Jodie Foster parries the suggestion that her new film "The Beaver" is a comeback vehicle for its embattled star - her longtime friend Mel Gibson.
"In terms of his career, he doesn't have much to prove," the actress and filmmaker says. "He's an amazing director. As I always say to him, 'That's what excites me.' He's a lot more than an actor."
Miss Foster knows that "The Beaver" is not for everybody. The two-time Academy Award winner's latest film is a quirky drama about an American family struggling with depression. And it's narrated by a hand puppet.
"American audiences do not like comedies and dramas in the same movie," Miss Foster laments as she sits in her hotel suite overlooking the Mall. "They either want it to be a comedy or a drama. They don't like shifting tones."
Don't be fooled by the film's ambiguous title or the benign-sounding puppetry. "The Beaver" is not a feel-good sequel to "The Muppet Christmas Carol" - it's an enigmatic drama peppered with absurd, often dark humor. Miss Foster directs and stars in the film along with Mr. Gibson, whose character, Walter Black, attempts to combat his depression and re-connect with his family by communicating through a beaver hand puppet. Miss Foster describes the film as a "fable" about an American family, "seen through a European style."
"The Beaver" premiered at the South by Southwest film festival in Austin, Texas, and received glowing reviews. But Miss Foster probably is right to assume it will have limited commercial success in the States, where Mr. Gibson's recent history of arrests and violent outbursts - he pleaded no contest to a misdemeanor battery charge and received three years' probation in March after assaulting former girlfriend Oksana Grigorieva - could make him a serious box-office liability. Nonetheless, Miss Foster has no regrets about casting her longtime friend as the troubled protagonist.
"He's not a perfect person," she says. "He's a complicated person. That's why I love him. He's not just some guy who wants to pose for GQ. He's lived a real life. I'm forever grateful for this performance, and I can't imagine anyone else bringing this much to it."
Miss Foster's experience fielding press queries about Mr. Gibson should serve her in good stead on her next movie: She recently finished filming in Paris for "God of Carnage," which is directed by another industry pariah Roman Polanski, still a wanted man in California more than three decades after he fled prior to sentencing on a sex charge.
"I'm not worried about working with him," Miss Foster says. "I don't believe there will be any publicity on that film at all. And honestly, I think the thing that propels me the most in acting in this particular time is working with directors that I want to learn from. And that is the big draw for me right now.
"The only thing I need to do is make movies that I love. That's it. I don't have to check off any lists."
Miss Foster's unconditional love for Mr. Gibson perfectly exemplifies "The Beaver's" major takeaway: It is during our greatest personal trials that we need our friends and family the most.
"Ultimately, our lives are these big roller coasters. You know, there's tragedy and comedy in all of our lives. And it does get heavier and heavier as life goes on," Miss Foster says. "The only thing we have that gets us through depression is each other."
Walter's humorous yet heart-wrenching decision to use a "prescription puppet" as a tool to overcome his depression is part of the film's larger examination of what happens when we communicate, rather than hide, our problems - or vice versa. Walter's angst-filled son Porter (Anton Yelchin) is consumed by a secret fear of becoming just like his unstable father and subsequently deals with his anxiety by physically abusing himself.
"Things aren't fair. And there isn't a pill that's going to be able to take that away, or some fabulous meditation technique, or some yoga therapy," Miss Foster says. "I think the quick fix is a real American phenomenon. That somehow there's a pill you can take for virtually anything. And unfortunately, there's no pill to cure life."
In a sequence that is reminiscent of previous Foster titles such as "Little Man Tate" and "Nell," Mr. Gibson's character soon becomes the subject of unwanted media attention, is paraded around like a circus animal and sinks back into his helpless cycle of depression.
"There's something about public exploitation that makes [people] feel even more lonely," Miss Foster observes.