LOS ANGELES — As she has crisscrossed the country tirelessly promoting her latest directorial effort, “The Beaver,” Jodie Foster has been keeping in touch via text with Mel Gibson. When the star of your film is also your close friend and Hollywood’s leading persona non grata, the messages can get a tad awkward.
“Mel said, ‘I will be dragged through gravel for you,’” Foster said in Beverly Hills. “He’s been in Costa Rica. I texted him back, ‘I don’t want you to be dragged through gravel for me. Please do not.’”
Left hanging in the air is what, if anything, Foster does want from Gibson at this point. His personal scandals delayed the film’s release for months, prevented him from participating in the movie’s publicity and threatened to hijack the message of “The Beaver,” a tale of a toy company executive battling depression. Now a famously private feminist icon is in the strange position of making the rounds to defend a man who has become an industry pariah for his racist, sexist, anti-Semitic meltdowns.
Yet if she’s angry, sad or disappointed that Gibson’s problems have overshadowed her first work as a director in 15 years, Foster hides it well behind a kind of old-fashioned Hollywood omerta. “I grew up with the idea that the movie business is a family,” she said. “It’s like the mob. You don’t rat on your friends. Who you are in a business relationship is a reflection of who you are as an artist.”
Whether it’s a code of honor or maybe just the latest manifestation of the savvy that has kept Foster, 48, working in entertainment since age 3, it seems to be succeeding. Whatever their distaste for Gibson, moviegoers and critics appear willing to at least give “The Beaver” a chance.
After the film’s distributor, Summit Entertainment, delayed the movie’s fall 2010 release, Foster began quietly screening it for select press shortly after the new year, showing up in person to introduce it. In March, just five days after Gibson pleaded no contest to charges of domestic battery related to a 2010 altercation with his ex-girlfriend, she took “The Beaver” to Austin’s South by Southwest Film Festival, where its first public audience gave it a relatively warm embrace.
Early reviews have been more positive than negative. This week, “The Beaver” will debut in 10 theatrical markets including New York and Los Angeles before Foster takes the movie to the Cannes International Film Festival and the film expands to more theaters in the U.S. and abroad. It’s a gamble but one that the two-time Oscar winner may be uniquely equipped to pull off.
“Famous people always kind of have this air,” said Jennifer Lawrence, 20, who plays a friend of Gibson’s character’s son in the film and was nominated for an Oscar this year for “Winter’s Bone.” “They have this certain way of speaking ‘cause they’re used to everyone listening to them. Jodie doesn’t talk like that. There’s a pureness about the way she goes around in the world. As I watched her on set, I said this silent prayer, ‘Please let me be like that when I’m older. I don’t want to end up like one of those crazy famous people who go off the deep end.’”
Like Foster’s previous two films as a director, “Little Man Tate” and “Home for the Holidays,” “The Beaver” covers the messy terrain of family relationships. Gibson is Walter Black, a despondent husband and father who begins communicating through a furry beaver hand-puppet he rescues from the garbage. Besides directing, Foster also stars as Walter’s long-suffering wife, while “Star Trek’s” Anton Yelchin is his troubled teenage son, Porter.
Gibson and Foster became friends on the set of “Maverick” in 1994. In early 2009, nearly three years after Gibson was arrested for driving under the influence of alcohol and delivering an anti-Semitic tirade to a police officer, Foster approached him about playing the role of Walter in “The Beaver” by first-time screenwriter Kyle Killen. The screenplay, which had landed on Hollywood’s “Black List” of the top unproduced scripts in 2008, attracted Foster for its raw depiction of a family amid a catastrophe.
“I make movies that look inward, movies about the tragedy of family dynamics,” said Foster, whose father left her mother shortly before she was born. “But I’m a pretty well-adjusted person, and I just can’t cry in my soup about that.”
When Foster sent Gibson the “Beaver” script, he had just finished shooting the conspiracy thriller “Edge of Darkness,” which was released in 2010, but had not acted in a movie in theaters since 2003. His personal demons, which include alcoholism and bipolar disorder, did not deter Foster from casting him — they may have made him even more attractive for the role.
“Walter had to be somebody who could carry a puppet with a certain amount of charm and lightness,” said Foster. “But more importantly, somebody who could really understand that man’s struggles in a way that was visceral and authentic and worn and tired and deep. I just didn’t know anyone else who would be able to do both. And that’s what I know of Mel, not only as an actor but as a person.”
Foster’s casting of Gibson in a film that deals with mental illness — and contains one particularly disturbing scene of self-violence — posed challenges from the start.
“There was only one distributor that said yes to two things,” said Foster. “Yes (to the violent scene), and yes it’s Mel Gibson.” That company was Summit, which released the “Twilight” movies and the 2009 best picture Oscar winner “The Hurt Locker.”
By the time production got under way in New York in September 2009, Gibson had undertaken two wildly divergent tasks — the mechanics of puppeteering the beaver and voicing that comic character in a Cockney accent, and the art of expressing Walter’s pain.
“We rehearsed a cathartic moment,” Yelchin recalled. “We improvised. Mel talked, and I listened. He talked about a lot of pain and suffering, the combination of self-pity and self-loathing. You feel pain and then you feel bad for yourself.”
As a director who prefers to shoot only one or two takes, Foster was a good match for Gibson, who won an Oscar for directing “Braveheart” and who delivers emotional scenes in quick bursts of energy. “Mel and I work in the same way,” she said. “We’re people who focus intensely but for a short period of time. One minute he’s standing there making a joke. And then, bam! He’s in it. It’s all about concentration. What do you need to concentrate?”
During reshoots last summer Gibson confided in Foster about his problems with his ex-girlfriend, Oksana Grigorieva, which were about to go public when some racist and threatening voicemails Gibson had left her leaked online.
Foster said she considered Gibson’s problems “not that unusual. People have struggles in life. Most of us don’t have ours expressed on the Internet.”
Gibson’s agency fired him and actors on “Hangover 2” — who had worked with convicted rapist Mike Tyson in the first film — protested Gibson’s casting in a cameo scene. Foster, however, stuck by him.
“You couldn’t get two people who are more diametrically opposed on everything that they think about religion and politics than what we do,” Gibson said of Foster in an interview with freelance journalist Allison Hope Weiner, the only interview he has granted since the tapes were released. “But there is a core of goodness there that’s undeniable, and I just love her.”
For all the melodrama surrounding “The Beaver,” it appears both star and director may emerge from the film with their reputations burnished. Foster has walked the delicate line of supporting a friend and defending a pariah, while Gibson has reminded Hollywood he can act and still has the goodwill of friends in high places. Both have new projects in the works. Gibson has attached himself to a script by “Braveheart” writer Randall Wallace, even though he told Weiner he would be happy even if he never acted again.
“I haven’t really gotten the chance to tell Mel people like the movie,” said Foster. “He’s much more sensitive to his self-worth being about whether people go see his films or not than I am, maybe cause he’s had more success. It hurts him.”
As an actress, Foster just wrapped production on “Carnage,” Roman Polanski’s adaptation of the play “God of Carnage,” and will next appear as a head of state on an alien planet in “Elysium” from “District 9” director Neill Blomkamp. She said she hopes to direct again, perhaps branching into genre films. Whatever type of film she makes, Foster said, its characters will have to be complex. “My bad guys aren’t really bad guys, even if they start out that way,” she said. “I need to know why everybody is the way they are.”