One of my first days at Yale, I walked into the campus post office, and there was Jodie Foster. I almost fell down the stairs. Jodie was already an icon by that time, as well as a personal hero.
I’d grown up with her Disney movies, my favorite being Freaky Friday, which came out in 1976. That was the same year she starred in Taxi Driver, for which she was nominated for a best-supporting-actress Oscar, playing a tough-talking streetwalker at age 14.
She was on the cover of Interview that year, too, interviewed by Andy Warhol himself. After that, she was often photographed at Studio 54, looking self-contained amid all the commotion. Jodie (whom I call by her first name because, like Elvis or Cher, she needs no other introduction) always seemed impossibly cool.
Now, at 61, Jodie is having another moment. She was nominated for a Golden Globe for best supporting actress (and is expected to be nominated for an Oscar) for last year’s Nyad, in which she played Bonnie Stoll, the best friend of long-distance swimmer Diana Nyad.
And in the fourth season of HBO’s True Detective, premiering tomorrow, she stars as Liz Danvers, a police chief battling her demons and the elements in Alaska. The reviews are comparing it to her acclaimed role as the F.B.I.-agent-trainee Clarice Starling in Silence of the Lambs (for which she won her second best-actress Oscar, in 1991; her first was for 1988’s The Accused).
I applied to Yale, in part, because Jodie went there; I thought that meant the place must be cool. But when we spoke on the phone this week (she from L.A.), we remembered that the New Haven of the early 1980s was kind of a dump. “Nobody wanted to be in New Haven then,” she says. “They wanted to be in some lovely little Ivy community, and New Haven was tough. Which I was actually drawn to.”
She wanted to go to college, she says, to try “to have a real life, a life of the mind.” She majored in African American literature, studying with Henry Louis Gates Jr. and writing her thesis on Toni Morrison. “I had to fight really hard to have a real life,” she says.
“When you start [working] when you’re three”—in 1965, she appeared in a commercial for Coppertone suntan lotion—“you’re kind of cut off from the real world. So I made a lot of choices so I could have some normalcy. I didn’t want to have [a] cloistered life. I was worried I would never be able to have a real connection with people that was just for me. I was hell-bent on being a regular person, whatever that meant to me at the time.”
That endeavor was shattered when, in her second semester at Yale, in March 1981, something unimaginable happened: a Texas man named John Hinckley attempted to assassinate President Ronald Reagan, saying he did so to impress Jodie Foster. Hinckley had a fixation on Jodie; he’d been stalking her on the Yale campus prior to the shooting. Reagan and three others were wounded, and White House Press Secretary James Brady was permanently disabled.
Jodie has rarely discussed the incident since writing a personal essay about it in Esquire in 1982. “I didn’t want to be a political figure,” she wrote at the time, “a victim of society.”
“When you start [working] when you’re three, you’re kind of cut off from the real world.... I was hell-bent on being a regular person, whatever that meant to me at the time.”
“I don’t usually go into it for this reason,” she tells me, “because it was very important for me to be known for my work, and for what my contributions were going to be as a person in the world, rather than being known as an accidental figure in this violent event. So I said I will not be public about it, because I want to be known for my movies.
“That being said,” she goes on, “sure, it affected me. It was hard. I had just turned 18. So whatever illusion of anonymity I had was crushed in an instant. But it also made me realize a lot of things; it became even more obvious to me how important it was for me to have a private self and private relationships that were not for sale.
“Even though we didn’t have Internet or anything back then,” she says, “it still was pretty invasive, and I had never experienced the political press or anything like that—all the press that I knew was, like, People magazine.” She gives a rueful laugh. “And that was totally different than the kind of horrible descent [of the media] that came down on campus.”
She credits her mother, Evelyn “Brandy” Foster, also her former manager (who died in 2019), with helping her figure out how to navigate the disaster. “But then she had to leave me alone to live my life,” Jodie says.
“She came [to Yale] right after the shooting, and then she had to let me be a student on campus with a couple of bodyguards and all the weirdness of that. It was all pretty complicated. But if you look at what people go through today” with the Internet, “I don’t know how they do it; I don’t know if I would be able to live through that. I think I would have picked a different job.”
“It was hard. I had just turned 18. So whatever illusion of anonymity I had was crushed in an instant.”
She says her desire for normalcy also affected her parenting of her two sons, Charles, 25, and Kit, 22. (From 1993 to 2008 she was in a relationship with the producer Cydney Bernard. She married the photographer Alexandra Hedison in 2014.)
“I didn’t have tutors for my sons,” she says. “I didn’t take them out of school. I wanted them to have this normal life that I kind of put on a pedestal. But now that I’m older, I’m like, wait, why didn’t I take my kids on location? Why didn’t they grow up in, like, Rwanda, or some fabulous, interesting place?” (She raised them in L.A.) “But at the time, normalcy was, like, everything to me, and I felt like I would die if I didn’t have a normal life.”
The changes that come with age have been on her mind of late, says the actor and producer, who has also directed films and television series, including episodes of Orange Is the New Black and Black Mirror. “I feel like there must be some hormone that gets released in your body when you turn 59 or 60,” she says, “where you just don’t care anymore; you’re not, like, all bent out of shape about everything.
“So while [getting older] is not all benefits, there is one wonderful benefit—especially for acting—which is that you sink into a kind of meditative ease, and that’s one thing that you can’t teach actors. It’s something they try to teach in acting schools”—which she never attended—“how to be confident and comfortable and just be. But it’s really hard to teach that to 20-year-olds who have a lot of anxiety.”
When she was in her 50s, she struggled with a lot of “conflicts,” she says, “because I was being asked to compete with myself from the past, and it was a losing battle, man. I was like, I can’t play the same parts I played when I was in my 30s and 40s and expect to be as beautiful or as whatever. And the problem is there’s not much written for people in their 50s; it’s a confused moment in people’s lives, and it’s hard to portray that transition.”
“If you look at what people go through today” with the Internet, “I don’t know how they do it.... I think I would have picked a different job.”
She has described Liz Danvers, her character in the new True Detective, as a “Karen,” and not a very likable one. But are Karens sometimes misunderstood?, we wondered.
“I did once have, like, a road-rage moment,” Jodie says. “I was behind some kid—it was, like, an 18-year-old in a parking lot at a Thrifty’s, and we couldn’t get around each other, and this woman was trying to get a parking spot, and he wanted to take her spot; but he didn’t give her enough space to move, and she was getting nervous she was gonna hit him.
“But instead of pulling back to give her room, he just kept honking at her—he was honking and honking—and I’m like three cars behind, and I’m just watching this woman … get more and more nervous until she finally left. And after he pulled into that parking space, I just. Took. Him. Out. I have never yelled at somebody so hard in my life. I never stopped talking—it was like Robert Downey Jr. or something … I went crazy—crazy!”
While the 50s seem to bring up a lot of anger, the 60s feel more about acceptance. “I think that’s the beauty of getting older,” Jodie says, “to be able to say, ‘I had my time, my time is over, and now I get to be part of your team.’ And that’s something I didn’t really understand when I was younger, when it was all about me … [and] like, How can I get what I want? How can I be the person everyone’s talking about?
“I feel like I will be as proud of [True Detective] as anything I’ve ever done,” she says. “It’s some of the best work of my life. Just because you’re in a new demographic doesn’t mean you’re through, and it doesn’t mean you don’t have complexity. Quite the opposite.”
True Detective: Night Country, starring Jodie Foster, premieres on January 14 on HBO
Nancy Jo Sales is a journalist whose 2010 article for Vanity Fair “The Suspects Wore Louboutins” inspired the Sofia Coppola film The Bling Ring. She is the author of American Girls: Social Media and the Secret Lives of Teenagers and Nothing Personal: My Secret Life in the Dating App Inferno