Jodie Foster became an actor at age 3, earned an Oscar nomination at 13, won Oscars at 26 and 29, and almost quit acting at 50. But at 58, she's loving it again, playing Nancy Hollander, the crusading attorney for Guantanamo Bay prisoner Mohamedou Ould Slahi (Tahir Rahim), in The Mauritanian. She tells AARP about her midlife resurgence and her new film based on Slahi's memoir.
Is it less scary than it used to be to be an actor your age?
Yes! And there's research showing that there's a kind of happiness and contentedness that people have in their 60s and 70s that is just not available to them in earlier life. There's a neurobiological change, where you're much more relaxed about the future because you've already arrived into the future. And, you know, it's not that big a deal.
It's the 30th anniversary of your Oscar win as an FBI agent in The Silence of the Lambs, and there's a new TV spin-off, Clarice, on CBS. How is Nancy Hollander — who defended a guy imprisoned 14 years without a charge — like Clarice, hunter of serial killers?
Gosh, not much. There's a good 40-year age difference. Maybe Clarice would change over time and become more like Nancy. Clarice is a rule follower: She doesn't even use contractions. She says “do not” instead of “don't.” Nancy's had a really tough time following certain rules. She believes challenging government is how you get justice. She believes in the rule of law; she doesn't necessarily believe in the rule of men.
Born: Los Angeles
Greatest Hits: Taxi Driver, The Accused, The Silence of the Lambs, Contact
Education: Le Lycée Français de Los Angeles, Yale University
Honors: Oscar nominee for Taxi Driver and Nell, and winner for The Accused and The Silence of the Lambs; nine Golden Globe nominations and three wins; Emmy nomination for The Baby Dance (producer) and Orange Is the New Black (director)
You got famous playing victims in Taxi Driver and The Accused, then started playing defenders of victims.
I did play quite a few victims. I was attracted to that. I'm psychologically interested in how a character survives intact. And some of it is also ... I'm a woman ... the roles I play are determined by other people — how they look at women, what they're interested in seeing women play. So it was a big leap for me, when I did Silence, to finally play somebody who was not just the victim of the crime, but somebody whose destiny it was to track down the criminal.
Nancy is the first real living person you've ever played. Even though you've got her mannerisms, did you feel free to wear louder red lipstick and drive faster than she does?
No, she's pretty much louder with the lipstick and faster with the cars than my character is. But I did tell her, “My Nancy will be a lot meaner than your Nancy. More rude and brusque, formidable.” Nancy's lovely. I took some liberties so that I could build a character that changed in time, that grew through her relationship with Mohamedou.
Mohamedou is not what people expect of someone who spent 14 years at Guantanamo and tortured into a false confession of terrorism that he recanted.
He left Mauritania at age 19 on a scholarship to Germany. He was dying to leave Mauritania ... so excited about going to a democratic country where corruption isn't tolerated. He was idealistic.
He joined with al-Qaida — then a U.S. ally — to fight Afghan communists in 1990.
Alongside the CIA. Yes.
He also had the bad luck to get a phone call from Osama bin Laden's phone, because his cousin was a top bin Laden adviser. But Mohamedou didn't know bin Laden and left when al-Qaida switched enemies.
All the circumstantial evidence [against Mohamedou], the charges — within 15 minutes, the ACLU was able to debunk every single one. It's just that the American government wasn't really interested in doing the due diligence to have any benefit of the doubt. It was just plain fear after 9/11. I mean, I think that's understandable. The government was able to discard the laws and seek revenge, and try to protect themselves from it ever happening again. They thought it was more important to imprison lots of innocent men than miss some guilty men.
The irony is that Mohamedou fought on our side against communists and he admires much about America.
When he got captured by the Americans [handed over by Jordanians], he was, like, “Oh, my God, I'm so lucky! Because now justice is going to be served by democracy!” And then he realized that the American government had decided to confine him offshore of America so that they didn't have to follow the law.
At Guantanamo, he wrote five books and watched The Big Lebowski 85 times. He loved the Dude's line, “You got the wrong guy!” He was a fan of The Last King of Scotland, the Idi Amin movie by Kevin Macdonald, who directed The Mauritanian.
He's a big lover of American cinema, music and culture. His captors told him, “You're really well educated, you speak a bunch of languages, you understand computers — you must be a terrorist.” He's, like, “Wait a minute. So I did really well in school and I know a lot about history. And that makes me a terrorist?”
How do you want to spend your AARP years — do you have a to-do list?
I don't have a list. In a weird way, I had a list when I was young, and I was so busy checking it all off. Now I'm, like, OK, I went through the list. Now what do I do? I do have a bit of the “Now what?” syndrome. I'm really enjoying having a different set of criteria for what success is. It's a real joy to be able to say, “I can just make movies I care about, that I think are meaningful.” And I don't have to try to compete with my younger self anymore. And to me, that's really … grace. That's wonderful. It makes me much happier.
Your career is actually looking up, not winding down at all.
For a long time, I've been really looking forward to my 60s and 70s — so that I can play more interesting characters on-screen. Because the 50s, for women, is a transitional period — there's not as many interesting characters to play. And I am really enjoying playing 60- and 70-year-olds, and I'm sure I will continue to enjoy playing 80- and 90-year-olds even more. In youth, there are those chimpanzee-like reactions, where something happens and then you react to it immediately. And when we're older, we don't like panic. We don't like multitasking. We want to be prepared. We don't have the chemistry anymore to attend to all that anxiety and panic. I think that's a good thing.
Was it fun to see an ambitious little-girl actress based on you in Quentin Tarantino's Once Upon a Time … in Hollywood?
I know ... that's crazy! I mean that he thought of me ... that makes me feel really special. Very, very touched.
You're history but you're still alive.
Still alive! Still here.
Golden Globe Winners 2021
Best Performance by an Actress in a Supporting Role in Any Motion Picture
• Jodie Foster, 58, The Mauritanian
Best Performance by an Actor in a Motion Picture, Drama
• Chadwick Boseman, Ma Rainey’s Black Bottom
Best Performance by an Actor in a Motion Picture, Musical or Comedy
• Sacha Baron Cohen, Borat Subsequent Moviefilm
Best Performance by an Actor in a Supporting Role in Any Motion Picture
• Daniel Kaluuya, Judas and the Black Messiah
Best Motion Picture, Drama
Best Motion Picture, Musical or Comedy
• Borat Subsequent Moviefilm
Best Director, Motion Picture
• Chloé Zhao, Nomadland
Best Performance by an Actress in a Motion Picture, Drama
• Andra Day, The United States vs. Billie Holiday
Best Performance by an Actress in a Motion Picture, Musical or Comedy
• Rosamund Pike, I Care a Lot
Best Motion Picture, Animated
Best Motion Picture, Foreign Language
Best Screenplay, Motion Picture
• Aaron Sorkin, 59, The Trial of the Chicago 7
Best Original Score, Motion Picture
• Trent Reznor, 55, Atticus Ross, 53, and Jon Batiste, Soul
Best Original Song, Motion Picture
• The Life Ahead
Best Television Series, Drama
• The Crown
Best Television Series, Musical or Comedy
• Schitt’s Creek
Best Limited Series, Anthology Series or Motion Picture Made for Television
• The Queen’s Gambit
Best Performance by an Actress in a Television Series, Drama
• Emma Corrin, The Crown
Best Performance by an Actress in a Television Series, Musical or Comedy
• Catherine O’Hara, 66, Schitt’s Creek
Best Performance by an Actress in a Limited Series, Anthology Series or a Motion Picture Made for Television
• Anya Taylor-Joy, The Queen’s Gambit
Best Performance by an Actress in a Television Supporting Role
• Gillian Anderson, 52, The Crown
Best Performance by an Actor in a Television Series, Drama
• Josh O’Connor, The Crown
Best Performance by an Actor in a Television Series, Musical or Comedy
• Jason Sudeikis, Ted Lasso
Best Performance by an Actor in a Limited Series or a Motion Picture Made for Television
• Mark Ruffalo, 53, I Know This Much Is True
Best Performance by an Actor in a Television Supporting Role
• John Boyega, Small Axe
Editor’s note: This article, originally published Feb. 22, 2021, has been updated to reflect Jodie Foster's win at the 78th Annual Golden Globe Awards.
Tim Appelo covers entertainment and is the film and TV critic for AARP. Previously, he was an entertainment editor at Amazon, a video critic at Entertainment Weekly, and a critic and writer for The Hollywood Reporter, People, MTV and Village Voice Newspapers.