Jodie Foster's 'The Mauritanian' Shows How 9/11 'Let Fear and Terror Discard the Rule of Law'

"We let fear and terror discard the rule of law and discard our own humanity."

Jodie Foster hasn't made many political films because they're not very entertaining to her.

"Everybody is born and then they die. There's nothing new about that."

But all that changed for the Oscar-winner with her latest film The Mauritanian (in theaters and streaming February 12), which tells the true story of Mohamedou Ould Salahi, who was held without being charged at Guantanamo Bay from 2002 until 2016 on allegations he was a member of Al-Qaeda.

Foster—who was just nominated for a Golden Globe for her performance in the film—plays Nancy Hollander, the defense attorney who fought for his release.

"We let fear and terror discard the rule of law and discard our own humanity."

Foster says it was the "first-person look at the life and the character of this Muslim man" that inspired her to do this film.

"We were all there to serve his story."

Of course, getting that story out was made more difficult because of the pandemic, the impact of which, Foster says, has only accelerated what Hollywood has known for years: "There will be a major shift in audience habits and in the strength and power of streamers." But Foster says she's ready.

"Look, I'm happy to act on an iPhone" [laughs].

Why do you think this film and story is so relevant right now?

A number of reasons. It's about a dark moment in our history as a country. Like other dark times in our history, whether it's the Japanese internment camps or Jim Crow after reconstruction or Trail of Tears, we have these moments in time that we have to revisit and look back and recognize our part and see where our emotions got the best of us.

In this case, we let fear and terror discard the rule of law and discard our own humanity. I think that what's so cool about it for Mohamedou, it did the opposite for him. Fear and terror made him a better person. Somehow he managed. By his faith, his character, his circumstances to be able to become a better human being and to forgive, to be joyful and to live in the moment. He didn't let it break him. But 9/11 broke us.

You play Nancy Hollander, a colorful and, some would say controversial, defense attorney. What was it about Nancy that stood out to you?

I had no idea who she was, and that, for me, was a blessing. It makes it difficult when it's a real-life character because you're constrained or restricted by what people know about them and their baggage. But most people don't know a lot about her, and if they do, maybe they know that she wears red lipstick and nail polish. It allowed me to change parts of her character in order to serve Mohamedou's story, which I know is what Nancy wanted.

I had to basically say to Nancy, "Look, I'm not going to do an impersonation of you and my Nancy is going to be a lot meaner than your Nancy. She's going to be rude and short with people and self-protective." And I don't think that's untrue of Nancy. Ninety percent of her clients are guilty and some of them have done terrible things, so she's had to build walls of protection around that in order to uphold her mission.

When you're choosing a role, particularly one like this that comes with political ramifications, do you ever factor that into your decision making?

I've not made any political movies, mostly because I don't usually like how they're engineered in the same way that I don't really like biopics. I don't think they're the best narrative form. Everybody is born and then they die. There's nothing new about that. So I hadn't really done political movies because I feel like characters should come first. And I feel like that was the cool thing about Kevin [Macdonald, the director] is that he was really clear that he wanted to make an emotional movie first. Even though there is a lot of talking and there's a bit of a court case, for me it really was a kind of first-person look at the life and the character of this Muslim man. We were all there to serve his story. So for example, we didn't include things about Nancy that are interesting but had nothing to do with Mohamedou.

You brought up Kevin, so many of his films blend documentary and narrative, is it different working with a director that has that documentary background than someone who does more feature films?

Every director is different, right? It's their party, so they get to decide the music. Kevin wants to know every single person's story. He wants to cover every person's story. But he also loves being inside the experience, which is unusual for documentarians. Documentarians are usually kind of on the outside looking at things and try to be objective, but he doesn't. He really likes thinking, 'How does this character feel in this moment?' He's a good combination between being somebody who's very respectful of the facts and wants to present all of the facts—he's tireless about doing research—but he also loves cinema. So he kind of is able to combine the two, which is the perfect person for this particular movie.

CUL_PS_Jodi Foster
Larry Busacca/Tribeca Film Festival/Contour/Getty

Did the way you approach a role change after you started directing?

I remember being 6 or 7 and being on this television show and an actor who I'd been working with walked in and he was the director that day. My mind was blown. I couldn't believe they allowed actors to become directors. I was like, 'That's what I want to do.' I remember just staring at him and watching him and thinking like, 'Wow, I could do that too.' So once I had an eye on that, that really was my goal my whole life, I just didn't know that I was going to be able to accomplish it.

I didn't really know any women directors. When I was maybe about 11 or 12, I saw my first Lina Wertmüller film. I was like, 'Wow, they let women be directors!' So I always had my eye on that and I think that's how I've always seen films and how I've always worked as an actor is a little bit like a director. So it wasn't a big switch. I've always worked that way, but I am able to turn it off. My need to control when I'm an actor, you'll drive yourself crazy, you have to be able to turn it off and go, 'Okay, these are the things I want to accomplish and discuss it with the director.' But ultimately it's their vision and I'm here to serve that vision.

I hope you don't mind me asking you about a couple of your iconic films. Contact, originally a bestselling book by Carl Sagan, came out in 1997 and has since become a classic. How did that come about?

It's interesting, it touched other people for the same reasons that the book touched me and the script touched me. There was a combination for people that believe in science and for people that live in their left brain and are able to embrace spirituality without having to discard their intellect. To feel like you could be a whole person that could use their mind but could also be a romantic. That's what really hit me, the Carl Sagan of it all, the billions and billions and the wonder of it all. And having that opportunity to be with Carl and to work with Carl, literally right before he died—he died while we were shooting—to have them come to set and see his whole life's work on screen, I think was pretty special. It's funny that that movie touches certain people. I was on it a long time. The original director was George Miller [Mad Max, Lorenzo's Oil], who would have made a very different film, as you can imagine. It was just a very, very different script, so I had always had an idea of it, that it was going to be much more of an art film that was eerie and there were a lot of closeups and stuff. I'd always seen it as an experience. So when Robert Zemeckis came on, it was whole new thinking about what Contact was going to be. He spent almost another eight months re-writing the script to kind of put its feet in the earth a bit more. I was always concerned that somehow the spiritual tone of it would disappear, but actually, he managed to do both.

Another classic film of yours is The Silence of the Lambs, which is celebrating its 30th anniversary this year. Making it, did you feel like you were creating something special?

To me, I'm kind of in awe of that movie. For me, it's the best movie I've ever made by far. It's timeless. Jonathan Demme [the director who passed away in 2017] was just this fun, silly, joyful, very childlike person. The fact that he managed to make such a serious and moving film and didn't kind of turn it into camp, he just struck the perfect tone. But I have to also give credit to the Thomas Harris book because it was that text. Literally, Ted Tally's first draft was virtually the script that was shot. So it really did feel like there was something magical about it. It was just magical. I don't know that any of us will ever reach that again, including Thomas.

I imagine you must get many interesting questions and reactions from fans of Lambs. What's the one question you hate getting asked?

People say things about fava beans and chianti, which I sort of enjoy, I love that. I do love it when people repeat the lines. The only question that I'm ever annoyed by is 'Why didn't you do the sequel?' We were all really interested in the sequel because Thomas Harris was writing a new book and he kept saying that it was coming out and he wouldn't let anybody see it. And then Jonathan, Anthony and I waited 10 years, all of us, all the producers, we waited 10 years. Everybody could've made like just some crappy version of those characters and they could have a year later slap something together, but instead, we waited. So yeah, it was a big deal to not do the sequel. I'll never talk about it particularly, but it's always the question that people ask.

The pandemic has hit so many industries, but Hollywood production seems to have figured out a way to make it work. Have you experienced production during the pandemic?

There's some production, but there's very little. So in terms of production, I don't know that it's back in any kind of swing, but in terms of development, everybody's been developing like crazy. Amazon has more money than God, Apple, Netflix, they're all sitting there, twiddling their thumbs, looking for product. They're dying to get stuff on the air. I suppose there's some energy left in the process, but I think we're all waiting to see how it's gonna shake out. But we also know how it's going to shake out. For the last 10 years, everybody has been saying habits are going to change, the only movies people are going to see in movie theaters are the big fat franchises and all narrative is going to go to streaming. We've been saying that and everybody's been prepared for that, but we didn't realize how the pandemic obviously would accelerate that. There will be a major shift in audience habits and in what studios are making and in the strength and power of streamers. I'm ready. Look, I'm happy to act on an iPhone then. [Laughs]