Interview: Jodie Foster, actress in The Beaver

IN A seventh floor Cannes hotel suite, it's just after 2pm when Jodie Foster arrives for our interview.

Dressed in a chic silver-grey dress and sandals, the actress promptly sits down and counts out a handful of capsules – 11 in total – from a white plastic container. Laying them out on the table in front of her, she glances up from her task, realising this might look a little strange. "Sorry, it's after lunch," she shrugs. "I just ate, but you're supposed to take your vitamins after you eat." She sees a look of bemusement cross my face. "I know, you don't. We're Americans – we're crazy about stuff like that."

Maybe she's discovered the secret to Hollywood longevity, in pill form. After all, at 48, the two-time Oscar winner has been on screen for all but the first three years of her life. Echoing many of her characters, she's proved herself a survivor, navigating that awkward transition from child starlet to adult actress (and the even more difficult phase when Hollywood sets adrift women approaching their middle age).

She's endured the unerring attentions of the media – speculation over her sexuality and unanswered questions over the identity of the father of her two children. And the more direct swarm she faced when, in 1981, John Hinckley Jnr shot President Ronald Reagan, claiming it was to impress her – the first of several stalkers she has faced.

Then again, you might think these pills were for indigestion, after the latest grilling she's just been given by the world's press. The day before, her third film as director, The Beaver, played out of competition at the Cannes Film Festival. Arriving on the French Riviera off the back of a disastrous opening in the US, the film took just over $100,000 on its opening weekend (and after a month on release, it's yet to gross over $1 million in America). While it may be a non-commercial story – a man suffering from deep depression takes to communicating via a beaver hand puppet – it doesn't take a financial analyst to work out what went wrong. Two words: Mel Gibson.

A virtual Hollywood pariah, following an assortment of racist, homophobic and anti-Semitic remarks he is alleged to have made over the past few years, Gibson's presence as the film's star has been its kiss of death. Understandably, Foster undertook the official press conference without him.

"He won't be talking," she piped up, "but he'll be here." Given what happens every time he opens his mouth, that was probably no bad thing. And, good to his word, Gibson flew in to walk the red carpet, hand-in-hand, with an elegant Armani-clad Foster. Having previously appeared together on screen in 1994's good-natured western Maverick, rarely has a Hollywood friendship looked more genuine or more supportive.

Still, it leaves Foster with the very difficult task of defending Gibson where so many others have walked away. "I'm not responsible," she sighs. "I can't excuse Mel's behaviour. Only he can explain that. We're all responsible for our own behaviour. But I do know the man that I know. He's been a friend for many, many years – and somebody who is probably the most loved actor in Hollywood that I can think of.

"As a friend, he is kind and loyal and thoughtful and I can spend hours on the phone with him, talking about life. And he's complex – and I appreciate his complexity and what his complexity brings to his work. This is an extraordinary performance and I am nothing but grateful for that."

Indeed, whatever the critical reaction, Gibson's performance gnaws close to the bone. He plays Walter Black – husband, father of two and CEO of a floundering toy company who begins the film by failing to commit suicide in a grubby hotel bathroom. When he wakes, he finds a discarded toy puppet. In a moment of madness – or is that sanity? – he slips it on and starts up a ventriloquist act like no other.

Subjugating his own personality, Black starts to let the beaver take over, speaking for him in a Cockney accent that sounds like Gibson is channelling his Edge of Darkness co-star Ray Winstone. Returning to his wife (played by Foster), and led by his furry friend, he starts to try and piece his life back together.

As films go, it's hit and miss, swinging between black-as-night comedy and a sentimental celebration of the nuclear American family. But as a portrait of Mel Gibson ... now that's a different matter. While his performances have frequently verged on insanity (from Mad Max to Lethal Weapon), Gibson undoubtedly recognised something of himself in the schizophrenic Black.

"I think he understood the complexity of the character and really understood a film about a man who's suffering, and who is struggling with wanting to change and wanting to be different than he is – the self-hatred of it," says Foster. "I am grateful that he was willing to be so open to playing something in such a raw way."

If Foster notes it was "therapeutic" for Gibson to examine these issues, she has her own reasons for being drawn to The Beaver. "I've known a lot of people who were depressed, and there was a lot of depression in my family," she says. "I think the film explores it without looking at it like a disease movie."

While this may be new ground for her, family has always been a key theme, at least in the three films she has directed. Little Man Tate (1992) was a warm, intimate film about a child prodigy and his working-class mother. Her second movie, Home for the Holidays (1995), was a comedy set around a nightmarish Thanksgiving. Even Flora Plum, a film she's tried repeatedly to get off the ground (and the reason it's been 16 years since she directed), was a story about a surrogate clan in a 1940s circus.

"I'm sure I will make another movie that's nothing to do with family," she grins. "But I love psychology. I will always love psychology and the basis of psychology is family." Foster then starts analysing her own work. "I think this film (The Beaver] is a much more mature movie than my other two films – of course, because I'm older and I've done stuff.

"All the movies that I make in some ways have to be the story of my life. There are different chapters in my life. Interestingly, my first film was about a child prodigy. My second movie was about being in your thirties, between a relationship with your children and a relationship with your family. And this is about a middle-aged man. So in a way it's almost a trilogy."

So how does Walter Black's meltdown relate to Foster's own life? "Oh, everything!" she cries. "I mean, everything. I make movies about people in spiritual crisis because it's a way for me to spend the time, the energy, the focus and the obsession to come to terms with my own spiritual crisis."

Quite what her own spiritual crisis is, Foster won't say. Four years ago, when she collected an award at a bash entitled Women In Entertainment, she let her guard down in her acceptance speech. "I feel fragile, unsure, struggling to figure it all out, trying to get there even though I'm not sure where 'there' is," she said, noting there was no way you could be in Hollywood for as long as she had "and not be as nutty as a fruitcake".

It was in the same speech that she famously praised Cydney Bernard "who sticks with me through all the rotten and the bliss". They met on Sommersby in 1993 and were said to be together for the following 14 years, during which time Foster gave birth to Charles, now 12, and Kit, nine (with the father remaining anonymous). Yet Foster had never publicly acknowledged their relationship, at least until her emotional speech, nor commented in any way on her sexuality, leaving the tabloids to speculate in her wake.

Three years ago, she was said to have split from Bernard, hooking up – for a year at least – with Cynthia Mort, one of several writers on the 2007 Neil Jordan thriller The Brave One, in which Foster starred.

Perhaps it's no surprise that Foster found companionship from within the film industry, for it's truly all she knows. Born in 1962 in Los Angeles, as Alicia Christian Foster, her mother Evelyn (known as Brandy) worked for a film producer, initially taking her older brother Buddy to a series of auditions. When the three-year-old Foster was dragged along to one, she was spotted by some advertising executives, scouting for a face to promote Coppertone suntan lotion. Cast as the Coppertone girl, she would make nearly 40 commercials in the next five years alone; by the time this came to an end, she had already made her TV debut, starring alongside Buddy in wholesome serial Maybury RFD.

A glut of bit parts followed, in everything from Bonanza to The Partridge Family and Ironside, but Foster refuses to see herself like the gifted boy in Little Man Tate. "I wasn't a science prodigy or a math prodigy," she says. "I had a prodigious life, living in a grown-up world when I was a child. But I think my abilities were about perceptiveness and they were about examining psychology and examining people and relationships. And I had instincts about adult stories that I shouldn't have known anything about. That's very different to all those really cool prodigies that can play piano. But I wouldn't change it for anything. I found, at a very young age, even though it's not my personality to be an actor, a way of expressing myself that allowed me to not be so lonely."

At the time, her mother was her manager. "I think my mom and I were very lucky. We got through it OK and she was very careful to not exploit the situation. But I don't think it's healthy," she adds, referring to the dangers of child stardom. Indeed, her brother Buddy is the perfect example. By the time Foster was receiving her first Oscar nod – at the age of 14 – for her role as a teen prostitute in Martin Scorsese's Taxi Driver, his star was on the wane. Two decades later, he published Foster Child, an unauthorised biography of his sister that lay into their mother, accusing her – among other things – of frittering away their childhood earnings.

Foster, who also has two older sisters, called it "a cheap cry for attention and money" – though it must've been heartbreaking for an actress who guards her privacy with such remarkable fortitude to see a version of her upbringing regurgitated by a family member. Her childhood was certainly unconventional: her father, Lucius, a former Air Force lieutenant colonel turned real estate broker, had left her mother when she was pregnant with Foster. Brandy, in turn, had a live-in lover – Josephine Dominguez – known as 'Auntie Jo' (which, according to legend, inspired Foster's own sibling-invented nickname, Jodie – or Jo D).

For all the talk that Foster refuses to discuss her private life, she doesn't completely shut down if you broach it. For instance, when I ask about specific characteristics she inherited from her parents.

"Gosh," she exclaims. "So many things. I don't know my father, but apparently, my father is witty and has a great ear for languages. So clearly that seems to be what I can do, because I can talk and talk and talk and talk." Certainly, this is true, for Foster has been fluent in French since the age of 14, after attending the Lyce Franais (a French-speaking high school in Los Angeles). "My mom ... I think my mom, she just loves art, I think. I think she's incredibly passionate about art. And she's strong. A strong lady."

Strong women are Foster's speciality, of course, going right back to Iris in Taxi Driver. Her two Oscar-winning turns cemented this. In 1988's The Accused, she was a rape victim who enlists a female prosecutor to take on the men who cheered her attackers. And, three years later, in The Silence of the Lambs, she was the rookie FBI Agent Clarice Starling who confronted the educated serial killer Hannibal Lecter. "I played a lot of brave mothers and pillars of strength," she acknowledges. "That's been my experience of women in families, (that] the women are pillars of strength, which is not the way usually films go. But that must be my experience I think. That must be how I see them."

Foster has not given up on this niche; in fact, it's carried her through the last decade, as her work-rate has deliberately slowed down. Panic Room saw her play a mother who is forced to protect her daughter when three burglars raid her New York home. The Brave One cast her as a woman traumatised by an attack in Central Park who becomes a vigilante. The more mainstream thriller Flightplan sees Foster as another mother, searching for her kidnapped daughter on a commercial plane, while Spike Lee's bank robbery saga Inside Man cast her as an iron-willed 'fixer'. Indeed, it was more surprising when she turned up as a children's writer in her last movie, the 2008 adventure yarn Nim's Island.

After closing down her company Egg Productions in 2001, Foster has become far more selective in her middle years – another reason to account for her longevity. "I'm just pickier now," she confesses. "It is a big sacrifice to leave home. I want to make sure that I feel passionate about the movies I do because it is a big sacrifice. I don't know how actors do film after film. I don't know how and I don't know why. Even if you take the average movie shoot of four months – you have three weeks' prep, press duties here and abroad, dubbing and looping, magazine covers, events and premieres – that's eight months out of a year. That's a long time. If you do two movies back-to-back, you're never going to see your children."

I ask how she likes to switch off and relax. "How do I relax?" she says, a little taken aback. "I do stupid things. I go see movies. Movies are relaxing to me. This is my work. But my life is different. I'm actually pretty good at relaxing. I like to watch (American] football at the weekends. I know, it's terrible – it really is terrible. It's horrible.

But I love it. I can't help it. I wish I wasn't watching it, because we should not support it. But it's fantastic."

What team do you support? "Ah, I flip around. I think we all flip around." It certainly conjures an enduring image: the petite 5ft 3in Foster roaring her approval at a touchdown.

After finishing The Beaver, Foster went off and acted for Roman Polanski in the forthcoming Carnage, a real-time drama based on a Tony-winning play. In August, she starts work on Elysium, the new sci-fi thriller from the director of District 9. By her standards, it's a prolific period. "I think I will always act," she says. "I can't escape it really. I can't imagine I would stop acting after 45 years." For her, it offers a "completely solitary experience" that she lives for. "It belongs to no-one else but me," she says, "and no-one else can take it away."

The Beaver is on general release from Friday