Jodie Foster has collected two Oscars, becoming Hollywood's serious actress of choice. Now, with "Nell," the story of a North Carolina wild child‑woman who speaks in a made‑up language, she plays the producer’s part, too. Guy Trebay asks her how it feels to call the shots.
"I resist the idea that normal childhoods are happy," says Jodie Foster, slouching in a rented convertible off Sunset Boulevard on a crisp California morning. Storms along coastal Baja have driven back the dry Santa Ana winds, wreathing L.A. in unusual autumnal cool, momentarily turning the town into Hollywood New England. Foster is dressed as if for the opposite coast, in a NANTUCKET BLUES T‑shirt, faded sweats, and a pair of white Reeboks that have seen plenty of wear. Feet up on the car seat, she looks compact and fit. Her face is bare of makeup and she's so relaxed you'd think this is what she does all the time, drive around opening herself up to strangers.
Jodie Foster is a smart and easy talker who gives a pretty convincing rendition of candor. It could be the firm handshake. Maybe it's her feminine tendency to hear questions all the way through. It's only much later that you can develop the creeping suspicion that she talks in some kind of code. Words that make sense as she speaks read like the runes of a CIA mole. "I'll nod my head, and there won't be anything tape‑recorded and you won't be able to say, 'She nodded her head yes or no.'" The expression on her face when she makes this remark will be one of nearly pained frankness. But when I reread her words, I can't recall what I asked her. Staring at the page, I only see Foster disappearing in a jet of ink.
For the moment, however, she's decided to give truth a try. “I mean, who's defining normal here?" she asks. It was Foster who'd yesterday suggested a trek around the Hollywood Reservoir, and then ‑when I'd protested mildly that she'd once made the same outing with another journalist‑ agreeably offered an alternative. "There's a dog park where I take my best friend's chow. It's not that Laurel Canyon Park, where the cool people go. It's in a place where you can let them off the leash. That way they know they're still dogs."
When I'd arrived to pick Foster up at the nondescript suite hotel where she said she was living, the desk clerk hit me with a blank stare. Clutching the directions she'd written in her distinctive boarding‑school hand ‑half print, half cursive‑ I ambled out to curbside and heard someone call my name. There was no mistaking the voice: a reedy and faintly burred alto, the voice of a field hockey captain who'd snuck too many smokes. I found Foster perched on a wrought‑iron bench with a mug in her lap. "Here," she said. 'I brought this for you." She took a sip and handed me the coffee.
Now I'm following Foster up a trail that snakes through a dry wash covered with gray‑green scrub. From the hilltop you can look down on the entire city, one of those million‑dollar mirages seen through veils of smog. Foster grew up within sight of this place, during a childhood that was, by any account, quite strange.
Foster's father deserted his family when his wife, Brandy, was four months pregnant. Before she was a teenager, Alicia Christian Foster was the primary means of support for her mother and her three older siblings. By the time she was cast, at the age of 12, as Iris in Martin Scorsese's Taxi Driver (1976), Jodie Foster was a veteran of scores of commercials, several TV series, and a number of Disney childrens' films.
One particularly hoary facet of the kid‑trouper legend holds that the California child‑labor authorities insisted on having Foster interviewed by a psychiatrist before allowing her to play a teenage prostitute who ends up with Harvey Keitel's brains in her lap. Coming away from the session, the psychiatrist was reported to have said with a laugh: “She can handle it." He was right; but there's something in his assumption that still chills the blood.
“The way I see it is, there were things my mother did that I'd have done differently. But for the most part, she figured out a way to protect me," says Foster, now 32. What Brandy Foster figured out was a way to shelter her daughter from what the actress calls "image issues."
"People in this business are cruel," Foster continues. "It's an exterior‑reality business, and you're either too tall, or too short, or too fat, or nobody wants a Jew‑look at Quiz Show. Brandy didn't want me to become some kind of Hollywood bimbo." She pauses: "Another thing ‑you'll never be in a casting session with me and hear, 'I don't like her, her ass is too big.'"
"I think there's a turbulence in Jodie that comes from being the bread‑earner, being the man in the family," actor Liam Neeson said. Neeson costars with Foster in Nell, the first film from her production company, Egg Pictures, in a $ 100 million partnership with PolyGram Filmed Entertainment. I'd called him hoping for some insight, but as most people do, he cautiously referred me to her films. Maybe that's not the worst place to look for a real picture of Foster. After all, they're where she's spent the better part of her life.
Take Nell. Directed by Michael Apted and lushly shot in the North Carolina hills, the film tells the story of a girl reared in the isolation of a remote mountain cabin. Nell's backbone is a canny (and very likely third Oscar‑winning) performance by Foster as a child‑woman. Discovered in her 20s, living alone after her mother's death, Nell is a wild creature who speaks in an indecipherable, eerily biblical singsong, a re‑creation of the speech patterns of her mother, who suffered a stroke in middle age. Nell finds Foster demonstrating not only her trademark inner steel ‑some critics have sniped that she's "an acting machine‑ but also a vulnerable, almost skinless, delicacy.
Those involved with the film have rhapsodized about it as an exploration of emotions formed in an unpopulated sphere, and about the character of Nell as a woman unblemished by civilization. Foster herself calls the film "a spiritual experience" that will have "people leaving the theater without realizing that that's what they've just had." In reality, though, Nell more closely resembles a two‑hour excursion into otherness, a film that seems to say a good deal more about isolation than purity. The first film Foster has chosen to produce, it suggests something intimate about her, something you wouldn't detect in the piffle of her many money roles.
Foster once accepted an Oscar on behalf of "the outcasts my blood, my tradition"; she's an outspoken feminist who claims that weak women in movies are "constructs" and who's made a mini career out of cinematic rape; as a Yalie schooled in poststructuralism, she's not unaware of the trickery of subtext. Discovered and threatened, rescued and then threatened again, wild Nell learns English, briefly loses all language, and retreats in the end to the lush sanctity of her private realm.
As an actor, Foster claims she's always looking to simplify. "I'm famous for cutting dialogue," she says one afternoon as we drive toward a Greek restaurant near the Paramount lot. "If it doesn't help, it has to go away." And Foster is as famous for what she turns down as for what she accepts. It took her almost two years to find a script she felt was worthy of bringing to the screen. "I don't want to waste my time producing shit," she adds. "I don't live on producer's fees. And when you don't have to worry about making your living, you can have enormous aspirations." Foster tends to hold forth about an actor's responsibility to leave behind a "body of work." You can even find yourself believing her until you're brought up short by the memory of movies like Maverick and Sommersby. "I've been paranoid about money for my entire life," she explains.
Sitting with her back to the restaurant door, Foster picks at a feta salad. She wears jeans, a denim shirt, and blue boating sneakers. There is a strand of worry beads strung around her neck and a pair of diamond studs at her ears. In the politest possible way Foster deflects discussion about her love life, about her family, about her friends. She did remark, as we drove to the restaurant in her car, that after crashing for a time with the pal who owns the chow dog, she moved to a hotel because “it started to feel like I was imposing." This would seem a fairly uncomfortable living arrangement for anyone making the kind of money Foster commands. When I asked how it feels to earn a sum equal to a good-size Lotto win, Foster replied: 'I don't really talk about it."
“You make six now?" I persisted.
“It's just not something I'm comfortable talking about."
“Let us suppose," I asked then, “that you and I have a mutual friend, and that this friend gets $6 million a picture." Without missing a beat, Foster replied, "I'd say that she's making more."
For the first time since I'd met her, Jodie Foster permitted herself a grin. Suddenly, the studious demeanor of a moment before was gone. She seemed liberated from her seriousness. The abrupt change helps explain the effectiveness of Foster, the actress. "If you watch her in public situations, you can see that she has a different performance depending on who she's talking to," a friend of hers says. 'She can change emotional pitch on a dime. She's been auditioning for strangers since she still had baby teeth."
Emotional pitch is precisely what Foster, at her best, rarely fails to deliver. It's odd, then, to consider that after graduating from Yale in 1985, Jodie Foster wasn't even sure if acting was what she wanted to do. 'I didn't know if I was willing to give up everything you have to give up to make it work," she says. Even now she toys with the idea of alternative professions. It might be fun to own a small chain of art‑film houses: good coffee and good movies. Or maybe be an anchor on the news."
As she says this, she is picking her way back down a Hollywood canyon. Leaving the path, Foster scrambles over gullies, leaping nimbly from rock to rock. The going is awkward. It had still been quite early when we came up the mountain. A few runners had passed by at a slow jog, their expressions altering as they recognized the smallish woman behind the oval sunglasses. Now, much later in the day, it is likely there'll be more joggers on the trail. Foster has chosen the hard way down.
"There's nothing good about fame," she says, adding that not even "the most enticing monologue by Robin Leach" could make her change her mind. Despite the heft of her paycheck, Foster lives essentially without the ostentation that passes in Hollywood for a sign of caste. If anything, she's ostentatiously humble. The only real estate she owns is a house bought and never occupied in the San Fernando Valley. And, like a latter‑day Goldilocks, she's spent two and a half years hunting for the right place to lay her head. "It can't be too big or too small," she tells me. "It has to be in Hollywood. It has to have a wall. And it has to have a yard."
Foster claims to hate thinking about possessions and clothes, in part because her family is obsessed with them: "My mom is the leader of the Style Family. That's what we call ourselves."
Yet you can't help but observe that the simple little blazers she wears over jeans are Armani and that the nothing little knapsack she flings onto the floor of her car is a lizard Prada bag.
Foster would have you believe she is a reluctant star, one who needs "a code to live by" for protection against the public's hungry eye. When a crazy stranger attempts to kill the President to make you love him, it's hardly a surprise that you'd refuse "to sacrifice privacy to the curiosity machine. I'm not going to be embarrassed by the fact that I care about personal dignity."
When we hit a particularly steep part of the downhill grade, Foster offers a hand, saying, "You don't want to come down on your butt." A few yards back, I'd gingerly mentioned a press conference that was held in 1991 at Minneapolis' Walker Art Center, coinciding with a Foster retrospective. A journalist from a now‑defunct local gay publication asked Foster a leading question about her sexuality. Foster staved off the reporter. When anything central to her privacy is under threat, Foster has a tendency, not unlike Nell's, to remove herself to a remote, interior place. Ask a dicey question and you're likely to be left with the feeling that you've peered into the wrong end of a telescope. "People can lob anything at me they want," Foster told me. "Nerf Balls, dirty handkerchiefs, golden pens. It's not my job to catch them. I'm not a revolutionary. I'm not a member of any nation. I'm not waving any flag." This was the outsider wearing her insider's camouflage. But I'd also seen another side of Foster. Pulling up the palm-lined driveway to the Paramount lot on the day we first met, Foster stopped at the guard booth and said, "Stage M."
"And who are you?" asked a uniformed guard.
Tilting her head down slightly to display the blue eyes hidden behind the shades, the third most highly paid woman in Hollywood replied, "Jodie Foster."
"Why, yes, you are!" said the guard, abruptly at full attention. "Well, yes, ma'am. You have a nice day!"