The voice is cool, confident – how could it not be? It’s Agent Starling, calling Time Out from Los Angeles. ‘I’ve gone to the best film school in the world,’ Jodie Foster, 48, demurs, referring to a 45-year career that anyone would kill for, acting for the likes of Martin Scorsese, Spike Lee and Jonathan Demme while establishing herself as a born director. ‘David Fincher – I think I’ve learned more from that man than anyone,’ she adds, singling out her Panic Room director. ‘Only he does 120 takes, and I do two’.
If it wasn’t obvious from Foster’s darkly funny new psychodrama The Beaver – her third movie behind the camera (in which she also plays a supporting role) – the former child star has taken a page from her mentors’ maverick stances, too. ‘It better be something personal,’ she says of a filmmaker’s choice of subjects, ‘because you’re going to be obsessed with it for two years. And you don’t get much done down at the beach playing volleyball.’
The Beaver won’t ever be likened to a day at the shore. The plot concerns Walter, a husband, father and toy magnate stuck in a serious, life-halting depression. After months of sleep and self-imposed isolation, Walter’s salvation comes in the bizarre form of a hand puppet found in a dumpster, a beaver through which he begins to talk and slowly rejoin the world, while seriously freaking out his family and colleagues.
Kyle Killen’s original 2008 script, a cracked, more ambitious American Beauty, topped Hollywood’s Black List, an online ranking of the industry’s best unproduced screenplays. ‘They’re usually unproduced for a reason,’ Foster offers with a laugh, noting it was the kind of challenge that inspired her. After many directors and actors flirted with Killen’s tale and passed (including, reportedly, Steve Carell and Jim Carrey), Foster landed the gig and secured an old friend for the complex, bipolar leading role: Mel Gibson (the two worked together in the 1994 Western comedy Maverick).
Now, with Gibson’s sharpest work since Braveheart up on screen, Foster has a different headache. Can the audience open its eyes to a powerhouse turn, deft and sensitive, and set the damaged star’s personal life aside for two hours? ‘That’s really a question for you,’ Foster answers calmly. ‘Can you separate it? There’s nothing I can do about it.’
Somehow, Foster knows this is not enough. After a pause, she continues, less carefully and more from the heart. ‘There’s isn’t anybody – anybody – who isn’t blown away by this performance,’ Foster says. ‘I’ve known the guy professionally for more than 15 years. He’s the one I’d turn to if I needed to have my appendix out at three in the morning. Mel is loyal, trustworthy, a doll. It doesn’t mean he’s a saint. There’s a lot brewing under there.’
Anton Yelchin, the 22-year-old actor cast as Walter’s estranged son (he’s best known for playing Chekov in the rebooted Star Trek), approaches the ‘Mel question’ in broader terms, touching on the essence of acting itself. ‘Our job is to disappear into the part,’ he offers. ‘It’s not to become friends with our coworkers. Inevitably you do, though. And I really like Mel, because his performance is beautiful and committed. I don’t really care where it comes from.’
Further prodded, Yelchin recalls filming an especially tricky scene with Gibson – a hug of few words that speaks volumes of pain. The moment, a reshoot, had to be captured on the same day that Gibson’s profane answering-machine tapes hit the gossip sites. ‘I could tell he was suffering a great deal that morning,’ the young actor says. ‘Even so, he did a brilliant job, like it was nothing. That’s dedication.’ Yelchin – who calls Foster’s breakthrough Taxi Driver his favourite movie of all time – considers The Beaver to be about the power of putting on a show and transforming.
‘It turns darker the way life turns darker,’ Foster says of her film. ‘But how do we evolve through crisis?’ Suddenly, the no-nonsense director is back. ‘That was quite a final day of shooting. Mel nailed that shot in two takes. Extraordinary. He busted a gut for me for 42 days. I’ll always be grateful for the partnership.’ The Beaver is in UAE cinemas now.