Though she’s a two-time Academy Award winner (for The Accused and The Silence of the Lambs), Jodie Foster has always been a bit of an outlier in Hollywood. As a child actor, her precocious self-assurance, intelligence, and self-described “gruff” voice made her something of an anomaly when she played bright young things in family-friendly TV shows like My Three Sons and films like Napoleon and Samantha. Then, in a run of emotionally complex roles in darker fare, most notably as a 13-year-old prostitute with a riveting mixture of childish innocence and world-weariness in Martin Scorsese’s Taxi Driver, the actress’s knowing gravitas found a worthy showcase.
That pattern has more or less held throughout Foster’s career, as she has alternated between intelligently crafted TV shows and films like Spike Lee’s Inside Man and lush melodramas or slick genre movies in which her nuanced, stubbornly realistic performances stood out like an elegant dive into a kiddie pool. Foster is now at the core of an ensemble cast in writer-director Drew Pearce’s Hotel Artemis, a dystopian fantasy set in L.A. in a not-too-distant future in which the hotel of the title serves as a secret, members-only hospital reserved for criminals who pay an annual membership fee.
Last week, I spoke with Foster, who plays the nurse who tends to the troublesome group of tenants, about Hotel Artemis and other things, including the time she was attacked by a lion, the memorable afternoon she spent with Toni Morrison, and the alternate lives she kicks herself for not having led.
You’re quoted on IMDb as having said that you’re better suited for independent films as a director and producer, and that you think you’re best in mainstream films as an actress because your style of acting is too “linear” for indie films. First of all, did you actually say that?
I think I did, but I’m always cursing myself for the stupid things that I say in print. I don’t think it’s wrong, but I do think that indies are different now. The theatrical world and our viewing habits have changed so much that, increasingly, real story and narrative is found on cable and streaming.
And you’ve been directing a lot of shows there, like episodes of Netflix’s Orange Is the New Black and Black Mirror.
Yeah. I don’t know about you, but I get really excited about the Emmys, and not as excited about the Oscars. This is the golden age of television. So times have changed. But I do think I’m well-suited for things that are grounded. My mind works that way as an actor. When I cast actors, you might cast someone very different for a film with a lot of story that’s compelling it forward than you would for an art film or for a super-broad comedy.
The industry has changed many times since I was three years old, so I’m not as disheartened as a lot of people are, and it doesn’t pain me as much to say that our viewing habits have changed. It’s possible that, 20 years from now, we’re gonna watch everything on a screen as big as our phones. And, you know, I’m an artist, so for me it’s really not that big a deal. A phone, a big screen, a TV—what do I care? I just do what I do. Obviously, it’s a bigger deal for the people in the business end of the industry.
As a consumer, I think it’s a pretty great time, because there’s so much available to see. Not only all that new stuff, but so many more people can now access so many old movies whenever they want to.
Yeah, that’s for sure. I think it’s a great time. But I do miss the communal experience of going to a movie theater. I’m someone who went to four movies a week my whole life, and I don’t go to the movies anymore. This ghettoizing of movie theaters, where you pay 50 dollars to sit in a seat and be intravenously fed while you absorb a spectacle—I’ve accepted it, but it’s a little sad, because there’s a whole tradition of my family and community kind of coming together. There’s only so many places where there’s any kind of community, and movie theaters were one of them. It was this kind of democratizing place, where everyone pays five dollars and everybody comes.
Are there still some movies you’ll go to the theater for, or do you wait until you can see them someplace else?
Oh yeah, yeah. I’ll go to the theater to support a movie’s opening weekend because I think it’s important to go. Like Isle of Dogs, absolutely. I haven’t been able to yet because I’ve been on crutches, so I haven’t been able to drive, but I really want to see that Ruth Bader Ginsburg documentary. I know it’s going to be on Netflix in a month, but I want to go crosstown and get the ticket and stand in line and go see it in a movie theater.
Did you go to Black Panther?
Of course! Look, I majored in African-American Studies, so it was really great, for me, to see the African references, whether it’s art or West African dance. And all those great actors. Yeah, I’m not gonna miss that. And the cast is excellent! They really made a commitment to their characters, as opposed to just arching their eyebrows and going, “We’re just going to do one of these superhero movies.” The acting is so committed and so real, and so much fun. I’m so excited now that race is on people’s lips. It was a huge part of my life, and even though I was a white person in a black-studies department [at Yale], the issues live in my stomach, and the ideas about it. I get excited and my palms go clammy when I talk about it. It’s a really interesting time, because I don’t think we’ve ever been as conscious of race as a culture, and we’ve never been as messed-up and unconscious. All in the same era.
I took African-American—or Afro-American, as we called it then—literature classes in college too. It was partly because I loved a lot of the writing, but I also felt like I should know it as an American, since African-American history and culture is an important part of American history and culture.
Oh, yeah. When people say to me, “Why [African-American studies]?” I say, one, the literature was good, and I fell in love with it. Reason number two is that I want to be a well-educated person. You wouldn’t have asked me that question if I was a classics major, or if I said, “I did my senior thesis on Virginia Woolf and I was especially interested in Bloomsbury.” Right? Why is it that people are so surprised that I fell in love with something that’s part of our canon, and that should be part of our canon? Also, I think why it hooked me in was that there was a raw, emotional, internal under-layer to extraordinary narrative. You can probably say that about Aeschylus, but I don’t know that I can say that about The Canterbury Tales. That’s really what I responded to, and why Skip [Henry Louis Gates, who was her professor at Yale] and I still send texts to each other, like: “Turn on Channel 7!”
Hotel Artemis is very stylized, and so is some of the acting in it. You’re doing your usual thing, which is realistic and emotionally complex, and so are other actors like Sterling K. Brown and Brian Tyree Henry, but others are going for more emotionally opaque, broader strokes.
It’s like all of these different people are in different movies, and they’re all meeting at the commissary. The guy from the 1930s bank robbery movies is meeting up with the action hero from Guardians of the Galaxy. I think that’s the strength of the story, and why it works also quite well as an allegory.
Drew Pearce has created this sort of prison, this golden cage of all of these people who are obsessed with their identities. It’s like they’re obsessed with this identity or this mission that they have because they’re running from the ghosts of their lives. I keep thinking of it as a kind of limbo. All these people are actually dead, but they don’t know that they’re dead. They just keep running around on a hamster wheel saying: “I gotta fix people! I gotta fix people! Damn! I’ve got important things to do!”
I’m happy with my performance in the film because I feel like it’s a combination of grounded and emotional, and there’s that kind of Barbara Stanwyck, wisecracky feeling to it as well. That’s really what I was looking for: the opportunity to have more of a transformation, to play a character role but still to inhabit the character with emotion.
I heard you joke in some other interviews about how it didn’t take very long for the makeup team to get you looking that unglamorous.
But seriously, the nurse is different than anyone else I’ve ever seen you play, and a lot of that difference is rooted in her appearance.
That’s really the reason I wanted to do the movie, and I had to fight for it. I’ve been looking for a transformation character for five years. I think the producers were a little scared. They were like: “Wait a minute. You’re not going to look bad, are you?” [laughs] It’s like: “If you’re not the same Jodie Foster everybody’s used to seeing, then do we want that?” But it was important. That was the character. She’s a 70-year-old woman who hasn’t left that room for 25 years and lives on tacos and hasn’t had any vitamin D.
She does have that wisecracky gumption you were talking about, but she’s also deeply depressed, which is reflected in how defensive she is in her movements and how tired she looks. Typically, I think of you as playing characters who have more spark and self-confidence than she does.
Well, yeah. She’s hidden away for 20 years, drinking booze and taking pills so she can fix more people. That’s pretty sad. Not wanting to say her son’s name. In a lot of movies I’ve made in the past—and I choose them—I’m the central person. It’s usually me, all by myself. I have some problem or some mission at the beginning of the film and by the end I’ve changed and figured it all out and resolved the problem, the way heroes do. In that context, you’ve got to be someone who changes during the course of the story. But the nurse is probably going to do the same thing until she dies, or accepts the fact that she’s already dead, because she’s too old or stubborn to change.
And that’s part of what interested you in the role?
Yeah! Not necessarily having the burden of being the hero/storyteller who has to take the audience from the beginning of the movie to the end of the movie. When you’re part of an ensemble, you don’t have to be that person.
You did some genre films earlier in your career, most notably Silence of the Lambs and Panic Room, but the last one before Hotel Artemis was Inside Man in 2006. Do you find yourself less attracted to genre films in general, or is that just the way things happen to have developed for you?
I tend to be drawn to dramatic tension thrillers as an actor. I don’t choose that as a director, but I really like it as an actor. Honestly, it’s pretty simple: If it’s good, I trust that, and it’s hard to find genre movies that are well-written, that have compelling characters. Sometimes genre movies happen for really odd commercial reasons. Somebody is like, “I can write a script that I can sell,” or this company is like, “I have a window! I know I need a horror film.” And especially at this point in my life, my entire goal as an actor is to be a part of a team that’s doing something good. Any time I’ve tried to be cynical, about “this movie’s going to be good because of dot-dot-dot,” I’m always wrong. Especially now, I find it much more satisfying just to act because I love it and for no other reason. I want to trust my gut.
And you trust your gut more as you get older because that’s part of the beauty of getting older, right?
Sure! And you have a lot more experience in seeing things work, seeing things not work, seeing why a script falls apart. It’s a privilege and a relief, actually, to say, “Look, I’m not going to be on the cover of every single magazine and I’m not 22 years old and I don’t have to prove that I can open a movie on 3,000 screens or that I can get nominated for another Oscar.” I did all those things. I checked every box. Now I really just want to do things that I think are good.