Jodie Foster is in control -- The Oscar winning star of ''Silence of the Lambs'' takes on a new challenge as director of ''Little Man Tate''

”I’m sorry I look so schlumpfy,” Jodie Foster says. She is unexpectedly small in her baggy khakis, white T-shirt, and red cardigan; her hair is mousy-brown and dirty; her pale face is utterly without makeup. At first glance, Foster looks like the overworked neighbor from down the hall whom you’ve run into in the laundry room. Only those remarkable eyes, those almond-shaped, bluff-calling eyes, give her away. And they call her own bluff as much as anyone else’s. If Foster says she looks schlumpfy, it’s not because she’s fishing for a compliment. It’s because she looks schlumpfy and knows it.

The myth says movie stars are fabulous monsters, prodigies of presence and bone structure. Foster has had enough of myths, having been mythified once, much against her will and under the most unimaginable of circumstances. A star with every reason to be wary of stardom, she doesn’t tend to swim in the celebrity soup. ”If you chum with people, then they’re gonna do business with you? I just don’t believe that,” she says. ”I don’t hang. I’d rather go home.” Still — and she knows this better than anybody — she can dress down and live as quietly as she likes, but there’s no escaping who she is.

It is important to point out the reason for her present rumpledness. She’s been holed up in a dark room for a month, editing Little Man Tate, the first movie she has directed (and the 28th she has acted in). We’re meeting in her postproduction office at L.A.’s Skywalker Sound, a work-ethic Hollywood hive of the ’90s. The parking lot is full of beautiful cars; beautiful people of both genders in baggy pants, pastel T-shirts, shades, and Significant Hair come and go coolly and purposefully.

Foster is perhaps the only person in the building not making a fashion statement. In the midst of the most intensely productive period of her life, she’s letting her work do the talking. Besides Little Man Tate, she’s just finished working in Woody Allen’s next (and still untitled) movie, and she’s starring in Jonathan Demme’s just-released horror-thriller, The Silence of the Lambs.

Silence — the subject of a vigorous promotional campaign — is based on Thomas Harris’ best-selling 1988 novel about FBI agent-in-training Clarice Starling, who must interview one serial murderer, the psychotic psychiatrist Dr. Hannibal ”the Cannibal” Lecter, in order to track down another.

Female heroes haven’t exactly been plentiful in Hollywood, but Foster acts as though she has been playing them for years. The film marks an artistic and perhaps psychic turning point for the actress, who has gone from portraying victims to playing a determined, if thoroughly human, pursuer. Foster’s complex, intelligent performance is the quiet center of a terrifying movie, and it will solidify her reputation, in the middle period of an astonishing career, as one of the most powerful actresses we have.

Foster is hot, in other words, but it’s her own peculiar kind of heat. Conventional wisdom says that a star’s career moves in a large, sweeping arc, stepping up steadily in dollars and fame, and that female stars sell sex. These are two more myths Jodie Foster can live without.

Ever since she started acting — 25 years ago, at age 3 — Foster’s career has moved with a zigzag logic all its own. The same could be said of her life. This is, after all, a woman who grew up without a noticeable childhood, who began supporting her fatherless family of five at the age of 10. She is a movie actress who made her breakthrough at 11 (in Martin Scorsese’s Alice Doesn’t Live Here Anymore) playing a streetwise urchin, then followed that up with an unforgettable role as a 12-year-old prostitute in another Scorsese picture, Taxi Driver. She is one of the few child stars ever to make a completely successful transition to adult acting success. A woman who graduated magna cum laude from Yale while continuing her career. The only person to whom a would-be assassin of the President of the United States ever dedicated his crime.

For the past 15 years, Foster has stirred a periodic parental fascination in us quite unlike our feeling for any other star. We watched her grow up; we hover anxiously, and, at times, all too close. But if the boundary between her public and private lives has appeared uncertain, her choice of roles has often made it seem as though she’s deliberately working something out. She has played a gang-rape victim twice (in The Accused, for which she won an Oscar, and The Hotel New Hampshire), and her character in Five Corners was the object of an unbalanced young man’s obsession.

The Silence of the Lambs marks a striking new direction. ”The movie is very mythic in its construction,” Foster says. ”I mean, it’s about the making of a hero, in some ways. You first see Clarice Starling, and she’s doing her little FBI thing, running, shooting, being protected in this Quantico enclave by this network of fathers. These patriarchs. These chiseled WASPy guys with round glasses and perfect noses and pectorals. And she is the next generation, in some ways. And for all of that, for all of her preparation and training, this woman desperately has so much hubris — has so much to prove.”

When Foster speaks, it’s hard not to hear autobiography, whether she intends it or not. As she struggles to get Little Man Tate finished by her mid-February deadline, she herself has much to prove. Tate is the story of a brilliant young boy whose single mother (Foster) and his psychologist (Dianne Wiest) compete for his affections. According to Jonathan Kaplan, who directed Foster in The Accused and saw an early rough cut of Little Man Tate, ”It’s like the work of somebody very experienced. And it’s so personal — such a brave first movie to make. It’s about a kid, who’s abnormal because he’s extraordinary, being sent off to the adult world at a very young age. He’s so introverted, so unlike Jodie, yet I suspect Jodie very much identifies with what he feels inside. There’s one sequence where he goes off to college — I imagine a show-biz kid at Yale must’ve felt like an alien in much the same sort of way.”

”The movie is not so much about a prodigy,” Foster says, ”as it is about a child who’s isolated, who has trouble connecting socially. It’s about misfits.” She’s reclining in a chair in her messy office, looking relaxed but exhausted. The hard-R’d boy’s voice that first startled moviegoers into attention in her early films is soft, slightly hoarse with fatigue.

”Was the idea of being a misfit something you felt personally?” I ask.

”Oh, yeah. But just because you haven’t led a normal life doesn’t mean you can’t lead a healthy life. Just because you have a reverse handicap — because you are special — doesn’t mean that you can’t be happy; it just means that it takes a lot of work to figure out how to do that.”

”Did you feel abnormal as a kid?”

”Not necessarily because of the acting,” she says. ”It was just my way. I don’t see that as sad, particularly. It’s not like I have some lousy life or anything. I think that a person’s tragedies make them who they are, and I wouldn’t give them up. Things have made me sensitive in my life, have made me the kind of sensitive actor I think I am. You’re just given whatever you’re given, right? You know, not everything has to be suburban and perfect.”

Coming from Foster, this seems an understatement. Her parents were divorced while she was in utero. Jodie, her mother, and her three older siblings lived in a Spanish-style stucco house in a seedy section of Hollywood. While her sisters and brother went to school, Jodie also went to work under the watchful eye of her manager-mother, Brandy. The arrangement appears to have been satisfactory to everyone concerned. ”I come from a really cool family — a really cultured family,” she says. ”Not a rich family — but we had, like, really good Tuscan bread. And Portuguese food. And the Peugeot car.”

She doesn’t mention that she very likely paid for the car before she could drive it. ”My childhood was filled with dreams of getting out,” Foster says. ”Of just, like, being European or something. We were informed by a certain kind of seriousness — by a certain kind of culture. We weren’t the family that loved to go see those shoot-’em-up movies. We loved dark movies. I spent my whole life going to see very dark European films. Italian and German films. That’s what my mom liked. And, you know, was she gonna get us a babysitter? We had to come too. Dark was always my favorite style. Not necessarily unpleasant, but I like movies that take you to places that you don’t normally go. Places that you wouldn’t normally want to go.”

The Silence of the Lambs takes us to a place the vast majority of us would never want to go near. But, as before in her career, this dark territory is one with which Foster has some emotional acquaintance. (As always, the ground rule is that she prefers not to talk about her ordeal as the fixation of presidential assailant John Hinckley Jr.) Her talent and acting experience also stood her in good stead. ”She works like me — she keeps it really simple,” says Anthony Hopkins, who, as the sublimely creepy Dr. Lecter, has several long one-on-one scenes with Foster. ”She doesn’t need two hours in the corner first. I think that’s the real mark of a mature actor. She draws upon her great concentration, that center of stillness and calm, and then she just does it.”

Both Foster and director Jonathan Demme had to be sold on each other. For her part, Foster worried that his history of quirky pictures (Something Wild, Married to the Mob) that spoofed authority figures might not suit a dead-serious story in which the FBI people were the heroes. Her Hinckley experience, and her research for Silence, had brought her into close contact with law-enforcement officials who were flesh and blood, not caricatures. ”Jonathan and I first met in Virginia, at some stupid burger place,” she says. ”I’d already spent two weeks with FBI people at that point, watching what they did and how they did it. I’d really gotten to know some of them and like some of them a lot. And I said, ‘There are two things I’m afraid of with this picture. One is that it’s gonna somehow glorify murder. And the second is that it’s gonna make fun of these crew-cut government people.’ And he said, ‘Yeah, I agree.’

”When you think of Silence of the Lambs, right, the last thing you think of is Jonathan Demme,” she says. ”But I’ll tell you — the thing about him is that he has such goodness. And such strength of character and strength of morality, that’s why he’s such a perfect choice for the film. ‘Cause there’s absolutely no way he could’ve compromised that.”

Demme, too, had reservations. ”Orion had told me that Jodie wanted to play Clarice,” he says, ”even as I thought, in a knee-jerk way, of Michelle [Pfeiffer], because we’d had so much fun on Married to the Mob. But then Michelle said she found the material far too scary. And I’d recently seen When Harry Met Sally and was crazy about Meg Ryan.

”Jodie’s résumé was all over the chart, but I loved that whatever she’d done, it was never terribly far from the edge. And I liked what she felt was important about The Silence of the Lambs. She believed it. This, for her, was the opposite of some bullshit movie story. Her identification was with a character who felt deeply for victims.”

Demme’s own passion for the project sprang from three sources. ”The first was the never-ending, frustrating search for scripts. I really committed to do the movie on the strength of the book, which I thought was just amazing. The second reason was that the leading character was a woman. And third, I’ve always thought, over all the years since I’ve been a director, that I would love to make one of the great scary films — one that could stand alongside Alien and Rosemary’s Baby and The Texas Chainsaw Massacre.”

Whatever Silence‘s success as a shocker, the movie’s deepest accomplishment is the dovetailing of Demme’s intense feeling for his female hero and his star’s performance as Agent Clarice Starling. ”It’s very important,” Foster says, ”for me to create a female hero that’s a genuine female hero. Not, like, some woman runnin’ around in her underwear going” — her voice becomes soft and breathy — ”’Stop!’ I mean, this is a five-foot-four woman who is very soft-spoken, who’s very businesslike, who’s not about brawn, who doesn’t know karate. And who uses her mind and cleverness to combat the villain.”

There is no love story in Silence, and for Foster — who also focuses intensely on her work at hand — that seems fitting. ”Once Clarice sees the first corpse, she’s so bonded to this quest, and her identity is so immersed in it, that nothing else is possible,” Foster says. ”She can’t think of anything else. So it’s almost something that she has to free herself of.”

Even Jodie Foster’s car is schlumpfy. It’s the next day, and we’re on our way to lunch in her Saab Turbo convertible (top up), the interior of which is littered with cassettes, papers, a bottle of bottled water, books, birthday presents for a friend. In a white T-shirt and jeans, she looks neat and pretty, but not, in any remote sense, soignée. What she calls ”the anal-compulsive sick streak in me” is clearly confined to her work — as it was at Yale, where she ate junk food, put on weight, and turned in term papers two weeks early.

Postproduction on Little Man Tate is right on schedule. ”Directing is where my compulsive side really works,” Foster says, as we tool down L.A.’s Olympic Boulevard. ”Really having the whole picture in mind, and really knowing the structure, and why this works and why this doesn’t, and really being able to analyze things. I don’t believe in the runaway production ethic. I really like things to be immaculately prepared, so I can be creative inside those barriers. Unless I have those barriers, it’s too scary for me.”

Driving with Jodie Foster can be a little scary. Yellow lights present an incentive. The Turbo turbos; we hang a left into oncoming traffic. I close my eyes. We somehow make it. ”I had a VW Bug convertible for 10 years,” Foster says, in her big, loud, enthusiastic voice, so different from Clarice Starling’s soft twang. ”I loved it. This car is like a spoiled child — if I go to the Forum and park in an alley, I have to worry the whole time.”

We spot a space, buck traffic again, pull in. Foster strides into a trendy French-Chinese restaurant and tells the maitre d’ we’d like an outdoor table. Despite her Yale-yard mufti, heads turn; the maitre d’ is all smiles. ”So good to see you again.” Our waiter is a dead ringer for Bronson Pinchot’s smarmy gallery assistant in Beverly Hills Cop. It all rolls off Foster’s back. This is her element, but she seems impervious to it.

Over chicken salad and buckwheat noodles, I bring up a recent article in Mademoiselle that was highly critical of Silence, claiming the movie was nothing more than an exploitative slasher-thriller. ”Isn’t there the chance,” I ask, ”that some sickos somewhere will get off on the violence done to women in this picture?”

”I don’t know,” Foster replies, and the flicker across her eyes makes me realize I’ve touched on the forbidden subject. ”It’s not something I particularly want to talk about or comment upon. I think it’s fueling fire,” she says. ”The truth is, when you make dramatic movies that are about very risky things, you have to be very conscious of what you’re doing politically. Always. That’s why the structure of the piece is really important. You can’t say, ‘I’ll fix it in the editing.’ That’s why so much time and energy was put into the movie by Jonathan and myself, to make sure it wasn’t exploitative. That it dealt with real issues in a real way. And that it furthered people into gentleness and humanness.

”I love this film, and I totally defend it. I think it moves toward all the right things. It’s not particularly about the character — I mean, the reason I did the movie was because I love this piece and what it deals with and how it handles it — its truth to the issue.”

But, truth, issues, and sensitivity aside, we are in Hollywood. All at once, I can’t help myself. ”So,” I say. ”What was it like to win an Oscar?”

She suddenly looks 10 years younger. ”Fun!” she says. ”It was just so unexpected. I kept saying, ‘It’s Mr. Toad’s Wild Ride!’ It’s just like, then I was there, and somebody put me there, and then I was laughing, and then they put me there. I don’t even know how much time went by.

”I mean, yes, the competition is unfair, and when you get to a certain point, and you’re trying to choose between five different performances in five different genres that have absolutely nothing to do with each other, it’s totally academic who wins. So of course you pick the people for all sorts of really stupid reasons. ‘Well, this one’s too old.’ Or, ‘This one is old, so let’s give it to him.’ Or, ‘This person hasn’t had a good part for years.’

”The nomination is the award,” she says. ”And ultimately, the other thing is like, bingo.” She laughs her big laugh. ”You know, it’s like, they’re gonna pull one name out, and one of you is gonna go, ‘Whooo!’, and the other ones aren’t. Once you’ve had the performance, and you’ve had the nomination, I can’t imagine taking it personally that you weren’t the name pulled out of that hat.”

It’s hard to imagine that Jodie Foster won’t be back there again.

Growing Up On-Screen
Foster started out in TV shows like My Three Sons and even had her own series, Paper Moon, with Christopher Connelly. She startled audiences as a young prostitute in Martin Scorsese’s Taxi Driver, with Robert De Niro; made The Hotel New Hampshire with Nastassja Kinski while at Yale; and triumphed as a rape victim in The Accused, with Kelly McGillis.

Little Man Tate
  • Movie
  • 99 minutes