Why Golden Globe winner Jodie Foster took a rare real-life role in ‘The Mauritanian’

Jodie Foster as defense attorney Nancy Hollander in "The Mauritanian."
(Graham Bartholomew)

When Jodie Foster began researching her role in “The Mauritanian,” what took her by surprise was how much she didn’t know about who was incarcerated at Guantánamo Bay military prison.

“About 85% of the detainees are renditioned,” says Foster, who plays Nancy Hollander, the veteran attorney who took on the pro bono case of Mohamedou Ould Slahi, held by the U.S.  in solitary confinement without charge at the top-secret detention facility for 14 years and whose bestselling memoir the film is based on. “I had no idea that after 9/11 the idea was to get as many people off the streets as possible,” says Foster. “Whether they were guilty or not was beside the point.  Just scoop them up, take them away and ask questions later.”

On Feb. 3, Foster awoke to a flood of congratulatory text messages:  The actress had just added an eighth Golden Globes nomination for her performance in “The Mauritanian” to her list of achievements. (She went on to win the Globes supporting actress prize Sunday night.) In a Zoom interview later on nominations morning, Foster could be found sitting at a desk with what looked like one of her two Oscars just behind her. “I’m in my wife’s office,” says Foster, who has been married to Alexandra Hedison since 2014, turning around to quickly peer at the statue. “I don’t know what that is. A little sculpture?”

Have you thought about why you’re drawn to playing authority figures?


 I’ve heard that before. And my mind always says, “Am I supposed to want to play the weak character?” I’m interested in strong people, in people who shift and change, in playing solitary characters that are on a mission. I like seeing the layers, seeing somebody presenting themselves one way and noticing things and filing it away in a little box. When you play characters that aren’t intellectuals, you have to dull yourself, hide those wheels. It’s actually harder than to [show] the wheels turning.

You’ve said that the actual Nancy Hollander is much nicer than the one you chose to portray. Why make her less amiable?

Nancy is very defended,  self-protective, and has a steeliness about her. But she also has a very soft manner. She speaks in a low voice, speaks slowly. She doesn’t have to raise her voice, because she’s quite penetrating. But over the course of the two hours, I wanted to show how she changed over time. And the best way to do that was to exaggerate her slightly in one direction.

To play terror suspect Mohamedou Ould Slahi, imprisoned by the U.S. for 14 years without charge, Tahar Rahim had to explore dark places in order to find the light.

Feb. 10, 2021

Besides Anna Leonowens  from “The King and I,” Nancy is the only real-life character you’ve ever played. Thoughts on the experience?

I have friends who’ve done movies based on real people. And they’re always negotiating with the rights holder, [who will] say, “I would never wear my pin that way” or “actually, I talked to five lawyers before I did that.”  But there are moments you have to take license and, ultimately, Nancy understood that. I warned her that I wasn’t keen on doing an impersonation, that I wasn’t going to [imitate] her voice and her mannerisms. She was OK with me [making] her rude, she just wanted to make sure I got the law stuff right. 


As well as, judging by a quick Google image search, her tidy gray hairdo and bright red lipstick.

[Laughs] She was adamant that I get her lipstick color and nail polish right. I asked her, “Why do you do the lipstick and stuff?” and she said, “I want to stand out, I have  to stand out.” I thought that was really interesting, because she’s such a subdued character. She’s very mellow and intellectual. She’s such a contradiction.

Talk about spending time with the real Mohamedou.

It was an amazing experience. I think it’s hard for people to understand this, but he’s really funny, really personable. He’s someone you meet and within five minutes you feel like you’ve known him your whole life. He’s super affectionate. He’s seen all these crazy American movies [on the prison guards’ TV]. It’s so surprising that somebody could have lived the life he’s led and be childlike and open. It’s a testament to his faith and to who he is.

Hang on. You’ve had a long and storied career. What movies of yours had he seen?

“Maverick.” That was it. It was the only movie that he knew about me. [Laughs]

You’ve done less acting in the past several years. When you step on a set is it like muscle memory? Or do you wonder, “Do I still know how to do this?”

Well, it’s been 55 years of being in the film industry. It’s not even my childhood. It’s, like, before  my childhood. I’m always very comfortable on a set. I always have that little anxiety, I think, much more so than I do as a director. As a director. I have a lot of plans. It’s a more concrete place for me to come from. But I’m always nervous about performance, because you’re either going to blow it or you’ll nail it. There’s nothing in between, and you never know where you’re going to land.