Though she has starred in some of the most indelible movies in cinema history—Taxi Driver, The Silence of the Lambs, The Accused—and won two Oscars for doing so, Jodie Foster’s output has slowed in recent years. And it is not a paucity of roles, she says, but rather a decision to become more selective about what she takes on. For Kevin Macdonald’s The Mauritanian, based on the true story of Mohamedou Ould Salahi, a terror suspect held for 15 years in Guantanamo Bay without charge, that choice was undeniable. Foster plays Nancy Hollander, the lawyer determined to give him a full defense.
DEADLINE: At this point in your career, you are incredibly selective with the projects you take on. How did The Mauritanian enter your life?
JODIE FOSTER: As an actor, sometimes it’s as simple as somebody sends you a script and it’s amazing amazing and it opens up a world to you that you didn’t know anything about, and that’s really what happened with The Mauritanian.
First of all, there’s the provenance, of course, of Kevin Macdonald, who was already signed on, and somebody that I’ve always wanted to work with. I really thought he would be the right director for this particular movie, in terms of the almost documentary feeling he brings; his non-judgmental sense, but also the way that he navigates as a filmmaker. And then Benedict Cumberbatch, of course, was the first person aboard and he was already aboard, so that made it pretty easy.
But also, I’m an American and I was around, obviously, during 9/11. I remember I was pregnant at the time. I was on bed rest, and I was due to have the baby maybe 10 days later. It was a very particular moment for me in my life, and obviously it was a particular moment for anybody who lived through it. I think this film deals with, obliquely, the residual effect of what 9/11 meant to Americans and what it made us become. It’s a way to process this weird transformation our country went through at this particular moment in time, when we went from being very innocent about our effect abroad to this tragic moment that would lead to the War on Terror, and this idea of a political war that we waged against whoever we determined was going to threaten us.
DEADLINE: For all the broader aspects the film is addressing, really it’s the story of a wrongfully-incarcerated inmate at Guantanamo, and what happened to him there.
FOSTER: Right, this story plays out through the experience of this one guy, Mohamedou Ould Salahi, a guy who was caught in the wrong place at the wrong time, who coincidentally had connections to this world that led to him being kidnapped and having 15 years of his life taken away for no reason.
I don’t love political movies unless they’re emotionally connected and I think this film really lives in that arena because it is Mohamedou’s story. It’s about who Mohamedou was before he got there, who he became while he was detained, and how he emerged from that. It’s an amazing journey.
DEADLINE: He wrote five books while he was in Guantanamo, including his memoir on which the film is based. What did you make of his resolve?
FOSTER: It’s a testament to who Mohamedou is, and to his faith. He’ll tell you, when you’re in a situation like this, and you don’t have anything else, faith is what keeps you from devolving into the worst of yourself. He became the best of himself. If you meet Mohamedou you’ll see he’s the funniest guy, and for all the tragedy he faced, it was his sense of humor, I think, that allowed him to transform out of these terrible circumstances.
DEADLINE: Did you get to meet him?
FOSTER: Yes, he came to set during the shoot. We didn’t think he was going to be able to come to South Africa, where we shot, because after he was released by the U.S. government, they retained his passport. He wasn’t able to leave Mauritania, even to go to Germany to visit his newborn son. Even the child wasn’t able to get a passport, so he wasn’t able to meet his son for two years almost. That’s only recently changed.
So, we had many Skype calls and Zoom calls, and he would check in with us. Kevin had been able to travel to Mauritania, which is really hard to get into, to meet him. Then, by some miracle, the South African government was like, “OK, we’ll get you a visa.” He just showed up, and we didn’t know until maybe a couple of days before he got there.
He had an amazing time in South Africa, and Nancy, who I play in the film, was able to be there with him, so she came and the two of them were like an old married couple. They played tourist around Cape Town, and we got to have dinners with them. It was really lovely.
DEADLINE: You play Nancy Hollander, Mohamedou’s lawyer. In 2010 she wrote a piece for the New York Times in which she spelled out why she saw it as her duty to defend individuals accused of terrorism. She talked about the right to a defense for all accused, and she had faced tremendous criticism for helping inmates like Mohamedou preserve that right.
FOSTER: She came up as a person interested in civil rights. A defense is guaranteed in the Constitution, and the right to challenge the government is built into our foundation. In order for the justice system to work, it needs to be challenged. She would often say, “Look, if you have the evidence to prove my client’s guilt, great. We’ll all have a trial, and they will get whatever sentence they deserve.” But in Mohamedou’s case, she had a client who was held for 15 years without a single charge ever being laid against him. Guantanamo Bay is not a prison; it’s a detention center.
And honestly, the real terrorists—the toughest terrorists—weren’t even in Guantanamo, they were being held in black sites, many of them we have no idea about. Guantanamo detainees—maybe 85% of them—were just people who had been turned in by people in their communities who had responded to an ad from the U.S. government that said, “Hey, if you suspect anyone of terrorism, call this number.” That’s it, that’s all they had.
I’m not sure if this is true of the real Nancy, but my Nancy in the movie, she’s wary, and she’s like, “A lot of my clients are guilty and I’m still going to defend them, but I’m going to dig for whatever’s under the woodwork.” She’s guarded in terms of her personal connections with her clients, because she knows she’s there for a very specific mission. But this case is a special case for her, the case she’ll never forget. And listen, I always say, even though I dress like her in the movie, and we look a little bit alike, the real Nancy is a lot nicer than my Nancy. No, way nicer [laughs].
Nancy will tell you that what she does is all in service of Mohamedou. She wanted it to be clear that this movie was his story; that what she did was only about giving him a vehicle to be liberated.
DEADLINE: Was that part of the attraction to the film? The idea of sharing a story with real meaning with a wider audience.
FOSTER: To me, it’s the only point for acting now. I mean, I’ve been doing it for a very long time, and I’m very picky about what I choose to spend my time on, because I’m older and there are many other things in life that I want to be spending time on. As powerful as the art form is, I only want to do it when it feels meaningful.
DEADLINE: You separated the real Nancy from your Nancy. Is that a necessary step when playing a character based on someone real?
FOSTER: This is only the second time I’ve ever played a real character. I tend not to want to, honestly, because I feel like there are things I want to change and you can feel stymied by real characters because you can’t make them do things they wouldn’t normally do. The only other real person that I played [Anna in Anna and the King] had been dead for 250 years and she was a total liar, so it was really easy to fabricate who she was [laughs].
In Nancy’s case, there was a real responsibility, and at the same time I said to her, “Look, I could do an imitation of you, but I don’t think that’s interesting.” I think it’s more interesting to present the facts about her that were important to the story, but I think Nancy’s role in is really to support Mohamedou’s story. There are things that aren’t included about Nancy that are absolutely fascinating about who she is, and they could be great for another movie, but not this one.
DEADLINE: Was meeting her—holding those facts about her—a help or a hindrance to building the character?
FOSTER: Both. It’s interesting because sometimes they can muddy the waters. One of the most creative things you do when you make films, either as a director or as an actor, is to pare away what’s not essential and to really figure out what story you want to tell. To work with those elements in order to create a tapestry, especially in a film that’s an hour and a half long. If it’s an eight-hour long series, something more novelistic, then it requires a different kind of sensibility. But really good storytelling means taking things out.
I think that was the struggle for Kevin, primarily, and I think it was hard on him. All of these characters have fascinating backstories. And, for example, the animosity between my character and Shailene [Woodley’s] character probably wasn’t there in the real story. In fact, Shailene’s character is a composite of two people.
DEADLINE: What did you make of what Tahar Rahim did as Mohamedou?
FOSTER: He’s so pure and he has this great energy that he brings to set. When people ask me what I love about making movies now, for me it’s sitting in a room with a guy like that and being able to witness and support someone who is really giving the performance of their life. I mean, I shouldn’t say it’s not my time, but in a way I feel like it’s not my time; it’s my time to support him. It’s so exciting to finish the day and go back to your hotel room and remember what he brought to the scenes that day.
It was a hard shoot for him. Really hard. His partner had a baby during the shoot, and in the time he got with them—he finished a scene and jumped on a plane and spent maybe 10 or 20 days with the baby—he had to lose 15 pounds and come back and shoot the torture scenes. He’s not a native English speaker, though he speaks English very well, and he doesn’t speak Arabic at all. And then they had to change the schedule on him because I got really sick—I had this terrible flu—and suddenly he had all these monologues to deliver. The poor guy got dealt every difficult blow.
DEADLINE: You’ve had an incredible career for many years now. In a way it feels as though Tahar is really just starting his. I wonder how you see the industry today. With everything that’s happened this year, and the transition that’s been happening for several years, do you think it’s getting harder or easier to tell the kinds of stories you were describing earlier?
FOSTER: As artists, we show up and do what we do in any format, whether that’s on an iPhone screen or a movie screen. I don’t really care. It’s still me expressing myself as an actor. So, I shouldn’t say this transition affects us less, but I think it affects us differently than other people working in the industry, whether it’s technicians, or producers, or directors, or studios.
The pandemic has been, and will continue to be, a major blow. But in that, you have to let go of some of these preconceived ideas that we hold from our own nostalgia about what movies are. For me, yeah, movies are going to a movie theatre, like I used to do with my mom, and bringing a snack, and maybe you see a double feature. Or going to film festivals. That’s all going to be different now, and that’s OK. We just got to do what we do.
In the case of this movie, it’s a rare example of a movie that treats a Muslim character in a truly humanized way. You fall in love with him as a protagonist. And for me, that’s reason enough to make the movie. It’s satisfying to feel like we’re making the world better rather than worse by sharing these stories. Certainly, I want to feel like everything I do is making me better rather than worse with every project I take on.