino, the British actress and director who worked in Hollywood during the 1950s. Now Foster is preparing to join, and perhaps head, their ranks. And she is doing so in the midst, rather than the twilight, of a thriving acting career “when she could be, like Sharon Stone, just making one big movie after another,” as Kleinman puts it.

“I’ve reached a certain stature where I’m not being controlled by somebody else’s whims, but being a working actor has nothing to do with celebrity,” she says evenly. “You get totally patronized when you’re acting because people are scared to talk to actors.”

Foster sees her move into producing not only as the surest way out of that trap but as necessary protection from the pressures that assault women in Hollywood. “Women aren’t allowed to make the same mistakes as men,” she says. “Look at somebody like Michael Douglas. How many movies does he get to make that earn no money before he gets paid less money? And how long does it take an actress? One film that doesn’t do well and you’re back to square one.

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“And then there is that awkward transition when all the sages decide that you’re too old to be the love interest. I don’t want to feel bad about myself when I turn 40, but I’m not going to bang my head against a brick wall and hurt my confidence. If I can’t play the parts I want to play, then I will direct.”

But as Foster also knows, “for women directors it is 20 times as tough, because the process of becoming a director is basically somebody comes into an office of strangers, and the guy sitting across from you says, ‘I don’t know, I just like your face, so I think I’ll give you $10 million.’ How often is a woman going to find herself in that position? Never.”

So she formed her own company in 1991, backed now with $100 million from PolyGram Filmed Entertainment, the Dutch-owned conglomerate, which has increased its involvement in Hollywood recently. Foster has embarked on an ambitious production schedule, up to two pictures a year for the next three years, and will direct and star in as many or as few as she pleases, wielding the power to green-light them herself. As producer Lynda Obst describes Foster’s position, “there isn’t another woman actor or producer with that kind of clout.”

At the same time, Foster has judiciously kept herself in play with the major studios, accepting major roles in big commercial films like “Sommersby,” “Maverick,” and the upcoming sci-fi thriller “Contact,” based on the Carl Sagan novel. “Jodie is at the point where she could do almost anything she wants, wherever she wants,” says Bruce Berman, President of Worldwide Production at Warner Brothers, the distributor of “Sommersby,” “Maverick” and “Contact.” “But what is most impressive about her--apart from her abilities as an actor and director--is how smart she has been about her career.” Peter Chernin, CEO of 20th Century Fox, adds that “Jodie has already had an extraordinary career as an actress, but where she will really distinguish herself in the years to come is as a filmmaker. She has the temperament for it. She is a real leader.”

To be sure, those are the kinds of hosannas one might expect from adoring studio executives. Indeed, no one would speak for the record about any downside to Foster’s ambitions. And, clearly, there are risks involved, and few guarantees of success when alchemizing an artistic sensibility into business acumen. Among some less-partisan observers, there’s a wait-and-see attitude. “Jodie is clearly taking charge of her career, and she gets a lot of respect for that,” cautions one Hollywood producer. “But there’s a history at work here: Many have tried . . . .”

And when I ask Foster to assess her place in the Hollywood pantheon, her power as it were, she is equally astute. “I think power is the wrong word,” she says crisply.

Could it be called the ability to protect one’s vision?

“Well, being the visionary, yes, but that isn’t the same as power. I don’t want to be a director so people have to listen to me on the telephone. That’s not interesting to me. It’s much more interesting to make a film that I’m proud of, that is the greatest movie I can make.”

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Sitting here just a few weeks shy of her 32nd birthday, Foster is almost maddeningly contrary. True, she has always been famously un-starlike--stories about her down-to-earthness are legion--but for one of the most successful women in Hollywood, she carries herself with an almost disingenuous unaffectedness, so unassuming that she seems to be living part of her life backward.

She has not inhabited her house, located in the nether reaches of the San Fernando Valley, for more than a year, preferring the ease and anonymity of a hotel room or a friend’s spare room. She all but ignores her $5-million fees. “I still put the same amount in my checking account for massages and stuff, so it’s not like my life has changed.” Instead, she has pared her existence to those few essentials that fit either in the box she ships from one movie location to the next or that she can cram into the black-leather backpack she carries over her shoulder. Even this two-day meeting is willfully casual, held in the noisy recording studio, a borrowed office and a lounge where Foster drops her voice to a whisper so as not to disturb a musician dozing under a newspaper.

Yet for all her self-effacement, Foster also possesses a palpable steeliness, a stare-down quality found in her film roles. In person, that characteristic seems at odds with the delicate caliber of her face, which is as fine-boned as a porcelain teacup you might cradle in your palm. Spend any time with her and it becomes apparent that even the most banal exchange--where to have lunch, whether she can be considered powerful, whether, even, if “The Piano” won an Oscar as an original or adapted screenplay--can devolve into a game of chicken played with her steady blue eyes and scrappy mien. It isn’t that Foster needs to prove that she has the upper hand, although you would be forgiven for mistaking it as such; rather it’s a way of testing her opponents and herself, to determine their mettle. As she coolly greeted me on my second day’s visit as I battled both a cold and the vestiges of a poison ivy attack: “Oh, here she is back again to infect us all.”

Jon Hutman, the production designer on “Little Man Tate” and “Nell” and one of Foster’s oldest friends since their student days at Yale, laughs when I describe my encounter with her.

“Look, Jodie has never lacked for confidence--or the appearance of confidence, but she has spent most of her career trying to stay grounded. It’s why there are all those stories about her picking up her own dry cleaning and taking the bus. But in the past few years, she has come to terms with her fame and power, so she is comfortable saying, ‘This is me, and I don’t need any other labels.’ ”

But when I ask Foster if she sees any change in herself in the 25 years she has been in the public eye, she is a reluctant witness. “I have this thing where I don’t really think people change. I think you just fulfill the arrows that your character was pointing you toward.”

Oh, like destiny?

She pauses and pushes her steel-frame spectacles higher.

“My whole life has been about being more open, trying anyway. But you’re vulnerable. I’m not afraid of making movies where I bang my head on a wall, but I am desperately afraid of a certain kind of softness,” she says, adding almost as an afterthought, “on screen.”

*

You can begin her career in one of two places. Well, three if you count her performance as Iris in “Taxi Driver,” which earned her her first Oscar nomination--at age 14--and where a lot of Hollywood carbon-dates its awareness of Foster. But in the actress’s own timeline, which reaches back to the ‘60s, to her bare-bottomed Coppertone baby ads and sitcoms like “Mayberry RFD,” “My Three Sons” and others she’d just as soon forget, the real starting point didn’t happen until three years ago when “The Silence of the Lambs” and “Little Man Tate” just made it into release as the last gasps of the about-to-be bankrupt Orion Pictures. That was the year when Foster realized that more than money, more than power, more even than fearlessness, she needed independence.

Not only was Foster unable to collect all her profits from “Silence,” but she also had to battle in bankruptcy court to get the millions needed to release and promote “Tate.” Although “Tate” eventually grossed $24 million, a modest profit on a film with a budget of only $10 million, Foster realized “that I never wanted to be in a studio deal again.” So she talked to--and rejected offers from--virtually every major studio as well as more than a dozen smaller film companies. Eventually, Foster decided to lay her Egg at the feet of PolyGram, precisely because it was not a studio. “They give people their price,” as she says, “and then they don’t want to hear about it.”

“Jodie could have gotten a lot of deals at a lot of places,” says Michael Kuhn, president of PolyGram Filmed Entertainment. “But she wanted more than the usual vanity deal that most actors get. I went with Jodie when I realized she was serious about being a producer.”

How serious? On paper, the game plan is ambitious, particularly for someone completing her first producing job with “Nell,” a co-production with Fox, the initial developer of the script. Indeed, it took Foster and company almost two years to get this first film on the rails. Now, however, the Egg business seems to be picking up. After “Nell,” Foster will turn her attention to “Home for the Holidays,” a family drama starring Holly Hunter and Anne Bancroft that Foster will direct starting early next tear. After that? Possibly Neil Jordan directing “Jonathan Wild,” a 7-year-old script that Foster bought for her company after nearly every studio rejected it. “It’s kind of poetic and violent at the same time,” says Kleinman. “Everyone was interested, but no one had the guts to make it.”

Which leads to what may be the most pertinent question: Exactly what kind of films does Foster want to make now that she is the boss? Although she is known for being almost unnervingly fiscally responsible and capable of reading a script, a production budget or a multiple-territory distribution plan with equal ease, she is also known as one of the more cautious stars around when it comes to committing to a film. “I don’t want somebody telling me I have to make six movies and that one has to be $35 million and one has to be $22 million,” she says. “That’s not making films, that’s just feeding a pipeline the way the studios do it. If you only make one film every 10 years, that’s good.”

Foster is very clear, however, about distinguishing between those films she wants to direct and those she wants to act in. “I’m interested in directing movies about situations that I’ve lived, movies that are almost personal essays about what I’ve come to believe in. The films I want to act in are about the things I’ve never lived, the hypothetical situations, the choices I’ve never made.”

What is common to both situations, she adds, is a fascination with ordinary human behavior. “I’ve always wanted my profession to be about connecting with the common person, the normal person, the human person, because in some ways I’ve been pushed outside that. I’ve always not been ‘normal.’ ”

That sense of normalcy is a big theme for Foster who, even before she was 10, was supporting her family--her mother, Brandy Foster, her brother and two older sisters--with her acting. Before she was 13, she had four films at Cannes. She attended Yale, as much for a respite from relentless scrutiny as for an education.

Since her return to acting, she has developed enormous defenses. “I need this illusion that the crew is actually my family that cares about me, that knows I’m not this crazy woman who goes around screaming in the forest.” She also wears the same clothes on shoots, along with some piece of jewelry that comes to symbolize each of her films. “It’s so that you feel like things aren’t changing too much.”

It’s also why Foster spends so much time in France, an affinity that goes beyond nostalgia for her high school years spent at L.A.'s prestigious Lycee Francais to an appreciation for a collective sense of reserve. “They believe in policy, this rule system where they treat each other with a certain respect for their privacy,” she says. “The French would never invite you to their house. They would just say, ‘Nice meeting you. Goodby.’ They would never say, ‘Call me sometime.’ I like that.”

As her friend Hutman says: boundaries. To the point that Foster for many years threatened to walk out of interviews if certain topics were broached: John Hinckley Jr.'s assassination attempt on President Reagan that was a bizarre homage to her performance in “Taxi Driver,” or her other hot-button question--rumors of lesbianism.

Now she doesn’t exactly warm to the discussion, but she is at least willing to stay in her chair. “I don’t think I ever threatened to walk out of a print interview,” she says, frowning. “But I recognize that I live in a business where I am a dartboard, and I don’t really care what people will say. This is an American phenomenon, that people think that they interact with a celebrity by hearing them talk about pain, so they think they know them. I think that’s bull- - - -.”

That aloofness is at the root of Foster’s identity as an artist. It is why she approaches a role from the standpoint of keeping a secret--"where you’re thinking something and you don’t really want to tell anyone because it’s none of their business, and you’re kind of laughing inside, and so it becomes a question of how much peeks out (for the audience to see) and how much doesn’t.” It is why, too, she has adopted an almost Zen-like attitude toward her prominence in Hollywood as both an actor and a filmmaker.

“It’s not me, but this thing I create,” she says. “I know who I am. I go home and make coffee and talk to my friends and have my relationships. What is objectified is what I put on the screen, but it’s not me.”

*

It is the end of a long two days in the recording studio. Foster is relaxed, even energized by the long hours here among her colleagues. There are still five hours until her flight to Paris tonight. She might even take in a movie. “The River Wild,” she says, laughing. “Meryl Streep is the only way I would ever go see a Curtis Hanson film.”

There is time for one final observation, a story about her own mother who once fended off a nervous breakdown when she was a single parent struggling to raise four young children on her own. “Let’s just imagine a scenario where your parent spends hours in the corner crying,” she says quietly. “That is my great fear--to depend on somebody who is slipping away.”

The analogy is unstated but obvious. Foster will head her own company, the way her mother headed her family--fearlessly. She will be strong for herself, for other women, for all of us. Even now she is slipping into that role she knows better than any other.

“Taking off?” she calls to me across the room.

“OK,” she says curling her face into a smile just this side of inscrutable. “Call me sometime.”


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