LIFE THROUGH A LENS: JODIE FOSTER FOR ISSUE 92
She’s back — or she never went away. Whichever you prefer, Jodie Foster, one of the most influential women in Hollywood, is seeing things from a new perspective. The star of Nyad and True Detective tells STEPHEN WOOD why she feels like a ‘whole pin has been taken out’ of her spinal column.
It is November, 1976. The final Sunday of the month. Carter has just beaten Ford, the Founding Fathers have just turned 200, and Jodie Foster, who is nine days past her 14th birthday, walks into Hotel Pierre on New York’s Upper East Side. It is cloudy and mild, but dry; Jodie is wearing blue jeans, black boots, a tweed blazer and a newsboy cap. She is there to have lunch with Andy Warhol, though not just to have lunch: Warhol wants to feature her on the cover of his magazine, Interview. The resulting story — presented in Interview’s signature style, a near-verbatim transcript of their conversation — is, like all great magazine moments, an antique. Warhol plays Warhol: affected but intimate. He invites Jodie, who is 14, to order a Bloody Mary. He asks her when she’s going to marry. And he’s bowled over when Jodie, who is 14, speaks fluently in French to a passing acquaintance of his. (“I think you’re really something,” he tells her.) Foster is the ingénue, though she is not naive or unsophisticated. Far from it: she displays a fierce mixture of intelligence, self-possession and finely honed teenaged haughtiness. When her mother, Brandy, who is her chaperone, leaves the restaurant and asks her daughter whether she should return, Jodie’s response is withering: “I don’t care.”
In November ’76, Jodie’s life is changing almost as quickly as she talks. Hours earlier, she’d hosted Saturday Night Live for the first time (becoming the youngest person to have done so), and that year she has five feature films in theatres — five! She is an ingénue and a grafter. One of the five is Taxi Driver, in which she plays the child prostitute Iris Steensma. In a few weeks’ time she’ll receive her first Oscar nomination, for her performance opposite De Niro. She is the child star hoping for acceptance as an actor, and she has it all in front of her. But she doesn’t know what on earth that will constitute, and she is anxious and insecure and already under pressure to conform — to Warhol, the culture, her mother’s expectations. Five decades later, when she reflects on what has transpired — the long reel of movie legend she’s created, the awards, the exposure, the prurience, the fear, the loneliness, and beyond, to an almost mystical ‘other side’ she didn’t even know existed — she will come to regard those teenage years as the most difficult of her life. But at lunch in New York that Sunday, she cares about ‘it’ more than anything, and so she leans in as best she can. Never, she tells Warhol. She hopes never to marry. “It’s got to be boring — having to share a bathroom with someone.”
Christmas, 2023. When Foster appears on The Rake’s Zoom screen from her home in Los Angeles, the picture could not be more ordinary. Her office walls are cream, bare and a little drab (“I’m going to open up the light,” she says, pulling back some curtains), and Foster is dressed in a loose, striped T-shirt and metal-rimmed glasses. She wears no make-up and has wet, unstyled hair, which she’s happy to scrape and sweep into various patterns. This is a glimpse of Jodie Foster in private: unadorned, unfussy, and largely unconcerned. “I just need this,” she explains, holding out her hands like a robot receiving an imaginary box. “I just need, like, three feet by 10 feet. And I need a good light. I’m super-easygoing. I mean, I’m crazy, of course. Who wouldn’t be? But yeah, I don’t need a lot from people. I’m super-easygoing.” She considers this anew and adds: “To a fault, actually. I’ve had to work on that.”
By the sounds of it, Foster, 61, has been doing a lot of ‘working on’ things. She’s certainly been doing a lot of looking back (and not just to oblige magazine writers). It is the effect, she suggests, of chalking up another milestone — sixty — and of the inevitabilities, welcome or otherwise, that come with ageing. What she has been granted in return are revelations and re-evaluations, some of which she will talk about this morning. What we — viewers; the media; outsiders — have been granted is evidence of a new candour and confidence in her public persona. Foster was the victim of stalking when she was young — worse, she was dragged through no fault of her own into the story of an attempted presidential assassination — and at the turn of the century she was called upon not only to state her sexual identity, as if for the record, but to act as a representative. It is hardly surprising that she would sympathise with Marlon Brando’s old axiom — that privacy was not something he was merely entitled to, it was a pre-requisite — and so this newfound candour and confidence, Foster at 61, has become a noteworthy moment. (Cf. In January this year she tells W magazine she’s a Scorpio, and adds, “Scorpios are strong, hypersexualised. They are attackers, and they’re quite the fighters. They can be vindictive. That’s me!” You’d not have caught fiftysomething Foster freewheeling like that.)
Given that she appeared in only two films between 2014 and 2023, and directed one other feature, it felt as though she’d slipped off the Hollywood stage — “the fifties sucked, too,” she clarifies. So here we are, suddenly spoilt by a couple of major projects in quick succession: Nyad, the Netflix movie in which Foster plays coach and best friend to the ocean swimmer Diana Nyad, and True Detective: Night Country, the return of the supernatural-crime-noir series in which Foster cusses and scowls her way through an investigation into the deaths of several research scientists during a gory Alaskan winter. The Irish Times wondered if we might be in a ‘Foster- naissance’. Do we call it a comeback? “You can call it anything you like,” Foster says. She glosses over it, though recently she also tells CBS in America: “I didn’t think I’d come back at this level, or I didn’t think I’d come back to acting as often as I have now.”
Either way, there is an irresistible narrative at work, one that connects her to the teenaged Jodie. Her performance as Bonnie Stoll, in Nyad, has earned her the fifth Oscar nomination of her career and, with it, a distinction for the ages: it has been 47 years since her original Academy Award nomination, leaving her behind only Katharine Hepburn (48 years) for the longest timespan between first and last acting nods from the Academy. Now Foster becomes animated. “Oh, really,” she says. “That’s cool, I like that statistic. Look, I worked in the sixties, the seventies, the eighties, the nineties”— she uses her fingers to check off each decade — “the noughts, the tens and the twenties... That’s amazing, all those different eras.”
Perhaps the defining characteristic of Foster’s work in each of those eras has been her refusal to play it safe. In their different ways, Nyad and Night Country offer fresh evidence of that. In Nyad, her first obvious lesbian role, she is relaxed, sensitive, hopeful and humane (as well as tanned and ripped). In Night Country, as Liz Danvers, the chief of police of a fictional town whose inquiries are hampered by her habit of having slept with other residents’ husbands, she is uptight, rough, cynical and hurting (as well as trussed up in the world’s thickest parka).
As interesting as their contrasts, though, is their commonality: both parts are deeply personal to Foster, which is why they resonate. In Nyad, she and Annette Bening, as the titular hero, want to show the world that sixtysomethings are not just a “bag of bones”. In True Detective: Night Country, the spectre of mortality — or what death means for the still-living — is as constant as the Arctic’s winter darkness. “That’s probably why I was attracted to it,” she says of Night Country. “Not because somehow you’re looking at your own death in the next 10 years, but more because you’ve lived so many [deaths], from your parents’, your grandparents’, lots of friends’. You’ve walked this path as far as you can walk with somebody, and everybody has feelings about that, about grieving, about the dead walking among us. I was intrigued by that. It’s something I care about a lot.”
Foster, whose mother, Brandy, died in 2019, adds: “I consider [Night Country] a really personal film. You’re able to look at something you care about in yourself that you don’t quite understand, that you haven’t 100 per cent metabolised.”
She had been “dying to get into streaming,” she says (helpfully staying on-topic), and such was her interest in HBO’s Night Country that, while she found the original script “beautifully written”, she committed to working with Issa López, the Mexican director and showrunner, to change both the character of Liz Danvers and Danvers’ purpose alongside her foil, Evangeline Navarro, a state trooper played by the boxer-turned-actor Kali Reis. Foster says, with a spoiler alert: “The original [Danvers] had just lost a child. She was younger than me, of course, and it was still fresh for her; she was crying all the time, grappling with suicidal thoughts... I didn’t feel the character was right for me, and I suggested that we think about almost reverse-engineering her so she could serve the central voice of the film, which was Kali’s character. In order to do that we made Danvers somebody who was unawake, unaware, unconscious, racist, who was unwilling to delve into the spirit world.” (Foster has memorably described her character as ‘Alaska Karen’.) “Then everything else started bubbling up from there.”
Night Country is the fourth season of the True Detective franchise, and the strongest since Matthew McConaughey and Woody Harrelson launched the cult hit in 2014. López’s cinematic, blue-hued contribution to the anthology consciously mirrors season one, yet it also elevates it: women are finally front and centre, and López takes on socio environmental issues in a clash between western corporatism and the Indigenous Alaskan community.
Night Country was not filmed in Alaska, though, but in Iceland. HBO flew out members of the Iñupiat community, both professional actors and not, many of whom had never visited anothercountryorthe‘lower49’statesoftheU.S.Togetherthecrew shot for 49 consecutive nights, filming sometimes on frozen lakes, in what Foster says was “one of the greatest shooting experiences of my life”. She jokes: “It was probably colder than it looked. You can put on all the hot pads you want and have a parka, but you still have to breathe, and it’s really hard to talk when you’re that cold.”
Their efforts culminate in a suitably chilling but electric extended finale (due to air in Britain and the U.S. in February), which Foster says she is “really proud of. It feels like a movie on its own, to tell you the truth: the depth of it, the twists, the payoff for the characters. You see what Danvers has been running from. What she is afraid of and what she doesn’t want to see. I think that’s very satisfying.”
It would be wrong to say that Foster, too, has been running from something, but that personal resonance, the evolution of her self, is hard to escape. She criticises herself for being “flaky as a friend” and self-absorbed in her youth, and says she has been dedicating herself to being better “relationally”. Moments later she volunteers: “As I get older, and maybe you find this, too, as you get older you do become more open and more free and softer. That’s something I’m realising and I’m looking forward to: how to be freer, how to be less afraid. Hopefully every movie I do throws me in that direction.”
Less afraid? What has she been afraid of ?
She answers in her own time. “You know,” she says. “Afraid of showing how I feel. Afraid of talking about things I wasn’t comfortable with. Afraid of being open to other people’s experiences and life... Just all the things that make you a brittle person.”
When Foster describes her childhood as ‘interesting’, she shows commendable faith in understatement. She was born Alicia Christian Foster in Hollywood in 1962 (and re-christened by her three older siblings). Her father, Lucius, left her mother before Jodie was born, and Jodie never established a relationship with him. She was three years old when she accompanied her brother Buddy to a job in L.A. and landed a gig for herself, as the child model in a famous American advert for Coppertone sun cream. She was gifted: she was reading at the age of three, and later attended the Lycée Français de Los Angeles (she has since dubbed many of her own performances in the French-language versions). Brandy, who was a publicist, and invariably described as a force of nature, became Jodie’s manager, deepening — or intensifying — a bond that was already superglue-tight. Foster says she could have rejected the acting life, but that the choice between quitting or carrying on was presented in fairly persuasive terms: “Here, you can have this dog food or you can starve.”
Jodie went to work. At six she had her start in television, in Mayberry R.F.D.; at nine she was bitten on set by a lion (she has but a dimple on her back); at 11 she sang at the Oscars and was directed by Scorsese for the first time (in Alice Doesn’t Live Here Anymore). “I’ve never dedicated to anything as much as I’ve dedicated to the movies,” Foster says now. “When I was a kid we sat in front of my mom’s black-and-white T.V. in her bedroom, we got Chinese food from the Chinese food place, and we all watched the Oscars — betting on movies, seeing every film... It’s my entire life, on screen.”
She was a grand old 12 when Scorsese cast her as Iris in his would-be classic Taxi Driver, the part that Foster played with such bruised delicacy that it all but guaranteed her transition from Hollywood’s juniors to the establishment.
Her passion for acting returned while she was still at Yale, though it took several years for her to fix her name to the billboards. In 1988 she played a rape victim, Sarah Tobias, in The Accused, for which she won her first Academy Award for best actress, and three years later she repeated the achievement, this time as the F.B.I. trainee Clarice Starling in Jonathan Demme’s psychological-horror masterpiece The Silence of the Lambs. It was the performance that would define her career, and give her the kind of agency, even power, that Hollywood pretenders dream of. (With disarming ruefulness, she’s joked since that she didn’t comprehend how such a transcendent success would also be unique: “Knowing the film is timeless and lives on, it’s the little pot at the end of the rainbow that you always hope for,” she told the B.F.I. in 2017. “And then it’s quite difficult: I didn’t realise it was never going to happen again. You don’t realise how rare it is. But it is rare, and I feel very blessed.”)
She was a double Oscar winner at 29 — in fact, the youngest two-time winner in history: “When I hit 30, which was also a really happy time, I think I’d achieved the boxes I’d set out [to tick] for myself. I was like, O.K., now what do I do?” She was seen as the most powerful woman in Hollywood, and she used her agency to orient her career as she alone saw fit. She directed a feature film for the first time (Little Man Tate), and embarked on a series of unconventional acting choices that defied easy categorisation (except to say that, in Fosterian style, each one subverted expectations created by the last).
After The Silence of the Lambs, though, there was an explosion of media attention, from which she seemed to recoil. Between 1993 and 2008 she was in a relationship with the producer Cydney Bernard, with whom she shares two sons, Charles and Kit (now in their twenties). She was said to have officially come out in 2007, in a speech at a Power 100 Women in Entertainment breakfast — but did she? Six years later, when she was honoured with the Cecil B. DeMille award at the Golden Globes, she was said to have officially come out again. What does it matter? It doesn’t, though for a while the media worked themselves up about her identity and her private life — not to mention her feminist credentials — and for years Foster was critiqued as self-conscious or controlling.
Her speech at the 2013 Globes was the vector around which the tension seemed to spin — between Foster the private person and public figure, between the artist and her audience, between the savant and the celebrity zoo. It is a fascinating speech to watch, or read, a decade on: rambunctious, knowing, spiky, awkward and touching. Like a mischievous kitten before a slobbering hound, she teased: “I have a sudden urge to say something I’ve never really been able to air in public. So, a declaration that I’m a little nervous about ... Loud and proud, right? I am—” ... drum roll ... “single.” (I think she might’ve enjoyed that bit. Never mind that she describes the speech to The Rake as “pretty disliked at the time — pundits in their pyjamas on the internet”.)
On stage at the Beverly Hilton hotel that night, she went on: “I hope you’re not disappointed there won’t be a big coming-out speech tonight, because I already did my coming out about a thousand years ago, back in the Stone Age, in those quaint days when a fragile young girl would open up to trusted friends and family and co-workers and then gradually, proudly, to everyone who knew her, to everyone she actually met... Seriously, if you had been a public figure from the time you were a toddler, if you’d had to fight for a life that felt real and honest and normal against all odds, maybe you too might value privacy above all else.”
She concluded, affectingly: “It will be my writing on the wall. Jodie Foster was here, I still am, and I want to be seen, to be understood deeply, and to be not so very lonely.”
Not before she’d thrown the establishment a feint and gone to college, however. She enrolled at Yale in 1980 hoping to be a ‘normal’ teenager, perhaps even anonymous. Two years later she would write: “I wanted to be the kind of girl who’s friendly, well-liked, social. To a point, you could say that that’s anonymity — the need to be wholly accepted as an equal and yet respected for the product of your efforts... For years I had been growing paler watching double features with my mom, then eating Chinese food from paper cartons. I knew everything there was to know about distribution profits and how to handle meetings at the Polo Lounge. It wasn’t that I’d lost my childhood or become jaded; I just didn’t have a clue as to how it felt to be out of control, completely lost, without prior experience.”
When the loss of control came, it was shattering, unpredictable, and imposed upon her. On March 30, 1981, a college dropout from Oklahoma tried to assassinate Ronald Reagan outside the Washington Hilton. John Hinckley Jr. fired six shots, badly injuring Reagan as well as the president’s press secretary, a police officer and a secret service agent. Hinckley, a loner, had become obsessed with Taxi Driver while living in Hollywood. He began to mimic De Niro’s Travis Bickle, and developed an obsession with Foster, following her to Connecticut and sending her dozens of letters and poems, even calling her on the phone. On the day of the attempted assassination, he wrote another, unposted, letter to Foster, claiming his “historical deed” was supposed to “impress” her and win her heart.
Foster, who testified at Hinckley’s trial (he was found not guilty by reason of insanity, but detained in psychiatric care until his release in 2016), contributed a searing but clear-eyed account of her experience for Esquire in 1982, the first and last time she has addressed it in depth. The essay was entitled ‘Why Me?’, and in it she mused perceptively on acting and the nature of obsession and love, as well as the resilience she found within herself to endure not only the horrific event but the intrusion that followed. “I wanted to show them all that Jodie was so uniquely ‘normal’ that nothing could make her fall,” Foster, still only 20 years of age, wrote. “I think I believed all this, my subconscious propaganda. But the truth was that in the crunch, when the chips are down, in a time of crisis, you resort to strength you’d never dreamed you owned... ” She added: “No, the Hinckley ordeal did not destroy my anonymity; it only destroyed the illusion of it. Every man or woman in this world had the right to stare at, point at, and judge me because ... that was my job. That’s what I got paid for — to take my lumps. I can be rejected for physical reality, the audience’s perception of who I am. Consequently, I become the property of my judges or I risk rejection.”
How has the intervening decade treated her sentiments? She says she always tried to be as authentic as she could, but adds: “Part of staying intact and being a somewhat well-adjusted person sitting in front of you has been about the survival tools I had to create in order to survive intact. I think my work, the work itself, has been an amazing survival tool... to say, ‘This is who I am’ through the character. There is nothing healing about celebrity culture — I’ve had to create boundaries around that in order to stay alive.
“My maturation was really skewed. I didn’t spend a lot of time with kids my own age. I had to learn a lot of hard lessons when I was in college. Maybe a lot of other kids had some kind of golden childhood; mine was really interesting and I loved it, but I was filled with anxiety.
“I had a single mom; there was a lot of fear about, Are we gonna survive? I remember I got fired from a job when I was 15, and that was really upsetting — oh my god, I’ll never work again. I was pretty obsessed with that — like, how am I gonna be able to make enough money to take care of myself and my family? Because that was part of my job, too.
“I would never trade the anxiety of that time. I wouldn’t want to go back. Never, never, never.”
I ask her whether she regarded herself as lonely in the literal sense. “Maybe I did, yeah,” she says. “Maybe I did.” Though before we become too maudlin, she adds: “I think I meant it literally and figuratively. The job I do has this exquisite loneliness, and that is a loneliness that is satisfying because, like, You can’t have it, it’s all mine! My mom can’t have it, she can’t take credit for it, nobody else gets to share in it. But then it’s lonely because no one really understands what that is, and the impact of it. I wouldn’t have it any other way, but it’s also a lot of suffering.
“So, yeah, it’s this and that, you know what I mean? I’m not good at the — not good at the soundbite.”
In Nyad, Diana and Bonnie’s septuagenarian pursuit of purpose and meaning are watched over by the most famous lines from The Summer Day, a poem by the Pulitzer Prize winner Mary Oliver: “Tell me, what is it you plan to do/With your one wild and precious life?” Jodie Foster knows what she’s not going to do with it: go shopping. In November 1976, she tells Andy Warhol, “You’d have to kill me to go shopping”. Nearly 50 years later, the delights of Rodeo Drive have not turned her head. “Sorry, I still feel that way,” she says. “My mom was a shopper. When she took me around everywhere, I always brought a book, and when I complained, she said ‘go to the car!’ I got a lot of reading done.”
She’s a good sport, so she racks her brain for some recent extravagant purchase that might impress the reader. She shops for stationery and for her kids, she offers. She likes to go to book stores or hardware stores. “I’m trying to think,” she says, staring into space. She bought some fishing gear last summer, when she and Kali Reis, her Night Country co-star, spent a week on holiday in Alaska. Oh, wait — the other day she got some new tennis shoes. But no, she really doesn’t feel the need to buy things for herself. Other than the basics, she’d “rather stick my eyes with pins”.
Photo team: Kevin McHugh, Danya Morrison
Digital Technician: Brandon Smith
Hair and Makeup: Brett Freedman at Celestine Agency
Production: Alejandro Restrepo
Fashion Assistant & On-set Styling: Melanie Bauer
Special thanks to Copious Management