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Q&A: 'The Beaver' director/star Jodie Foster on being scared of Anthony Hopkins and sticking by Mel Gibson

Since Jodie Foster’s now-25-year-old niece was a little girl, the two-time Oscar winner (“The Accused,” “The Silence of the Lambs”) has told her the same thing.

“If you ever kill a bunch of people in a 7-11 with a machine gun,” she said, “I want you to know that I will call the police, and I will visit you every day.”

Huh?

“When you love someone and they’re struggling, you don’t run away from them,” says Foster, 48. “You stand by their side.”

This philosophy could explain Foster’s fierce loyalty to her longtime friend Mel Gibson, who’s also the star of Foster’s third directorial effort, “The Beaver.” As Gibson has weathered numerous allegations of anti-Semitism, racism, sexism and more, Foster has defended his character and even reached out to the controversial actor to play, yes, a man with mental illness in “The Beaver.”

Gibson is Walter Black, a man whose depression leads him to reinvent his life while expressing himself through a beaver hand puppet, which generates cautiously optimistic support from his wife (Foster) and scorn from his son (Anton Yelchin).

At the Elysian Hotel, the native Los Angeles resident says she understands why the trailer for “The Beaver” (which is a fantastic movie) may make you think it looks terrible. “I think [the movie] has light stuff and it has dark stuff, and I think the trailer attempts to avoid what’s lightest and to avoid what’s darkest,” she says. “What it manages to do is go right in the middle. I think you would leave the trailer saying it’s heartwarming and earnest. And it’s not.”

So, why a beaver?
[Laughs.] That’s a good [question for writer Kyle Killen]. Beavers are industrious. They make things out of wood. And they destroy as readily as they build.

Then the movie wouldn’t work with a hamster or a hippo?
I think a hippo, it would be a whole new trajectory for him. It would be about going underwater and not being heard and not being seen. I think the beaver’s a good metaphor; it was a good animal to choose. My regret is that beavers have eyes on either side of their heads, and that makes them very difficult to [film]. So we had to create a beaver that has eyes on the front of its head.

I’m just worried about the beavers that will come to the theater and protest the anatomical inaccuracy.
Picketing? [Laughs]

You’ve said the movie is not a comedy, but it was still nice that it doesn’t have any sexually related jokes about, you know, beavers. Between this and “The Bang Bang Club,” which is about photographers in South Africa, people may go to the theater expecting something more salacious.
Well, we’ll take any $11 we can get. I like the double entendre because I feel like it’s irreverent, and I sort of feel like you know what, if you can have a sense of humor about that, then you should be able to see the damn movie. I like people’s faces when they say the name of the film.

You’ve said you’re attracted to stories of spiritual crises. Why is that?
Boy, good question. [Laughs.] I think because whatever spiritual crises I have in my life—and I have them periodically—I think have, through the cruelty of what that is, allowed me to evolve into being better.

What counts as a spiritual crisis? Does it have to be something big, or can it be, “I’m out of peanut butter.”
Uh, definitely not out of peanut butter. Although that would be sad! But, uh, I think it is small. I think they’re details, and they’re hard to translate and hard to explain to people, and I do a job that’s hard to explain to people. And what I’ve found is that creativity is the thing that gets you through it. It allows you to be vital; it allows you to live again.

About Mel Gibson’s performance you said, “He brought a lifetime of pain to the character that we’ve been talking about for years, that I knew was part of his psyche and who he is.” On some level do you think his personal struggles contributed to why he was right for the role?
Not his personal struggles, but I think anyone’s personal struggles, [people who are] willing to face them. He’s complex. There are all sorts of people that are not complex. Luckily he is, I think, and that’s what makes him a great actor.

How therapeutic do you think it is to be going through something personally and then play a character who’s also going through something emotionally grueling?
I think it is therapeutic. I think it’s an outlet to express who you are. It’s to communicate who you are. And the hardest thing, which I think the film talks about, the hardest thing about people who are suffering is that they are so isolated and they feel so alone and they’re not able to believe that if they expressed themselves that anyone will love them.

You’ve known Mel for a long time. After shooting, did you see a change as far as exorcising demons?
Did it help? [Laughs.] I don’t know. I felt so much closer to him after the movie was over because I had not seen him really get this before. And I had to look into the cutting room over and over again and be so grateful for that performance. It’s such a gift, it’s such a gift. I don’t know. I don’t know that. I think he’s the only one that can know that. I know that he has a lot of hard work to do, and he’s got a lot goin’ on.

Do you think it’s ever fair to view an artist based on what they do off-screen?
I don’t think it’s possible not to when it’s thrust in your face 24 hours a day. I don’t think it’s possible not to. There are things I just don’t want to know. I don’t really want to know what someone looks like in their underwear against their will. I liked knowing what somebody’s underwear looks like if they’re in front of me and I know them, but against their will it makes me feel dirty. It makes me feel like it’s none of my business and I don’t want to be there. I don’t know. I know that he is a great filmmaker, and he is a man that I love. That I know well. So I know an incredibly loyal, funny, giving, generous, smart guy who is probably the most beloved actor that I’ve ever worked with … Is that man truer or less true than who he is to his girlfriend when he’s being secretly taped? I don’t know. I can only know the man I know.

It’s a fascinating debate I’ve had with myself when thinking about how much people do or don’t forgive people like Michael Jackson and Chris Brown for their personal lives and if that impacts what you think of them as an artist.
I don’t know. I don’t know that you can compartmentalize. I don’t know. As I’ve said to Mel, “Look, the only reason for you to act is because it moves you. You don’t need it. You don’t have anything to prove to anyone.”

If a famous actor killed somebody, would that change perception? At what point is there a line that can’t be crossed?
I honestly don’t know. That’s a big, really enormous question right there. That’s a question for a desert island at some point for a few hours.

For the sequel to “Nim’s Island” then.
[Laughs.] There you go!

Who’s given you more nightmares over the years: Travis Bickle or Hannibal Lecter?
Neither of them have given me any nightmares.

You’ve never dreamt about them?
Not in a bad way, no.

In the dreams you’re just hanging out, playing tennis?
Yeah! Ping pong. [Laughs.] What scares me, though? I suppose there are movies that really scare me, but none of the movies that I’ve been in, because they’re completely demystified when you make them. I will say that Anthony Hopkins while we were shooting the movie scared me because we never really were able to talk very much. All of our scenes were eight pages and they were behind bars so they had to screw him in and screw him out. And one day we would do my side and one day we would do his side, so we didn’t have a lot of interaction, and I think the first day of the reading we got really scared of each other and we kinda never really talked to each other again. And he is such a nice man. Such a nice man. And it really wasn’t until the last day of shooting that we finally threw our arms around each other and said, “I was scared of you!” And he said, “I was scared of you!”

Plus:
What director taught her the most about directing: “I probably learned more from David Fincher than anybody. Best technician I’ve ever worked with and will ever work with in my life … And Neil Jordan, for opposite reasons. He’s a stream of consciousness guy and even though he is prepared emotionally and he knows everything of the world of the characters, he walks in the room and is sort of like, ‘What if there were 14 pygmies that walked by in this scene?’ And then suddenly people are like, ‘We have to find 14 pygmies! Where are we going to get them?’”
On her next directorial effort: “I know that whatever it is it’ll change my life, and it’ll be something that I have this personal connection to. There’s part of me that’s scared to find it right now because I’m tired. You know how that is? It’s like after you got divorced or something and you don’t want to meet someone and fall in love ‘cause you’re just like, ‘Oh, not that again! And I’m going to be calling them all the time and I’m going to be obsessed!’”
What goes through her head about Chicago: “All the stories [my mom, a Rockford native] told me when I was a kid about her being a kid during the war. They had rations and stuff and she would come to the big city and all the [women] would go out for dates with guys and she’d paint on her nylons and all those great stories.”
On her iPod right now: “I’m listening to all these bands that my son, he keeps downloading things on my iTunes and making me pay for them. He likes very—whiny is the wrong word—I think it’s very soulful but grungy hard rocking songs. He loves the Killers, which I love too. I found all this stuff from “Glee.” It’s like how did this get on there? “Glee” “Glee” “Glee”!

Watch Matt on “You & Me This Morning,” Fridays at 7 a.m. on WCIU, the U

mpais@tribune.com

Copyright © 2015, RedEye
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