Jodie Foster plays Nancy Hollander, the real-life defense attorney who helped Mohamedou Ould Salahi find justice, in the new film “The Mauritanian.” Her performance just netted her a Golden Globe for Best Supporting Actress.
Foster recently spoke with Gold Derby contributing editor Riley Chow about her conversations with Hollander, how she contributed to the film behind the scenes and her memories of winning two Oscars. Watch the exclusive chat above from before the globe victory and read the complete transcript below.
Gold Derby: You’ve said that the real-life person [Nancy Hollander] is a walking contradiction. Can you expand on that?
Jodie Foster: Yes, the real Nancy Hollander, she is this very sober, methodical, intelligent, cerebral lawyer, and yet, she loves her red lipstick and her bright red nail polish and she likes to drive race cars and wear black leather and bright colors and stuff. She loves to shop. Those are definitely things you would not associate with her mission and what she’s done in life. She’s a great social justice pioneer in the law field. She believes in the rule of law and has been that person that has to challenge authority, challenge governments. That’s what she’s done in her career and it’s made her this interesting combination of somebody who really cares, but also somebody who’s very defended and very suspicious. So I kind of like those two things together.
Gold Derby: And how was it having her on set? Were you able to ask her about anything in particular?
JF: Yeah, I got really lucky. I was able to meet with her a few times before we started shooting. I saw her once in London and then once in New York and check out her library, what books she’s reading, she collects and stuff like that, which is always very helpful, listen to childhood stories and just get a sense of the person. And then she was able to come to set, which is amazing. She came all the way to Cape Town when we were shooting and Mohamedou, who is the detainee in the film, he wrote the book that this is all based on, his life story, he was able to finally leave Mauritania, to get a visa to finally leave Mauritania for a week or two weeks, to be able to come hang out with us during the shoot. So the two of them got to be together in Cape Town doing the tourist thing and bickering and acting like an old married couple. It was very cute.
GD: And with you being an icon, what did she ask you and does she have a favorite movie of yours?
JF: I don’t know what her favorite movie of mine is! We didn’t talk about me too much. I try not to talk about me too much. I mean, we talked a lot about things in the world. Maybe we talked a lot about being parents, too. She has a son as well. So those were things we might have shared on. But my mission was really just to get a sense of her without doing an imitation. I said to her, “There’s no point in doing an imitation because people don’t really know much about you, so I’m going to take the best of you and the things that really work for Mohamedou’s story, because it is Mohamedou’s story and we’re there to serve him, and I might exaggerate some parts of you and then I might diminish other parts of you.” And she was OK with that.
GD: Did you take anything from her physicality, how you held yourself in the film?
JF: Yeah, there’s definitely a methodical quality to her, a stillness to her, but she’s also very quiet. I did not want that. She also speaks incredibly slowly. I did not want that. So there were a few things that I didn’t take from her because I felt like they might hurt the pace of the movie or they just might not help establish the relationship with Mohamedou. But I definitely took her lipstick, certainly, the fact that she can be very distracted when she’s speaking to you as if she has more important things to do and that quality of, it’s like she’s always watching and writing it down in a book. You have this feeling that she’s taking notes. I brought that to the character.
GD: I feel like maybe the emotional climax for your character comes when she’s just reading all these papers, which, you make it look effortless, but how do you portray that so that it’s actually interesting?
JF: Yeah, that’s a tough one. Reading papers is a tough one. That’s a testament to Kevin Macdonald‘s filmmaking. I think he really understood that the torture, the real things that happened to Mohamedou were a life-shaking, life-changing moment, not just for him, but for the people who love him, for the people who cared about him, and in order to understand Mohamedou, who Mohamedou became, even his humanity, you have to really understand that experience that he had because it was life-changing. So how do you do that with Nancy’s character? And he really found a way, cinematically, to make her discovery of those documents that go into the torture, to have that, I don’t know, I guess, cinematically, to be able to transpose that to the audience so that they could be in that moment as well.
GD: So this is a distinctly American story, but the awards recognition that the film has gotten so far has been largely from voters overseas. You and Tahar Rahim are nominated at the Golden Globes. You’re both on the BAFTA shortlist, the shortlist of the Australian equivalent. The film got its first Best Picture nomination from the London Film Critics. I’m wondering, why do you think this story and this film is resonating more with European audiences than American ones?
JF: Well, I’m going to tell you a really logical and boring reason. One is that it hasn’t been released in the United States yet, which means that they’re not allowed to review here. So we won’t really be getting any reviews except for “The Hollywood Reporter” and “Variety.” We don’t get any reviews until the date that it’s released. Europe has had more peeks than other people, and I think that they have a different system there. So that’s probably why we’ve had more discussion of it in Europe. But I do think that this is not a Hollywood movie. This is not an American movie. It’s a British film. Benedict Cumberbatch and his company are producing and it’s a Scottish director and it’s a London production filmed in Cape Town. Shailene [Woodley] and I are some of the only Americans in the movie. And I think it was important for it to not have an American distributor for it before we started shooting. They wanted to make sure that the film wasn’t censored and was able to really look at this time in history 20 years ago with an eye to history, with a new historical eye so that we could have a kind of truth and reconciliation in the process of seeing the film.
GD: You’ve said that the film is particularly important for people who are about your kids’ age, so I’m wondering what surprised you about how it resonated with them?
JF: I don’t know if it’s particularly important, but I think it’s interesting for them because they weren’t born yet or were just born, and they don’t understand, necessarily, the kind of devastation of 9/11, the fear and terror that our country went through in those hours, days, months and years, how it changed us as a society, as a culture, and it’s important for them to have an appreciation that in moments like that, the most important thing to hold onto is the rule of law, to not let those emotions make lawless decisions. But unfortunately, our government didn’t do that. They did the opposite. They were so desperate and so afraid, so taken over by the terror that they threw the Constitution out the window. So I think that’s really relevant to what’s happening today and this film, if anything, is a love letter to the rule of law.
GD: I saw that you did script work with Kevin Macdonald on really condensing the story. I’m wondering if you took out maybe a bunch more for Nancy, involving her home life and that kind of thing?
JF: Yeah, I did. Part of the process of developing the screenplay and really preparing for production is paring away the stuff that obscures your story and really identifying what it is that you’re trying to say, and what we all knew was that we wanted to tell Mohamedou’s story and that everything that is in the movie has to serve that end, has to serve Mohamedou’s character arc, Mohamedou’s motivations, Mohamedou’s story. And there was a lot of extraneous backstory that was sort of interesting about Nancy’s life, about her life as a mom or life as an ex-wife, and the personal reasons that perhaps made her take on this job. But they really didn’t add anything to Mohamedou’s story. So I was very keen on taking that out and trying to reassure Kevin that I can bring a presence to the screen that has a past and has a backstory without necessarily having to see flashbacks of other, more distracting parts of Nancy’s life.
GD: Did it ever cover beyond the ending of the film, those missing years while he was just hanging around in prison?
JF: Oh, yes. Yes, there are moments where the biggest tragedy of this story, which we handled in about two and a half seconds, was a judge deemed that Mohamedou needed to be let go, that there were no charges against him and he won his habeus fight and he should be let go, and that happened, and then the Obama administration appealed and let him sit there in jail for another five years. That is excruciating to know that you’ve been let go, that they’re keeping you there for absolutely no reason except for the whims of authority, the whims of government. I really felt like that was an important part of the movie and I know that there’s a moment where I really lobbied, “We need to feel the monotony and the awfulness of being stuck in a prison for five years, knowing that you should be let go,” and I think Kevin handled that beautifully. It goes to black and it just says, “And he stayed there for another five years.” Yeah, there was a lot of discussion about how to handle that.
GD: That’s quite surprising. Not necessarily on this film, but maybe more broadly, when you’re working with a costar that you feel is not moving in the right direction with their performance, how do you kind of steer them in the right direction or do you try at all?
JF: Wow, what a good question. That’s a tough one. It really is tough. You’re there as a family, really, of actors, to help each other and your goal is not just your performance, it’s the film as a whole, it’s the moment as a whole. So you work together. Sometimes I’ve worked with an actor where you can see where suddenly fear comes over them and they’re self-conscious and you realize it’s impossible for them to drop into character because they’re like, “I’m in a movie, I’m in a movie, in a movie,” and you can kind of see that fear in their eyes. You do what you would do with a family member that you love. You make a joke, take them off to the side, hang out, give them confidence, really, just try to bring confidence into the equation and do whatever you can to bring confidence back into the room.
Yeah, you’re a team. I mean, that’s what actors are, we’re a team. And in terms of this movie, I really understood and so did Shailene Woodley, my amazing costar who plays the other lawyer on the case. We knew we were there to serve Mohamedou’s story and to help Tahar in any way we could to bring the greatest performance of his life, really, and to sort of channel Mohamedou’s story through that character and that was just amazing to be able to just sit there and Shailene and I kind of look at each other, like, “Do you believe how great he is?” And to make that place safe for him to hold that space for him.
GD: Yeah, I told him I hope he wins the Oscar and I have to keep bringing the discussion back that way since we’re an awards website. Very few people have the chance to redo their Oscar speech, but you actually, of course, got to make two. What did you learn from the first one and what did you kind of rectify with the second one?
JF: Nothing about the speech. It really came out of that moment. I mean, the thing I would rectify was maybe I’d get a different dress the first time around. Apparently, the dress was not OK. That’s what I was told. It was the one I picked out in a shop window in Rome and I was like, “I want that one,” at 26 years old or whatever, 27 years old. And it broke about halfway through the ceremony. So that was a problem. The second one was so much fun because we were all there. We got the five top awards and we were all sharing it together and the spirit of that, of just making this film together and all being a part of one thing I think was so lovely. So yeah, I don’t think I would change anything there. I was sweating quite a bit, so maybe I would have brought a Kleenex so that I wasn’t sweating so much.
GD: Do you feel like you have a great overlooked performance from your career?
JF: Gosh, I don’t know, I mean, there are a few performances that to me have been very impactful in my life that I felt like I got someplace that was really important to me. I don’t know how important they were to other people, but to me, they were really important. I think “The Brave One” for me was kind of life-changing, as was “Nell.” Those two performances were almost like psychological, psychic challenges for me, and for me to overcome the issues that I had with them felt really important. I did this movie, “Hotel Artemis,” which I really loved and I really loved my character in it and we sort of got unlucky with our distribution house going under and how the movie was sold and I feel like it’s an unsung film. I think it’s a really solid movie.
GD: Yeah, that’s a recent one, too. You’re known for being selective. This seems like an obvious time right now to be taking a break, but I’m wondering if that is the case or if you have something coming up.
JF: No, I’m always taking a break. That’s kind of what I do. I direct, so my focus is on that. At this point in my life, I’m really more interested in carving my time out for directing and if something wonderful comes up as an actor that feels meaningful, then I will jump in front of the camera. But other than that, I really feel like my focus is on directing and other things that I do in my life that are life things, that have nothing to do with the movie business.