Jodie Foster on Mel Gibson, Directing The Beaver, and the 'Inhuman Stress' of Celebrity
When Mel Gibson's infamous taped phone calls leaked at the tail end of filming on The Beaver, actor-director Jodie Foster was forced into crisis mode with her distributors. "It was just about, now how do we sell it, and how do we get it out there, how do we get people to want to see it?" Foster recalled recently in Los Angeles. Two years and three release dates later, she feels like the timing is finally right. "I think they made the right decision," she said. "I feel like the film's getting a fair shake, and I'm not sure it would have."
Foster sat down last week with Movieline and Boxoffice Magazine for a joint interview about The Beaver (read Part 1 of the interview below and check Boxoffice Magazine for Part 2.) In the film, based on a 2008 Black List-ed script by Kyle Killen, Gibson plays Walter Black, a toy company CEO and father of two (Anton Yelchin and Riley Thomas Stewart) who suffers from debilitating depression; director Foster also co-stars as Walter's long-suffering wife Meredith, who finds her marriage and family at first complicated, then healed by, and ultimately threatened by the beaver puppet Walter begins wearing as a means with which to cope with his mental illness.
That meant double duty for Foster during production, and patience and loyalty besides once Gibson's personal struggles came to light. But the clear-eyed 48-year-old actress/producer/director kept her faith in the project throughout and lent her support to Gibson, whom she first met when they both starred in 1994's Maverick.
Audiences will have their chance to support Gibson or not this Friday when The Beaver opens in limited release (it expands nationwide on May 20). But regardless of how the film performs, Foster cherishes the experience of directing, something she's only done twice before (Little Man Tate, Home for the Holidays). "It's a life-changing thing," Foster said of directing, "and it allows you to get through a spiritual crisis in a completely full way."
Read on as Foster reveals her struggle to find a studio to embrace The Beaver, her decision to cast herself opposite Gibson, and the answer to the question "Would I be OK if I never acted again?"
How did you first find Kyle Killen's script, and what about it spoke to you personally?
Well, like everybody in Hollywood, when there's a really great script, whether it's ever going to be produced or not or whether or not it's crazy quirky, I think everybody tries to read it. My agent said, 'You've got to read this one,' and I said, 'Listen, if it ever falls out with the director, give me a call.' And that's kind of what happened.
Was this before it made it onto the Black List?
No, afterwards. Everybody knew about it but nobody was touching it.
Why do you think that was -- do you think the subject matter was too difficult?
It was, and what we found when we went to distributors - we didn't even bother with mainstream distributors, but we went to indie distributors - was that there were things and there were moments in the movie that everybody wanted to cut out. And they wouldn't really discuss distributing the film unless you cut that out. So we said, 'OK, let's go on to the next one, then.'
The film isn't just about the effect of manic-depression on one man, but the effect it has on his entire family and everybody in his life.
I would even say generations to come, because of Walter's father and the effect of his unmedicated, untreated depression on his progeny.
In one scene we actually see them all literally riding a rollercoaster, which sums up this family's experience.
Tragedy and comedy, you know? You have to accept one to accept the other. I liked how that paid off in the movie; she's a rollercoaster designer and here she is doing something that's supposed to be passionate and filled with thrills and screams, and yet she does it on a computer screen 9,000 miles away from Japan, in the middle of the night -- such an alienated experience, completely cut off from her own passions. And she has to change, too.
Did you always envision yourself acting in The Beaver as well as directing?
No! For many years I said I would never act and direct again. Famous last words. [Laughs] You know, Mel said the same thing after Man without a Face. He said, 'I'm never doing this again' -- and then he did Braveheart. So sometimes you're racking your brain trying to find an actor for the role, and in this particular situation I really needed somebody opposite him who would honor the drama and who would really anchor the film and the drama. Somebody that I could hang the audience's point of view on because he's an unreliable narrator. He's not stable. So it can't be his point of view, in some ways. But her point of view really is the anchor to the film.
How much of your decision to cast yourself came from first casting Mel?
Completely from casting Mel. I don't think I would have cast myself if it was another actor -- and I asked his permission when I thought about it. I just went to his house. I didn't even tell the producer, I didn't tell the distributor, I didn't tell anybody, I just went to his house and said, 'Look, how would you feel about this? If you would feel awkward about this in any way...' And he started laughing. He said, 'I don't care, I think it's going to be great!'
As an actor and director, are you able to learn from the experience of making a movie, either about yourself or about a problem that a character has?
Directing movies is life-changing. It's an absolutely life-changing thing. That's why you can't throw it away on some shooter movie about scuba diving. I can't do that. It's waking up at three in the morning, it's coming up with ideas, it's downloading your whole childhood and the people that you've known and the experiences that you've had... you can't just do that for something you don't believe in. It's a life-changing thing, and it allows you to get through a spiritual crisis in a completely full way. You think about it, you ruminate about it, you ask people, you do research, you inhabit each one of the characters and say, 'Well, what about from their point of view?' 'What about from his point of view?' How does it look, how does it sound, what kind of music will be playing... it's a way of evolving and changing and getting through an experience in a full way. It's fantastic.
How do you now distinguish that from when you're acting for another director?
Well, I think that has its own benefit depending on the part. There are some elements of that that stick with you forever, but you're not in control of the film. It's not the music you would use, it's not the other cast members you would hire, it's not the dialogue you would agree with... you know, you try to bring as much to the table as you possibly can, but it's not your film. You're there to support the director.
How tough is it at this point to find roles that you find interesting or challenging?
It's hard! [Laughs] As an actor and as a director, especially, because that's such an enormous commitment. But as an actor, yeah, it's impossible! It just gets harder and harder all the time.
How did you find your way to [Roman Polanski's] Carnage [formerly God of Carnage, based on the Tony-winning play], for example?
There just was a lot of stuff in that play that fascinated me. Really, it's just the dynamic of four people; it might as well be a family. It's four people intertwining and acting out their whole psyches on each other. Once again, a family crisis.
You've worked closely now with both Mel Gibson and Roman Polanski, two filmmakers who've had their share of public controversies. What it is about them that makes these relationships work?
Well, I don't know. Carnage isn't coming out for so long that I don't need to talk about that movie. But I'm not the only one that's made a movie with Mel Gibson. I'm not the only one that's made a movie with Roman Polanski. Hasn't he made, like 40 movies? People work with all sorts of people.
Do you find that your interest in directing has overtaken your interest in acting?
I do think it has. I think it has. But I can't imagine never acting. That seems pretty rash. But the last 15 years I feel like one of the reasons that I've continued acting was to look over a director's shoulder and say, 'Why did you do that?' And, 'How come this happens?' Just to kind of continue the film school. To be on movie sets and see why the choices were made, and to help them tell their stories.
Knowing him as well as you do, do you think that Mel really would be OK with never acting again, as he recently said?
I think it probably sounded more glib than it was; it's a conversation he and I have had many times, and I say it all the time. You know, I've worked for 45 years as an actor and it's a long time to do one job and there are a lot of other ways to tell stories.Would I be OK if I never acted again? Who would I be? Would I be somebody new? We ask ourselves these questions all the time. He was a kid, too, when he started. There are times when I really put it aside, and as I say to him, 'Look, there's only one reason for you to act, there's only one motivation, and that's because it moves you.' And honestly, you shouldn't do it for any other reason. Because you don't need to -- he doesn't need to, he doesn't need that identity. And he doesn't need the extra inhuman stress of being a celebrity.
The Beaver is in limited release May 6.