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Interview: Jodie Foster on Hotel Artemis, Directing vs. Acting, & More

Foster discusses her relationship to genre films and the alternate lives she kicks herself for not having led.

Interview: Jodie Foster on Hotel Artemis, Directing vs. Acting, & More
Photo: Global Road Entertainment

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.

[chortles]

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.

You’ve said that your job as an actor is to explore characters who aren’t you, and your job as a director is exploring yourself. Do you find yourself wanting to do either of those two things more or less as you get older?

I definitely want to direct more now. The balance has shifted. I acted 90% of the time and directed 10% of the time for all those years, and then maybe eight years ago, I said, “Okay, I’m shifting now. It’s going to act 10% of the time and direct 90% of the time.” You have to make that commitment, because they’re both 120% jobs. I can’t just say, “Hmm, maybe I’ll direct.” You have to find something, you have to stick with it, and you’ve got to get it financed. It takes months and months, sometimes years and years.

And I assume you didn’t make that shift just because it was getting hard to find good roles. You made it because there was something about directing that was pulling you more strongly?

Well, yeah. I’ve never been able to find that many good roles. I read constantly and things get offered to me constantly, but I’m super-picky. I have a hard time saying yes to things. And as I’ve gotten older I think it’s gotten worse, because, obviously, not every story is about a 50-year-old woman, but also there’s so many things that I’ve already done that I don’t want to repeat.

So why have you never just written yourself a part? You studied literature at Yale, and you wanted to write fiction when you were young. Did you ever think about writing scripts?

Yeah, I have thought a lot about it. And I’ve kicked myself in the head a lot about “Why don’t you write?” I thought that was what I was going to do. I thought that was who I was going to be. Honestly, it’s the thing I think I do better than anything else. What’s wrong with me that I don’t enjoy it? But I’m much more disappointed with the fact that I don’t write fiction than that I don’t write scripts. I do work on scripts. As a director, I’d say it’s like 80% of my job, identifying what needs to change and why and creating dialogue and working with writers and going over draft after draft after draft. So it’s more economical for me as a director to work with writers than it is to spend three years of my life writing and rewriting a script that’s fully written by myself.

I was fascinated to read that you did your college dissertation on Toni Morrison and that Henry Louis Gates, who was one of your professors, set you up with a meeting to interview her for it. How did that encounter go?

It was a huge high point of my life. I rented a car and drove from New Haven to Nyack and got there super early so I had to wait outside. She didn’t know it was me. Skip [Gates] told her, “My student is coming and her name is Alicia [Foster’s first name].” And Morrison can be a tough lady! I think she said to him: “Okay, but it’s only going to be 20 minutes!” But we spent the afternoon together. It was amazing. I met her son, who wanted to be a filmmaker and is a writer. The interview was just such a revelation. I remember breaking out in hives and sweating and not being able to eat, because she basically said everything that was in my thesis, which is everything you can hope for.

After it was done, Skip got me an interview with a couple of universities that wanted to publish it, and then I don’t know what happened. I went and did The Accused and did my GREs thinking I was going to go on to graduate school, and I don’t know what happened. It’s another disappointment that I didn’t go with him. Because that’s what he was offering. So I was on my way toward having a career as an academic.

And yet you got into show business almost by accident. You got the Coppertone ad that started your career at age three, after tagging along with your older brother to the audition.

My trajectory is the weirdest thing of the world, probably because I don’t have the personality of an actor. I never have. It was just the family business, and I’m one of those people that, if you give me a task, I’m going to kill myself and do it 100,000 percent, in a hyper-focused, OCD, awful way. And so, as a kind of 10,000 hours outlier, I developed a skill at a time when that skill hadn’t been manifested by anyone before. No one had seen a little kid who had a gruff voice and wore men’s shorts. However, there’s a part of me that’s tortured with, “I should have written books. I should have been an academic. Why didn’t I go to grad school? Why didn’t I go to law school?” And I know somewhere in a parallel universe there’s a professor going: “I should have been an actor! I always wanted to act! Why didn’t I pursue that?”

Yeah, it’s a shame we don’t all get multiple lives. Your mom recognized and encouraged your talents in many areas, including sending you to a French lycee for high school because you were so good at languages. It seems like it was both a blessing and a curse to live up to such high expectations—and to feel pulled in so many directions.

Well, yeah. I’m a left-brain person. I have a facility with languages and words. I can’t do math. I’m just pathetic. So it’s not like I’m so great because I had this left-brain affinity for verbal stuff, but I guess that’s the Little Man Tate side of me: I was prodigious at something unusual, and that was a huge part of our relationship [with her mother], that I vicariously fulfilled dreams she had for herself that weren’t possible for her because she grew up in the 1920s and ‘30s and she was a woman, or because she didn’t have the belief in herself. There are a number of psychological reasons why she always had to be the person behind the person, but it was an interesting dynamic between the two of us. I don’t know if you saw my Black Mirror, “Archangel,” but it was such a perfect script for them to give me because my relationship with her was incredibly complicated: incredibly beautiful and also quite perverse.

But it doesn’t seem like you had to break away from your mom to establish yourself, though I imagine you had to establish boundaries at some point.

Yeah. My whole life with her was me putting my hand out and saying: “You will not go past here.” I couldn’t be emotional. I had to always be better than that. And that’s great. She’s an amazing mom, and I couldn’t be more grateful—for the love and support, but also for the messed-up, neurotic stuff she put me through that’s allowed me to be a strong person with good boundaries.

You got attacked by a lion on a film when you were little. How scary was that, and was it the craziest thing that ever happened to you on a film set?

Yeah, definitely. [laughs] Yeah, that was something. I was only eight, so…I wasn’t processing it at the time. I was like, “I had an accident,” I guess. The full story is: I was working with the lions and they weren’t well protected at night, so kids were shooting them with BB guns all night long and they weren’t sleeping. Of the three lions, one was an old lion that had no teeth. He was the main lion, and he couldn’t work. He would just fall asleep. So they brought in the stand-in lion, who was okay, but was younger lion and had some personality. This poor lion had been working all day and it was the end of the day and they were yanking him on piano wire up a hill and I was ahead of him. He picked me up in his mouth and then shook me around a little bit, so I could see everything moving. He turned me around so I could see everyone taking all of their equipment and running away from me. I guess the trainer yelled “Drop it!” and he knew he had to drop whatever was in his mouth, so he dropped me and then I was rolling down this hill and he ran after me and threw his paw over my back to stop me from falling and then just stood there, with like his hand on the toy, going, “What do I do now?” [laughs]

Like a cat with a mouse.

He could have killed me if he wanted to, within five seconds, but he didn’t want to kill me; he was just being an animal. I got airlifted to a hospital because they thought he’d burst my spleen, but it was fine. They had lied to my mom and didn’t tell her that I had been bitten; they said I had fallen. And then little by little I think she understood that I had puncture marks, so she understood what had happened. She had to make a choice. I ended up going back to work and working with the same lion and finishing the job.

Was that hard to do?

No. I think she did the right thing, which was, you get back on the horse. Otherwise, she thought I was going to be traumatized forever, and I think she was right. I mean, I don’t particularly love housecats. [laughs] I’m always scared they’re going to pounce on me. I look at them when they get the little saucer eyes and I’m like “Aaargh!” My mom was always full of little life lessons. Like, “If you’re ever in the mafia, you don’t turn state’s evidence. You just shut up.” [chuckles] So she would say: “We don’t believe in suing people frivolously. You were lucky; you weren’t hurt, and it was an accident, and accidents happen, and you go back to work.”

I get that. Though I don’t know that I would have called that a frivolous suit.

[both laugh]

You interviewed other famous people for Interview Magazine when you were in your teens. Did that teach you anything about how to conduct an interview that you hadn’t already learned from being on the other side of the mic?

Oh, god. I don’t know that I was very good at it. But I’ve been doing interviews for a long time. I recognize that it’s a weird thing, to have one person ask the other person stuff and not have it be a dialogue. I have to say, I’ve always liked it, ‘cause I like to talk. I only work things out if I talk through them with somebody. But it’s a really strange thing to do your whole life.

It’s horrifying when you look back and you go, “I said what to that person?” Years of being a celebrity skews your point of view. You can become a blowhard. You’re put in a position where people think that what you have to say is valuable. That feedback loop is kind of like being on steroids, where you just look at yourself in the mirror and you go, like, “Oh, I look good!” and then one day you’re not on steroids anymore and you go, “Well, that’s not me.” That’s what Money Monster was, for me—the parts that interested me most. The personality of a celebrity who partly see themselves as 20 feet high, and partly see themselves as completely worthless and a failure.

You once said you learned more from David Fincher than from any other director you worked with. What did you learn from him?

Gosh. So many things. He gets annoyed when I say this, but I think he’s the most technically proficient director I’ve ever worked with. I’ve never seen anybody who knows more about filmmaking and who is more in control of the images and the vision of a film than David Fincher.

Why would he get annoyed by that? Does he hear it as reductive?

I think he may think it’s a backhanded compliment: “You’re not emotional” or “You don’t understand character” or “You’re not free.” And that’s not true. On the spectrum of control versus freedom he’s 90-percent control-freaky—

But you are kind of control-freaky yourself, right? I assume that’s why you liked working with him so much?

I am control-freaky myself. I have a full appreciation for it. In some ways it was the happiest collaboration for me, because, as painful as it is to do 120 takes, I know exactly why he wants it to be perfect. I’m the perfect mark for him. I will just refine it, refine it, refine it, refine it until it’s absolutely, exactly what he’s hoping for. I love him. I love working with him. He’s funny; he’s kind. Sometimes you’ll meet an actor who will say the exact opposite, because they can’t serve him. Their personality is like, “Wait a minute, I don’t want to have to learn my lines,” or “Why do I have to stand on the mark? Can’t I just wave my arms around and say what I want?” And it’s like, no, you can’t.

You’ve always been very careful about guarding your privacy. You had to guard it from a very young age because of fame, obviously, and maybe also because of what you were saying about having to set boundaries with your mom. And then there was that horrible thing with John Hinckley.

Yeah.

I think we’re all becoming more aware of the erosion of privacy now, and why we might want to guard what’s left of ours, but you had to come to terms with that at a pretty early age.

Yeah. I’m not on Facebook or Twitter. I’m not on any kind of social media. I grew up with a neurotic chip on my shoulder about being invaded. I’m not interested in opening up my T-shirt and saying, “Come invade me more.” To me, there’s no amount of good that comes from the connection that’s going to overwhelm the amount of discomfort that I have with the lack of safety. From the time that I was three I had to be in survival mode. That’s just my reality. The good news is that I’m not in an insane asylum. [laughs] The bad news is that I have many neurotic defenses. I’m working on it. As you get older, you do work on trying to be more open and trying to find ways to not just drag around the same old neuroses over and over again for the rest of your life.

“Tell the truth but tell it slant”
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