Jodie Foster is not hiding from the complicated publicity surrounding her third directing effort, the dark comedy The Beaver, starring Mel Gibson. For those of you in media-deprivation chambers: Gibson’s unhinged, secretly recorded tirades were released by his ex-girlfriend, Oksana Grigorieva. In Foster’s movie, Gibson plays a severely depressed suburban dad named Walter Black who decides, after an attempted suicide, that speaking through a beaver hand puppet with a cockney alter ego is the way to cure himself.
The parallels between Gibson’s real-life meltdown and his fictional one are fairly impossible to avoid. Foster, when asked about Gibson’s effect on her film’s reception, looks extremely tired all of a sudden; her light eyes darken and begin to glisten. But she answers straightforwardly: “You’re watching a man who intimately understands struggle, someone who wants to change, who wants to transform themselves because there is so much self-hatred. You know, sometimes it doesn’t hurt to know that Mel knows that from a very raw place.”
Foster did not just direct The Beaver; she also plays Walter Black’s wife, Meredith. She talked to Slate about why she cast herself in the movie, her anxious 20s, and what it’s like to perform a sex scene with a beaver puppet in bed with you.
Slate: I read a version of Kyle Killen’s script for The Beaver that was floating around online after it was on The Black List [ a list of the hottest unproduced screenplays ] in 2008. The movie is more lighthearted on the page than your film turned out to be. Why did you choose to take it dark?
Jodie Foster: That’s how I saw it. And I really believe that if you’re interested in being moved by the end of the film and caring about the relationships then you need to work backwards from that, and you can’t let the comedy or the light tone distract from that. And, honestly, I can’t make a movie about mental illness and have it be some kind of silly, lighthearted thing. And I don’t think [Kyle] intended that, either. I just think he didn’t know, because he’d never written a script before.
Slate: In the production notes for The Beaver, the film’s “austere palate” is mentioned. What were some of the other visual choices you made to keep it on the serious side?
Foster: I think there’s a very European quality to it, and a composedness and a formality to it. You know also the music is incredibly sophisticated, it’s not wacky or lighthearted. It’s quirky, it has a quirkiness to it, but it’s deep and complicated. It’s not easy listening. And there’s also an old-school-ness to the music, too. It’s not computers. The composition of the film: the blues, how blue it is. All those visual things. We wanted to keep the costumes real, but there were a lot of choices that were made to veer it away. … Listen, this could have been shot in ranch-style houses, in middle America, little pink houses all in a row, and it could have been about that kind of suburbia. But this is Westchester, it’s a different suburbia.
Slate: I always describe it as Ice Storm suburbia, not Levittown suburbia.
Foster: That was a very specific choice. These are people who live 20 minutes from New York City. They’re sophisticated. When they go to a restaurant, they go to a restaurant that overlooks the Brooklyn Bridge. We’re not making fun of suburbia. It’s a real examination of complicated lives.
Slate: Even though the movie is dark, there are moments of total goofiness and broad comedy. There is one scene in particular, where your character, Meredith, is having sex with Walter while he’s got the beaver puppet on his hand. What was that like for you? What is going on in Meredith’s head in that moment?
Foster: You can’t escape the absurdity of it! That she was able to be in the moment and then suddenly the moment becomes so absurd and she wakes up and says, What am I doing? That was on the page. You couldn’t avoid it no matter what you did. But I was mostly a dramatic actress reacting to Mel’s performance, and it’s why I wanted to cast myself—because I didn’t want the actress to be tempted by his comedy. I didn’t want her to move into his voice. I really wanted her to ground it in that kind of drama.
Slate: I was especially impressed by a post-coital moment when Mel’s mouth dropped open, and the beaver’s mouth dropped open, and it was just perfectly synchronized.
Foster: He worked on that, he works on stuff like that. He got a kick out of focusing on the technical side of the puppeteering.
Slate: Viewers will be coming in with a lot of external ideas about Mel, and what he’s been going through. Do you worry that it’s going to irrevocably color their perception of the movie? That they’re not going to be able to come in and just take it for the work that it is?
Foster: I mean, I don’t know. It’s a good question for you. Can you look at a performance and compartmentalize out what you know of the private conversations of somebody that were tape recorded and put on the Internet? I mean, I don’t know. It’s a good question. In some ways, sometimes, I feel like when you’re watching his performance on-screen, and you’re watching a man who intimately understands struggle, someone who wants to change, who wants to transform themselves because there is so much self-hatred. You know, sometimes it doesn’t hurt to know that Mel knows that from a very raw place. Because you do understand him. You’re able to understand him through that character. Look, that’s what we do as actors you know, there’s a certain catharsis to that. And I hope there has been a catharsis for him in this role—to play somebody who struggles through something so dark and is able to emerge not fixed but on his way.
Slate: This is obviously a film you feel very passionate about. You’ve said recently that you don’t want to act much anymore, and that you want to move more into directing. What kinds of projects do you look for as a director?
Foster: These three films [ Little Man Tate, Home for the Holidays, and The Beaver] are all about spiritual crisis, about families who kind of come together, or are sewn together in some way through this tapestry that all affect each other. Everything everyone else does affects each other, as does the generations that came before you. That kind of thing I’m interested in. But, I don’t know, I could make movies about other things, too, I’m interested in. I get drawn to the ones that touch me personally, that feel like they’re the story of my life.
Slate: Would you ever write a script?
Foster: Yeah, I would. I’ve rewritten, and I think I’m a better director than I am a writer. Writing’s something you have to do over and over and over again.
Slate: Let’s go back to an earlier part of your career. Last year you told Esquire, “You couldn’t pay me to be in my twenties again.” What was so difficult about that part of your life, and what would you tell a twentysomething now?
Foster: Don’t worry so much. I had a different 20s than a lot of people did, because I had a lot of responsibilities. Most people in their 20s, they have themselves and their apartment and that’s it. But I didn’t. I had a whole host of other responsibilities. My anxieties were way more magnified than they should have been at that age. I should have been much less anxious about my future and whether I was going to make it and was anyone was ever going to love me. All those things that I worried about I probably shouldn’t have been so anxious about. But I had a weird childhood, so …
Slate: But also I would think that because you were in the public eye those anxieties would feel completely magnified.
Foster: If most people made a mistake at 22 it wouldn’t matter. I don’t know that my problems really relate to other people in their 20s, but I just worried a lot, a lot about all the unknowns about what is going to happen to me. It just seemed too much to bear, really.
Slate: And how did you get out of it? What happened?
Foster: Time, really. And plus I think you do turn 30 and everything gets better. 30 was like, magical. And I think I found out who I was and who I wasn’t. In your 20s you can be anyone, you could still be an Olympic athlete. You could be in a rock band. All those things! You could be a runway model. You hit 30 and you’re like, ok, I’m probably not going to be in the Olympics. All right, I’m definitely not going to be a runway model. And I am not going to be in a rock band anymore, my time is over. So there’s kind of a freedom to that, where there’s all these things that you’re actually not going to do anymore. So the ones that you are really interested in, are the ones you’re more headed to anyway. You become more focused, and you’re not so into being cool anymore.
Slate: Speaking of youthful struggles, the relationship between Mel’s character and his teenage son in The Beaver—that was very well-done. Do you feel like as a parent, you had any particular insight into directing that? Was there anything you really wanted to come out of that relationship?
Foster: I’m just happy with it the way it is. I mean it was a difficult, really challenging movie for that, because it’s the story of these two people, this father and this son, but they’re barely ever on-screen together. They have no connection whatsoever in the film. And it’s about them heading towards one another, and so we had to sort of artificially connect them. We had to connect them visually, Walter’s world, Porter’s world. There were visual similarities, the way they’re shot, their traits. We had to keep connecting them and saying, look, these people are connected, but they’re avoiding each other. So that you’re really rooting for them to reconcile in the end.
Slate: Porter, the teenage son, writes down the traits he shares with his father on individual Post-It notes. He catalogues these traits so that he can reverse them and somehow avoid turning into his depressed dad. The visual choice really illustrates the fractured feeling of his anxieties. I read that you came up with that—how did that happen?
Foster: [Porter is] ritually trying to change. Like, if I cross myself, then this will happen. If I put a voodoo doll and put pins in it, then this will happen. And that’s kind of what the Post-It notes are. If I identify every single trait that I hate, and I take this trip, I don’t know how, but I can get rid of every single one of them. That’s why there’s 49 traits, because there’s 49 states. There’s this ritualized idea of I can do it, I can change; I can not be him, in this almost neurotic, very intellectual path. And of course it’s not going to work [laughs]. Originally, he had a little journal he wrote in, and he was forever writing in this journal, and we were having to forever close on inserts of someone writing in a journal and it was just [pantomimes shooting herself], I’m going to shoot myself! There’s no way I can cut to an insert of a journal, it’s just not my style. It’s bad storytelling. It seemed fake and expository and all that. So we did the Post-It notes.
Slate: Finally, what’s the best thing on the Internet this week?
Foster: Everybody’s going to say Osama Bin Laden! But I gotta tell you, [reading that] The Book of Mormon was nominated for a Tony [ed note: It was nominated for 14 Tonys!] made me really happy. I cannot believe The Book ofMormon is on Broadway. I’m so proud of us as Americans, it’s such a genius work of art. It’s so great and it’s so inspiring, and it is so subversive. I just can’t even believe it.
Interview has been condensed and edited.