Something I Need To Do
Jodie Foster talks about motherhood, her ambition to direct again, replacing Nicole Kidman and her new movie Panic Room
By Dan Epstein

Gadfly: You dropped into the Panic Room and saved it from not being made. You had to suddenly know the psychology of knowing the character. Does being a mother, which is the same as your character, help?

Jodie Foster: The script was beautifully written, beautifully lean and disciplined, where you get everything you need to know about the characters. But it's implied and woven into the drama itself instead of doing forty-five minutes of backstory, the lazy way. It’s an easy script to read and figure out what it’s about.

Even though I’m kind of a maternal person, I’ve also played a lot of moms in my life; I know what that is about. It’s true that as a parent you have a more visceral response to what the character is trying to do. I certainly don’t know what it is like to be in a life or death situation with your child, knock wood. Sometimes a splinter can feel like a life or death situation so you project that in your character. You just don’t want your kid to be afraid, sick or in pain. I can definitely relate to Meg Altman.

Did finding out you were pregnant during the course of the film also help you relate to your character?

I don’t know. It made me kind of tired. The good news is that it made me happy so I was very happy during this shoot. It was actually hard because it was very demanding. Not just physically, but emotionally as well, to try and do forty takes and try to have that same level of anxiety.

This is a woman with scar tissue emotionally.

Yeah, she’s somebody that has no confidence at the beginning of the movie, and then little by little she learns that it’s all there.

Were there any changes due to your pregnancy?

I would have liked it had there been more changes, but we had to shoot in continuity because of everything that happens to the house. That meant a lot of the way we shot couldn’t be changed, so as time went on I just got more and more pregnant.

You can see my weight change. There’s a certain part of the movie where I go get a sweater, and I designed that to cover myself.

This is a great role. But was it bittersweet the way you got it because your own film had to be put off because of Russell’s [Crowe] injury?

My movie was shut down in August, and Panic Room started in January. At that point, I figured I would jump into a movie. As an actor, I thought I wasn’t going to find one. The writer’s strike was looming, so I figured I would take some time off. I didn’t want to jump into a movie that wasn’t any good. I hope that Nicole [Kidman] is happy about this because you hope somewhere out there is an understudy that will take over for you if something happens. Otherwise, the responsibility of the movie going down the drain is on your shoulders, and the film would have gone away if I hadn’t shown up before the strike.

I like just showing up like that. Everyone else had already had six weeks of rehearsal, and I just showed up. There were nine days between him calling me and me showing up on set. There were no rehearsals, but you don’t really need preparation for a movie like this. Fincher needs preparation because he has so much blocking and camerawork to do.

David Fincher and Edward Norton on the set of Fight Club

We were just watching a demonstration of pre-viz [animated storyboards]. Did that limit your creativity at all because all the action has been mapped out beforehand on computer?

Well, no, that’s the reason David needs to work with experienced actors who have made a lot of movies. If you are just a young theater actor who’s never made a film before, you could never make a film with him; he’s much too exacting. So directors as actors really help him out, especially when they know why certain things will need to be cut out. Most of the time when you are getting direction from a director, nine times out of ten the direction is technical. And he tells you that it's technical, anyway, to not make you upset.

Is there a good example of a scene where one actor will be lost but you got it because you understand?

Not on this movie because the other guys are directors and Kristen Stewart [who plays the daughter, Sarah Altman] is very well versed in movies. Her mom is a script supervisor, and her dad is a production manager. But on another movie with a first-time actor who one time started giving me this whole thing like, "Your character in the book is doing this and I don’t know why you don’t get on the phone," I was like, "They’re going to cut it out." Then he said "You’re going to have to call your supervisor in the scene." So I was like, "Okay, ring ring." [holds hand up to ear] Some actors just don’t get it.

Fincher said that the character was originally written more helpless, but when you came on it changed because you’re not that way.

I think that was a good choice. But it would have been a totally different movie that way. The somewhat stronger character in the beginning decides that she’s going back to school. She’s spent the last fifteen years with a rich, older guy who squashed her identity so she’s going back to Manhattan. She also feels guilty for dragging her kid out of the suburbs where she had a yard and friends. So she buys a big house her ex-husband will pay for and to appease her guilt. Initially, it was a very different character. It was written as someone who probably was a really young model who married a much older man. I’m older than Nicole so I can’t play a lot of that stuff.

Did you have any advice for Kristen Stewart with you being a former child actor?

She didn’t need my advice; she’s a great actress. She has great focus; we had a great time together.

Did you see yourself in her?

Doesn’t she look like me as a kid?


She’s much taller, but she looks like me in Alice Doesn't Live Here Anymore [1974 release directed by Martin Scorsese]. It’s funny because she was hired with Nicole. It would have been so funny to see two opposites like that as mother and daughter.

What did you take away from working with Fincher for your directing abilities?

Everything. He’s somebody who’s relentless, he pays attention, and he sees things no one else sees. He doesn’t defer to anyone else on the movie set. It's not like he doesn’t collaborate, but it’s all about his signature. Very often on movies it’s easy to get caught up in what the cinematographer wants, what the sound guy wants, whatever anyone else wants and try to accommodate them all. He’s relentless.

Even though you said you did this movie because you were free at the time, did you do it because you wanted to work with him as well?

I’ve wanted to work with him for a long time. We almost worked together on The Game [1997 release starring Michael Douglas and Deborah Unger]. I tracked him down and said what is David Fincher doing? They said this movie. I said I’m in, but it didn’t work out. We’ve kept in touch over the years.

What about the panic room itself; would you want one in your house?

No, I’m not a very paranoid person. If there is a message in the movie, it's do not get a panic room. The film says, if anything, instead of thinking of a scenario where something bad can happen to you, you should be vigilant and listen to your instincts beforehand. The minute she walked into the house, she didn’t like it. She didn’t like the panic room, but she was suckered into it by someone who told her that she should get it because someone told her to get it to get back at her husband. She didn’t listen to her instincts.

Are you a fan of the thriller genre?

I like them. Some of my favorites are The Omen and Andromeda Strain. I like medical thrillers.

If you like them so much, how come you said no to doing Hannibal [2001 sequel to Silence of the Lambs]?

I was just about to start shooting The Dangerous Lives of Altar Boys and Flora Plum so I wasn’t available.

Julianne Moore in Hannibal

But I heard you didn’t like the book, Hannibal, either.

I don’t think I didn’t like the book, but Silence and Hannibal are two different books, movies; they are just two totally different entities. As far as I’m concerned, the two Clarice Starlings are two different characters.

Hannibal is more of a horror film, anyway.

It’s just about something else.

What do you think is the importance of the thriller genre?

For me, it’s the same thing I get out of it as an actor, which is a situation that you’re worried you’ll never get through. So it gives you the opportunity to go through an experience and get out the other end alive.

So it’s empowering?

I think it is.

Are you scared more by a thriller that is reality based than you would be by a supernatural one?

Yeah, probably. But then there are the science fiction and supernatural ones which scare me, like, I said, The Omen, Alien and Altered States. In general, I like reality based ones more.

Would you make these movies yourself?

As a director, I don’t know. Maybe not now, maybe later. I feel like I’m a young director, and I have a lot to learn. And I think thrillers are more for directors who have a little more experience since they are almost purely technical.

Is Flora Plum back on track?

Well, we hope it will get off the ground, but it’s going to be hard to get it going again. It’s a beautiful script, and I have every bit of confidence we’ll be able to get it financed and cast again because all the actors I hired aren’t available anymore.

What did Russell Crowe hurt, exactly?

He has four metal pins in his shoulder. His ligament tore from the bone.

Was it on a movie he did that?

It probably was an aggravated injury he’s had for a long time. But he never had an MRI. An Australian macho thing, I suppose. He had a bad accident on Gladiator, getting pulled by a horse by one arm in that first battle scene, and he just popped it back into place. Then he had to hang in Proof of Life from a helicopter by one arm. He was only supposed to hang for a few minutes, but they kept going on and on and you can’t let go, otherwise you fall and die. Then, right after that was Flora Plum. And at the second rehearsal, he just went too far and did the wrong thing.

So Russell seems to be very misunderstood right now as an outrageous bad boy. But he seems to be sublimely talented.

He is sublimely talented.

Is motherhood any easier the second time around?

It's so much easier now. Newborns are so much easier than toddlers or preschoolers. Once they start to move around, it's all over.

How tough is the process for you of actually getting a movie done as a director? Does being Jodie Foster open any doors?

Not as a director. The doors don’t open for any director unless they have talent attached. Maybe Martin Scorsese can get projects financed without stars attached, but very few. Pretty much, actors are the only thing that gets movies going. But producing is the hardest job, with the most disappointments and heartbreaks.

Is that why you shut down Egg [Pictures, Foster's production company]?

Well, we made some great movies, and I’m very proud of it. It’s been a long time since it was started, twelve years. I can’t do everything, and I really want to focus on directing, acting and children. Three full-time jobs. The one thing I definitely don’t want to do anymore is produce other people’s movies. That’s what is really debilitating, and there’s very little reward to it. That’s something you do for philanthropy; you produce someone else’s movie because you want to protect them, from the studios or from people that are going to endanger their vision. But you don’t get much out of it.

When you go through the process and get one done that you are happy with as a director, how is the satisfaction level compared to doing a really good performance?

Just two entirely different things. Directing is a much more whole experience; it's every part of you. Of course, when people applaud that movie, they applaud every part of you. As an actor, you’re really only responsible for your performance. It’s a completely different level of commitment.

Would a best director Oscar mean more than a best actress?

Oh, yes.

That’s because you already have two of those.

Right. [laughs]

Are you trying to define yourself as a director?

Absolutely, because I’m young at it and I haven’t done very much. I have a lot to learn, and that’s where my ambitions and passions lie. And acting is something I do; it's something that I need to do sometimes.

Also, just because I have two Oscars for acting doesn’t mean I want to stop acting. I can’t ever imagine wanting to stop acting. I want to do it because it makes me happy and not for any other reason.

Would you discourage your kids from following in your footsteps?

I would try to support them if it was something they really wanted to do because you want to support something the kids are passionate about. But now I heave a big sigh. [laughs]

Would you let them be child actors, as you did?

If they said it was something they wanted to do. I wouldn’t want to be involved in their career; I think that would be a mistake. Not that being a child actor was a bad experience for me; I just think it's important that kids can run home to their parents, be safe and not have someone push them into the business

Would you have loved to have a life without knowing what’s its like to be famous?

Yeah, I think anyone who has lived their life in the public eye would say that. I don’t think there’s anything good about fame that I can think of. Respect is great, but that’s different. Financial success and accolades are great, but that’s different. All those things are very separate from fame. I’m trying to think of one thing that’s great about fame, maybe tables in restaurants.

Do you look at your career as the keeper of your own integrity? We see some actors who win big awards and then do five bad movies in a row and make $20 million.

Well, I don’t think they set out to make five crappy movies in a row. They just may not realize, and they may get talked into things like being convinced that they "have to be in a big picture with a big male star." Bad advice.

The fear of "Will I ever work again?" or the fear of "How do I stay on top?" keeps people in there working, no matter what the project may be, instead of thinking how to make good movies.

Silence Of The Lambs

Both Oscars that I got were wonderful awards for movies that other people didn’t necessarily think were good choices for me, and both were very risky movies. The Accused, for sure. That was a movie I had to fight for tooth and nail. I certainly didn’t get paid for doing it; the movie was very low budget. And Silence, I had just won an Oscar. And everybody thought it was a bad idea to do a movie where the other part, Hannibal Lecter, was the good part. People said that I should change my part to make it as flashy as his. But I said, "Clarice isn’t flashy." I can’t fabricate a character because I want to be the star. It’s the movie that I care about, and I want to tell that story. Clarice is restrained. She doesn’t use contractions, she doesn’t talk loud, and I don’t want to change that to better my chances of getting an Oscar. That’s always worked for me.

Last question, your real name is Alicia Foster. Does anybody call you that, and what is the story with the name Jodie?

No one has ever called me that. Occasionally, when my mother put me into a school and she put that as my name, but I never turned around when someone said it. My brother and sisters named me Jodie before I was born. As my mother left the hospital with me, she changed her mind. [laughs] My mother never changed the birth certificate.