Jodie Foster talks about the various ways in which women can exist, including discussions on beauty, courage, and the importance of raising sons who support feminism.
It has been approximately 58 years since Jodie Foster’s initial acting role, and there are certain things that she will not tolerate while on set. She refuses to be instructed on how to get into character and will not stand for what she calls “voodoo” directing, which includes dramatic body movements and nonsensical techniques. She also will not entertain any type of “alpha” interference from those in higher positions in the industry. The only exception to this is when she encounters “super passive-aggressive British people,” a type that she admits she cannot resist. During work, and even when interacting with the media, Foster remains conscientious and matter-of-fact, with very little performance anxiety or self-consciousness. She approaches a story or character in a pragmatic manner, similar to how she would approach a book report.
We are currently staying in a hotel suite in West Hollywood with a charming and pleasant 61-year-old. She has gel-spiked hair, tiny-waisted black trousers, and a crisp white shirt with the collar popped. Her appearance could be compared to a matador or someone working in high-end catering. Her familiar face and manner are quite surprising. Her voice, smile, teasing laugh, and intensity exude the iconic roles she has played over the decades. From Clarice Starling in The Silence of the Lambs to Sarah Tobias in The Accused, even back to her childhood roles in Taxi Driver and Bugsy Malone. Foster takes off her mules to reveal red painted toenails and casually tucks her legs up under her, either as an unconscious gesture or a deliberate one. After being in the public eye for five decades, I imagine she understands as well as I do that phrases like “tucks her legs up under her” are often used by profile writers to create a false sense of intimacy.
Foster has a more complex side to her, which has often made reading about her difficult. She can be very self-aware, likely influenced by the constant questioning and scrutiny of her sexuality by journalists. As one of the only openly gay women in Hollywood for a long time, Foster now appears to struggle with discussing her personal life in public, possibly due to past trauma.
Here we are to discuss True Detective: Night Country, the fourth season of the popular anthology show previously led by Matthew McConaughey and Woody Harrelson. This season, there are finally female characters, including Liz Danvers, the police chief of Ennis, a desolate town in northern Alaska where the story takes place during the two months of permanent darkness. The show combines elements of a police procedural, a buddy drama, and a portrayal of North American Indigenous life. Like other seasons of True Detective, there are supernatural elements that may not entirely make sense, but still provide an enjoyable viewing experience. Foster’s character, known as “Alaska Karen,” is a lonely and bitter cop who doesn’t hold back with her words. While the role may not be a huge departure for Foster, she found satisfaction in portraying her character’s arc and filming in Iceland for the six-episode series.
One of the most notable aspects of the show is considering the experience of the relatively youthful cast and crew working alongside Jodie Foster. Other than Fiona Shaw, who portrays a former university professor living on the outskirts of town and had no scenes with Foster (although they did have dinner together, according to Foster), the production mainly consists of fresh and inexperienced performers. For example, Kali Reis, who delivers a brilliant performance as Evangeline Navarro, Danvers’ Indigenous sidekick, was previously a professional boxer. The director, Issa López, is a successful Mexican writer who has directed a few Spanish-language movies, including the fantasy-horror film Tigers Are Not Afraid. However, this is her first major project in the United States. In contrast, Foster has an extensive resume, with around 50 productions under her belt. She has also directed multiple films and TV episodes and received two Academy Awards for Best Actress for her roles in The Silence of the Lambs and The Accused. Foster possesses a unique quality that is difficult to define – perhaps a sense of intense vulnerability – and her impressive body of work makes her almost an iconic figure. It is hard to imagine what it must have been like for the young individuals working with her.
She will not accept this, obviously. “I am quite entertaining. I do not take things seriously. I am constantly cracking jokes.” She stops speaking. “And, I am not a specialist.”
This makes me laugh out loud. You are the definition of an expert. You’ve been doing this job since you were three years old! Imagine De Niro or Pacino saying such a thing. Foster smiles. “Not really. I just know me, I don’t really know anybody else, and even as a director – I’m not really an actor’s director, interestingly.” Foster’s directorial debut, the 1991 movie Little Man Tate, in which she also starred, has been followed in her directing career by a handful of movies and individual episodes of TV shows such as Orange Is the New Black and Black Mirror. “I really let the actors do their thing and just hope I’ve cast correctly. I’m not somebody who can tease a performance on take 200. I believe that you cast, and allow something to happen on screen, and, if you do it fast enough, people don’t overthink themselves.”
She has specific requirements when it comes to being directed, and the only challenge on True Detective was with director López. Despite López’s experience directing four movies and Foster’s extensive acting career, they immediately bonded and laughed through everything. Foster appreciates when directors give clear instructions such as asking for a faster or slower pace. She is not interested in directors who try to “shake” their actors or use a condescending tone. Foster jokingly warns López not to try that with her.
This marks the second consecutive project where Foster has collaborated with inexperienced directors. In the recent movie Nyad, available on Netflix, Foster portrays Bonnie Stoll, the supportive friend and coach of marathon swimmer Diana Nyad. She worked with a team of first-time feature directors, Elizabeth Chai Vasarhelyi and Jimmy Chin, who had previously only directed documentary films. I thoroughly enjoyed Nyad; the script was well-written and humorous, Annette Bening delivered a brilliant performance in the lead role, and Foster’s portrayal was more relaxed than anything we’ve seen from her since her early days acting in Freaky Friday at the age of 13. It is refreshing to see Foster take on a character who is not struggling through a traumatic event or being sent off into space alone.
In her role in Nyad, she exudes a relaxed and humorous demeanor – which has earned her a Golden Globe nomination. This is the first time Foster has portrayed a lesbian character to my knowledge. (There is a separate discussion to be had about the subtle gay undertones in her portrayal of Clarice Starling in Silence of the Lambs, which lesbians have thoroughly analyzed – from her choice of footwear and clothing to her interactions with male characters.) The media coverage of the film, especially when journalists brought up the fact that both main characters were gay, was predictably awkward. It should be noted that it is more challenging for gay women than gay men in Hollywood, where there is no female equivalent to a prominent figure like showrunner Ryan Murphy (well, there is; but she remains deeply closeted). I do not blame Foster for avoiding these questions about her personal life. While they may not be openly hostile or mocking these days, there is often still an underlying judgment: from straight individuals, the question is usually “why are you still so affected by this?” and from the gay media, “why didn’t you do more for the community in the past?”
I inform Foster that I have a fondness for Nyad and she responds cheerfully, “Oh, thank you! I have a great affection for Bonnie and Diana as well. They were my main motivation for doing it, as I have known them from various social gatherings.”
The film Nyad handles a trauma narrative in a subtle manner. As a young champion swimmer, Nyad was sexually abused by her coach. The filmmakers, who were also young, brought their own thoughts to the project, having previously made films about victims of sexual violence. They filmed more than what was ultimately shown. Instead of focusing on the abuse, the film highlights Nyad’s incredible achievement of swimming from Cuba to Florida at the age of 64, despite facing physical dangers. The filmmakers wanted to make it clear that Nyad’s success was not solely due to her traumatic experience. In fact, one of the most uplifting moments in the film is when Nyad mentions that her abuser had passed away and she, along with her friends Diana and Annette, acknowledge that while she may still struggle with memories of the abuse, it does not define her or her accomplishments.
In my personal opinion, I found the hangout scenes in the beginning of the film to be enjoyable. Foster and Bening are shown relaxing at home in LA, playing table tennis and Scrabble. Foster put in six months of intense workouts to achieve Bonnie’s toned abdomen, resembling that of an athlete. She confidently struts around in the movie wearing cutoff shorts and a vest, carrying her clipboard and whistle like a fit PE teacher. Despite being portrayed as a nerd, it’s clear from her physical appearance that she is also athletic. Foster laughs loudly and remarks, “I’ve always wanted to be admired for my body, so I’m pleased that people are now talking about it.”
In a recent discussion, Foster shared her experiences navigating her 50s, a challenging phase of transition where she had to learn how to be a mature woman in Hollywood without many role models to look up to. Through cultivating friendships with individuals of different ages, she discovered the answer to this dilemma. One of her close friends is 80 years old, a former college professor who lived in a commune during the 1970s. This remarkable woman has given Foster insight into what lies ahead and what is achievable. Despite her own impressive accomplishments, her friend emphasizes that the most rewarding thing is empowering and supporting communities of women.
What is her opinion on what young individuals in her field should be told? “They should understand the importance of unwinding, not overthinking, and creating something unique. I can assist them in discovering this, which is far more enjoyable than being the main character with all the stress that comes with it.”
I informed Foster that I recently saw a picture of her with the young British actor, Bella Ramsey, who is the non-binary star of the popular HBO show The Last of Us. At 20 years old, Ramsey is on the verge of becoming a huge star. Last month, Ramsey introduced Foster at the Elle magazine Women in Hollywood event, which Foster had requested herself. Foster explains, “I reached out to Bella, whom I had never met before, and asked her to introduce me at this event. It’s a wonderful celebration of actors and people in the film industry, but it also has a strong focus on fashion and determining who represents us. The organizers take pride in having a diverse group of attendees, but I couldn’t help but notice that everyone was still wearing high heels and makeup. There are many ways to be a woman, and it’s important for people to see that. Bella gave an amazing speech while wearing a perfectly tailored suit, with a middle part and no makeup.”
According to Foster, as a mentor, she often reaches out to young actresses because she empathizes with their struggles growing up. When she sees Ramsey, who has openly stated that she is not completely straight, does she feel for her younger self? Foster admits that her own childhood was difficult, but she had her mother’s support. Foster’s mother, Brandy, was a powerful figure in the entertainment industry and helped raise her four children in Los Angeles. She also guided Foster’s career from a young age, starting with commercials when she was just three years old.
Was it possible for her to wear a suit and have a sharp part in the middle of her hair without wearing makeup when she was starting out as a young actress? She responded with a no, explaining that at the time, they did not have the freedom to do so. However, she hopes that the current movement towards authenticity will bring about real freedom. She acknowledges that they had other positive aspects during that time, and she did her best to navigate her place in society and her beliefs in feminism. However, she admits that her perspective was limited, as she lived in a heavily segregated environment.
I brought up a previous conversation where she mentioned how fear often dictates our decisions. She acknowledged that it can keep us safe, but also acknowledged its potential to be damaging. She noted that while she promotes and supports the younger generation (gen Z), she also finds them irritating at times, particularly in the workplace. For example, they may come in later than expected or disregard grammar and spelling in emails, claiming it limits their creativity.
Foster has two adult sons, Kit and Charles, who were born to her ex-partner, film producer Cydney Bernard. After splitting up in 2008, Foster has been married to photographer Alexandra Hedison for the past decade. In a humorous twist, Foster reveals that her sons were initially confused about what it meant to be male due to their upbringing. They do not enjoy sports and prefer watching movies and spending time with their female friends. Foster proudly describes them as feminists. However, there was a period when her older son, influenced by societal expectations, believed being male meant being rude and disrespectful to women. Foster swiftly corrected this misconception and did not tolerate such behavior from her son. Despite this phase lasting six months, Foster can now laugh about it.
In the meantime, Foster’s spouse’s short film, titled “Alok,” which showcases the life of non-binary author, poet, and comedian Alok Vaid-Menon, has been accepted by Sundance. This accomplishment fills Foster with pride. While Foster played a role as the executive producer of the short film, they do not interfere too much in each other’s projects. “We prefer to work independently, although we do acknowledge each other’s strengths,” Foster explains. When asked for an example, they respond with a bit of mystery. “I excel at writing letters, while she has a keen eye for visuals and is a talented photographer.”
It has been a difficult journey for Foster to reach a sense of stability and contentment with Hedison. Even achieving minor fame can be damaging, but Foster’s level of celebrity is absurd. She has had to work hard over the years to not let it destroy her. Growing up in the public eye and remaining an actor has its own strange challenges, as she has realized during a break in her career. Suddenly, she had time where she wasn’t the center of attention and not everyone was interested in her opinions. Being a public figure changes your world and you may not even realize that you are self-absorbed, neglectful of your friends, and constantly seeking attention.
Why do people indulge you? “People indulge you, so there are tough lessons that you must learn. Hugh Grant once made a statement that I found to be accurate: being famous at a young age is like constantly being injected with steroids, and you live with those inflated muscles for the rest of your life. But one day, you decide to stop taking steroids and you no longer recognize yourself or know who you are. Rebuilding an entire identity can be challenging, and that is something I learned later in life.”
While Foster was in a relationship with Bernard, she did not attend any public events or acknowledge their relationship publicly. However, during her 2013 Golden Globes speech, she thanked Bernard and expressed pride in their “modern family.” I ask, what is the conclusion? Is it when someone tells you they can no longer be with you because of your faults? “Yes, definitely. Being an actor does not lend itself to self-awareness. It is easy to lack self-awareness.”
It is believed that the magnetic force towards behaving like an unpleasant person is powerful, but according to Foster, she has tactics to combat it. “I have managed to create separate spaces for different aspects of my life,” she says. “However, these divisions can cause issues in my relationships.” She chuckles. “I don’t want people to know me solely in this setting.” She gestures to the interview location. “This is my own space. My friends are not aware of it, and my children only found out about my profession much later. I never brought them to the set.”
Is that a positive aspect? “I suppose it is good? However, there are other actors whose children have had experiences like, ‘Oh, I lived in Romania [while my parent was filming] and I did this and that…’ but I did not have those opportunities with my children. Perhaps they would have had adventures or something.” The main idea is, she explains, “there is nothing ordinary about being a public figure from a young age, and there is a lot of navigating involved in figuring out how to be a well-rounded individual.”
It can’t have been easy for her and yet she still gets a lot of stick for decisions she has made over the years. “And I will never be able to explain,” she says, “because unless you were there, you don’t get it. There are choices that I made that people can say, ‘Why did you do that?’ Well, you didn’t walk in my shoes. Try to walk in my shoes and you’ll find out.”
I have a question about The Silence of the Lambs. One thing that stands out about Foster’s acting is her ability to avoid cliches due to the intelligence she brings to her roles. When she won the Academy Award for Best Actress in 1992 for her role in The Silence of the Lambs, it was for a character that was unlike anything seen before on screen. While the chemistry between Anthony Hopkins and Jodie Foster as Hannibal Lecter and the trainee FBI agent was crucial to the success of the film, it was Foster who truly carried the movie.
In the final scene, Clarice is navigating through the murderer’s home in complete darkness while he watches her using night-vision goggles. Despite being a tough FBI agent, her hand trembles as she holds the gun in front of her, betraying her nerves. I wonder if this detail was suggested by Jodie Foster or director Jonathan Demme?
“I came up with the idea.” I knew it! “It just felt fitting to me. There was an element of surprise with Clarice – she possessed strength, yet was vulnerable and had a sense of smallness. She acknowledged that she wasn’t physically powerful, and it never crossed my mind that this could be considered revolutionary. You’re portraying someone who could typically be seen as a male character – the action hero. However, Clarice breaks that stereotype.”
Foster may be characterizing herself. The juxtaposition of being petite yet powerful is a key aspect of her charm and is also evident in her capacity to set limits outside of the limelight. “I am not someone who can juggle multiple tasks at once. I am a peculiarly focused individual. If there is a range, that is where I fall on it. External distractions, such as airplanes or being called, do not deter me if I am engrossed in something. I have a great ability to say no and decline participation.”
Seriously. She is not easily swayed or taken advantage of, and at this stage in her life, she refuses to feel guilty about it. “As an actor, you develop a thick skin not just for criticism, but also for being told what to do: ‘Can you move your body here? Can you show emotion in this scene?’ I’ve learned how to handle all of that. And I won’t compromise.” For years, Foster faced public criticism and lectures on how she should do her job. “But now,” she looks directly at me, “I’ll do it for my career, but not for you.”