Jodie Foster: 'there aren’t very many well-fleshed-out female characters' CREDIT: ROBERT TRACHTENBERG/SONY PICTURES
Jodie Foster is wearing shoes that are so unstylish it’s quite possible they have travelled the full bell-curve and become stylish again. I can’t stop looking at them. They are slipper-like in their construction and have no zips or laces, seeming merely to consist of two flaps of stitched-together black leather. They are the kind of shoes I can imagine a Danish lumberjack wearing on his day off.
The rest of Foster, 53, is more conventionally dressed: a well-cut trouser suit, discreet flashes of diamond at each earlobe, tortoiseshell spectacles. The shoes, though. Bizarrely, they kind of suit her.
But perhaps I shouldn’t be surprised. Her footwear makes a virtue of its un-showiness and Foster, too, has navigated a four-decade career in Hollywood with a quiet intelligence that has always seen her place content above style. As an actor, she seems to care more about the quality of the work than about how her choices look to the outside world.
At the age of 12, Foster was Iris, the scene-stealing teenage prostitute in Martin Scorsese’s Taxi Driver. That same year, she impressed the director Alan Parker so much while starring in Bugsy Malone that he admitted: “If I had been run over by a bus I think she was probably the only person on set able to take over.”
Money Monster trailerPlay!02:34
As an adult, Foster went on to win the Best Actress Oscar twice – for a traumatised rape victim in The Accused in 1988 and for FBI agent Clarice Starling in 1991’s The Silence of the Lambs. Her choice of roles since then has been both varied and challenging – from a feisty female con artist in Maverick to a Manhattan power broker in Inside Man.
She is drawn to strong women. But there aren’t many of them written into movie scripts, are there? She grins. “I mean, practically every movie that I work on as an actress I have to go back and, you know, really make the character deeper than it was,” she says. “It’s just part of what you do because there aren’t very many well-fleshed-out female characters.”
Has she ever experienced direct sexism? “I think there isn’t a woman on the planet who hasn’t. But it’s something you deal with every single day… We don’t even write it in our journal, it’s just part of our culture.” Over the past few years, Foster has been concentrating more on directing. The new release Money Monster, starring George Clooney and Julia Roberts, is her fourth full-length feature film in the director’s chair.
The movie tells the story of a disaffected working-class man (the British actor Jack O’Connell) who has lost all his money on the advice of narcissistic talk-show host Lee Gates (Clooney) and who storms the television studio in a suicide vest to get answers. The hostage-taking occurs live on air and it is left to Patty the unflappable TV producer (Roberts) to negotiate Gates’s release.
Money Monster unfolds in real time and was, says Foster, “a tough technical movie… The same moment happens in 15, 20 different places. It was a jigsaw puzzle.” She enjoyed the challenge because “I’m decisive. The more decisions I make the less anxious I am. That’s just my personality. I think it’s easier for me to be at the helm of everything and control everything than to be one of the cogs and not really know how my stuff is being used.”
This desire for control is particularly interesting given so much of Foster’s life has been lived in the public eye. She can barely recall a time before she was famous. Her mother, Evelyn, worked as a film publicist and started putting her daughter up for advertisement and television roles at the age of three. Her father, Lucius, was never on the scene: the couple divorced before Foster was born.
Evelyn now suffers from dementia, but in Foster’s youth "[she] just loved movies," she recalls. “She took me to every weird film when I was a kid and we went to lots of foreign films. She really took me to everything. She travelled and ate strange food and was very curious. And even though she had no real education, she would really self-educate. She read everything about everything – every news item, every magazine. She was just a great inspiration.”
But it must be odd to become famous without being given much choice in the matter. When Foster went to Yale to major in literature (her thesis was on the author Toni Morrison) she was stalked by John W Hinckley Jr, a mentally unbalanced man obsessed with Taxi Driver. In 1981, Hinckley attempted to assassinate President Ronald Reagan in a bid to impress her.
Foster refuses to comment publicly on the episode, not least because the White House press secretary James Brady was left permanently disabled by the incident and died as a result of his injuries 33 years later.
How does Foster feel about fame now?
She looks startled. “How do I feel about it?”
Yes. “I don’t know. I mean, I’ve never not been a public figure, from the time I was three.”
She says this matter-of-factly even though it is quite an astonishing thing if one gives it a moment’s thought.
Foster thinks she “developed some healthy survival skills”, which she compares to “little straws that you breathe through underwater. You develop a system for yourself to stay alive, really, to stay conscious and to stay grounded and to, you know, to struggle free of the psychological problems that land people in hotel rooms with needles in their arms.”
What is her system? Again, that startled look.
Jodie Foster, aged 13, in Taxi Driver (1976) CREDIT: REX
“My system?” Yes. “I’m a compartmentaliser. I have compartments for everything. I think my mom taught me that, I think that was her influence. You go to work in the morning until whatever time at night and when your day’s over, your make-up comes off and you go back home, and now you’re in your real life. And I just didn’t ever mix the two.”
There’s little doubt that she maintains a healthy perspective. When I ask her where she keeps her Oscar statuettes, she says that they used to be in the bathroom of her Los Angeles home, “next to the bathtub, but they started getting all corroded on the bottom, with all this green stuff”, so she had to move them to a display case “where the TV and the DVDs are”.
The nature of celebrity has changed in the time Foster has been famous. She worries that the divide between public and private is “completely eroded”, that “the defining line between pain and entertainment has become really slim”.
In the past, she has been something of a mentor for Kristen Stewart, the Twilight actress who was Foster’s 10-year-old co-star in the 2002 film Panic Room. “Kristen was so confident and she was so her own person: strong and hardworking, completely diligent, but she’d say big dumb kid things like, ‘U2 is just a boy band’. Boy band?” Foster shrieks. “Are you crazy?”
Foster with Kristen Stewart in Panic Room CREDIT: REX
Unlike Foster, whose transition from child star to adult actor seemed smoothly and sensibly done, Stewart has had a more troubled journey. In 2012, she was publicly derided for a rumoured affair with the married film director Rupert Sanders. More recently, Stewart has been dating women.
Foster came out at the Golden Globes three years ago with a moving, understated speech in which she paid tribute to her then-partner, Cydney Bernard, the mother of her two sons aged 14 and 18.
‘There’s no way I could ever stand here without acknowledging one of the deepest loves of my life: my heroic co-parent, my ex-partner in love but righteous soul sister in life,’ she told the assembled crowd. These days, she is married to photographer and actress Alexandra Hedison.
Has Foster been offering Stewart any guidance?
“She’s at a very specific time of her life, so I really leave her alone,” Foster says. “I don’t want to be prying and trying to weasel my way into her life.
"It’s just so interesting to see how this world has changed her – in some wonderful ways [and] in some ways you just want to put your arms around her because it’s a tough life to grow up on screen and in this era.”
Foster in Maverick, with her friend Mel Gibson CREDIT: REX
Foster is a loyal and non-judgmental friend: in the past, she has been a stalwart defender of Mel Gibson, despite his anti-semitic comments and his abusive tirades against his ex-wife.
‘It's not my job to adjudicate his behaviour," she told The New York Times earlier this month.
And it becomes clear, during the course of our conversation, that she’s not much given to pontificating on public issues.
Until her public coming out, Foster had been in the so-called “glass closet”: on view but unacknowledged. There are many who believe stars have a responsibility to be open about their sexuality to puncture the balloon of silence around gayness in Hollywood. Although there are many more openly gay and transgender actors getting work on television, it feels as though the mainstream movie industry still has a problem with actors being open about their sexuality.
Is that true?
“I have no idea,” Foster says, unflinching. “I don’t know. I mean, everything’s changed in the world, right? Hopefully we’ve all changed for the better and hopefully there’s a consciousness that wasn’t true 20 or 30 years ago. I have no idea. No idea.”
I’m pretty sure Foster has more of an idea than most, but I can understand her reticence. It’s not that she wants to disown her sexuality, it’s simply that she has no desire to have it politicised. “I’m not a spokesperson,” she says.
Is that part of her compartmentalisation strategy; part of the way she stays sane? “Yes. Yes it is. And I really appreciate it when other people are [spokespeople], and I have benefited from it… It’s just not me. It’s not my personality. It never will be, it never was… The work I do with people has to feel real… and hands-on. And feeling like a representative feels fake.” She smiles.
Foster as Becky Thatcher in Tom Sawyer (1973) CREDIT: REX
Foster is a lot smilier than I had expected: eyes sparkling behind her prescription spectacles at frequent intervals; face lighting up with delight at some unspoken joke she might have just told herself. “I like your shoes,” she says suddenly, pointing at my Stan Smith trainers. "I have those shoes too. Are they a re-issue?"
Yes, I say, obscurely flattered that she thinks I might be trendy enough to have an original pair.
“When I was a kid my mom bought me three sizes of tennis shoe because she thought I was going to grow out of them,” Foster continues. “And it was so cool because I wore the one pair and then for whatever reason I never wore the other two. Then I had two more pairs that I found again in the Nineties.”
Foster seems genuinely pleased about this. It’s probably part of her strategy for not ending up in a hotel room with a needle in her arm. All she really needs is interesting work, a private life and a pair of comfortable shoes.