Dialogue: Jodie Foster

This year's Sherry Lansing Leadership Award honoree looks for the human side of every character she plays.

Forget the Oscars, the accolades, the millions of dollars per role. Ignore that she also directs and produces. Consider, for a moment, that Jodie Foster is currently Hollywood's most prolific working star, with a body of work that spans more than 42 years. Not bad for a woman who recently turned 45, and who has taken time out to earn her bachelor's degree from Yale, as well as to raise her two sons, Kit, 6, and Charles, 9. A one-woman argument that it is indeed possible to have it all, if not all at one time, Foster is the recipient of the fourth annual Sherry Lansing Leadership Award. She recently spoke with Rebecca Ascher-Walsh for The Hollywood Reporter about her past choices, her future goals and why, at the end of the day, home is where her heart is.

The Hollywood Reporter:
This year you starred in Neil Jordan's "The Brave One" (Warner Bros.), playing a woman who becomes a vigilante after her fiance is killed. Given the number of projects you're offered, what made you say yes?
Jodie Foster: I couldn't get away from the idea that somehow this thing could happen to a person that can turn you into someone else. It's terrifying. I've made a lot of movies that are interested in the question of morality, but as you get older, the more complicated the idea of morality becomes. Looking inside yourself then isn't so pretty.

THR: How important is it that you like the character you play?
Foster: I don't know that I play characters that are likeable. But I can see the humanity in people, even if they're terrible. "Inside Man" is a good example -- the woman I played is like Switzerland. She's not evil, but she's facilitating evil. What I look for are things that move me. I'm a little different from other actors because I don't think I was born to be one. I never wanted to do imitations or dance on a table; I just fell into it, and I had some skill. What drives me to act is really more like being a director, telling a story that is in some ways a signature about my life, whether it's sci-fi or a thriller.

THR: You served as an executive producer on "The Brave One" after running your now-closed production company, Egg Pictures, for 12 years. Do you miss developing projects?
Foster: We made a lot of movies, and I'm proud of all of them, but I can't do everything. That became pretty apparent when I had my second kid. I also realized I didn't necessarily want to produce movies I acted in because I wasn't as good at developing stuff for myself as I was for other people. The people who produce and do it well, God bless them -- but it's very negative, always talking about what can go wrong.

THR: You recently completed filming the upcoming Fox movie "Nim's Island," co-starring Abigail Breslin. What's your character like?
Foster: Abigail plays this girl who lives on an island by herself with her dad and starts communicating with her favorite author, whom she assumes is a macho, Harrison Ford-type man. It turns out she's an agoraphobic woman living in apartment in San Francisco, so I'm this neurotic character going through all this pain and suffering. It was so nice to make a movie for my kids and to be able to have them come to the set. And while I love the "dark dramas," and I'll always do them, it was nice to laugh. That said, even though "The Brave One" was a dark film, it was such a happy event for me. I learned so much, and I got to work with all these great people, and it shot in New York in the summer, so I could stay in my apartment.

THR: What does it take to leave your kids during the school year for a project?
Foster: It has to be meaningful to me. Whether I like to admit it or not, I'm a creative person, and if I can't spend part of my day thinking about profound things, I get depressed and don't know how to find myself. That's what's so wonderful about the film business. You're 100% there when you're on, and then you're off for six months and can go to every PTA meeting. I don't want to miss that. I can't miss that.

THR: You were recently scheduled to direct "Sugarland," starring Robert De Niro. What happened?
Foster: It fell apart, but I'm hoping to direct next. That's probably my greatest disappointment, that I haven't directed more. Some of that is about timing, since it's difficult to be scheduled as an actor but still be open as a director. And I make personal movies. I thought about writing a script, but I don't know that that's what I do best. I think I'm better working with writers.

THR: Do you feel like you're still learning things on set?
Foster: (Laughing) Oh, yeah. It's not about technique, but more psychological, learning about parts of yourself that you didn't know were there. Also, I learn watching directors like Neil Jordan. I know a lot of people say they're instinctive, but he really is. I learned more from Neil than any director in a long time. And David Fincher is the greatest technician I've ever worked with, along with Bob Zemeckis. And Spike Lee has his style. I get to work with people who are just the shit. Not because they're famous, but because they're good. How lucky am I?

THR: How many scripts do you read a month?
Foster: I read everything. It's my business, and I want to know what's going on, and it's interesting to see what other people are choosing. I'm moved by certain things where other actors say, "I don't know what she sees," and some actors will take a part that I can't see, but then I see the movie and they're inspiring. I'm more proud of "The Brave One" than anything I've made for years, with some of my deepest experiences happening onscreen and ideas that are so profound to me, but lots of people didn't like it, and lots of other people were like, "That's a shoot-'em-up movie."

THR: What kind of movie do you respond to as a viewer?
Foster: I like all kinds of movies, and I see them all, the big and the small. I just saw (Sony's) "Across the Universe," which I thought was astounding. I'm not sure it entirely works, but Julie Taymor has such incredible vision.

THR: In an era where being a successful actor seems to mean living a tabloid life, you manage to stay off the paparazzi grid. Is that intentional or accidental?
Foster: It's just who I am. After 42 years in the business, you come up with a way of having it make sense to you so you're not a crazy person. My way of being well-adjusted at a young age was saying, "This is a really weird world, but it's 9 to 5." When I come home, that's when my real life starts. I had to know that as a kid or they would have eaten me up. When you're 8 years old and a camera crew follows you into your third-grade class, you learn very quickly to say, "Oh, no, that will not be my life." I also knew if I didn't put my foot down and say that I was going to college, my life wouldn't have been mine. But when I was a kid, we didn't have long lenses, and kid actors didn't make $10 million.

THR: Is there anyone whose career you've wanted to emulate?
Foster: I look at (last year's Sherry Lansing Leadership Award honoree) Meryl Streep, and I don't have that career, but I wish I were her. She's above and beyond anything I could ever be. But I think the truth is, I didn't think I'd be an actor when I grew up. Everyone told me, "Child actors are done at 17, so what do you want to be? A doctor? A lawyer?" The good thing is it made me develop other sides of my personality. I'm still shocked I'm an actor. I have a new backup plan every 10 days.

THR: You did the seemingly impossible, not only transitioning from being a child actor but to being an in-demand working actress over the age of 40. How strategic have you been?
Foster: I honestly believed my career would be over at 40, and I did some movies back-to-back thinking, "This is it!" Then I realized that it's going to last as long as it lasts, and when it no longer makes me happy, I'll do something else. I was never the beautiful girlfriend, the ingenue or the one you wanted to put on the covers of magazines. It's not who I am, it's not who I ever wanted to be, and I'm not very good at it. And that put me in a different career, so now I don't have to worry so much about getting older. I'm not getting Botox, and hopefully when I'm 70, I'll be the one getting parts because I still look it.

THR: You're in a position of power where you're the one saying yes or no. Is there anyone in your life whose advice you listen to when you might be making a mistake?
Foster: My mom was amazing. She was wild about wanting to protect my psyche and making sure I was taken seriously. She would say, "When people say your name, it should have left a significant trace and stood for something." That doesn't mean I make political movies -- I haven't done any -- but I know that even if my movies are uneven, when you look back when I'm 60, they're going to stand for something that was me. Every movie I made, I know why I made them and how they changed me, and they stand for who I am. Also, my agent from when I was 12 is still my agent, my lawyer from when I was 12 is still my lawyer, and my business manager is different only because my old one died and his godson took over. I literally have the same people in my life since I was 12, and I know they love me and genuinely care for me.

THR: Looking back to that age, did you ever imagine you'd be where you are now?
Foster: I never thought I would be here, and -- who knows? -- I could never work again. But I can look back and say I've been able to live my life by the manifesto I wanted. I can look back and say, "I'm glad this is the way I lived."