Emmys: Jodie Foster on Why She Wanted to Direct 'Orange Is the New Black' (Q&A)

Netflix; AP Images
"Orange Is the New Black" (Inset: Jodie Foster)

The Oscar-winning actress took her first stab at helming for the small screen with the Netflix series.

This story first appeared in a special Emmy issue of The Hollywood Reporter magazine.

There was little that Jodie Foster hadn't done as an actor, director and writer, which is why she jumped at the chance to broaden her résumé last year with two TV directing gigs. Here, the two-time Oscar-winning actress (The Accused, Silence of the Lambs) and feature director (The Beaver) shares the lessons she has learned as a TV newbie and why it's OK to sometimes just let things happen.

How did you get the gig to direct Orange Is the New Black?

Interestingly, I read the book and I said to my agent, "Oh man, I really want to do this." He was like, "Well, [the showrunner is] Jenji Kohan!" And I was like, "Would you please pass along that I'd like to be a part of this?" Then eventually I found out a friend of mine was doing prep work for the show, and I told her, "Please tell the writer [Piper Kerman] I love that book and I'm dying to do something." Then that's what happened. They don't tell you what episode you're shooting so it's a wonderful exercise and meditation in letting go because you have no idea what you're doing. One episode takes eight days to prep and eight to shoot. It's a fast deal. And I'd never done TV before.

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How different was it from film work?

It's a whole new world, but it's right up my alley. Story is back and that's what I do. I love serving directors in film, and in television, that's the show creator. You're there to be their champion. As the director, you don't cast a show, you don't have the sets built per your specs, you don't do revisions. You're not the sheriff! But Orange is so my tone. It's a comedy and drama put together. You care about what happens to people and they're as real as a heartbeat and yet there's all this whimsy.

It's also populated with characters we've never seen before, including Laverne Cox's transgender inmate Sophia, who is the centerpiece of your season-one episode "Lesbian Request Denied."

Yes. That's why I was so attracted to the book, because it's about disparate people coming together. There's no reason why they should know each other. And they're bound by this sort of spiritual limbo: How did I get here? It's about a reckoning of your life. And I feel like that's so vital.

In one particularly moving flashback scene in "Lesbian Request Denied," Sophia's wife gives her clothing tips after she comes out as transgender. How difficult was that scene to shoot?

That was the toughest day of the shoot. It was like, "How am I going to accomplish this?" I love to shoot fast because I prep like an insane person. But that scene was so incredibly long. It's two people talking. And in order to work with [looking in the] mirror and the kissing -- all those different beats were extremely challenging. It was the hardest day for acting by far. I loved their performances and the subtlety of the things that aren't said. Laverne really brought it home. I'm so proud!

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You also directed an episode of House of Cards in season two. How did that experience compare to Orange?

That was fantastic! Very, very different, obviously. But they couldn't be having more fun. Kevin Spacey is hysterical. He keeps everybody laughing with amazing impersonations and dances.

You have a connection to Cards executive producer David Fincher, having starred in his film Panic Room, which probably helped?

Yes, I know his M.O. I think on Panic Room, the last shot of the last day was the most amount of takes that has ever been done in the history of a movie. (Laughs.) But I couldn't have had more freedom on Cards. And nothing makes me happier than to be in a room full of technicians who really know what they're doing. They really trust filmmakers. And we talked about Kevin, but Robin Wright … how amazing is she? For a long time, she has been my favorite unsung actress. It's such a pleasure to watch her inhabit a character that's so unusual and so specific. And her clothes are amazing!

What have you learned about yourself as a director from these two jobs?

So much. That whole bit of humility. I've worked for 47 years in the film business. And being prepared is good, but it's also wonderful to be open and confident that you're going to come up with something at the last minute. That's TV. Allow yourself the confidence to know that if you relax, you're going to come up with something fantastic, even when you have 12 pages to shoot and a bunch of people yelling at you. (Laughs.) And I love how that works. You create this beautiful thing together.