Jodie Foster is on point. Mere minutes into conversation and she’s talking politics, specifically as they pertain to “Money Monster,” a timely thriller she’s directed that takes place within the vortex of economic insecurity now decimating the middle class. It’s impossible to watch “Money Monster,” which stars George Clooney and Julia Roberts and opens May 13, and not be reminded of the indeterminate rage of the Trump phenomenon. But, Foster is quick to point out, “we have somebody for every voter. Bernie Sanders is in there, too!”
The last time Foster did press for a movie was five years ago, when she directed Mel Gibson in the quirky emotional drama “The Beaver” and serenely navigated a media maelstrom brought on by the actor’s latest notorious outburst. Now 53, she hasn’t visibly aged in half a decade, her hair showing just a few strands of gray and her face betraying no signs of Hollywood-mandated “work.” She still speaks quietly, just above a whisper. Famously private, Foster is nonetheless direct and surprisingly forthcoming about even the most intimate subjects, whether they have to do with her mother, the movie industry, political activism or her own public persona.
All of those relationships are complicated for Foster — but also, somehow, blazingly simple. It’s difficult for most people to wrap their heads around the profound strangeness of growing up in the public eye — Foster has been in the entertainment business since she was a toddler — as the client of one of show business’s most well-known “momagers” and the flash point for some of America’s most violent collisions of politics and pop culture.
The adjectives that leap to mind to describe Jodie Foster — genuine, down-to-earth, authentic, real — would be unremarkable were it not for how fiercely she’s fought to establish and protect those qualities, against forces that have militated against them all her life.
One need only consider an exceptionally painful chapter to appreciate Foster’s struggle when, during her freshman year at Yale — when she was supposed to be enjoying a hard-won period of young adulthood in relative anonymity — a man who had been stalking her attempted to assassinate President Ronald Reagan. That’s just the most anguishing example of an existence defined by a private life that Foster has guarded with single-minded determination and a public version of herself she still has trouble comfortably inhabiting. “I see George and Julia and I’m like, ‘Oh, my God, they’re really good at that,’ ” Foster says of the glad-handing, glib small talk and feigned intimacies of the fame game. “And I’m getting worse and worse!”
That’s not entirely true. She’s eager to talk about “Money Monster,” in which Clooney plays Lee Gates, the swaggering, superficial star of a cable financial show who’s taken hostage by a young man, played by Jack O’Connell, whose savings have been wiped out by one of Gates’s stock tips. Roberts plays Gates’s director, Patty, whom Foster calls the host’s “Jiminy Cricket” and “the hero he can’t be.” In addition to being a “Speed”-like thriller, complete with guns, SWAT teams and a ticking time bomb, “Money Monster” is about a specific, now increasingly common form of male shame at its most wounding and unspoken.
“I’m not sure everyone realized that when they made the movie, [but] I did,” Foster says. “It’s really about men . . . who have a poor opinion of themselves and are looking for value, looking for meaning. . . . Most of it is about failure in the reflection of the women they love, the strong women they want to be [of value to].
“It is gender-specific, and yet, weirdo that I am, I feel like I had that relationship with my mother,” she continues, referring to O’Connell’s character, Kyle. “I had to be the guy that was valuable. I needed to see that reflected back in her eyes. And anytime that I didn’t measure up somehow, I felt like I was a failure. . . . And yet I’m also Patty, the one who’s a caretaker who multitasks in order to produce somebody’s survival. And [I’m] Lee, the performer who’s caught up in his own persona, doesn’t know who he is and is completely lost and self-absorbed.”
Foster credits her mother, Evelyn, with instilling the impeccable standards she displayed when choosing material, even at a young age. She consistently turned down chances to join the Brat Pack, or to be the ingenue or love interest in generic rom-coms, in favor of scripts that were smart, layered and edgy — preferably with an A-list director attached. So Foster did “Taxi Driver” and “Freaky Friday.” “The Accused,” not “Pretty in Pink.” “The Silence of the Lambs,” not “Sleepless in Seattle.”
“Meaningless, meaningful?” Foster recalls, describing the question she would ask of every project that came her way. Usually the answer was the former. “I had to keep going, ‘No, no, no, I don’t want to be that, I don’t want to be that, I don’t want to be that.’ I kept choosing a meaningful life.”
For Foster, that meant aspiring to substantive work and a semblance of normalcy, despite the coddling, manipulation and exploitation — her word — that she endured. “I was a child actress, so I had to fight to be real,” she says now. “I had to say, ‘No, I want to take the subway’ or ‘I want to go to a food store’ or ‘I’m going to make my own dinner.’ I wanted to be independent. I wanted my life to feel real, because otherwise I would feel like I was dead.”
To her own consternation, Foster has only grown more uneasy with the rituals of celebrity as she’s grown older. “Money Monster” will have its world premiere at Cannes on May 12, a prospect that might otherwise delight an honorary French citizen who’s fluent in the language and gave up her Paris apartment only a few years ago. Instead, she sighs resignedly when the subject of “getting dressed [up] and making people feel comfortable” comes up. “I’ve done it since I was a child, so it’s not like I don’t understand,” she says. “But it does take a toll. I’m sure it takes a toll to be Obama and to say, ‘God bless America’ 450,000 times, to the point where by the end of it you’re like: ‘Do I really bless America? I don’t know! Am I fake? Am I real?’ ”
Foster grappled with that same ambivalence three years ago, when she accepted a lifetime achievement award at the Golden Globes. The speech was equal parts candid and cryptic, and breathtakingly emotional. Most movingly, Foster paid homage to the filmmakers, crews and professionals who helped raise her; the mother who, suffering from dementia, often no longer knew her; and the ex-partner with whom she had brought up two young sons. Although Foster had long since come out as a lesbian within her immediate circle, it was the first time she acknowledged that part of her identity so publicly.
Not long after, Foster married the photographer Alexandra Hedison, who will walk the red carpet alongside her at Cannes. As for her sons, now teenagers, they’ll be at home. Unlike many of her colleagues, Foster rarely brought her children to her movie sets, or glittery parties and premieres. “I didn’t want them to know me that way when they were young,” she explains. “I didn’t want them to have an idea of me as anything but their mom.”
Foster admits that her relationship with her own mother — who’s “hanging in there, eating and watching movies” — is easier in some ways. “She’s a much nicer person,” Foster says with a smile. “Much less complicated, and sort of open in ways that she wasn’t. That conflictual relationship that I had with my mom, that was filled with tempest and difficulty and control issues and competition and love, that burning relationship that I had with my mom, is not the relationship that I have with this new person. Of course, I love the one that drove me crazy, and the new one I love in a different way.”
She could easily say the same thing about the artistic medium and business she has dedicated her life to over half a century: Cannes this year will find an industry in the throes of dizzyingly contradictory forces, with box office up but attendance down, and outlets such as Amazon sharing screens with Sony and Warner Bros. Foster is at home in the newly globalized marketplace — her movies traditionally do better overseas than in the United States — and she’s proven just as nimble as a filmmaker, having recently directed episodes of “House of Cards” and “Orange Is the New Black” for Netflix — where, she says, she would have made “Money Monster” had Clooney and Roberts not signed on.
Foster admits that “Money Monster” and her work for Netflix represent a new level of engagement with the outside world and its issues. “I’m more interested in relevant topics,” she says. But Foster’s form of activism will never extend past the screen. “I’m grateful for the spokesmen who are out there, because they’ve helped change the world and change my life,” she says, “and it’s really important and necessary for history and for change. I do it my own way. I make movies.”
And, Foster insists, she hasn’t given up acting. Although she intimated as much during the Golden Globes speech — hinting that her “talking stick” wouldn’t be as “sparkly” as it once was — she’s once again waiting for the right material. Meaningless, meaningful? Fake, real? Public Jodie, private Jodie? Or the third version, who emerges with that singular combination of transparency and unknowability when the camera is on? “I’m really looking forward to the movies I make as an actor when I’m in my 60s and 70s,” Foster says, her eyes crinkling into a smile behind her heavy eyeglass frames. “Because I think that’s a really interesting time. And I may be the only actress [left] who looks like a 70-year-old person.”