Mario Anzuoni / Reuters
Jodie Foster has been in the entertainment industry for 50 of her 53 years, going from a Coppertone commercial at age 3 to series television and then to film. She was 14 years old when she was first nominated for an Oscar — for playing a prostitute in Martin Scorsese's Taxi Driver — and 26 when she won Best Actress for the first time, for the 1988 movie The Accused. She won again soon after for playing Clarice Starling — the character who created an entirely new archetype for a female hero — in 1991's The Silence of the Lambs.
Given Foster's background, it is not surprising that she wanted to direct movies from a young age. In a recent interview in Beverly Hills, she called her childhood self « a power-hungry 7-year-old » who had learned early that directing was the way to get to realize « the full vision of the film, and having every part of you expressed. » She was not only in movies, but she was also a film buff. « My mom took me to all these European films, » Foster said. « Lina Wertmüller: That was the first time I had ever seen there was a woman director, and I loved those movies, and I would see them over and over and over again. »
And so Foster started paying attention, she said, « and saying, 'Why did he do that? Why did he choose this?' »
Jack O'Connell as Kyle, with George Clooney as Lee.
The fourth movie that Foster has directed, Money Monster, a hostage thriller reminiscent of '70s films such as Dog Day Afternoon, will be released on May 13. It co-stars George Clooney as Lee Gates, a cynical finance channel shill, who touts stocks without considering the consequences; Julia Roberts as Patty Fenn, the producer who has grown out of working with him; and Jack O'Connell as Kyle, the angry, duped regular guy who blew his only cash on one of Lee's tips, and seizes control of the station, with a bomb and a gun, on live television.
Foster sat down with BuzzFeed News to discuss her directing career so far. She was open about how her films have reflected her life, and quick to laugh. She claimed she still enjoys being interviewed, even after all this time.
« I like talking about the movies, » she said. « Who else am I going to talk to about them? »
Little Man Tate (1991)
Adam Hann-Byrd, Jodie Foster.
Orion Pictures Corp/Courtesy Everett Collection
Little Man Tate tells the story of a 7-year-old prodigy named Fred Tate (Adam Hann-Byrd) living in semi-squalor in Cincinnati with his waitress mother, Dede (Foster). Foster had been sent the script, written by Scott Frank, as an actor, but it piqued her interest as a possible first directing project.
« They laughed about that, » she said, without elaborating on who « they » were. She persisted, and found a way to get the movie financed with her directing and co-starring. Foster was 27 at the time, and credits her age with having the « confidence, or maybe the bravado, » not to question whether it was wise to direct both herself and a child who had never acted before. (Hann-Byrd had been discovered in a regular school, not through an agency.) « The good news about being 27 years old is you're pretty unconscious, and you don't think about how hard it is what you're undertaking, » she said.
Orion Pictures Corp/Courtesy Everett Collection
Foster certainly had her own abundant experiences with directors as a child to guide her — especially on what not to do. « There were lots of directors that worked with me that annoyed me, so I tried to avoid those techniques, » she said. Later, she added: « There's nothing that I love more than a director who knows what they want. But I especially didn't want to be manipulated or bullied. And bad things happen to me when I'm bullied or manipulated. It's the one area where I really rebel, and my way of rebellion is I just get cold. I get cold and totally unemotional and I will not act. »
Fred's story was particularly important to Foster. Though Dede, a single parent, is devoted to him, Fred is not thriving in public school, nor does he have any friends (his greatest desire). When a school for gifted children discovers Fred — who excels both at math and in the arts — Dede becomes competitive with Jane (Dianne Wiest), the condescending, socially inept head of the school. Their dynamic hurts Fred, but by the movie's end, Dede and Jane find a balance that serves both his mind and heart. It's a warm, sweet, intimate film that Roger Ebert described as « the kind of movie you enjoy watching; it's about interesting people finding out about themselves. »
Foster saw her own past dilemmas in the arc of Little Man Tate. « It's a personal movie even though it was written by somebody else; I feel like it's an auteur film, » she said.
« I really saw myself as somebody who was pulled in two different directions, » Foster continued, describing her bifurcated childhood. « I had this weird emotional intelligence about people, and why they do what they do and trying to figure out how to help take care of people. But I also really felt great joy, and lived in the world of my intellect. »
Though Little Man Tate shows the audience some of Fred's talents, they're not the focus of the film — his awkward, poignant attempts to fit into the world are. It was a deliberate choice of Foster's. « Some of the criticism of the movie was, like, Wait a minute, this is a movie about a child genius: Why don't we talk about all the amazing things he does? Why don't we talk about his joy with math? » she said. « I was, like, ‘Well, I was a prodigy, and I don't want to talk about that. I want to talk about how lonely I was.’ »
Dianne Wiest, Hann-Byrd, Foster.
Orion Pictures Corp/Courtesy Everett Collection
But Foster is also critical of her directing work. With Wiest, she said, she tried to « control her performance too much. » Jane, a brilliant snob who begins to discover her maternal side with Fred, was a different sort of role for Wiest, who had played spaced-out, warm-hearted characters in Footloose, Hannah and Her Sisters, and Parenthood. « She has this beautiful, kind of bubbling way about her where she kind of discovers the lines in the moment, » Foster said of Wiest — and that couldn't be the case with Jane. « I forced Dianne to be so meticulous and so rigid, and I know it wasn't her instinct, » said Foster. « And I still feel bad about it. But I think it's a great performance. » Nevertheless, she said, « I always apologize every time I see her. »
Though Foster said the movie was “naïve,” “very plodding and black and white,” and that she made her points “in a big way,” she’s still proud of her directorial debut.
« I think more than anything else, it just has a lot of heart,” Foster said. « And mostly because it came from a really personal place: the theme of being alone, and knowing that you're different, and knowing that you're never going to belong, and you're never going to be like everybody else. I think that was a theme in my life as a young person. It is as I grew up. And I was just starting to understand that then. »
Home for the Holidays (1995)
Holly Hunter, Robert Downey Jr.
Paramount/Courtesy Everett Collection
After directing Little Man Tate — as well as winning that second Best Actress Oscar for The Silence of the Lambs — Foster formed a production company, Egg, and entered into a deal with PolyGram Filmed Entertainment, a studio that eventually merged with Universal. « Failed moguldom! » she said with a loud laugh. « I was following a path, and — I can't say I think it was a mistake? But it was a lot of energy output, and I think the energy would have been better spent in other places. When you're young, you try things. »
She added: « I think people thought I wanted to make big, mainstream movies, and the truth is I didn't. I just wanted to make movies that were relevant to me. »
Nell in 1994 was the first film that Foster and Egg produced, and it was set to be released just as she began to prepare to direct her next feature, Home for the Holidays, a drama/comedy about one loud, messy family's Thanksgiving weekend. Foster developed and starred in Nell, in addition to producing. It was an immersive performance, with Foster playing the title role of a young woman who had lived in isolation with her mother and created her own language before being discovered by doctors. « Nell was tough, » she said. « People did not respond to the movie, they didn't like the movie. And I was really out there. I really put everything on the line. »
Foster would go on to be nominated for Best Actress again for Nell, but as she absorbed the criticism of the movie, she dove into Home for the Holidays. « It was a good way of curing the ills of an unsuccessful movie, » she said.
Foster had bought Home for the Holidays after another company decided not to make it. It was based on a short story by Chris Radant, and she would be only behind the camera this time: no acting.
From left: Steve Guttenberg, Charles Durning, Anne Bancroft, Cynthia Stevenson, Dylan McDermott, and Hunter.
The film stars Holly Hunter as Claudia, an art restorer in Chicago who is fired from her museum job just as she is about to head to her parents' house for Thanksgiving. Once there, she is infantilized — if lovingly — by her eccentric parents, played by Anne Bancroft and Charles Durning. It was a large ensemble: The cast also included Robert Downey Jr. as Tommy, Claudia's charismatic, mercurial, gay brother; Dylan McDermott as Tommy's friend and Claudia's love interest; Cynthia Stevenson as Joanne, Claudia and Tommy's sourpuss sister; Claire Danes as Claudia's sophisticated teenage daughter; and various other family members of all embarrassing stripes.
With this crowd, the script ended up changing significantly during the rehearsal period before the movie began shooting, and Foster worked closely with screenwriter W.D. Richter (The Adventures of Buckaroo Banzai Across the 8th Dimension). « So much of the overlapping dialogue and their dynamic with each other was really important, mostly for shaping the screenplay, » Foster said. At this late stage, as the actors, Richter, and Foster workshopped the script, the focus of the movie became the warm relationship between Claudia and Tommy. Hunter, Foster said, loved to « react to other people. » And so, « it was about engineering things for Holly to react to — she was the person reacting to all this craziness around her. »
Downey was in his wild-man days then, and was steps away from going into rehab (one of many times in the years to come). Yet the open process during Home for the Holidays served his talents well. « He really fleshed out that character in a way that I wouldn't have been able to, » Foster said. In her and Downey's hands, Tommy ended up being one of the most fully developed, realistic LGBT characters popular culture had yet seen: He is the object of his parents' silent homophobia, and of his sister Joanne's more vicious strain, but he has found joy in his home life with his husband — Home for the Holidays features one of the first same-sex weddings in film. (Foster came out of her own glass closet in 2013 at the Golden Globe Awards.)
« He's a verbal guy who can live performatively on the outside of his body, » Foster said of Downey and the creation of Tommy. « But there's also such pain in that character, knowing that he'll never really be able to talk to his father, and that his mother is busy ignoring who he really is. The only person he connects to is his sister, mostly because she's an outsider as well. And they will forever be eating Thanksgiving dinner alone in the kitchen without everybody else there. »
The Beaver (2011)
Foster would not direct again for years, but she certainly tried: Flora Plum, a drama set in a 1930s circus, was first announced in 1999 and was to film the next year, starring Danes and Russell Crowe. But it was scrapped after Crowe injured himself right before shooting began, and Foster's subsequent efforts to get the movie going again did not work. As recently as 2008, she thought she still yearned to do it — until she realized that she actually didn't.
« That was many years of my life, » she said. « And that was just a testament to a bad part of my personality too — that I can't let things go, and I just keep banging myself against a wall over and over and over again! To the point where, 10 years down the line, I get that movie financed — I finally get that movie financed, again, for the third time — and I'm about to get to the point where they're dropping the money into the escrow. And I go, like, Wait a minute. I feel like I already made this movie. I feel like I grew out of this movie now!«
Between Home for the Holidays and The Beaver, Foster also had two sons, who are now in their teens. « I was really present for their lives, » she said. « And maybe because I'm so focused — overly, hyperfocused on one thing — I think I was scared of leaving them, and focusing on that other thing. » She continued: « And I can't regret that. I don't regret that I was there every single day for every single thing that they did. And acting allowed me to do that. I couldn't do that being a director. »
During the 2000s, she was in such movies as David Fincher's Panic Room (2002), Spike Lee's Inside Man (2006), and more — but the acting lessened too. « I burned out a little, » Foster said. « I'm not going to be one of those actors who's like, 'Oh, yeah, I'm only going to give you five days, and we can't work past 5, and my kid's going to be in my trailer. I only shoot in L.A.' That's not going to be me! I'm going to commit 100%. Otherwise, I don't know how to be good. It means that I only did one movie every three years. »
Despite knowing why she made the choices she did, and what she was doing instead, Foster said she feels bad about how rarely she has directed. « That's a big failure in my life, you know? » she said. « I can't believe that I've directed so little, and I've been in the business for so long, and I did my first movie when I was 27. »
Riley Thomas Stewart and Gibson.
The Beaver by Kyle Killen was on the 2008 Black List, Franklin Leonard's annual survey of the most popular unproduced screenplays (as picked by Hollywood executives). It was the story of a depressed CEO named Walter Black whose breakdown is so acute that he is revived only when he begins speaking through a beaver puppet he wears on his hand. Before Foster signed on to direct, it was geared to be more of a comedy, and Steve Carell was set to star in it.
Foster did not see The Beaver that way. « That was a very strong choice that I made that I know was not for everybody, » she said. « The movie that I loved was the drama about a man who's so broken and hates himself so much that he has to put a puppet on his hand in order to figure out how to survive. I wanted the darkness of it, and I wanted the emptiness of it to reflect who he was. I wanted it to be a film about mental illness. »
Foster wanted Mel Gibson — her good friend, with whom she had starred in 1994's Maverick — to play Walter. Gibson's anti-Semitic outburst during a 2006 DUI arrest had put him on the fringes of the entertainment industry; and even before that, he had not starred in a movie since 2002's Signs. But he was Foster's first choice. « He knows how to do comedy, and he has a light touch — and he's lovable. But he would really understand this movie from its darkest place. And that's really what I wanted to push him to do, » she said.
Despite not liking acting in the films she directs, she cast herself as Walter's estranged wife, Meredith. « I wanted to know that the person playing opposite him was going to honor the performance that he was giving and was going to be believable, and had the strength to stand opposite Mel Gibson, » she said. Anton Yelchin played Porter, their high school–age son who despises Walter, and Riley Thomas Stewart was cast as Henry, their younger kid, who loves Walter and yearns for his attention.