Jodie Foster on Mel Gibson and acting in ‘The Beaver’

In conversation with Brian D. Johnson

What follows is an edited transcript of my interview with Jodie Foster in Toronto April 28, 2011. Foster was here to promote The Beaver, her third movie as a director. She also plays the distressed wife of Walter Black (Mel Gibson), a severely depressed toy executive who embarks on some last-ditch therapy via a beaver hand puppet that speaks with a cockney accent.

Q: So you will be heading to Cannes with The Beaver. Is Mel going?
A: I think Mel’s going. The French love him. It’s like “Did he have a scandal?” They don’t know.

Q: Right. They didn’t care about Woody Allen’s scandal either. If you don’t mind, I’d like to go directly to the Elephant in the Room. There’s no question Mel gives a powerful performance in The Beaver, but no matter how deeply he’s immersed himself in this role, everyone in the audience will conflate the story of the character’s bid for redemption with the actor’s.
And is that a bad thing? I don’t know. I don’t have any choice. I don’t think it’s a bad thing. He brings the rawness of somebody who really understands struggle and wants to change. It’s a beautiful side of Mel that I’ve known for a long time, this real connective tissue, this deeply emotional man who has a broken side to him. And the charm and the wit that the Beaver gives to him—that’s something Mel can do quite easily.

But I don’t know. Look, the good news is that I’m not the distributor. It’s not my job to market the film.

Q: Aren’t you marketing the film by talking about it?
I can’t make people go to the theatre. I love the movie that I made and I wouldn’t change a thing about it, including his performance, which is extraordinary and I feel completely grateful for it. It’s more than I could have ever dreamed of. I’m not naïve. As a director I know that you hire an actor and they bring so much to the table, and you can’t create a performance for an actor. The only thing you can do is guide them, and inspire them hopefully. They come in and put their blood on the line. And I got to make a personal film that was incredibly challenging in an unpopular genre, the comedy drama.

Q: What about the meta aspect of Mel’s performance, is that something you and he talked about?
No. When he was doing the scene where he has to be drunk and he’s hugging the television set and trying to pour whiskey down David Carradine’s throat [shown in a clip from Kung Fu]. You obviously have conversations about what it’s like to fall apart in a hotel room and be at the lowest stage of your life, and he brings a lot to the table there.

RELATED: Jodie Foster on the ‘broken’ Mel Gibson

Q: Were you still shooting when the tapes were leaked?
No. We had a one-day reshoot, on the day that the tapes came out.

Q: What was that like?
It wasn’t fun (laughs). It was hard. God love him. My first impulse was just to throw my arms around him. What are you going do? He took it and takes it incredibly seriously. This is not some aside that’s happened in his life. It’s changed his life completely. And he knew that. But he went to work and sat in his chair with no makeup on and gave the two best takes. Both takes are in the movie, the most important scene in the film. It just brought me to tears, it’s such an extraordinary performance. Then he sat there and did 30 takes for Anton’s side. It’s the father-son scene at the end, the reconciliation scene in the hospital. The original scene you couldn’t hear anything, because Obama was flying into the city. They diverted every airplane over our location. It was also a five-page long scene. We changed it to a quieter location, inside. We shot in the Bronx. And it ended up being three lines of dialogue. He did that then I put my arms around him and he got on the plane and left.

Q: You’re so loyal to Mel. Don’t you ever get angry at him?
He’s part of my extended family. When somebody’s struggling, my first impulse is not to take the heel of my shoe and smash him into the ground. My first impulse is to put my hands around him and say it’s going to be okay, even though it’s probably not going to be okay. Look, I’m a celebrity and I’ve spent my entire life in front of the public eye, since I was three years old. And I’ve had to do a lot of awkward fighting to have a life that didn’t feel like a reality show, as has he. You can think what you think about Mel Gibson but he’s not Lindsay Lohan. He’s a very private man who has a lot of children that he’s raised who are great kids. He’s made extraordinary films as a filmmaker. He has deep long-lasting friendships, he is the most beloved person professionally you will ever meet. It’s him and Chow Yun Fat— those are the two. He’s just an incredibly good friend, loyal and interesting. That’s the man that I know.

Q: It sounds like you are a pretty good friend.
Yeah, but we have a lot in common. We have everything in common. He’s been in the business since he was 20 years sold and was jettisoned into being an icon, a real star. But he doesn’t have that personality at all. He’s the kind of guy who seems like he must have been really unattractive, and that’s why he has that personality about women—“C’mon let me tell you a joke about boogers!” He does not have the personality of a guy who is a star. He’s a real person, and he’s gone through a lot of struggles to be a real person.

Q: Do you argue about politics?
You’d be surprised politically. What people think about him is not always true. He’s a pacifist. He doesn’t believe in war.

Q: Which is odd given he’s made some of the most violent movies ever.
His viking movie, he says, “This is going to top any violence you’ve ever seen.” He’s fascinated by violence.

Q: What’s it like being married to him in the movie?
Fantastic. We both work the same way. So we’re not neurotic about our acting. We make our decisions ahead of time. Although I consider myself instinctual, he’s more instinctual than I am. I think things through more than he does. He’s much more facile at turning it on and turning it off than I am. We’re the two-take people. We like to get in there and do it and leave.

Q: Who’s more of a method actor?
I never know what that means—being method actors. Maybe because I didn’t go to Julliard. I didn’t read the books. Mel and I both do the same thing. We need to relax and de-focus. Because when we focus, we can only focus for short bursts of time. It’s very important to drink cappuccinos and make jokes. It’s a release, so when they do say action, we can focus again. A lot of actors have trouble with that.

Q: But you’re in strange waters here, in a threesome with a puppet. There must have been a lot of jokes.
When films take a long time, you get bored. He’s very quickly bored because he’s a smart guy. He needs constant stimulation. When he gets bored he has to come up with things to entertain himself. But in this film he didn’t have time to be bored because it was a 42-day shoot and he had massive dialogue, in an accent with a puppet on his hand.

Q: Where did he get the accent? Michael Caine? Bob Hoskins?
A: Ray Winstone. Every now and then he’d call up Ray and say, “Talk to me, talk to me!”

Q: It’s a movie about depression. Does Mel suffer from depression?
That’s something you’d have to talk to him about.

Q: He’s not doing a lot of talking.
And he’s never going to be comfortable with sharing his private feelings and processes with strangers. That’s not who he is. And even I am not like that either but I can figure out a way to get better at it. In the film we talk about a broad variety of depression. He has chemical depression which needs drugs, talk therapy and time alone. He’s not depressed because something bad happened to him. Then you have the other end of spectrum, which is sadness. We all experience some form of depression at some point in our life. Whether we can get out of the loop is another question. There’s some helpful evolution to what depression brings us. I’ve found a word I really love: “excessive rumination.” Looking at a problem from all angles, and asking questions over and over, and not just trying to escape it. That’s a certain kind of personality that is attracted to depression and uses that as way to process a spiritual crisis and move through it in a way that’s far more evolved and much better for your emotional and physical health.

Q. Did this movie help Mel process his crisis?
I don’t know. I have no idea. I know that he’s proud of the work that he did and he feels it’s truthful and real. And I know that he trusted me. And he should trust me. Because I believe that who he truly is is beautiful, including his flaws, and that it’s important to talk about the side of him that struggles.

Q: Did you have a fight to cast Mel Gibson?
I don’t know if it was a fight, but there were a whole bunch of reasons people didn’t want to make the movie. If the movie was starring Johnny Depp, and [if there wasn’t a scene of grisly violence], if it was not really about depression but about a puppet, I think a lot of people would have been in line to make the film. All those things made the film a tough sell. The last distributor standing was Summit. They said, ‘We love Mel Gibson and we like that scene and we think the tone of the film should be mostly dramatic.’

Q: Was there any thought of changing the puppet from a beaver? It does have certain connotations, and I’m not just talking about Canadian nationhood . . .
It was always a beaver. There were symbolic things why a beaver works for us. A beaver makes things and destroys them. The woodworking was always a part of the plot. In some ways that informs the creative basis for him in a toy company, getting back to that childhood fascination with working with your hands and creating something. But we can do the sequel with a kangaroo.

Q: You’ve been talking about this film a lot. You know that Mel’s story overshadows the film’s story. Is it frustrating for you to be talking for Mel?
It’s not frustrating now but I’m sure at some point I’ll crawl up in a ball. At some point it will hit me, probably in a week and half. I don’t know. That’s my weird personality.

Q: Do you think this film can redeem him?
I don’t think so. I don’t think he focuses on that. Maybe he does privately. But he’s never mentioned it. He’s said, “Look, I don’t ever have to act again.” And I understand where he’s coming from because I’ve worked for 45 years as an actor and I say that a lot, and he and I both say that a lot. The only reason for him to act is because it moves him. He’s hit every goal, he’s done everything you’re supposed to do as an actor. He is 54 years old and he’s an amazing director. He can tell stories in other ways. The baggage and the sacrifices and the hypocrisy that comes with the business of being a celebrity wears on you. And you do get to a point where if you’re anybody who has any foundation as a person it gets harder and harder to do.

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