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Mother Knows Best

by Holly Millea
Mirabella (September, 1998)

Jodie Foster is so smart, the only thing she can't do is play dumb. Uneducated maybe, but never dumb. Forty-three roles and two Oscar-winning performances, and not an idiot in the bunch. Not even an idiot savant. Funny, then, when the thirty-five-year-old Foster admits that "it doesn't take intelligence to be an actor. And sometimes intelligence can really hurt acting, because it's such an emotional and physical process, it can get in the way." And when that happens, she has to get out of her own way--which isn't easy when the world can see your brain ablaze, magnified through the long lens of a camera.

"She's very much a close-up actress, because her thoughts are clear," says Richard Gere, her co-star in Sommersby. "And she trusts them. That's why the camera likes to be in her face and her eyes. She has big, open eyes. That's what's so mesmerizing about her work--the truth within that, but also the power.

While acting doesn't always test Foster's IQ, producing does. This fall, one of her Egg Pictures projects, The Baby Dance, in which a wealthy husband and wife are desperate to adopt a child, airs on Showtime. "These two very unlikely couples enter into a negotiation witht one another," Foster explains. "It starts out kind of polite and surfacey, and then, by the middle, all of their real vulnerabilities are revealed. There are parts of them that you just have and parts you love, and there are no clear-cut answers. And there's absolutely no hero in the piece at all!" she says, laughing.

The actress is in the midst of her own baby dance, of course, having given birth to her first child, Charles, in July. Though she declines to discuss his father, Foster is forthcoming aboutt raising Charlie alone. And by all accounts, she's great mother material. "Jodie is the most down-to-earth, most centered, most interested-in-other-people person I know," says Accused director Jonathan Kaplan. "And it's not phony baloney." While bringing up baby, there's just one thing Foster will have to keep in check--her potty mouth. "She has as raunchy a sense of humor as Mel Gibson," says their Maverick director Richard Donner. "And that's saying something. I wish I could tell you one of her jokes, but they're not fit to print.

So there's no one to root for in Baby Dance?

I don't think people are black or white. I just never believe those movies where the hero is undeniably heroic and the villain is villainous. I think we all have both sides in ourselves, especially when it comes to parenting and being a child. We all have very conflicted and conflicting emotions, and nobody is perfect. We all come from this combination of tragedy and comedy, it's what makes us who we are. It's our own mythology.

Did this film influence you to have a child?

No, it's just a general interest that I have and that, frankly, I think everybody has--about where they come from, and what is going to be their contribution as a parent, and all the issues of loving. If you love somebody, will you make the sacrifices in order to make sure that they have a happy life? And all of those are questions that every child has vis-a-vis their parents. I've been thinking about it for a long time.

In what way did your childhood influence your decision to have a baby?

I probably always thought I wanted to have kids. But I knew I wasn't ready.

What changed that?

I think just growing up. Becoming more comfortable with myself. And I actually believe that there's this little chronological button that goes off in your head. That's been my experience. I hit a certain age, and all the things that I either fought against, or emotions that I didn't have, or wasn't capable of--suddenly, all the fighting was pointless.

You once said you get annoyed with women who turn forty and have kids just so they have someone to love them.

I rue the day I ever opened my mouth on that one. It was a really dumb thing to say. And you know what? There were a few actresses that I knew that I felt weird about. I just felt like they were having kids for the wrong reasons. They were having kids so that somebody would love them, because they were just totally insecure, and they couldn't stay in a relationship, and they were reaching a point in their lives where they felt they needed someone who would not walk away from them. I'm sure that's a part of everybody's subconscious to some extent, but you hope that your impulse is not completely narcissistic and selfish.

Did you have a good pregnancy?

Not one bad moment. I really enjoyed it. I could do this for a living if it paid better! I enjoyed every minute of it.

How about exercise?

I gained seventeen pounds. I did do some yoga and walking and stuff, and then they told me not to.

Has having a child changed the way you see your own mother?

A lot. Because I realize how much you have to worry about and I realize she did all of that on her own. To have four kids, and to have three of them virtually the same age--I don't know how someone does that. I do have a lot of respect for her.

Well, you're going to do it all alone...

[Slowly] Yeeesss...[Laughs] But it's not quite the same thing...I've got a lot more money! A lot more security. And I'm a lot older.

What were your favorite childhood books?

I don't remember, really. My mom and I would go to Doubleday or Brentano's, and she'd leave me in the kids' section. And they had this whole series of biographies that were probably like seventy-five, a hundred pages long--like Amelia Earhart, Joan of Arc, J.F.K., Charles Lindbergh. I loved those. I read every one. I was like seven or eight. I loved to read.

But I think it was a sickness about the reading because everytime I went with my mom in the car, I took books. I wanted to make sure that if she left me or I was stuck someplace I didn't want to be that I would always have something to do. I do that now with her! I bring a book with me.

There's something sad about that

I don't think so. I think I was really focused. I was one of those laser-focused kind of kids. I mean, I had a great childhood. It's not like I had a bummer childhood of anything. But I was serious as a kid. I was really serious about experience and thinking about what people did and why they did it. And who they were. I think in some ways it's what's made me remote as a person. I can be kind of remote because I see everything. And some shit, I can't get involved because I see a little too much.

Sounds like the kid in your movie Little Man Tate

I was connected to that kid. Not that wer were geniuses or that I'm that prodigious. I wasn't that prodigious in anything. I think I saw too much. "Saw too much" is the wrong phrase. I think I was too perceptive. Just really way too perceptive about human experience. It was the only thing that interested me. I'd just be fascinated by why people do what they do and who they are. I think that starts at an early age.

And you were a star even then.

I was a child actor, not a star. And I think that was the difference. Usually people don't become actors until they're eighteen or twenty. And what they do as children is very different. They're not playing characters, they're playing their age group, and the best thing about the way my mom chose roles for me was that I didn't play people who were exclusively twelve or thirteen. I played people who just happened to be twelve or thirteen. So there was a complicated personality happening.

Were you raised with a certain religion?

No. I wasn't even baptized. In fact, the first church I ever went to was in the Vatican when I was, like, fourteen. I don't live with a fear of death and I know that some people do. I just don't. I don't have "What's going to happen if I die? I'd better believe in God." Mine is like, "You know what? I don't have a problem with that."

So, do you believe in God?

Well, categorically, no. But I love religions. Love religious studies. Love divine texts and all that stuff. And I love the part of humanity and psychology and whatever weird brain toxin we're carrying around that makes us create these beautiful dreams and horrible nightmares in the face of wanting to know where we come from. Love that.

Will you pass those beliefs on to Charlie?

There are things that you pass on as a parent--that's a part of parenting and a part of being a citizen, and you don't need any kind of religion to do that. But I still have a lot of respect for it. It's just that organized religions have done such harm, especially recently. There's this outbreak of violence that forces you to come up with your own distinctions.

One of the things that I don't like about certain religions is the joy that taken out when it's supposed to be about joy. In order for me to embrace a religion, it has to be able to embrace me and who I am. And it can't have preconditions about what makes me whole: "Well, you can come into our club if you don't smell too much and you wear black and you're devout and you look down at the floor." But the second that you're joyful and who you are, they don't want you anymore.

There's always Buddhism

[Laughs] There's a little bit of Buddhism that can bug me. It's the same thing with twelve-step programs. It's really beneficial for a lot of people, but there are parts of it that you go, Oh, man. But the thing about Buddhists--the completely glib acceptance of who you are--sometimes leads them to be lazy people. "Gee, couldn't be on time, sorry, I'm an hour late, but you know what? I had shit to do." There's a certain kind of self-centered quality about it. [Laughs] I'm sure every Buddhist sits down today and says, "I'm gonna work on that."

Have you ever been to Planet Hollywood?

Have you been there? Okay, my niece loved it. This is the good thing about Planet Hollywood, they had like, Maxwell Smart's phone in his shoe. I love that!

But then I go there, and they have this video that's called Girls on Film. I'm like, Okay, women in film, they're going to show Sophie's Choice, and I thought, it's going to be Norma Rae, The Piano...I'm thinking of all these kinds of heroic women. And then "Girls on Film," the Duran Duran song, comes on, and it's basically women getting undressed! It's girls on film taking their clothes off. I'm thinking, Wait! I'm sure there's a male translation of that, men blowing things up. It's totally demeaning. Is that what I do? I think that's how the industry is now perceived, because it's become this greed icon for superficiality and lack of substance. And it doesn't have to be that way.

How hard is it to do nude scenes?

It's a little scary. When I was younger, I wouldn't. I made it part of my contract, and it was very frustrating for directors. On Hotel New Hampshire, I sat down with [director] Tony Richardson and said, "I can't do this, I can't do that." And I remember him saying to me, "You know, you're not a real actor yet. And you won't be a real actor until you realize that your body is a part of who you are and what you do." And at that time I thought he was really an asshole for saying that and I stuck to my guns. Now I see what he means. Your body is a part of who you are. And you can make choices about what's exploitative and what isn't. But you can't say, "Well this isn't exploitative, but I don't feel comfortable as an actor like that." Then why are you an actor? You should be doing something else. Now I see the wisdom of what Tony was saying. At the time, I really wanted to hit him.

What will be your first project as a working mom?

I'm going to direct. I've got this great movie. It's called Flora Plum. It's a movie that happens in the circus in the '30s. It's about this young women, played by Claire Danes, who's sort of an Eve Harrington-type character who comes in to the circus, and everybody thinks she's this sweet Midwestern girl, and then by the end of the movie there's questions of whether she's causing the demise of everybody in the circus. It's great.

What's your biggest fantasy?

I've always had this fantasy of being on Jeopardy! with Jimmy Woods and John Lithgow--the two smartest people I've ever met in my life. They are just unbelievably smart men.

That's always a turn-on.

It sure is.