In Hollywood, when the tabloids leave you alone, it usually isn’t a good sign. In rare cases such as Jodie Foster’s, however, it’s merely a sign of longevity. Forty-some years into her career, the former child star is uniquely capable of taking long hiatuses from film and still making box office comebacks – see 2002’s Panic Room and 2005’s Flightplan. Like the tough yet vulnerable roles that have made her famous, the two-time Oscar winner seems to have a knack for earning the public’s sympathy while keeping the paparazzi at bay. Not surprisingly, the same resilience has helped her mother two sons, Charles and Kit (nine and six, respectively), with film producer Cydney Bernard.
In April, Foster will appear in Nim’s Island, the story of an agoraphobic adventure writer (Foster) who is persuaded to leave her apartment sanctuary and travel to the South Pacific to rescue a resourceful young fan named Nim (Little Miss Sunshine‘s Abigail Breslin). While promoting the film, Foster talked about how to raise self-reliant children without packing them off to a deserted island. – Justin Clark
Can you talk about what attracted you to this project? Was it the comedy aspect?
Yeah, I’ve been wanting to do a comedy for a long time, actually, and Maverick was such a great experience. I really enjoyed it and lightness is a part of life, too. You’re not all just darkness. But I couldn’t find anything that was good enough, and I read this script and kept banging on doors and lobbying for it. They had a different arrangement with the studio at that time and they were not keen on me at all – understandably, because they know me for my dark dramas.
Is there anything that would be too silly for you?
I think silly’s good. You’re looking for that. What’s interesting to me in this movie is that I find myself talking about things like fear and this sort of solitary world that she’s created, finding a hero in yourself. And those are all themes that I’ve played in dramas many, many times. In very dark dramas. And here I am doing a comedy about them. It’s kind of like making fun of your most precious thing. You’re making fun of the fragile parts of yourself. You have to have an ability to make fun of yourself in order to be a comedy actor.
Is there anything that would be too far out for you?
Oh, I’m sure there’s plenty of Jim Carrey-esque stuff that I’m not sure I would be well-equipped to do, but that my sons just love. I do like wit. I like physical comedy, but I like wit. I like scripts that have a wit to the language and wit to the timing. So I’m not sure I would be funny in a silent movie, for example.
What was it like working with Abigail Breslin?
Oh, Abigail’s great. Because I was a child actor from the time I was three, I do see bits and pieces of myself as a kid in her. She’s got a great family that comes with her, she’s very well adjusted and she likes to just get on with it. She likes to just do her job and not dwell on the acting stuff. But she has something that I didn’t have as a young person. She has this very strong access to her emotions and that’s so easy for her. She’s really born to be an actress and I really didn’t have that at her age. So it’s fun for me to look at a kid and go, “Wow, that kid’s born to be an actor.”
Did you talk to her about having a career like yours?
Not really. She wasn’t looking for advice from me. Our conversations were more about what flavor popsicles do you like?
And what was it?
Well, we were talking about the ice cream trucks in New York. What things the ice cream trucks have and how the SpongeBob ones are a rip-off. “It’s all yellow, but there’s nothing else on it.” So we didn’t really talk about careers and stuff like that. And she doesn’t need my advice. She’s got a great career and she’s happy and healthy and all of that.
I’ll tell you what was amazing, was watching Abigail change from the beginning of the film to the end. She’s a Manhattan kid – raised in Manhattan – and she didn’t do a lot of camping and stuff like that in her life. She’s a city kid. So she never swam in the ocean before. She had put her toe in the ocean, or maybe her hand in the ocean, but she never fully swam in the ocean before. Here she had to jump on the back of a trained sea lion and go underneath the water and above the water. That was really adventurous stuff. Climbing rock faces and going on a zip line. She was actually a little bit afraid of heights and she had to do that zip line thing. At the beginning, when we started rehearsals, she was a little scared of things and by the end, she was diving in the waves and she had a little rat’s nest in her hair. She changed, I think, and it really brought her confidence.
That’s what kids are looking for from these adventure stories. They’re looking to be able to say, “I could do that myself.” “I can fix a satellite dish with a tool belt” and “I can make my own food, and if my dad was away for two days I’d figure it out.” And it’s important for kids to have that kind of confidence in their own self-reliance.
How funny do you consider yourself as a person?
I don’t know. I mean, I’m witty. My humor is kind of language-based. But my natural humor is sort of dry and nasty and R-rated, a little.
Abigail said she kept a swear jar on set for Gerard.
Well, we have one at our house – the Bad Words Jar. It’s ridiculous. I don’t know what’s happened to me in the last six months, but I’m going to go broke soon.
What’s the message of the film?
Well, the connection with nature. The fact that, for a film like this, you don’t need videogame characters and laser tag in order to have it be adventurous and interesting. But I think it’s a message of self-reliance and of making decisions that are strong decisions, because they’re what you know is right. And believing in yourself. Self-reliance is a big issue for young girls. It was a big issue for me. I don’t know, maybe those days are over, but it was a big issue for me, even though I was born in the ’60s. I still had the influence of my mom’s generation that just did not believe that they could take care of themselves. They thought someone had to take care of them, and they were always looking for somebody to take care of them, because they were just not told that they could take care of themselves.
What’s different about being a child actor now?
Oh, my gosh, there are so many differences. I don’t know about child actors, but definitely adolescent actors and post-adolescent actors. That’s a whole different world now than it ever was before. The intrusions and the visibility and being paid so much. We didn’t have that then. And all of those things impact on your emotional well-being and your health. It’s much harder to be a healthy young actor now than it was when I was young.
Can you relate to the character in the sense that she has a public persona and is not like that to herself, or some days you just don’t want to leave the house?
Oh, no, I think she just doesn’t want to leave the house. I mean, she’s an author. She’s not like a pop star or anything. I think she’s scared. What are the psychoanalytic reasons? What happened to her as a child? I talked about that a little bit with the director. I was, like, “I don’t want to start going into background and this and that.” But I had this image. “The sea lions were the best actors in the movie.” I don’t why I decided that, as a child, she had red hair. She doesn’t now, but as a child she did. I don’t know if this ever happened to you, but you can swim and everything, but you don’t feel like swimming or going in the pool, and the idiot uncle picks you up and throws you in the pool anyway. And it’s such a mean-spirited thing to do. Just because they’re bigger than you, they can throw you in. And it doesn’t mean you can’t swim or anything. It just makes you mad and it just makes you go, “Well, yeah, I’m going to go over there and read that book.” And, I don’t know. It was sort of an act of rebellion, in some ways, rather than an act of – “I can’t do anything!” It was much more like, “Well, I’ll show you.” And then that turned into reclusiveness, but, in fact, it was an act of rebellion.
Was that a real seal that kissed you?
Oh, that was a real seal. I’m not even sure we used a fake seal. The seal could not physically go on the beach because the real seal would leave. So Sea World did not want to lose their million-dollar sea lions.
Were you comfortable with that?
Oh, yeah, they’re amazing. The sea lions were the best actors in the movie. They were just amazing. They did everything they were supposed to do. It was just incredible. I mean, not only did he kiss me on the lips, but he’ll hold the kiss until somebody says, “Okay.”
So that whole edict about working with children and animals . . .
I love it. I’ve made a lot of movies with children and animals and I love working with them more, I think because there’s a simpler process. If they don’t want to throw the spaghetti again, they just don’t throw the spaghetti. And there’s no bribery, there’s no guilt-tripping that’s ever going to make them throw the spaghetti again. Once they’ve decided, it’s just not going to happen. And there’s a nice simplicity to that.