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Jodie Foster on fame: ‘You don’t know that you’re a blowhard, and that you’re not a good friend’

Having been in about 50 productions, there are things Foster just won’t put up with on set. The actor talks raising feminist sons, Gen Z, beauty and more

It is roughly 58 years since Jodie Foster’s first acting role and there are things she won’t put up with on set. She won’t be told how to get into character. She won’t tolerate what she calls “­voodoo” directing, that is am-dram, shake-your-body-out ­nonsense. She won’t respond to certain types of “alpha” interference from people up the industry chain. (The only time Foster submits to bossy producers, she says, is when they are “super passive-aggressive ­British ­people” – a type she just can’t resist.)

In work mode, and outside interactions with the press, she is ­conscientious, matter-of-fact, with almost no performance anxiety or self-consciousness. “I approach a story or character in the same way I do a book report,” she says. “I like to make it pragmatic.”

We are in a hotel suite in West Hollywood where the 61-year-old is charming and pleasant, with gel-spiked hair, tiny-waisted black trousers and a crisp white shirt popped at the collar. She could be a matador, or someone in high-end catering, and the sheer familiarity of her face and manner is startling. The voice and smile, the teasing laugh and intensity, evoke decades of iconic roles, from Clarice Starling in The Silence of the Lambs and Sarah Tobias in The Accused, back to her childhood roles in Taxi Driver and Bugsy Malone.

Foster kicks off her mules to reveal red painted toenails, and tucks her legs up under her, an unstudied gesture – or a knowing one. After five decades of fame, I imagine she understands as well as I do that, “she tucks her legs up under her” is the type of dumb line profile writers like to use to summon fake intimacy.


There is another side to Foster; one that is markedly less straightforward and, over the years, has made much of the coverage of her painful to read. She can be intensely self-conscious, a state if not wholly created then certainly intensified by the experience of having journalists test every conceivable angle to get the subject of her sexuality on the table. For a long time, Foster was the only visible gay woman in Hollywood and these days her ability to talk publicly about her life is mired in something that, to me, looks a lot like PTSD.

Anyway, here we are, ostensibly to talk about True Detective: Night Country, the fourth season of the bro-y cult anthology show previously stewarded by Matthew McConaughey and Woody Harrelson, and that, this season, finally features some women. Foster plays Liz Danvers, chief of police of Ennis, a godforsaken small town in the far north of Alaska, where we join the story on the eve of permanent night: the two months of the year when that part of the world is in darkness. It’s a police procedural, an odd-couple buddy drama, an affecting depiction of North American Indigenous life and, like the other True Detectives, a tale of the supernatural that doesn’t make a whole lot of sense but still offers a highly enjoyable ride. Foster’s cop, “Alaska Karen” as she puts it, is lonely and embittered, spitting out lines like: “Stop where you are, Ennis police … f**ker.” As roles go it’s not a big stretch for Foster, who enjoyed shooting the six-parter in Iceland, but there is a satisfying arc for her character that is clearly her kind of thing.

A more arresting feature of the show is considering what it must have been like for the relatively young cast and crew to work alongside Jodie Foster. Apart from Fiona Shaw, who plays a former university professor living on the edge of town and with whom Foster had no scenes (they dined together, she says), the production is made up of mostly new and inexperienced performers. Kali Reis, who is brilliant as Evangeline Navarro, Danvers’ Indigenous sidekick, was until recently a professional boxer; Issa López, the director, is a successful Mexican writer who has made a handful of Spanish-language movies, including the fantasy-horror film Tigers Are Not Afraid, but this is her first big project in the US. Foster, by contrast, has been in about 50 productions, directed multiple films and TV episodes, won two best actress Oscars, for The Silence of the Lambs and The Accused. Some singular quality in Foster that is hard to describe – a kind of flinching intensity, perhaps – along with the sheer volume and standard of her work, puts her close to being an icon. What on earth can it have been like for the young people working with her?

She won’t have this, of course. “Well, I’m pretty fun. I mean – I don’t take anything seriously. I make jokes all the time.” She pauses. “And, you know, I’m not an expert.”

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 Robert De Niro or Al 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 very particular requirements when it comes to being directed herself, and if there was any difficulty on True Detective – “Well, not difficult, but the little dance that has to be done” – it was with the director, López.

“She has directed four movies, and I’ve been in so many films, and I think that part is sometimes daunting. But we bonded immediately and laughed through everything,” Foster says.

“I like it when directors tell me what they want and say things like faster, slower. I’m not interested in directors who are like” – she puts on a whispery, luvvie-ish voice – “‘Here, let me shake you!’ She might have to do that with other people, because they’re young or they’ve never acted before. And I would watch her do that with them and … ” Foster snorts. “You’d better not do that with me.”

This is the second consecutive project in which Foster has worked with much less experienced directors. On the recent Netflix movie Nyad, in which Foster plays Bonnie Stoll, the best friend and coach of marathon swimmer, Diana Nyad, she was working with an even less seasoned team: first-time feature directors Elizabeth Chai Vasarhelyi and Jimmy Chin, who had previously only worked in documentary film. I loved Nyad, partly because it was so funny and well written, partly because Annette Bening is brilliant in the title role, and partly because of Foster, who is more relaxed on screen than anything I’ve seen her in since she made Freaky Friday at the age of 13. It is nice, for once, to see her playing someone who isn’t slogging through a trauma or being launched alone into space.

In Nyad, she is loose-limbed, and full of easy humour and jokes – her performance has just was nominated for a Golden Globe. As far as I’m aware, it’s the first time Foster has played an out lesbian. (There’s a separate essay to be written about gay subtext in her depiction of Clarice Starling in Silence of the Lambs, which lesbians will give you chapter and verse on – the boots, the duffel coat, the way she shrinks and smirks in relation to the male characters, I could go on).

The press around the Nyad, particularly when hacks brought up the fact both lead characters were gay, was customarily awkward. It is worth pointing out here that it is harder for gay women than gay men in Hollywood, where there is no woman equivalent of, say, showrunner Ryan Murphy (well, there is; but she’s so far back in the closet she’s practically in Narnia). I don’t blame Foster for withdrawing. Questions about her life aren’t overtly hostile or mocking these days, but there is often still a judgment behind them: from straight people, broadly, why are you still so bent out of shape by this; and from the gay press, why didn’t you do more back in the day?

I’ve been waiting to be objectified my entire life, so I’m very happy that people have started talking about my body parts

I tell Foster I loved Nyad and she says, brightly: “Oh, thanks! I love those two [Bonnie and Diana], so that was the number one reason to do it. I knew them from barbecues and stuff.”

There is a trauma narrative in Nyad that is subtly handled. As a teen swim champion, Nyad was molested by her coach. “Obviously, they’re young film-makers and there was a lot of – we all brought our thoughts to the table, having made movies about victims of sexual violence,” Foster says. “They shot a lot more than they put in.”

Instead, the film focuses on Nyad’s record-breaking swim from Cuba to Florida, undertaken at the age of 64 and in the face of immense physical risks. “The important thing to Diana and me and Annette was: we cannot think that she achieves the swim because of the molestation,” Foster says. “My happiest moment in the film is when Bonnie says as an aside, ‘Oh, I read in the paper that he [the coach] died.’ And Diana says, ‘He didn’t mark me; it’s just that sometimes, every once in a while, I feel like I’m 14 again and fighting this stuff.’”

Personally, I liked the hangout scenes at the start of the movie, when Foster and Bening are chilling at home in LA, playing table tennis and Scrabble. “Yeah. I love those scenes.” To achieve Bonnie’s washboard stomach, Foster worked out like an athlete for six months; she swans about the movie in cutoff shorts and a vest, brandishing her clipboard and whistle like the world’s buffest PE teacher. She has always been portrayed as a nerd, but in light of the evidence isn’t she really just as much of a jock? Foster laughs loudly. “I’ve been waiting to be objectified my entire life, so I’m very happy that people have started talking about my body parts,” she says.

Foster spoke recently about her 50s being a tricky decade of transition in which she had to figure out, in the absence of many role models, how to be a woman above a certain age in Hollywood. She found an answer in friendships both up and down the age range. “I have a friend who I adore, who’s 80. She’s a college professor, she lived in a commune in the early 70s, she’s an extraordinary person,” Foster says. “I get to see what’s ahead, what’s possible. For all of her accomplishments, what she keeps saying, which I think is really true, is that the greatest thing is helping communities of other women.”

What does she think young people in her industry need to hear? “They need to learn how to relax, how to not think about it so much, how to come up with something that’s theirs. I can help them find that, which is so much more fun than being, with all the pressure behind it, the protagonist of the story,” Foster says.

I do a lot of reaching out to young actresses. I’m compelled. Because it was hard growing up

I mention to Foster that I saw a photo of her recently with the young British actor, Bella Ramsey, the non-binary star of the HBO zombie hit The Last of Us and who, at 20 years old, is on the brink of megastardom. Last month, Ramsey introduced Foster at the Elle magazine Women in Hollywood celebration, a pairing Foster says she requested herself.

“I reached out to Bella, because we’d never met, and said, ‘I want you to introduce me at this thing’, which is a wonderful event about actors and people in the movies, but is also very much a fashion thing. Which means it’s determining who represents us. [The organisers] are very proud of themselves because they’ve got every ethnicity, and I’m like, yeah, but all the attendees are still wearing heels and eyelashes,” Foster says.

“There are other ways of being a woman, and it’s really important for people to see that. And Bella, who gave the best speech, was wearing the most perfect suit, beautifully tailored, and a middle parting and no makeup.”

As a mentoring relationship, it’s part of a pattern, says Foster. “I do a lot of reaching out to young actresses. I’m compelled. Because it was hard growing up.” When she looks at Ramsey, who told British Vogue earlier this year that “I’m not 100 per cent straight”, does she feel a pang of sympathy for her younger self? “Yes.” It was so bleak. “But I had my mom, you know.” Foster’s late mother, Brandy, was a force of nature in the entertainment industry, who raised her four children in LA and stewarded Foster, from the age of three, when she first put her up for commercials, to stardom.

Could she have worn a suit and had a severe middle parting with no makeup when she was coming up as a young actor? “No,” she says. “Because we weren’t free. Because we didn’t have freedom. And hopefully that’s what the vector of authenticity that’s happening offers – the possibility of real freedom. We had other things that were good. And I would say: I did the best I could for my generation. I was very busy understanding where I fitted in and where I wanted to be in terms of feminism. But my lens wasn’t wide enough. I lived in an incredibly segregated world.”

I mention something she said the other day about fear dictating most of our choices. “It can. It keeps you safe.” But it’s also warping, isn’t it? Beyond a certain point? “Well, it’s a survival skill. But one that will kill you eventually.” I should add that, for all her cheerleading of Gen Z, Foster isn’t above being irritated by them. “They’re really annoying, especially in the workplace. They’re like, ‘Nah, I’m not feeling it today, I’m gonna come in at 10.30am.’ Or, like, in emails, I’ll tell them this is all grammatically incorrect, did you not check your spelling? And they’re like, ‘Why would I do that, isn’t that kind of limiting?’”

Foster has two sons, Kit and Charles, who are in their 20s and whom she had with her ex-partner, film producer Cydney Bernard. She and Bernard split up in 2008 and for the last 10 years she has been married to the photographer Alexandra Hedison. A funny effect of her sons’ upbringing, says Foster, was their early confusion over how, precisely, to be male. “My two don’t like sports,” she says. “They like to watch movies and sit at home, and they’re really into their female friends. They’re super feminist. And there was a moment with my older one when he was in high school, when, because he was raised by two women – three women – it was like he was trying to figure out what it was to be a boy. And he watched television and came to the conclusion, oh, I just need to be an asshole. I understand! I need to be sh*tty to women, and act like I’m a f**ker. And I was like, no! That’s not what it is to be a man! That’s what our culture has been selling you for all this time.” The phase went on for six months, she says. Did she let it play out? “Yes, and no. I was like, you won’t be talking to me like that.” Foster bursts into laughter.

Meanwhile, her wife has just had a short documentary called Alok – a portrait of the non-binary author, poet and comedian Alok Vaid-Menon – accepted by Sundance, which Foster says makes her very proud. Although Foster served as the short film’s executive producer, they are not overly involved in each other’s work. “We like doing our work independently, although there are things that I do better, she recognises.” Sounds ominous. Like what? “I’m a really good letter writer. And she’s extraordinarily visual. Great photographer.”

Getting to this place of seeming security and happiness with Hedison has been a struggle for Foster. Even minor celebrity is corrosive, and Foster’s fame is ridiculous. It has taken years of work, she says, not to be ruined by it. “There is a meta-weirdness to having been a public figure from the time you were young, right? Especially if you have stayed being an actor.” It wasn’t until she took time off mid-career that she realised just how odd her life was. Suddenly, “I had lots of time where I wasn’t the most important person in the room. Or not everybody was listening to the stupid sh*t I was ranting about. Being a public figure, your universe is altered and you just don’t know anything else. And you don’t know that you’re a blowhard, and that you’re not a good friend, and that you never show up.”

Because people indulge you? “Because people indulge you. So there are hard lessons you have to learn. There’s something Hugh Grant said, which I thought was right on: that the fame thing at a young age is like being shot up with steroids and you live with those big muscles your whole life, and then, one day, you make the decision that there are no more steroids. And you don’t recognise yourself and have no idea who you are. And you have to rebuild an entire identity. That can be difficult, and that’s something I had to learn late.”

During the years Foster was with Bernard, she never took her to the Oscars or other public events, and never publicly owned to their relationship – although she did, later, pay tribute to her in her 2013 Golden Globes speech, when after thanking Bernard she said, “I’m so proud of our modern family”. What’s the reckoning, I ask. Is it someone telling you they can’t live with you any more because you’re so awful? “Yes. Definitely. An actor’s life is not a good life to be self-aware. It’s very easy to be un-self-aware.”

Presumably the magnetic pull back towards being an arsehole is strong, although, says Foster, she has strategies in place. “I think, healthily, I created compartments around things. But the compartments are problematic for my relationships.” She laughs. “I don’t want people to know me in this context.” She indicates the surroundings of the interview. “This is just mine. My friends don’t know it, my kids didn’t know what I did for a living till quite late. They had no idea. I never brought them on set.”

There are choices I made that people can say, ‘Why did you do that?’ Try to walk in my shoes and you’ll find out

That’s a good thing, isn’t it? “I guess it’s good? But then there’s other actors whose kids are like, ‘Oh, I lived in Romania [when my parent was filming] and I did this and that … ’ and I didn’t do any of that with my kids. Maybe they would’ve had adventures, or something.” The point is, she says, “there’s nothing normal about being a public figure from the time when you were young, and there’s a lot of negotiating around that – to figure out how to be a whole person”.

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 one quick question about The Silence of the Lambs. One thing about Foster’s acting is that, because of the intelligence she brings to her roles, she very rarely caves in to cliche. When she won the best actress Oscar for The Silence of the Lambs in 1992, it was for a role that felt like nothing we had seen on screen before. The chemistry between Anthony Hopkins as Hannibal Lecter and Foster as the trainee FBI agent made the movie, but, of the two of them, it was Foster’s film.

There is a scene at the end where Clarice is groping her way through the killer’s house in the pitch dark, and he is watching her through night-vision goggles. And her hand, holding the gun out in front of her, is shaking with nerves. It runs against every boilerplate depiction of the hard-charging FBI agent. She is quivering with fear, and my question is: was that detail Foster’s or director Jonathan Demme’s idea?

“It was my idea.” Knew it! “That felt right to me. There was something unexpected about Clarice – that she was able to have power, but was so vulnerable and had that smallness. She recognised that she wasn’t powerful physically, and it didn’t occur to me that there was anything revolutionary about that. You’re playing somebody who could be what we see as a male character – the action guy. But she’s not; she’s Clarice.”

Foster could be describing herself. The contrast between smallness and power is somehow central to her appeal and is also present in her ability to enforce boundaries off-screen. “I’m not a multitasker. I’m a weird focused person. If there’s a spectrum, that’s my spectrum. It doesn’t matter if there are planes going by or if someone is calling my name, if I’m focused on something. I’m really good at going, no thank you, I’m not doing that.”

No kidding. She won’t be moved and she won’t be put upon, and, at this point in her life, she won’t be made to feel bad about any of it, either. “You can get a skin as an actor, not just for being criticised, but [told what to do]: ‘Can you move your body there? Can you do this, can you be emotional here?’ I learned how to do all that. And I will not.” For decades, Foster was chastised in public for doing it wrong and lectured on how she should be doing it instead. “And now,” she says, looking at me rather pointedly, “I’m like, I’ll do it for my job, and I’m not going to do it for you.”

True Detective: Night Country is available on Sky Atlantic and Now from January 15th