Cant we have more beaver impact in the beginning? Jodie Foster giggles, quoting a studio executives note.

Even smaller in person than you might expect, she smiles with her entire face, and wastes no time charming a room full of jaded freelancers with candid, articulate answers and a larger-than-life personality that belies her tiny stature. The famously private Foster is subjecting herself to interviews only to promote The Beaver, her third directorial effort and a long-gestating dream project shes called the biggest challenge of her professional career. And all that was before her star Mel Gibson flamed out in an ugly, tabloid frenzy shortly after this long-delayed picture was finally finished.

But for now were just talking about the title, which brings a mischievous glint to her eyes.

I think its fantastic how irreverent it is, that people kind of winceits almost painful for them to say. I love that! When I first started doing the movie everybody asked, Youre going to change the title, right? Absolutely not!

Double entendres aside, the film is a surprisingly serious exploration of mental illness, despite the fact that a depressed Gibson spends most of it talking in a Cockney accent through a hand puppet as a bizarre form of therapy. Originally set up for director Jay Roach and star Steve Carell until they decided to make Dinner For Schmucks instead, Foster steered the project into much trickier, more confounding direction, based on her own experiences.

Everyday life gets heavier and heavier as it goes on, Foster explains. Theres a lot of tragedy mixed in with the comedy of our lives, and many of usmyself includedgo through these moments of spiritual crisis, when we feel alone. Terribly alone. But theres an interesting phenomenon with artistsand it might be a clichewe are often obsessive ruminators. The process of ruminating is beautiful. Its also incredibly painful. But its the one thing that allows you to evolve through this kind of spiritual crisis. People who just go to the beach dont evolve through those experiences. Its important. It has a function. Depression has a function. In a weird way I feel lucky that I have the ability to find that in myself.

Foster co-stars as Gibsons long suffering wife, a double-duty decision that did not come easily. After Little Man Tate I said, Boy, Im never doing this again. Its definitely not something that I think is a wise idea for most people. But I feel like Mel and I know each other so well, and theres such a real compassion between the two of us, I knew you would believe that we were married onscreen.

Mel has been doing this for 40 years, Ive been doing it for 45. His personality is the same as mine ... Hes a two-take guy, and he doesnt really want to discuss it. He comes in having already done the work he has to do before he ever steps on set. Hes genial and fun, and able to walk in and out of character very quickly, so theres none of that weird stuff.

Wait, no weird stuff?

Theres nothing I can say about Mels struggles.

(Nobody in the room dared ask a follow-up question.)

As for Fosters four-decade on-screen career, she has mixed feelings. What else might have been?

I think about it all the time. Ive been thinking about it my entire life. Who would I be if I didnt do this? If youve ever read books on child prodigies, its a question they all ask themselves. If people didnt applaud what I did, would I be anybody? Thats many years in therapy for me on that one.

But it was all about the adventures, the traveling and going to crazy places, living in different countries, and being asked to function emotionally as an adult person at a very young age. On the TV show Paper Moon, I was in Kansas for three months during tornado season. I learned how to drive for the first time on that set in a Model A! The places that this life takes you to and the experiences that Ive had, thats what I bring with me.

The only thing thats certain is that she would not like to be starting out in this current TMZ paparazzi climate.

It was different when I was growing up. There was a different philosophy about the separation between news and celebrity. News was not entertainment. If I was 17 now, I dont think I would be an actor. I dont think its a life, anymore. I think were seeing the aftermath of that now in a lot of empty young people.

And as for what she is trying to say with The Beaver?

Despite the rollercoaster, and the unfairness of everything and the heaviness of lifeyou dont have to be alone. The impact that pain has on people sets them apart and puts them alone. Theres no pill to fix it, and youre probably not going to be OK. But you dont have to be alone.

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