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The art of being Jodie Foster

Star reflects on her new film, controversial costar, and craft

Jodie Foster Jodie Foster (above, in Boston) says costar Mel Gibson helped on the set: "I can ... say, 'Did I get that?' and he'll say, 'Yep, second take was the best one.'" (Yoon S. Byun/Globe Staff)
By Ty Burr
Globe Staff / May 1, 2011

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There’s an elephant in the room and its name is Mel Gibson.

The elephant is traveling everywhere with Jodie Foster these days. The actress-filmmaker is in Boston to promote her new movie, “The Beaver,’’ and the only thing weirder than the film’s plot is the public firestorm around her star’s offscreen behavior.

“The Beaver,’’ which opens this Friday, is about a toy company executive named Walter Black (Gibson) who is so lost to clinical depression that he can barely speak to his wife, Meredith (played by Foster), and teenage son, Porter (Anton Yelchin). A breakthrough comes when Walter discovers a cast-off beaver hand-puppet in a dumpster and uses it to “speak’’ with a wholly new personality: upbeat, engaged, British. For all the surreal overtones — and there are plenty — “The Beaver’’ is a fundamentally serious look at mental illness and “American Beauty’’-style family dynamics, and it’s a film that its director hopes will advance her status as a major American filmmaker. That’s if audiences can get past the Mel Gibson thing, a possibly insurmountable if.

The mercurial star was already trying to come back from his 2006 arrest in Malibu for drunken driving and the media uproar around his racist and sexist tirades at the time. Filming for “The Beaver’’ had finished except for re-shoots when, in July of last year, phone messages from Gibson to his estranged girl- friend (and mother of his child) Oksana Grigorieva were leaked to the Internet, messages featuring almost unimaginable verbal abuse. The film’s release plans were temporarily scuttled and the star’s career appeared to be over. It may very well stay that way. But Foster has a movie she wants you to see, one she’s extremely proud of. And she is unrelenting in her insistence that Gibson is one of the true stand-up guys of Hollywood.

She’ll tell anyone who listens and, in fact, the “Beaver’’ press junket has become a sort of secondhand Mel Gibson public atonement tour. Not that the much-admired, two-time Oscar-winning actress — a star who enjoys all the public respect Gibson appears to have squandered — is making excuses for his behavior. What she’s doing is sticking up for a friend, one whose reputation is now so toxic that almost no one in Hollywood dares to be associated with him. And that’s a very Jodie Foster-like thing to do.

In person, the actress-director, 48, gives off a curiously paradoxical air of relaxed intensity — of a woman who’s comfortable in her skin but whose mind is never still. Poised and wearing shades of charcoal and black, she shifts topics easily from her troubled star to her own career lessons and back. In the process, Foster implicitly floats a radical notion: that she knows a very different Mel Gibson than you do and that the truth of the matter — of any one person, let alone a famous one — is finally unknowable.

Q. I understand that when “The Beaver’’ came to you, it was a broad comedy with Steve Carell attached. When you read it, what went through your head?

A. Well, I wanted to make a drama, you know? I wanted to really keep my eye on depression: what that is, the experience of it, and how to honor that the best way I could. Which is in every decision that comes up: How will it be framed, what kind of lenses will you use, what kind of film will you use, what are the colors — all of that was thought through with the idea of creating a drama.

Q. How did you make the decision to cast yourself?

A. I didn’t really want to cast myself initially. When I brought Mel aboard I started thinking, OK, who am I going to get to play the wife? I knew how important it was to ground his performance in reality, and to have somebody who could hold the screen in a way his character couldn’t — his character’s crazy. And I thought, you know, it’s going to be easier if we do it together. And I also know what he requires from a director.

Q. Which is what?

A. He’s very easy to work with and, I think, probably the most loved actor I’ve ever worked with. Maybe Chow Yun-Fat is the other.

Q. When you say ‘‘most loved,’’ you mean by cast and crew?

A. Cast and crew and technicians and professionals and distributors and executives.

Q. What is it about him that makes him so loved on the set?

A. He’s nice. He’s fun and he’s very real and he’s an incredible technician. He really understands moviemaking. And there’s no muss or fuss, no ‘‘I’m sorry, I have to get into character.’’ He requires very little from all of us and he’s not at war with the camera. A lot of actors are. They come from theater and they feel like the camera’s job is to follow them around instead of embracing storytelling through technicianship. He’s a filmmaker. Makes a big difference.

Q. Does the fact that you’re both actors and directors allow you to communicate better?

A. It makes everything go a lot faster. There’s a real shorthand and I don’t have to be precious about the whole experience. I can say, “If you stand over there it’s too dark and I’m going to have to re-light that part of the set.’’ I can ask him to do things for the other actors: Can you help me get the performance out of him or her? It’s just working with a different kind of person — who works more like me.

Q. And conversely, how does your being actor-directors affect the acting and getting the performance out of him that you want?

A. I think he intuitively knows when to break character and when not to. I can look at him and say, ‘‘Did I get that?’’ and he’ll say, ‘‘Yep, second take was the best one.’’ I can rely on him for that. Because he’s present. That’s just the way he works. He’s able to be present during the scene, and he’s able to be inside the experience and outside the experience at the same time. Which is a weird parlor trick.

Q. Can you do it?

A. Yes. It’s like being an archer. Or like being a choreographer and in control of the experience but also being completely inside of it and totally free.

Q. When did you realize that was something you could do?

A. Everything changed when I was 12. I did ‘‘Taxi Driver,’’ and I think for the first time I built a character from the ground up. And I was asked to do that. Usually they would say, ‘‘Just be yourself,’’ and I would think, what a dumb job. Just be myself while reading other people’s lines? What a dumb job.

Q. So Iris was when you started wanting to be an actor? Or was that even later?

A. That’s when I was intrigued by it. And then I would go through periods where I would have a love/hate thing, where I would ask myself, why am I doing this? So there have been little moments of creative crisis and every once in a while there’s a big revelation movie, where you understand something about yourself, more than you did before.

Q. What was one of the “revelation movies’’?

A. I think “The Accused’’ was interesting, because I was only 24, and I was very unconscious about why I was making the movie. I didn’t read the script twice and I just sort of showed up. There was a lot about that movie I was afraid of and that I didn’t really understand at that age.

Q. ‘‘The Accused’’ came at the end of a long period of work in which you seemed to be experimenting, almost trying to find yourself on film . . .

A. Yeah! And that’s what happens to young people who aren’t a brand. They can actually make a bunch of movies that don’t work but that are interesting films, and they don’t have to sacrifice their firstborn child because of it.

Q. When did you finally find yourself?

A. I don’t know that I have [boisterous laugh]. It’s a long career. I think, like everybody, you wake up one day and you look back and you go, wow, there’s a pattern there. And you didn’t really realize you were executing this pattern but in fact you are. And then the second that you do realize it, your work takes a different tangent, and it becomes more specific.

Q. More self-conscious?

A. Maybe. But maybe deeper, too.

Q. When did you look back and see the pattern?

A. I think just before “Silence of the Lambs.’’ I had done a series of movies that were about being the victim, and that didn’t occur to me until I was so passionate about doing “Silence of the Lambs’’ and everyone around me was saying, “Why do you want to do that movie? You’re the straight man to a great part.’’ I was so drawn to it, and I think for the right reasons. First because it was a beautiful piece of literature and a great character but also because Clarice was the one who was saving all the other characters I’d already played. She’s not the victim, but she’s somebody for whom that informs her past, it’s where she comes from. In some ways it’s her destiny, her sort of Greek tragic destiny, to be the one that vindicates them.

Q. Let’s talk about star personas and brands. Mel Gibson’s “brand’’ is obviously so complex and so qualified, and a lot of people will probably come to this movie thinking Walter is him — they’ll mistake the character for the person. What would you say to them?

A. Well, I know the man very well, and I’ve known him for a very long time, and he is a truly complicated person. And deep and dark and beautiful and loyal and kind and an incredibly good friend, and has been for a very long time. He is somebody I could call at 3 in the morning and he would come running, and I know that. But our personas are not these passive things that just happen to us. Especially if you’re a real actor, you’ve accrued a number of performances that point people in the direction of your passions and your obsessions. The persona is not entirely wrong. My persona is not entirely wrong. What Mel isn’t is a guy who lives to be photographed and go on Jerry Springer and confess everything in his life and have no real life besides that. He has a genuinely complicated life and it’s what allows him to inhabit and understand struggle in a way that I don’t think any other actor does.

Q. What do you think about public perceptions of him versus you? You’ve managed to keep your private life private, and part of the reason for that is audiences seem to respect you. Whereas if you ask someone about Mel Gibson, they may be completely antagonistic toward him or vehemently supportive. Is that fair?

A. I don’t know. I think everybody agrees that there’s a tremendous amount of hypocrisy in the media. I think it’s very different than it was 20 years ago. News and entertainment are the same thing now. That wasn’t true then. And I don’t believe that either one of us — and Mel and I have talked about this a lot — that if we were 18 right now and knew everything we know, I don’t think either one of us would have become an actor. I think we would have done something else. But he is an actor and he will live with the public consequences, whether they’re fair or not. He will live with the consequences of this society and of what he’s done. And as I’ve said to him many times, the only reason for you to act now is because you love it. You don’t have to prove anything to anyone.

Interview was condensed and edited. Ty Burr can be reached at tburr@globe.com. To follow him, go to www.twitter.com/tyburr.

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