“Can’t we have more beaver impact in the beginning?” Jodie Foster giggles, quoting a studio executive’s 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 she’s 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 we’re just talking about the title, which brings a mischievous glint to her eyes.
“I think it’s fantastic how irreverent it is, that people kind of wince—it’s almost painful for them to say. I love that! When I first started doing the movie everybody asked, ‘You’re 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. “There’s a lot of tragedy mixed in with the comedy of our lives, and many of us—myself included—go through these moments of spiritual crisis, when we feel alone. Terribly alone. But there’s an interesting phenomenon with artists—and it might be a cliche—we are often obsessive ruminators. The process of ruminating is beautiful. It’s also incredibly painful. But it’s the one thing that allows you to evolve through this kind of spiritual crisis. People who just go to the beach don’t evolve through those experiences. It’s 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 Gibson’s long suffering wife, a double-duty decision that did not come easily. “After Little Man Tate I said, ‘Boy, I’m never doing this again.’ It’s 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 there’s 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, I’ve been doing it for 45. His personality is the same as mine ... He’s a two-take guy, and he doesn’t really want to discuss it. He comes in having already done the work he has to do before he ever steps on set. He’s genial and fun, and able to walk in and out of character very quickly, so there’s none of that weird stuff.”
Wait, no weird stuff?
“There’s nothing I can say about Mel’s struggles.”
(Nobody in the room dared ask a follow-up question.)
As for Foster’s four-decade on-screen career, she has mixed feelings. What else might have been?
“I think about it all the time. I’ve been thinking about it my entire life. Who would I be if I didn’t do this? If you’ve ever read books on child prodigies, it’s a question they all ask themselves. If people didn’t applaud what I did, would I be anybody? That’s 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 I’ve had, that’s what I bring with me.”
The only thing that’s 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 don’t think I would be an actor. I don’t think it’s a life, anymore. I think we’re 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 life—you don’t have to be alone. The impact that pain has on people sets them apart and puts them alone. There’s no pill to fix it, and you’re probably not going to be OK. But you don’t have to be alone.”
After a comically disastrous suicide attempt, Walter Black (Mel Gibson) discovers a beat-up beaver puppet in the garbage. Wearing it on his hand, he spontaneously concocts a radical form of therapy in which he’ll only communicate through the beaver.