Dressed for an interview in shiny black trousers, a crisp, light-blue oxford shirt and peep-toe pumps she immediately throws off upon entering a Washington hotel room, Jodie Foster plops into a chair, fixes a guest with that famously level, blue-eyed gaze and prepares herself to address what she has come to call “the Mel Factor.”
“Mel,” for anyone too distracted by the latest news about Charlie Sheen or Lindsay Lohan to remember, is Mel Gibson, who stars in “The Beaver,” a movie in which Foster appears and which marks her third foray as a director. (It opens in Washington on Friday.)
The quirky, semi-comic but mostly sad drama, about a man in the throes of crippling depression who seeks to heal himself by channeling the persona of a beaver hand puppet, would be a tough sell at any time.
Throw in the fact that, just as Foster was finishing the picture, a series of profane, verbally abusive arguments Gibson had with his girlfriend surfaced on the Web — ultimately leading Gibson to plead no contest to battery charges in March — and you’ve got the Mel Factor, a controversy that led even the cast of “The Hangover Part II” to demand he be dropped from that movie.
It also has demanded that Foster take to the hustings to defend her star, whom she befriended 18 years ago when they co-starred in “Maverick.” Foster readily admits: “He’s a complicated person. But the man that I know is a great friend and incredibly good in the movie.”
She is diminutive, frequently tucking her legs under her in a sitting fetal position; her voice comes out in a rapid-fire whisper as she explains, “This is not my favorite part of what I do.” Then, a revealing slip of the tongue: “Photographs I like worse,” she says, before catching herself with a quiet laugh, “or hate more.”
Still, even without the Mel Factor, Foster most likely would have had to go on the road to promote “The Beaver,” which, like her previous films, “Little Man Tate” and “Home for the Holidays,” doesn’t come ready-stamped as an instant mainstream hit.
The script, by first-time writer Kyle Killen, had been floating around Hollywood for years as a promising property that had yet to be picked up — no doubt because of the tonal challenges presented by a movie that asks viewers to root for a troubled, withdrawn protagonist, identify emotionally with an inanimate puppet who sounds like Michael Caine and cheer at an ending that can’t remotely be described as happy, at least in the traditional sense.
“The Beaver” is “a very specialized movie, and I knew that when I read the script,” Foster says. “Instead of going against that and saying, ‘I’m going to try to make this the most generically general-public style film that I can’ and play up the comedy elements, I did exactly the opposite. I knew that this was a film that was going to require a lot of an audience, and it was going to require them to put aside the conventions of what they expect from film.”
In perhaps her boldest directorial move, Foster cast Gibson as Walter Black, a toy manufacturing executive who, as the movie opens, is in the process of alienating his wife (Foster) and two sons (Anton Yelchin and Riley Thomas Stewart).
When Foster approached Gibson for the role, he’d already had run-ins with tabloid culture when anti-Semitic and sexist rants went public. At one point in “The Beaver,” Black goes on the talk-show circuit with his puppet, defending his bizarre behavior in ways that, although far more benign, oddly mirror Gibson’s own travails with the press and the vagaries of public opinion.
“Sure, the baggage is interesting in terms of the character,” Foster says, adding that Gibson has “lived a very complicated life, and he’s a fascinating man. And with that comes a lot of other things.
“I’m not defending his behavior,” she continues. “He’s the only person who could defend his behavior. But the man that I know is the most beloved actor that I’ve ever worked with, and a man that I’ve known for a long time, over 15 years. And he’s loyal and kind and sweet and generous and always on time and professional.”
Foster’s adamant support of Gibson has proven confounding and even hurtful to fans who find it difficult to accept that the actress who helped raise public consciousness about rape in “The Accused” (for which she won her first Oscar) would defend a man who faces troubling questions over whether he physically abused his girlfriend.
Then again, Foster always seems to be disappointing at least one of the myriad constituencies who seek to claim her as their own icon, whether they be feminists, the gay community or gun control advocates who might have reasonably expected her to rally to their case after John Hinckley Jr. attempted to assassinate President Ronald Reagan in her name in 1981.
Instead of coming to Washington to testify before Congress like so many of her peers, or organizing trips to geopolitical hot spots to leverage her celebrity, Foster has resolutely played it, if not safe, then entirely privately. (The mother of two young sons, Foster has never spoken publicly about her romantic life.)
Producer Lynda Obst, who worked with Foster on the science-based drama “Contact,” sees a connection between Foster’s refusal to hew to activist expectations and her going to bat for Gibson. “Integrity is an incredibly important thing to Jodie,” Obst observes. “Actors sometimes try to buy their integrity through causes or donations or affiliating themselves with humanitarian ventures. Jodie’s integrity is in her work. And she’s not one for political correctness over who she knows her incredibly long-standing friend to be.”
That fierce independent streak was nurtured early in Foster’s life by her mother, Brandy, who, when Foster was a toddler, began taking her to casting calls. Even then, Foster recalls, her mother encouraged her to think bigger than the job at hand.
“She wasn’t interested in me being the cutest child or on the cover of a lot of magazines. She was interested in me being taken seriously. Because she wanted to be taken seriously, and she didn’t have the opportunities I had.”
Whenever a script came over the transom, Foster adds, “she still went through the process of talking about the character and asking, ‘Why would you choose this?’ and ‘What does this mean?’ . . . Those discussions we had made me feel that I was doing something important, and if I wasn’t doing something important, I had to make it important.”
Even as a burgeoning child actress, Foster didn’t do “kids” movies as much as general-audience movies that had kids in them; it might say it all that 1976 saw Foster starring in the clean-scrubbed Disney hit “Freaky Friday” and playing a teenage prostitute opposite Robert De Niro in “Taxi Driver.” Even then, Foster says, she had her eye on the long ball.
“I did want to be around for a long time, and I wanted to be taken seriously,” she says. Which is why, when the 1980s rolled around, she declined membership in the Brat Pack and turned down roles routinely being offered to young women her age.
“I was very unpopular at the time,” she recalls ruefully. “I wasn’t interested in the part of Tom Cruise’s girlfriend, [which wasn’t] the interesting part. And romantic comedies . . .”
Her voice trails off. “I don’t know how to deliver a movie that I’m bored by,” she finally says with a laugh. “I just don’t know how to do that.”
The result has been a career of remarkable resilience and range, especially for an actress who’s had to navigate the inhospitable terrain north of 30 (Foster is 48). With such thrillers as “Panic Room,” “Flightplan” and “The Silence of the Lambs,” for which she won her second Oscar, Foster has perfected the serious-dramas-plus-a-little-action that has proven so durable for such successors as Sandra Bullock and Angelina Jolie. What’s more, she’s a bona fide international star at a time when being a global commodity is more crucial than ever.
“She’s unlike anybody else in the industry in that she’s ageless,” Obst observes. “She somehow transcends female aging issues [because] as a child of the business, she knew never to define herself at any age.”
Foster recently announced that she’ll focus less on acting than directing, yet another canny move in an industry where 50-year-old women are more likely to get rewarding work behind the camera than in front of it. And the films she directs are more likely to reveal her core being than any role. Consider: Whether it’s the child prodigy in “Little Man Tate,” the prodigal young adult in “Home for the Holidays” or Walter Black trying desperately to rejoin his family in “The Beaver,” Foster has devoted her career to balancing the isolation of stardom and a deeper longing for connection.
“I don’t care if I make three movies in my whole life if they’re three movies that really stand for me in all aspects and that are really about who I am. I say this to my kids all the time: If you have the luxury of having an education and being able to choose what you do in life and have a career, it does stand for you. And you better be able to defend your choices.” Even when those choices occasionally involve the Mel Factor.