Living is best method

Actress says maturing helps enhance her performance

September 23, 2005|By Chris Kaltenbach | Chris Kaltenbach,Sun Movie Critic

For Jodie Foster, it's all about transformation.

That's what attracted her to the role of Kyle Pratt in Flightplan, her first American movie in three years. The two-time Oscar-winning actress plays a widow whose claims that her daughter has disappeared during a trans-Atlantic flight are met with skepticism and then denial by the flight crew.

Foster says what drew her to Flightplan, which opens today, was the opportunity to portray Kyle first as a coldly analytical career woman, then as a self-doubting, possibly delusional widow, then as a fiercely determined and protective mother, all in the space of 88 minutes.

"You don't usually get to really follow a character that changes in such a short period of time," Foster says over the phone from her Los Angeles office. "It's a wonderful transition in a short period of time: Somebody going from one end of the spectrum to exactly the opposite."

Perhaps her fondness for dramatic shifts shouldn't come as a surprise. Since she was 10, Foster has transformed herself time and again on movie screens. At 13, she played a preteen hooker in Martin Scorsese's Taxi Driver. At 26, she played a victim of gang rape in The Accused, earning an Oscar for her portrayal of a hard-drinking party girl who demands justice. Three years later, Foster earned a second Oscar, for her performance as Clarice Starling in The Silence of the Lambs. She played a rookie FBI agent that matches wits with the demonic Hannibal Lecter.

Since the Oscar wins, Foster's roles have included a 19th-century schoolteacher in Anna and the King; a successful, if emotionally remote, astronomer in Contact; a wild child with her own language in Nell.

And if her latest on-screen metamorphosis, into the ferocious mother of Flightplan, seems more deeply rooted in her own experiences than most of her previous roles, Foster, the mother of boys ages 6 and 3, is unconvinced. It is less her real-life role as a mother that enhanced her performance, she insists, than her maturation as a person.

"As you get older, your life gets richer, your face gets more expressive and more lined, you've lived more things and so there's a lot more that you bring to the process," she says.

"I'm looking forward to being an actor when I'm 72 or 73, and I've got a face that's got the lines, and I can play those parts Simone Signoret played when she was older. I think those parts are really rich, and I might be the only actress out there who isn't all, like, injected and stuff."

Whatever the future brings, Foster trusts her instincts; they've helped her become one of cinema's most-honored actresses, not to mention one of the best paid (she reportedly received $12 million for 2002's Panic Room). And they're what she depends upon to master her craft.

"I didn't go to Juilliard, I don't have a really good vocabulary about all this stuff," the Yale graduate says. "I heard a director say this to a child actor I was working with - he said, `Now, all you do is say the words, do the gestures and feel the feelings.'

"Honestly, beyond that, everything else is something to keep you from being distracted. If you can say the words and do the gestures, what else is there?"

A lot, it seems. In the opening shot of Flightplan, Foster stands before her husband's coffin. The despair and anguish on her face communicates, without words, Kyle's devastating sense of loss. Surely, Foster drew upon a personal experience to convey such emotion so convincingly?

"I don't know," she says slowly. "I'm not good at explaining it. However, if you asked me, `why did my character take a swig of that drink on that line?' I could probably give you 50 pages of reasons, but they're not reasons that I carry with me in the front of my face. I carry them behind my head. I pluck them out when I need to, like if someone asks me the question, but in general it's something that I carry unconsciously."

Foster's long career naturally has produced a large and varied body of work, a fact that was brought home to Foster when she realized her TiVo recorder could be programmed to list coming TV programs by star. When she entered her name, she discovered early episodes of Gunsmoke, Nanny and the Professor, "all these funny little shows I did when I was 5 or 6 years old."

She found it all fascinating. Her sons found it hilarious.

"[In] one scene the kids are watching, there's all these grown-ups talking. It's a Western, and I'm just sitting there. And, of course, I start picking my nose. Of course, the kids, they just want to see that over and over again."

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