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Jodie Foster goes to college

Jodie Foster in "Foxes."

LOS ANGELES - I'm not surprised that Jodie Foster is going to college - to Yale, if she's admitted. Other 17-year-old actresses might want to stay in Hollywood, do three pictures a year and try for a television series. But I've got a hunch that Jodie Foster is different, and she needs all the higher education she can get, because in her 20s she is going to do extraordinary things in the movie business.

I've talked with Jodie twice this year - in a health food restaurant in Los Angeles and at the USA Film Festival in Dallas - but my notions about her future began to take shape four years ago, when she was 13 and visiting the Cannes Film Festival. She had just starred as a child prostitute in "Taxi Driver," a role that would win her an Academy Award nomination, and now she was sitting behind a long table at a chaotic Cannes press conference.

The movie had been controversial. The president of the festival jury, Tennessee Williams, already had vowed that it would win a prize only over his dead body (it won the Grand Prix; Williams lived). The key people at the press conference were Martin Scorsese, the film's director, and Paul Schrader, who wrote it. The French critics were lobbing complex philosophical questions at them in French, and then the English-language translators were wading in, and everyone was getting nicely confused.

Someone finally condescended to ask a question of the little girl down at the end of the table - the one, you might assume, who'd been brought along to France as a treat, along with all the ice cream she could eat. The translator grabbed for the microphone, but Jodie Foster waved him off and answered the question herself, in perfect French. There was an astonished round of applause: At last, an American who spoke French! And less than 5 feet tall!

Jodie Foster has grown a little since then, although she still seems surprisingly small in person, and certainly smaller than the movie characters she plays with such authority. She is a very intelligent, no-nonsense young actress with a disarming way of claiming she doesn't really do anything to prepare for her roles:

"I'm a technician. I don't go for the get-into-the-role stuff. I read the lines and play the scenes. Any actor working a long time should know how a shot is set up, where to place themselves, how to handle the lines. I'm a member of the crew, like the best boy, the electrician. What I'm good at is making eyes at the camera."

But can that really be true? She had a difficult scene in "Taxi Driver," opposite Robert De Niro. She was spreading an amazing amount of jam onto a slice of toast, and talking to him about why she'd run away from home, and why she liked her pimp, and why De Niro did not understand the life she was leading. Scorsese says the scene was mostly improvised.

"Yeah," Jodie said. "I improvised all my dialogue in that scene. It just sorta seemed to work. De Niro is imposing to work with, but he's such a good actor. I knew whatever I was trying to do, he'd be right there with me in the scene."

But how could you get that deeply into a character and still claim to be only a technician?

"Well, the key thing was to realize she wasn't really a prostitute, she was a runaway, and her pimp represented security to her. De Niro saw it from the point of view that the pimp was exploiting her, and so she was trying to straighten him out."

And you understood that at 13?

"Thirteen-year-olds know all about running away from home, in theory, anyway. Another actress might have tried to play on the woman-child angle, for sympathy. I wanted the character to seem more like a whore, even if she was really just a runaway. People sympathize more with a kid pretending to be tough than with a kid playing vulnerable."

Jodie Foster's career has had her playing a lot of other tough roles in her teens. Hollywood movies have changed since Shirley Temple was Little Miss Marker, and Jodie's roles (after an early start in the 1973 "Tom Sawyer") have included not only "Taxi Driver's" prostitute, but also a gun moll (in "Bugsy Malone," an all-kid gangster movie), a girl who conceals her mother's corpse and kills people (in "The Little Girl Who Lives Down the Lane"), a carnival sexpot (in the forthcoming "Carny"), and now, in "Foxes," which opens Friday in Chicago, the ringleader of a quartet of rebellious teenage girls from the San Fernando Valley.

The movie's four foxes lead lives that were inspired by actual teenagers in the valley, that vast middle-class sprawl across the mountains from the glitter of Hollywood, Los Angeles and Beverly Hills.

One of the kids in the movie is a former hooker, now on probation, who has a habit of going back to Hollywood Boulevard to check on her old friends. Another kid is in love with a 29-year-old. Another one drinks too much and, rebels against her smothering mother.

And then there's the Jodie Foster character, the only one with a level head. She's kind of the mother hen. She sees what the others are doing wrong. She's wise and self-possessed enough not to make their mistakes, but she is just a kid, too, and so she needs the security of the pseudo-family they've created. While their assorted parents screw up their own lives, the kids sleep over at each other's houses, inhabit rock concerts, smoke dope, and survive lifestyles that look, to adults, disturbingly dangerous.

I asked Jodie about those kids: Did she live like that? Did she know kids who did?

"Kids who do, sure. It's impossible to live in Los Angeles and not know a lot of kids like that. But my own experiences are nothing like that. I've led a sheltered childhood. I don't live that way. I go to private school, the Elysee Francais, out in the valley. It's not like the public school in the movie. We wear uniforms, for example. When school's out at 5 o'clock, that's it. You go home. It's a lot more serious. But the kids in the movie...I can understand them completely. They're not bad guys; they're victims. If people see 'Foxes' and say they're just noisy, rotten kids smoking grass and going to concerts, they'll miss the point."

She was quiet for a second, trying to analyze these 16-year-old kids whose lives were so different from her own.

"You have the feeling, almost...that their characters were formed from the beginning. That one of them, my character, will make it, but that the others might be pretty much wasted. It's like that with a lot of my acquaintances. It's very common to meet a girl who's going to get married when she's 16 and nothing can stop her. You run into that 25,000 times a day. It has a lot to do with California...They think they're missing something staying in school. They live in their cars. LA is Disneyland on wheels. It's a very LA sort of thing to say, 'I've been sleeping in my car for three days.'"

Have you ever slept in your car for three days?

"It's tough. I drive a Jeep."

We were having this conversation in a health food restaurant on Sunset Strip, where a heavy meal ran toward a double order of alfalfa sprouts. Jodie ordered whole-wheat English muffin and no coffee - she doesn't touch it. It was 10 o'clock on a Saturday morning and she was on her way to play tennis with a friend. I asked her what her life was like.

"I live at home in the valley with my mother. I have two older sisters and an older brother. My mother manages my career, and we're very close. No generation gap. I can talk to her - and I do, all the time. I don't go out much. The friends I do have, I play tennis with, I go roller-skating with. Sometimes there's a little more variety. I'm going to a mosque tomorrow to eat East African food.

"I don't see myself getting married much before I'm 26. 1 won't have the time, and, besides, I'm not mature enough to be nice to anyone else. I like being alone, without anyone to bother me. What if I got married to someone who wouldn't let me lock myself in my room for six days and read?

"I read more than I do anything else, probably. I read about three books a week. I'm reading a lot of James Joyce right now...Portrait of the Artist as a Young Man. I like all of Zola. I even like Milton a little. The problem in Los Angeles, in the movie business, is that people act like everything is 16-mm and 35-mm and the rest is desert. I love people who talk fast, and so Los Angeles gets a little stifling...most people don't have a lot to say. But I love the way L A. leaves you alone. I can go home, read all day, and nobody bugs me.

"But just so I don't start taking LA seriously. I've gotten to travel a lot. My family lived in France for nine months while I was making a movie over there that nobody's ever heard of. I've seen every place right...not as a bad tourist, not as a child, not as a film person walking into someplace wearing jeans and embarrassing everyone, but as somebody living there for a while and soaking it in."

Is that how you want college to be?

"Yeah. Definitely. And I want to go East to school because things are so much different there. School is different there. Going to Berkeley or USC world be like not leaving home."

You're thinking of Yale?

"I visited several of the Ivy League campuses, and I liked Yale the best. Yale boys aren't your obnoxious rah-rah types. Harvard was too polite for me; I think they brought out all the polite people. Princeton was...too beautiful. The student rooms on campus at Yale have separate entrances, not like the big dorms on a lot of campuses. They even have coed rooms." She pondered that for a moment "Not that I'm sure I want to live in a coed room." She pondered that, and grinned. "On the other hand, I don't particularly want to be around a lot of girls, either. Summer camp was all right, and everything, but..."

What do you want to happen in the next five years?

"School, first and foremost. I don't think I'll take any film classes. Yale has a wonderful drama school, and I want to study that. I've never performed on a stage except once, at school. I played an old man. I want to take a lot of writing courses, literature. I'll probably wind up being an English major. I love books."

What about your career?

"One film a year, in the summer. I might take off one semester in the middle of college if a really good role comes along. I'd love to do a Woody Allen movie - who wouldn't? And a play produced by Joe Papp - who wouldn't? Apart from that, to be honest...I'm basically an ambitious sort of person, and I want to be the best. That's why I'll never give up acting, even it I get a Ph.D. in anthropology. Acting is what I'm good at."

Do you think, I asked, that being Jodie Foster is going to be hard for you in college? People knowing who you are? Being the famous freshman?

"I'm not that well-known," she said. "I'm not the only person who ever went to college. And, besides...being a little known is an advantage, because you don't have to go in saying Hi! to everyone and carefully explaining yourself, presenting yourself, which is basically what the first day of college is. If people have seen you in a movie, they feel they know you a little. My reputation in the movies is like having a little shadow running around with me and it's a nice shadow."

Roger Ebert

Roger Ebert was the film critic of the Chicago Sun-Times from 1967 until his death in 2013. In 1975, he won the Pulitzer Prize for distinguished criticism.

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