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“I didn’t think I was ever going to be an actor when I grew up,” says Jodie Foster, one of the few people who has ever been a bona fide movie star as both a child and as an adult, as we record an episode of The Hollywood Reporter‘s Awards Chatter podcast. Continues the actress, who started at 3 and is now 58, ” I mean, I’m still shocked! I can’t quite believe that I’m doing the job that I did from the time I was three years old.”
Foster is not only still acting, but acting at a level that has returned her to a familiar place: the center of the annual awards conversation. She was first Oscar-nominated at the age of 14 (for her performance as a child prostitute in 1976’s Taxi Driver) and she won two best actress Oscars before the age of 30 (for playing a victim of a gang-rape in 1988’s The Accused and an FBI agent in 1991’s The Silence of the Lambs).
Now, she is generating considerable best supporting actress Oscar buzz — and has already landed a Golden Globe nomination in the category — for her portrayal of Nancy Hollander, the attorney for Mohamedou Ould Salahi (played by Tahar Rahim, who is also Globe-nominated), a man imprisoned at Guantanamo Bay with questionable justification, in Kevin Macdonald‘s The Mauritanian.
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You can listen to the episode here. The article continues below.
Past guests include Steven Spielberg, Oprah Winfrey, Lorne Michaels, Barbra Streisand, George Clooney, Meryl Streep, Robert De Niro, Jennifer Lawrence, Eddie Murphy, Gal Gadot, Warren Beatty, Angelina Jolie, Snoop Dogg, Jessica Chastain, Stephen Colbert, Reese Witherspoon, Aaron Sorkin, Margot Robbie, Ryan Reynolds, Nicole Kidman, Denzel Washington, Julia Louis-Dreyfus, Matthew McConaughey, Kate Winslet, Jimmy Kimmel, Natalie Portman, Chadwick Boseman, Jennifer Lopez, Elton John, Judi Dench, Quincy Jones, Jane Fonda, Tom Hanks, Amy Schumer, Justin Timberlake, Elisabeth Moss, RuPaul, Rachel Brosnahan, Jimmy Fallon, Kris Jenner, Michael Moore, Emilia Clarke, Lin-Manuel Miranda, Helen Mirren, Tyler Perry, Sally Field, Spike Lee, Lady Gaga, J.J. Abrams, Emma Stone, Al Pacino, Phoebe Waller-Bridge, Jerry Seinfeld, Dolly Parton, Will Smith, Taraji P. Henson, Sacha Baron Cohen, Carol Burnett, Norman Lear, Keira Knightley, David Letterman, Sophia Loren, Hugh Jackman, Melissa McCarthy, Kevin Hart, Carey Mulligan, Seth MacFarlane, Amy Adams, Ben Affleck, Julia Roberts, Jake Gyllenhaal, Glenn Close, Will Ferrell, Cate Blanchett, Sacha Baron Cohen, Greta Gerwig, Conan O’Brien and Kerry Washington.
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Foster was born in Los Angeles in 1962, by which point her parents had already divorced. Her father was not a presence in her life, but her mother, who had worked in film publicity, very much was. In fact, after Foster, at age three, followed an older sibling of hers into an audition for a Coppertone commercial and came away with the job herself, her mother became her manager.
After that first gig, the youngster was in high demand for the rest of her childhood. “I worked a lot,” she acknowledges, noting that she started being hired for TV series at six (the same age she first expressed the dream of becoming a director) and movies at seven or eight, focusing solely on the latter after 11. She became the primary provider for her family before she was in her teens, which begs the question: did she act because she enjoyed it or because she felt she had to? “I don’t think I stopped for a minute to feel anything.”
Things really took off for her around the age of 11 and 12 when she made two films for Martin Scorsese — first 1974’s Alice Doesn’t Live Here Anymore and then Taxi Driver. On the latter, Robert De Niro took her under his wing and taught her how to improvise in-character. “It was really a life-changing role for me, a life-changing experience,” she remembers, “and it was the first time as a child that I realized that acting was more than just saying lines that somebody else wrote.”
An astounding four films starring Foster — Taxi Driver, Bugsy Malone, The Little Girl Who Lives Down the Lane and the acquisition title The Last Castle — played at the 1976 Cannes Film Festival. And in 1977, in addition to the Oscar nom for Taxi Driver, she received a Golden Globe nom for Freaky Friday. But despite this tremendous momentum, Foster’s mother encouraged her to plan for life after child stardom, which was just fine with the young actress, who was excited to attend college.
“I guess it was an unusual thing that an actor would go to college,” says Foster, who was accepted at Yale University, where she majored in literature. “Most actors didn’t because it’s your prime years when you’re young, and most actors want to just keep moving. But it was important to me and it was important to my mom.” She made five movies during college breaks, and even tried her hand at theater while on campus, but not for long. “It was right when Hinckley had the assassination attempt,” she says quietly in reference to the derange man who stalked her and then shot Pres. Ronald Reagan to try to “impress” her. “So it was a pretty difficult moment to be on stage, and I think that might have made me not particularly want to do it a lot.”
After graduating in 1985, Foster considered remaining in academia and doing graduate work under her beloved professor Henry Louis Gates. But she ultimately decided to see what sort of work she could get as an adult, and, after being forced to screen test, landed the part in The Accused, which brought her Oscar #1. Oscar #2 came for her very next film, The Silence of the Lambs, in which she was cast only after Michelle Pfeiffer turned down the part.
To date, she is one of only 14 women who have won two or more best actress Oscars. The others: Katharine Hepburn, Meryl Streep, Ingrid Bergman, Bette Davis, Jane Fonda, Olivia de Havilland, Frances McDormand, Elizabeth Taylor, Glenda Jackson, Sally Field, Vivien Leigh, Luise Rainer and Hilary Swank.
In 1991, Foster also directed a feature film for the first time, Little Man Tate, about a gifted child whose parent in unsure what to do with him — which, she acknowledges, was at least partially informed by her own youth. “That film will always mean more to me than any movie that I’ve ever made,” she says. “That was really me putting my foot forward for the first time and saying, ‘This is who I am.'” She has since gone on to direct 1995’s Home for the Holidays, 2011’s The Beaver and 2016’s Money Monster, as well as episodes of TV shows like Orange Is the New Black, House of Cards and Black Mirror.
Foster’s adult acting career has progressed at a far less speedy pace than her child acting career did, but with a batting average bettered by few others. It has included turns as a woman of the wild in 1994’s Nell, an astronomer searching for extra-terrestrial life in 1997’s Contact, a mother protecting her child from attackers in 2002’s Panic Room, a mother searching for her child who has gone missing in 2005’s Flightplan and a radio host-turned-vigilante in 2007’s The Brave One.
Several of these characters could just as easily have been — and in some cases, were written to be — male. “When I think of movies that I didn’t do that I would have loved to have done,” she says, “I think of every movie all of the men in the movie business have made that were not available to me.”
In 2012, upon turning 50, Foster’s outlook changed. As she puts it: “I thought, ‘I don’t know how much I’m gonna act anymore. Maybe there will be something that will come along that I’m going to love and that feels meaningful to me, and I will do that. But if it doesn’t feel meaningful to me, I am no longer going to try to put a round hole in a square peg. I didn’t know if I was ever going to act agan.'”
Indeed, it was six years before her next film role, in Hotel Artemis, and another three before The Mauritanian. With regard to the latter, she says, “I read the script once and I was like, ‘Yep, I want to do this.’ Not just because of the character of Mohamedou, which was the number one reason that I wanted to do the film, but also because of Kevin.”
Asked what she hopes people will take away from the film, which is now playing select theaters and will soon be available to stream, she emphasizes, “We hope people get to know and love Mohamedou and are able to see his story from his perspective. That would be a new thing, for a mainstream movie to have a Muslim man provide the perspective of the movie, with all of his complexity.” She adds, “And then, of course, Guantanamo is still open, which is insane, and I think a lot of us would like to see it closed.”
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