The best way to describe Jodie Foster's singular brand of beauty is bird-like--large eyes, sharp nose, a concentrated mouth, a tiny frame. She contains a fierce intelligence which compels her to talk a mile a minute. The tom-boyishness of her childhood movie performances returns even as she riffs eloquent on any topic.
This same mixture of grittiness and grace should cause many moviegoers to romanticize the title character she plays in Nell, an innocent who grows up separated from civilization in the North Carolina backwoods. But Foster herself has no illusions about the role.
"Nell is a very neurotic woman," she said in a recent interview with Dallas Observer. "The attachment she keeps to [two dead] people in her life is the very thing [co-stars Liam Neeson and Natasha Richardson] want to kill, unbeknownst to them. She becomes a sort of role model for this man [Neeson's character], who wants to learn how to be alone and not need anyone. The truth is, Nell is the most entirely dependent person. She lives on this ideal love, a kind of symbiotic love we say is unhealthy and that she was supposed to sever at an early age."
Step by step Foster recounts the research and internal mechanics of prepping for a performance that, for the most part, betrays little premeditation on the part of the actress. The role, Foster says, "was easy to architect. It was a process of accumulating the impressions other people have of Nell, and then paring away, paring away, paring away."
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When the conversation turns to expectations placed on the careers of high-profile actresses, Foster criticizes the progressive backlash against so-called "victim" roles: "I'm not interested in depicting women who don't exist. For better or worse, victimhood is a big part of the history of female experience. I don't see it as just playing a character who's tied to the train tracks so the guy can have a fun thing to do. The fact is, there's an interesting path for people who've endured traumatic hardships. If I was a black actor, and I decided to only play doctors and lawyers, I'd be missing out on an enormous history that is about minority status, that is about defining yourself as Other. What's my alternative--fantasy women in gladiator western wear who go around shooting guys? As a woman, am I supposed to want to emulate that? I don't."
At the same time, the actress insists she's only played two victims (in Taxi Driver and The Accused), and proudly points to her role in Silence of the Lambs as "a woman who saves female victims."
That film, Foster says, is "an interesting variation on the hero quest, a traditionally male domain in folklore. It follows the model right down the line. A hero with a mentor, looking for a panacea for the illness which plagues his country, discovers there's stuff about himself he has to know before he slays the dragon--except here the hero is a woman."