‘I developed a system to stay alive’
Child stardom, coming out, stalkers – Jodie Foster survived them all without losing her cool. Elizabeth Day asks how
Jodie Foster is wearing shoes that are so unstylish it’s quite possible they have travelled the full bellcurve 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 stitchedtogether 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 wellcut 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 fourdecade 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, she 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.”
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 wellfleshed-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 hostagetaking 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.
“My mother just loved movies,” recalls Foster. “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 selfeducate. 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
‘I don’t know how I feel about fame. I’ve never not been a public figure’