He has a reputation for misogyny, anti-semitism and homophobia, so it's safe to say Mel Gibson is pretty unpopular in Hollywood. Then why did Jodie Foster opt to put her faith in her old mate for her film The Beaver?
Jodie Foster undoubtedly breathed a huge sigh of relief when Mel Gibson’s private jet touched down in Cannes last month. He strolled hand in hand with her up the red carpet for the international premiere of the film in which she has directed him, The Beaver, smiling and clowning as if he hadn’t spent the past year licking his wounds after the menacing, vitriolic voice mails he left for his ex-girlfriend surfaced and turned him into a public spectacle. Nobody would have been surprised if he hadn’t shown up at all.
Indeed, earlier that day, when there was no sign of him at the film’s press conference or photo call, it appeared he might leave his devoted friend hanging after all. But Foster held firm: “He’ll be here,” she assured the assembled journalists. “He won’t be talking, but he’ll be here.” Her faith was rewarded. When the film went on to receive a rapturous standing ovation, Foster was still focused on her friend, saying it was more of a morale boost for him than for her and noting that he was surprised and moved by the response.
It’s strange to recall that these fast friends met on a daft comedy, Richard Donner’s spoof western, Maverick, in 1994. Theirs looks like one of the more bizarre and unlikely bonds in Hollywood: Foster, the highly respected actress-director credited with one of the sharpest intellects in show business, an atheist whose intense screen presence has a strongly feminist aura about it; and Gibson the one-time A-list supernova turned Hollywood pariah, a deeply conservative Catholic whose vile pronouncements straddle the hate spectrum from anti-semitism to misogyny to homophobia. Who wouldn’t love to be a fly on the wall during their conversations?
After Gibson’s 2006 drunk-driving arrest, Foster told an interviewer: “I knew the minute I met Mel that he was going to be my friend for the rest of my life.” There’s a kindred-spirit quality to their comradeship, involving soul-baring phone conversations that last for hours. “It’s complex,” she explained when I met her a few weeks before Cannes in a Beverly Hills hotel, “but I like the complexity.”
Now 48, Foster looks amazing. She has the sort of natural, graceful beauty that comes from outstanding bone structure and healthy living, rather than the surgeon’s knife. Dressed in black slacks and a silvery-grey satin blouse under a fitted black jacket, her left ear sporting a hearing aid and her ash-blonde hair lightly feathered, she’s a vision of relaxed sophistication and in full-on charm mode, striding forward to shake my hand as soon as I enter the suite, and joking about the cool, cloudy LA weather as we opt to sit out on the patio to escape the hotel’s ridiculously arctic temperatures. Warm, effusively friendly, this is a very different Foster from the slightly buttoned-up woman I met six years ago when she was bouncing back from her latest career hiatus with Flightplan. She appears more at ease with herself, confident about what she wants.
In one respect, though, she remains the same: most aspects of her private life are a strict no-go zone. She may be less guarded, happily dropping her two sons, Charles, 12, and Kit, 9, into the conversation, but there won’t be a tell-all Jodie Foster autobiography, ever. “Never, never, never, absolutely never,” she laughs. Which means her children’s paternity will remain hush-hush, and the open secret of her sexuality may only ever be hinted at. Foster appeared to be sticking one toe out of the closet at a Women In Entertainment Power 100 breakfast in December 2007, when she movingly thanked the woman assumed to be her girlfriend of several years, Cydney Bernard: “To my beautiful Cydney, who sticks with me through all the rotten and the bliss.” Five months later, it was reported they had split up. Foster remains mum.
On the subject of Gibson, she’s less tight-lipped, although digging deeper into their friendship does make her jaw clench into the steely pose that has sent a message to many an unsavoury male screen adversary – here is a woman to be messed with at your peril. It might boggle some minds that she’s supporting the troubled star so stalwartly, but her devotion and unwavering loyalty towards him appear entirely genuine. “He is the most loved actor I’ve ever worked with on anything – you can ask anybody,” she says, waxing rhapsodic. “And it’s because he’s kind, he’s a great communicator and he’s not all full of himself.”
When she signed up to direct The Beaver, her first thoughts were to coax Gibson on board. She sent him Kyle Killen’s script, which topped the industry’s 2008 Black List of the best unproduced screenplays; he said yes in 24 hours. Both were drawn to The Beaver’s peculiar story line, of a wealthy family man, Walter Black, whose depression is so crippling, he can only cope by sticking a ratty beaver hand puppet onto his left fist and resetting his personality as “The Beaver”, a manic, manipulative alter ego who speaks in the cockney tones of Ray Winstone. (“It was very specifically Ray Winstone,” Foster hoots. “They’re buddies, and Mel kept calling him, asking, ‘How would I say this?’”)
While Killen’s script was “aggressively black humour”, as Foster put it, she preferred to make a disciplined, delicate drama about mental illness and siphoned off the more absurdist elements. Her restraint pays dividends in illuminating Walter’s dark, desperate soul, though it does drain some life out of the outrageous scenario. As someone who copes with depression in her own life, Foster refused to trivialise the subject. She also refuses to take any credit for Gibson’s sad, compelling performance, saying he was “amazing” from day one – although you suspect she is being modest. She does suggest the kid-gloves approach worked best. “I’d say, ‘This is the result I’m looking for here, but I don’t want to rehearse it because I don’t want to burn you out. So let’s figure it out on the day.’ I know how he works.”
Never was Foster’s softly-softly approach more needed than on the final day of reshoots – the day Gibson’s ugly rants at his former girlfriend went public. Although he had already confided in Foster, he was still “a mess” and needed to be talked out of his trailer. “But then he finished that day gloriously: he did two amazing takes, both of which are in the movie, and got on his plane and left. And that was that.”
Or not. Foster knew The Beaver was always going to be “a challenge” for audiences, but if its limp box-office performance in America is anything to judge by, it’s not one they have taken up. But she insists that audience turnout “is really very secondary to me. I got to make a movie I love, and whether people see it or not weighs on Mel a lot more than on me. This is hard for him, because he is a good boy, the one that’s always on time and remembers everybody’s name.” Has she really never paused to ask whether standing by him was the right thing to do? “No,” she says firmly, “because I know him and I love him, and I love him for his complexities. I don’t think there are many actors who can inhabit the lightness we needed for the movie but who can also really understand struggle. And because of the conversations we’ve been having for 15 years about struggle, I knew he would bring that to the table. I also knew he could trust that I wouldn’t make him look foolish, that I would honour the depth of that struggle and who he is… I can’t defend his behaviour – I’m not defending his behavior. He has to defend his own behaviour. But when you love somebody and they are struggling, you don’t run in the opposite direction.”
A less generous (stubborn?) soul would be spitting blood at the way their star’s conduct cursed her belated return to the public eye as a film-maker, especially as behind the camera is where Foster wants to spend more of her time. The Beaver is only her first effort since the mid-1990s, when she followed a striking debut, Little Man Debut, with 1995’s sweet but forgettable ensemble comedy Home For The Holidays. It’s not for lack of trying. Foster has toiled on a biopic of the Nazi documentarian Leni Riefenstahl and a migrant-worker drama called Sugarland that was to feature her Taxi Driver co-star Robert De Niro; and she spent several frustrating years attempting to bring her circus-set love story Flora Plum to fruition.
The cumulative weight of a 45-year, double-Oscared career makes Foster less inclined to act these days. She no longer develops her own projects, partly to raise two young children, but also because, she says, “I’m not that good at it”. Of her eight film appearances in the past decade, up to and including The Beaver, in which she portrays Gibson’s incredibly patient wife, only three were leads – in her female-warrior trilogy, Panic Room, Flightplan and The Brave One. Now she is content to wait for film-makers she admires to come calling. She recently shot an adaptation of God Of Carnage, Yasmina Reza’s stage sensation, with Kate Winslet, Christoph Waltz and John C. Reilly, directed by, of all people, Roman Polanksi.
She’s not exactly effusive about the experience of working with a directing hero – although, yet again, it’s nothing to do with Polanski’s trangsressions, which she shrugs off as none of her business. “It was a strange set,” she muses. “Polanski does everything his own way, with no input from anyone else. There were a lot of things we had to do ourselves, like continuity [she laughs], and telling each other what lines we blew.”
She will also take a supporting role in Neill Blomkamp’s sci-fi saga Elysium, because she adored his plucky debut, District 9. Blomkamp has cast her as the military commander of an alien planet that attacks Earth, which sounds like a nice villainous switch for an actress who still has an enormous reservoir of audience goodwill to draw on. When I ask whether, having carved an illustrious career playing so many strong, smart, independent women, she feels disappointed by Hollywood’s regression into the childish realms of superhero movies, she gives an answer that surprises me more than any other.
“I guess I’m just not really paying attention, to tell you the truth,” she says. “If I can find a movie every two years that I want to do, that’s amazing. If I can only find one every four years, that’s fine, too. Because I’ve made so many movies, I don’t have that, ‘Unless I’m acting, I’m nothing’ feeling. And I’m just not paying attention to the other stuff.”
It seems almost disingenuous for this sensitive actress with the steel-trap mind to claim she’s giving so little thought to the prevailing circumstances of her profession. But perhaps it’s like her unshakable defense of Gibson: by focusing her mind so zealously on the micro, she doesn’t let the bigger picture get in her way.