It’s been 17 years since Jodie Foster and Mel Gibson worked together in the successful western Maverick. They have now reunited in a most unusual project, The Beaver, directed by Foster, in which they star as husband and wife, Walter and Meredith Black.
Walter was a successful toy executive and family man who now suffers from a debilitating depression. No matter what he tries he can’t get himself back on track… that is, until he discovers a beaver hand puppet in the garbage. Putting it on his hand, he lets the beaver talk for him.
I spoke with Jodie Foster about this challenging subject and her co-star whose personal problems have been making headlines around the world.
After Little Man Tate you said you would never act and direct in the same film again.
I know, that’s so dumb, why’d I do that?
What is it that prompted you to put yourself in front of and behind the camera again?
Mel and I talk about that a lot because he said after Man Without a Face, “I’m never acting and directing again in a movie.”
He went and did Braveheart. Braveheart was also a very difficult performance, he had extensions in his hair, full on makeup and he was in every scene. It was crazy for him to have acted in that film.
I don’t find acting and directing schizophrenic in any way. I find it completely easy to move between the two. There are a couple of liabilities: one is, it’s very difficult on your relationship with the other actors, so you have to know the other actors.
I knew Mel; he’s a completely un-neurotic actor, so I knew that that wouldn’t be a problem. [The second] thing is, you often don’t get choices from yourself that you might have gotten from another actor.
What made you go with Mel Gibson for this character?
He’s an amazing actor. I loved working with him. He and Chow Yun Fat are my two favorite actors I’ve ever worked with. I knew that he had a combination of the lightness and wit that the character needed, that he would also really understand the struggle and want to go to a deeper place, mostly just because I know him, and I know how his psyche works.
>Did you have to fight with the studio to use him?
Summit really loved Mel for the part and was incredibly supportive of him and also supportive of the script that we had; they didn’t ask for material changes.
Why a beaver? I’m assuming it could have been other animals, was it the metaphor of the building?
It could have been a different animal, but I think there’s something great about the industrious beaver who creates things and then destroys them. They are also woodland creatures.
There was something about working in wood, about creativity, that it brought Walter back into working with his hands and being creative, which is how he lost his vitality in the first place, by losing that creativity.
Can you talk about choosing the right puppet?
We talked about the whole spectrum of what the puppet could be; it could be as abstract as it was concrete, and then there’s stuff in the middle. In the midst of that there were a few things that we knew that we wanted. We wanted him to have a childlike quality to it.
We knew that we wanted him to be malleable so that you could see the hand underneath and that you always knew there was a man manipulating it.
We knew that we wanted the audience to be aware it was a prop; that this was not a person, or a character.
It was a prop that was being handled by a man who was suffering.
What about the voice? He’s such a strong character.
The voice was all Mel. The accent was written in the script-
No, just in English, we didn’t say Cockney. We turned it into more blue collar, because that felt right as a alter ego to a rich man who’s had everything handed down to him, to have a blue collar puppet who is a leader, who’s somewhat remote from his emotions, who’s vital, and who has a kind of testosterone about him.
We didn’t want him to be warm and fuzzy. I think we wanted him to be menacing in some ways and to have a real strength of character, and Mel really brought it to the process.
Was there any decision upfront about which hand Mel was going to use? He’s left-handed, isn’t he?
Nope. He’s right-handed.
Was that his choice or your choice to have him use the left hand?
That was my choice. He would have loved to have had the puppet on his right hand, but we needed him to do things like open doors or shake hands. We needed him to do a whole bunch of stuff with his right hand, so we needed the puppet to be on his left.
Do you think the movie and Mel’s performance can help him reconcile with the audience?
Oh, I have no idea. As far as priorities and problems in his life, I would say that’s at least third or fourth on the list. He’s got other things that he has to handle first.
Look, he’s an amazingly talented man and a great filmmaker, and he will find a way to tell stories, because he’s one of the greatest filmmakers we have.
I think I’m more excited to see what he’s going to do next as a director. He’ll find a way, even if he’s holding a boom microphone.