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Jodie Foster Interview

by Boze Hadleigh
Mediascene Prevue (March/June 1992)

At age 29, Jodie Foster has not only become her generation's most critically celebrated actress; in both her professional and personal pursuits, she has also uncannily mirrored the American zeitgeist. Each of her real/reel roles — a Coppertone poster kid in the beach-blanket '60s, Taxi Driver's teen tart in the morally bankrupt '70s, the inspiration for President Reagan's would-be assassin in 1981, a 1988 Oscar winner for her exposure of rape in The Accused, and an avenger of Dahmeresque depravity in 1991's The Silence of the Lambs — has become a cultural symbol.

Abandoned in diapers by her father, a real estate executive she has seen only several times since, the Bronx-born tomboy was reared a stones throw from Hollywood Boulevard by her mother, a former press agent. Helping feed her two sisters and brother, Foster cut her teeth on cathode commercials, made appearances on My Three Sons and The Courtship of Eddie's Father, then regulared on the sitcoms Bob & Carol & Ted & Alice and Paper Moon.

After juggling a teen career and Lycee Francais' bilingual curriculum — fluent, Foster dubs her films for French-language release — she entered Yale, only to become the epicenter of the Hinckley-Reagan assassination intrigue and be hounded by a second madman. Remarkably, the magna cum laude graduate soon shed the scandal and eventually achieved even greater success.

Currently residing in Calabasas, California, near her mother who still accompanies her on difficult shoots, the 5'5", 115-pound actress discussed her rise and thrall in a girl friend's Beverly Hills apartment. Wearing only brown pants, a gray top, and running shoes, Foster spoke with her customary confidence and wit, carefully controlling what she revealed and concealed.

Like the wunderkind of 'Little Man Tate,' you began your career quite early, brandishing your birthday suit in a Coppertone ad at age three.

Oh, God! Every fetishist in the land sends me a copy of that thing — God only knows how they get hold of something that antique — and asks me to autograph it! I don't, though. You have to draw the line somewhere, and not on the bottom line!

Although you were only 13 years old, you didn't draw the line at Martin Scorsese's 'Taxi Driver.' Before being allowed to enact the role of Iris, the Califoria Labor Board insisted you receive psychological tests to make sure you could separate fact from fiction.

Well, it's too late if I couldn't but many people still ask if I was really like Iris. Robert DeNiro has told me that people often ask him if he's anything like Travis Bickle. The film is definitely one of the best-remembered movies I've done — it's a cult phenomenon.

What's your response when asked if the film affected your mental health?

I say that Iris was a good role, that I like portraying such tough little wenches, that I never felt I was a whore, just that I was playing one — a naive little one at that. Film people talk sex a lot. In fact, I think it's probably the main topic of conversation on sets. When I was around, though, that kind of talk always receded into the background. So I wasn't corrupted, on screen or off.

Your contemporary, Brooke Shields, also began her career playing a child prostitute, in 'Pretty Baby.' Although your screen persona has matured, Shields has never been able to shuck her teen image.

Brooke is a talented actress, even though she's more talented as a public personality, which is something I could never be. Like the thought of me sprawling in front of the camera, and talking incessantly about my blue jeans and about not wearing any underwear — I'd freak, man! I've always looked like a tomboy, and when I was little, people often thought that I was a boy because I hated wearing dresses. On the other hand, Brooke was and is a classical feminine beauty.

But the two of you do have a lot in common.

Sure. I'm ambitious, and so is she, even though her mother is even more so. We both owed practically everything at first to our moms, we got our big breaks doing commercials, we were made into media celebrities, and we both interrupted our careers to go to college. Brooke is no dumb bunny, regardless of her image. So I'm not sure what happened with her.

She's the classic case of an American beauty who can't get a decent script.

It's unfortunate, but it's true. And if you're blonde, it's not hard to get called a bimbo. Because she was so beautiful, no one ever said Marilyn [Monroe] was talented, yet she was. People were too stupid to see her skill. Back then and today — the times have become so conservative — people think in stereotypes.

You've conceded a few points along the way. We all remember the low-cut, revealing gown you wore at the 1991 Oscars.

It's just another performance — Oscar time! It's the place to look gaudy and wear something I'd never wear on the street, even though it looks like it should be worn on certain streets.

Despite today's conservative mores, Shields recently admitted she was no longer a virgin.

Yeah — like big surprise, right? I mean, who past 20 is a virgin these days?

How about you?

With Brooke, I'm sure there are actually millions of people in the middle of Nebraska who were surprised to hear the news, and I applaud her for admitting it. It's important to shock the prudes and the folks who want to take us back 300 years, and abolish our constitution and the Bill of Rights in favor of the Biblle. As far as I'm concerned, it wouldn't make sense for me to talk about my sexuality. But hell, most people probably assume I haven't been a virgin since I played Iris — which, by the way, is ridiculous.

So is your connection with John Hinckley's attempted assassination of President Reagan.

I never discuss that because it had absolutely nothing to do with me. Nothing at all. Let's just forget it.

From that incident until 'The Accused' in 1988, moviegoers were often willing to forget your cinematic efforts.

Yeah, making the transition from kid to adult actor is always a tough time. I did some good movies, but they didn't click with the public, and Hollywood worships the bottom line.

How seriously did those boxoffice bellyfloppers affect your confidence?

It wasn't like the end of happiness for me. I'm educated, so I knew I could get a job writing. In fact, I'd love to be a screenwriter, and I think I'd be pretty good at it. I could also teaach French, since I speak it fluently. I've even thought of moving to France because they don't make a big deal when they see an actor on the streets. You see, they're too jealous to admit that the star's more rich and famous than they are.

That's probably the case after 'The Silence of the Lambs,' which has scored upwards of $130 mil domestically, and swept the Academy Awards.

It feels great! There was a lot of controversy surrounding the film, but that obviously didn't hurt its performance. In fact, controversy is important. This movie's about violence against women, which is an epidemic. You read all the time about men raping, mutilating, and killing their wives as if it's their right. In fact, 90% of murdered women are killed by their husbands or boyfriends. Nevertheless, most movies only present women as victims, and as a result, encourage more violence.

There are those who believe that 'Lambs' is pro-violence.

The film documents the most brutal, graphic, repulsive acts against women, but it has a female protagonist — me — who triumphs over the criminal.

Antifemale violence, however, wasn't the only controversy that engulfed the film. Many objected to its stereotyping of gay men as murderers.

Which they are not. Virtually all the real-life violence against women is performed by heterosexuals, but Hollywood usually sees minorities as murderers. I can understand that particular controversy, and I sympathize with it.

Is your sympathy perhaps influenced by the speculations surrounding your own sexuality? Rumors even linked you romantically to Kelly McGillis, your co-star in 'The Accused.'

There are always rumors. Um, Kelly has since been married. Nowadays, people wonder which side of the fence you're on until you get married.

And often afterward. In the past, gay performers, such as Rock Hudson, married straight for the sake of their screen images.

Yeah, and that goes on today. I think marriage should be based on love, but in Hollywood it's really based on what it does for your career. I also think marriage doesn't mean obtaining a contract. The length and quality of the relationship is what matters.

Now that you're a successful director — your debut, 'Little Man Tate,' cost $9 mil but raked in almost $25 mil at theaters — how have your career prospects changed?

I feel more powerful. The director, in conjunction with the writer, gets to mold what the audience sees, while an actor has little influence at all. So, if I can help it, I'll definitely direct again. I'm more than ready.