Jodie Foster: “My greatest strength is what’s in my head”

The actor-director reflects on a career in Hollywood, working with Charlie Brooker – and says blockbuster superhero movies are wrecking the industry

Jodie Foster (Getty, EH)

Jodie Foster, double Oscar winner, Hollywood star, feminist icon and director, is wondering where it all went wrong. “There are decisions I wished I hadn’t made,” says the 55-year-old, who has just directed an episode of Charlie Brooker’s dystopian tech drama Black Mirror. “I’m at that age where I’m asking questions all the time.” What kind? “You know, questions about the road not taken. Why did I choose this path? Why didn’t I choose that other path? Why didn’t I go into law school? Why didn’t I pursue the path of academia?”

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We’re in Claridges, the Mayfair hotel where visiting Hollywood stars invariably end up. Foster looks the part, with a $500 haircut and wearing an exquisitely cut check trouser suit, but she isn’t a standard Hollywood star. She doesn’t even like Hollywood. “Going to the movies has become like a theme park,” Foster says. “Studios making bad content in order to appeal to the masses and shareholders is like fracking – you get the best return right now but you wreck the earth. It’s ruining the viewing habits of the American population and then ultimately the rest of the world. I don’t want to make $200m movies about superheroes.”

In 2016, Foster directed the thriller Money Monster with George Clooney and Julia Roberts, but, increasingly, she’s working in TV, directing episodes of Orange Is the New Black and House of Cards (we meet before accusations about Kevin Spacey’s behaviour lead to the show’s temporary cancellation). But there is something special, she says, about working with Brooker. “This sounds crazy but of all the things I’ve done as a director, I’ve never had as nice a collaboration with a producer as this one. It may be the English thing. I like the way Charlie says, ‘It might be nice if…’ or ‘Perhaps we could?’ We’re having a conversation, as opposed to somebody being bossy.” It’s hard to imagine someone as self-possessed as Foster being bossed about but it happens. “In Hollywood, unless you’re Steven Spielberg or Clint Eastwood, or somebody untouchable, there really is a lack of respect for directors.” Besides, she says, “Charlie writes beautiful things.”

In Brooker’s story, Arkangel, a single mother seeks to protect her young daughter, Sara, from a hostile world by signing up for an experimental hi-tech nannying service. As invariably happens in Black Mirror, the gadgetry has an unexpected effect. “Technology is a reflection of our desires,” Foster says. “And you have to be careful what you desire, because it may not be everything you were hoping for.”

The story opens on a genuinely unsettling sequence when a mother undergoes a C-section. “It’s desperation you feel in that moment,” says Foster, herself the mother of two sons, Charlie, 19, and Kit, 16. “We have this beautiful experience that we talk about in glowing ways, but on the other side of the curtain is a bloody thing being taken out of your body.

That is the underside to this relationship. It’s not all beauty and sunsets; it’s also a bloody animal really, being wrenched out of your body.” The first time that Foster became famous – after playing a child prostitute opposite Robert De Niro in Martin Scorsese’s Taxi Driver when she was 12, and then starring in the Alan Parker musical Bugsy Malone – she walked away from it all, starting a literature degree at Yale in 1981. At college Foster was stalked by a delusional drifter called John Hinckley Jr, who shot and wounded President Reagan to win her favour. After graduation Foster escaped the attention that followed by travelling. “I loved coming to London,” she says. “I would meet people here and we’d hang out and go to all these crazy places. I remember being in a council house in the 80s with some crazy guy and his six roommates, eating fish and chips.”

The 70s had already been pretty strange. “When I first came into the film business, I didn’t see another woman. Maybe the make-up artist, and occasionally the script supervisor, but not very often. So, I never had another female face, besides the actress that might be playing my mom.” Launched into fame just as she was discovering her sexuality, Foster was obliged to talk about her love life on national television. “I was a teenager. I was growing up as a public figure. Being raised knowing that people were always trying to take from you, or that your feelings will be exploited, affects everything you do.”

1976: American actors Jodie Foster and Robert De Niro sit together at a diner in a still from the film, 'Taxi Driver' directed by Martin Scorsese. (Photo by Columbia Pictures/Fotos International/Getty Images)
Jodie Foster and Robert De Niro in Taxi Driver (Getty)

Foster’s mother, film producer Evelyn Almond, separated from her father Lucius Foster in the 1960s. Foster was the result of one last encounter between the two. Almond encouraged her daughter into television roles and then films, most famously, Taxi Driver. “Half the things I did when I was ten to 12 years old, like Taxi Driver, were really about my mom,” Foster says. “All the things she was worried about, that she was concerned with, kind of got transferred through me. I’ve brought two things to all my work – my own life and my mother’s.”

The two lives shadow each other. Almond, who now suffers from dementia, was in a gay relationship after she separated from Lucius. Jodie Foster was in a relationship with film producer Cydney Bernard from 1993 to 2003 and has been married to the photographer Alexandra Hedison since 2014. “In my work, I’ve addressed questions of my own identity and questions of my mother’s life. This episode of Black Mirror is a reflection of that. I’m interested in the subtle things people do to each other.”

In Arkangel, a microchip is inserted in Sara’s brain and her mother is given a laptop on which she can see (and shape) the world from the child’s perspective, blurring out anything, like porn or violence, that might disturb her daughter. This eventually produces a teenager who is, depending on your point of view, either dangerously naive or utterly fearless. “The daughter is raised never worrying about somebody raping her, she is raised with no fear,” says Foster. “So she becomes confident in making all the decisions in life. When she gets a boyfriend, she’s comfortable with her sexuality and is independent in the mother-daughter relationship. That’s tough for the mother: ‘I raised you to be independent but now that you are… I don’t like it.’”

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Arkangel

Foster has never revealed the identity of the father of her own children, saying she will name him when Charlie and Kit have passed 21 (Mel Gibson is among the rumoured dads). Unlike Arkangel, Foster is unable to shield them from porn or violence and wouldn’t want to if she could. “You have to deal with it every day, with boys or girls,” she says. “But if you protect them completely, then you’re not developing their ability to make conscious choices.”

Does she have the secret of good parenting? “Absolutely no parenting advice at all! We’re trying to make our boys understand how to have genuine human connections. That means being able to step inside someone else’s shoes, being able to admit they’re wrong, being able to communicate. That takes a lifetime to learn. Not just an hour at dinner.”

The single mother in Arkangel struggles to cope, but shouldn’t Foster, with her personal history, be making shows that champion unconventional parenting? “Life is complicated. People are complicated. If I wanted to make cardboard movies about moms in the 50s, I’d have done something different.” There aren’t many cardboard movies in Foster’s career, but they’re not all great either.

“There are some I wish I hadn’t made, but not very many.” Which ones? “I’m not giving you any clues! But it’s a crapshoot every time and it’s a risk that you take.” Some risks paid off; Foster won her Oscars for playing the uncowed rape survivor Sarah Tobias in The Accused in 1988 and, in 1991, Clarice Starling, the detective tracking a serial killer in The Silence of the Lambs. “Sometimes, when you’re making a film, you just don’t realise what’s coming. With Silence of the Lambs, we didn’t realise how great it was.”

Anthony Hopkins, Jodie Foster and Jonathan Demme with their Oscars for Silence of the Lambs in 1992 (Getty, EH)
Anthony Hopkins, Jodie Foster and Jonathan Demme with their Oscars for Silence of the Lambs in 1992 (Getty)

Foster is nostalgic for the 1970s and 80s, what she calls the golden age of cinema. “It was the era when the best work came out, the era I’m proudest of.” Today, the gold is tarnished by scandal, the unfolding revelations about Harvey Weinstein and other, invariably male, figures. “Oh my God. People point a finger at the culture but the movie business was the most beautiful expressive art form, it helped us get better instead of worse. It still has that potential.” Really, even after Weinstein? “I met Harvey Weinstein,” she says, as if that is all that needs to be said on the subject.

Still, she seems willing to forgive male transgressions. In 2011, Foster cast Mel Gibson – who had been widely criticised for a drunken rant about Jewish people after being arrested in 2006 – in her comedy drama The Beaver. Does she like men? “I’m in a business that’s 98 per cent male. Pretty much every single person you relate to is male,” she says. “I was given opportunities by wonderful men. Some were almost in familiar relationships with me, as a daughter in a daughter-father relationship. I was the prodigal daughter in that industry, given opportunities that other women weren’t given.”

For such an insider, Foster has often been an outsider; even when she was winning Oscars, she wasn’t entirely comfortable with the demands of Hollywood. “You have to draw distinctions between yourself and your character. Yourself as a commodity, and who you really are, and your willingness to be for sale. When you buy what I’m selling, you’re buying my face and my body and my words and the things that I care about – how I cry and how I laugh and the 40 years of history that come before me. That’s a hard one for me to negotiate.”

Looking back at that work, the exploited child in Taxi Driver, the terrified mother protecting her daughter in 2011’s Panic Room and now the maternal torment in Arkangel, Foster’s might be seen as career-long consideration of the dangers of being a woman in a male world. “I’m not a spokesperson for women. I just happen to be one. I’m a thinker. I got lucky enough to have a job that also required me to understand my body and understand emotions, but it’s not my first thing. My greatest strength, really, is what’s in my head.” Are you sure you don’t want to make a superhero movie? “No. No. No. Well, maybe if there was one that had really complex psychology.”

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Black Mirror is available to stream on Netflix now