Jodie Foster: The Beaver director talks about Mel Gibson's troubles, her anxious 20s, and sex scenes that involve puppets.

Interviews with a point.
May 5 2011 2:27 PM

Questions for Jodie Foster

The Beaver director talks about Mel Gibson's troubles, her anxious 20s, and sex scenes that involve puppets.

Also in Slate, Dana Stevens reviews The Beaver.

Jodie Foster. Click image to expand.
Jodie Foster

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.

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Jessica Grose is a frequent Slate contributor and the author of the novel Sad Desk Salad. Follow her on Twitter.

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.

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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?