Q&A: Jodie Foster On Her DeMille Award

David Mermelstein is an AwardsLine contributor

Few stars can rival Jodie Foster’s durability. One has to go back to Hollywood’s golden age—to the likes of Judy Garland—to find those who even approach her successful transition from childhood roles to adult parts. And what other child actor started directing after accomplishing that transition? None. Which is why it’s fitting that the Hollywood Foreign Press Association is bestowing on Foster its highest honor, the Cecil B. DeMille Award.

Foster has been with us so long, it’s almost impossible to believe she’s just 50. Amazingly, it’s been 20 years since she won her second best-actress Oscar (for Silence Of The Lambs). Her first came three years earlier (for The Accused). But her first Academy Award nomination dates back to 1977, for Taxi Driver, in which she played a young teen prostitute, opposite Robert De Niro and Harvey Keitel.

“I’ve been doing this a long time,” Foster says with typical understatement during a recent phone interview. “And it feels like a long time, but it also feels great. I don’t remember ever starting. My earliest memories are doing commercials and TV. And here comes this celebration of my whole life. So now what? Hopefully there’s more to come.”

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There no doubt will be for Foster, who continues to eye both acting and directing projects with an eagerness tempered by discernment. Yet she acknowledges a certain ambivalence regarding her career. “I don’t know if I have the personality for it,” she says. “I’m not sure if I’d not fallen into it, it’s what I’d have done. I mean this mostly as an actor rather than as a director, but I’m one for entirely different reasons from most people. It’s become a psychological evolution. I chose movies based on what I had to learn about myself, not because I had to act. There’s lots of things I’m not interested in, and I don’t want to play parts in those movies.”

Despite the wide range of roles Foster has undertaken and the very different plots of the three films she’s directed, she sees a throughline in her work. “I always feel like I’m making the same movie over and over again,” she says. “Nobody else seems to notice, but I do.” The perspective, though, is markedly different depending on whether Foster is acting or directing. “As an actor, I’m always playing solitary characters,” she says. “But as a director, I’m always making ensemble movies, which focus on lots of people’s lives and how they intertwine. Similar things interest me both as an actor and as a director but in totally different ways. As an actor, I’m attracted to drama; as a director, it’s humor—because it’s the story of my life, and I can’t be that serious about it. Being alone is a big theme in all my movies, both as a director and as an actress.”

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The actress credits her mother, Brandy, with laying the groundwork for her transition from family-friendly roles to more serious work, and Taxi Driver (1976) was the turning point. The film’s producer, Michael Phillips, remembers director Martin Scorsese’s determination to cast Foster, an instinct that really paid off. “She was only 12 and kind of shy,” Phillips recalls. “But she was very intelligent and quite mature. She just had the acting chops. She was very natural in the character and seemed unthreatened and undaunted by the sexuality. That was one of the big issues—how comfortable she would be with that material. She was doubled for the sexual material; some of it her sister did. But she was exposed to blood and violence. It was just her politeness that gave away her age. She was impossible not to like and respect, and it was amazing how much self-possession she had at that age.”

By the time Foster appeared in The Accused (1988), there was no denying that a major actress had arrived. Yet she insists that even after she made that film, she had doubts about spending the rest of her life in pictures. “Right after The Accused, I was heading to grad school and thought that was the last of those. Part of me was disappointed in my performance. Then I saw the movie and realized that a lot of it was about fear and a lot was unconscious. And also I thought, Literature doesn’t wake me up at 5 in the morning. So grad school wasn’t going to do that.”

Her perseverance in Hollywood was rewarded with The Silence Of The Lambs (1991), which won five Academy Awards, including best picture. Jonathan Demme directed Foster to her second best actress Oscar, yet he credits her with helping him shape his conception of the film. “The first time I met Jodie,” Demme says, “we hadn’t started casting yet. But she reached out to express her deep regard for the book. She described it as the story of one young woman desperately trying to save the life of another young woman, with these roadblocks put up by all these men. And something really clicked for me when she said that, and that became the theme that guided me in making the movie, and it impacted endless decisions. I was so moved by what she said that I named my production company Strong Heart in honor of Jodie’s thematic inspiration. I treasure how she oriented me as how best to tell this story.”

Though modest about her two Oscars, Foster willingly acknowledges their impact on her career. “It’s like winning the lottery,” she says. “It doesn’t mean you’re a better person. At the same time, after my first Oscar, I was able to say, ‘OK, I’m doing this incredibly risky thing. I’m going to try and direct.’ It gave me some kind of passport that I might not have had. But I also think the reason you were given the honor is because you played from the heart, not because you followed a rulebook. And you learn you have this great saber, which allows you to make decisions against the tide. Silence Of The Lambs was not something people expected me to do. But I loved this book and this character, and the film operates at such a high level. And by the way, I just won an Oscar, so too bad. It was really the best decision I could have made.”

The impact of those wins resonates even now, for the avenues they opened offered Foster a way to remain fulfilled in Hollywood. “I think it’s something I’ll probably do my whole life and also something I need a break from a lot,” she says. “But there’s lots of different ways to tell stories and lots of different ways to make films. I’ve only directed three movies, and I’ve got a lot to learn, and there’s a lot ahead for me there. It’s hard getting movies off the ground—harder and harder every year. My goals are humble as a director. They’re really about having the films as an expression of who I am. As an actor, you can’t really do that. You do it and move on. But directing, well, that’s me. It requires a real 100 percent investment in all levels of the storytelling.”

Foster isn’t shy about owning up to missed opportunities, even if she isn’t eager to mention specific projects. Yet she remains optimistic. “I’ve had a weird career, and I get a lot of grief for it,” she says. “What I choose is just really personal, especially as a director. I can’t just go, ‘I like scuba diving, so let’s do a scuba diving movie.’ It has to be something I would die for. And because it’s the story of your life, there are the popular parts and the parts nobody likes and the parts people don’t understand. But I have to make those movies, too.”

    1. Yeah, that’s why her career went nowhere in the past six years. Somehow Meryl Streep even at her age can find roles and be nominated for awards every year. Maggie Smith is 78 and still find good roles and gets recognition from satiric and viewers. Sally Field, Helen Hunt, Jacki Weaver – they are all over 40 and get Oscar nominations.

      When was the last time that Jodie Foster was in good film? Film, that would be worth praise from critics and get awards recognition? Those Brave One, Nim’s Island, Beaver, and Carnage were jokes and weak movies that went unnoticed by everyone. Inside Man (2006) was the last descent movie of Jodie . Foster is actually very limited actress if you look at her latest roles. She is one of those actresses that can be good only in one role. And then they play similar role in every movie. Like Ellen Page fro example. Or even Denzel Washington, Morgan Freeman…

      It’s really amazing how Jodie Foster was such a big thing and then kind of vanished from movies. And only resurfaces in press when she defends Polanski, Gibson or Stewart.

      1. Oh please shy. Jodie Foster is a two-time Oscar winner with a long, successful career. She doesn’t have anything left to prove and is more focused on working with great directors and directing her own movies right now.

        Sally Field and Helen Hunt only got Oscar nominations this year. Foster’s been earning millions making movies while they were…where exactly? They probably won’t get another good role again. Hollywood is hard on women of a certain age. Not everyone gets Meryl Streep’s opportunities. Jodie Foster also turns down a lot of movies.

        By the way, she will be in the highly-anticipated film Elysium by the amazing director of District 9 with Matt Damon this year. Many would die for a career like hers.

        Who cares about how she surfaces in today’s soulless press? She sticks by her friends, and otherwise we only see her when she has a movie to promote. That’s admirable if anything.

          1. I know that, and Helen Hunt is a best actress winner. My point is that the poster is acting as if Field and Hunt have had blooming careers in recent years just due to this week’s nominations, but they were considered to not be doing so well just a year ago while Jodie Fosters has had hits she carried on her own, huge paychecks and Gloge nominations in the last decade. Helen Hunt and Sally Field just lucked out with a good part after a long drought. Good parts are scarce for older women. I doubt Helen Hunt will suddenly have a bunch of hits and acclaimed parts just because she got another Oscar nomination.

      2. I do believe if you slow down your rant long enough to check you will see that she has spent most of her time behind the camera directing. Must she be in front of the camera for you to feel she is justified in receiving this award?? Obviously you are jaded and haven’t really looked. Please read and applaud the following productions this amazing woman has been involved in acting and the last three are as director:
        2013 Elysium (post-production)
        Secretary Rhodes

        2011 Carnage
        Penelope Longstreet

        2011 The Beaver
        Meredith Black

        2009 The Simpsons (TV series)

        Director:
        2013 Money Monster (pre-production)

        2013 Orange Is the New Black (TV series)
        – Lesbian Request Denied (2013)

        2011 The Beaver

      3. Really?? I think you should probably check your facts before you go on a public forum to spout stupidity! Jodie has been an AMAZING actress for nearly 50 years and when she was not acting she was directing. She also in between the two managed to graduate from Yale magna cum laude with a bachelors in lit. She also speaks French,(fluently) Italian, English and understands German! She also is a Doctor of Fine Arts from yale as well (honorary)an incredible honor you must admit! She is also Mensa! She takes rolls that mean something to her and I (along with a lot of others)think she has an amazing body of work to her credit. No actor has a perfect career with best picture awards every year. Jodie Foster has had a career that has managed to stand the test of time, years, critics and even bad press and she is still here! Just wondering … What have you done???

      4. Nowhere in the last 6 years? How about her nomination for best actress for The Brave One and Globe nomination for Best Actress in Carnage? Pay attention! This woman has kept her dignity unlike any other childhood actor, along with Ron Howard, without having to make a joke of herself in public, in order to keep the attention focused on her. She could go live on a remote island for 10 years, return and still be respected. She’s not in this for celebrity. She’s in it as an actor, which a lot of those seeking celebrity can’t do to save their own hide.

  1. Nobody seems to notice it? Each of her movies can be stripped down to the same basics, well almost. I guess that’s widely accepted. And in a logical step you draw this through-line to the real Alicia. Or in the words of a great director she once worked with: What you see on screen is the mix of the character she plays, the real Jodie Foster and something she adds unconsciously.

    1. Exactly. The same role over and over again. The same ‘gritty strong, determined womyn’ type roles.

      Yawn.

  2. Maybe if she still wasn’t quite so self-obsessed, she’d realize how much good she could do for others less advantaged by making one public statement.

    1. I sgree with ‘Eric Kane,’ who says it subtly and well. Oh,and Foster is, at best, a workmanlike director, by the way. She has no talent behind the camera.

    2. Discussing your career and not discussing your private life does not make you self-obsessed. She doesn’t owe you anything beyond her movies.

  3. “And what other child actor started directing after accomplishing that transition? None.”

    Whoa whoa whoa, slow down there, hoss. Don’t forget about lil ol Ron Howard.

    1. Ron Howard was never an A-list movie star earning big paychecks from his child star years into his 40 like Foster. He was on two classic television shows when he was young and then transitioned into a director. Both impressive careers, but very different. Howard was never a big movie star.

  4. “And what other child actor started directing after accomplishing that transition? None.”

    Nope — Ron Howard did it too.

  5. Jodie deserves all the awards that are offered. More so than any of the other wanna-bes. The others rely on their looks; She has looks and talent.

  6. An award for your life’s is saying , I made a difference and you notice it. Jodie Foster thanks for sharing your dreams with us…

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