Interview: Jodie Foster on working with Mel Gibson

The two play husband and wife in new film The Beaver

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A few weeks ago, Jodie Foster went to Cannes to present her latest film, The Beaver (in cinemas from 17 June). Amid all the glitz and glamour of red carpet premieres and celebrity back-slapping, there was a chance to pause and reflect on the first time she visited the world s most famous film festival, 35 years ago when she was just 14.

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Back then, in 1976, she had already been performing for 11 years and had two films in the festival: Alan Parker s Bugsy Malone and Martin Scorsese’s Taxi Driver, which went on to win the Palme d Or. Her extraordinary performance as a teenage prostitute opposite Robert De Niro as a deranged Vietnam veteran signalled her arrival as a major talent.

““It was crazy. Absolutely crazy,” she recalls. “And you have to remember at that time Taxi Driver had not been seen anywhere else and there was a lot of controversy about it.”

This time, too, Foster found herself at the centre of much fuss while on the Croisette, although not of her own making. Her close friend Mel Gibson stars in her film as Walter Black, a man who is suffering from crippling, suicidal depression and begins to communicate through a glove puppet – the Beaver – much to the alarm of his family. Foster directs and plays Walter’s long-suffering wife, Meredith.

When she made the film, Gibson was (and clearly still is) a trusted, cherished ally. They had met while filming Maverick back in 1994 and unlikely as it might seem from the outside – she’s a sensitive, highly intelligent Yale literature graduate, he’s an ultra-orthodox Catholic who specialises in on-screen macho – they hit it off.

It’s not quite the unlikeliest of celebrity friendships. Colin Farrell read a poem at the funeral of his close friend, the late Elizabeth Taylor, while former EastEnder Martine McCutcheon was one of Liza Minnelli’s bridesmaids. But it’s certainly enough to raise eyebrows.

Foster admits, Even though we are obviously very different people, we have totally different interests, I just adored him from the second I met him.

“When we were younger, we were more like brother and sister and then, as time has gone on, I feel more maternal towards him. And yes, he’s a guy’s guy but he’s interested in you. He reads books about crazy historical events and retains every detail, and he’s passionate about what he does and is an incredible film-maker. I can talk to him on the phone for, like, three and a half hours about life.

Those mothering instincts – and an understanding nature – must have come to the fore when Gibson’s latest highly publicised meltdown, with accusations of racist comments and domestic violence, hit the headlines via leaked telephone calls between the actor and his former girlfriend, Russian singer Oksana Grigorieva. Gibson became persona non grata in Hollywood.

“It’s hard to see somebody that you love struggle,” she admits, “but he’s a strong man and he’ll get through it. His performance in The Beaver is a kind of redemption for Mel – I think if people are interested, it really will give them a window into his heart in some ways.

“It’s a very raw performance, a vulnerable performance, about a man who is struggling with self-hatred – he wants to change, he wants to transform himself into something else because he can’t stand being himself anymore. And that’s a window into something very, very deep and complex.”

Foster says she could relate to the story on a personal level. “I’ve known a lot of people that have suffered terribly from depression. There’s been a lot of it in my family. Life is heavy, at times, and it asks a lot of us.”

But surely, a successful, double Oscar-winning actress, who does a job she clearly adores, doesn’t suffer from the “heaviness of life”? She laughs. “Yeah, that’s an interesting phenomenon. I think I go through a spiritual crisis routinely every ten years or something, and I ask myself those big questions like ‘This is it? This is the life I chose?’ ”

We meet at one of the landmark seafront hotels in Cannes. She sits at the table
and promptly empties half a dozen pills on to the tablecloth.

“Vitamins,” she smiles. “I know you guys in Europe don’t take them, but Americans are crazy for this stuff.”

They must be doing some good. Her face, at 48, is relatively unlined, with no traces at all of cosmetic surgery. She’s friendly, thoughtful and, mostly,
open, although some subjects are declared out of bounds before we even start. There has been much speculation about her sexuality, but she’s never discussed it directly and isn’t about to start now. She has two sons, Charles, 12, and nine-year-old Kit, and has consistently refused to name the father of the boys.

The youngest of four children born and raised in Los Angeles, Foster did a commercial for sun tan lotion just before her third birthday and has hardly stopped working since – winning an Oscar for her portrayal of a rape victim in The Accused in 1989, and another in 1992 for her role as FBI agent Clarice Starling in The Silence of the Lambs.

She doesn’t feel the need to work quite as much as she did when she was younger. There were some years when she would be away on one location after another for months at a time.

“I have kids, I want to be with them and so that dictates what I do,” she says. “I like to be there for them, to cook dinner, help with the homework, all the usual stuff that makes up family life. I think acting does get easier as you get older – you worry less about it.”

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So is it great, then, to be back and revisit her past? “It’s fantastic,” she smiles. “And Bobby (De Niro) is president of the jury and that’s just crazy. It makes me think of that time all those years ago when I was just a kid.”