Jodie Foster ’85 on ‘impostor syndrome,’ dumb luck and making meaning
Out-going Yale College Council (YCC) president, Matthew Guido ’19, took the stage at Battell Chapel on April 19 to present Jodie Foster ’85 with the fourth annual Yale Undergraduates’ Lifetime Achievement Award. The award was founded in 2015 by then YCC president, Michael Herbert ’16. Previous recipients include: President George H.W. Bush ’48 (2015), Anderson Cooper ’89 (2016), and Maya Lin ’81, M. Arch. ’86 (2017).
“Our student body honors Ms. Foster for her unparalleled career in entertainment and thanks her for the inspiration she provides to rising generation of Yalies,” said Guido. “Specifically, we recognize that she: serves as a leader and role model in the film industry due to the diversity and depth of her career as an actress, director, and producer; helps audiences explore the human condition through unforgettable roles in ‘Taxi Driver,’ ‘The Accused,’ ‘The Silence of the Lambs,’ ‘Nell,’ and many other films; and harnessed the diverse resources of Yale College during her undergraduate years, graduating magna cum laude with a degree in literature while balancing an already accomplished career.”
“Thank you so much for receiving me back in my hometown,” said Foster. “This place means more to me than almost any place else … I came to Yale and the second I walked on campus it was like I had just found the love of my life.”
Her bright college years
In an informal talk with Guido, Foster said, “Yale for me is lying on the floor of my dorm room, crying and crying and crying, but it’s also going to one of the tops of those towers with beer in my hand going like ‘Woo, woo, woo!’ The darkness and the ecstatic-ness. That’s part of this moment in time in your life, and that’s what makes it so special.”
Foster’s favorite dining hall was Hopper (her own residential college) with Berkeley as a runner-up, and her favorite library for studying was Bass (Cross Campus Library, in those days) because of the underground tunnel where she could go out for a smoke. In addition, she said, she and her friends were regulars at the Anchor Bar (272 College St.), which she described as her favorite all-purpose drinking, partying, hanging out spot. Henry Louis Gates Jr. ’73, her senior advisor, was her favorite professor, said Foster, and after she bumped into him at a play about 15 years ago, they rekindled a friendship, which lasts to this day.
The alumna spoke about her personal evolution during her Yale years and her anxieties during that period — feelings that Yale students past and present have known as the “impostor syndrome.”
“Honestly, I thought my career would be over by the time I was 18,” said Foster, when Guido asked for her to explain why she nearly ended up quitting acting to pursue graduate school after graduating from Yale.
“My mom said that to me over and over when I was a child: ‘Your career will be over when you’re 18 – what do you want to be when you grow up?’ The assumption was you definitely don’t want to be an actor. That’s not a grown-up job,” she said.
Foster explained that she kept working while at Yale, acting in five movies while an undergraduate, to pay for her education, to support her family, and “to squeeze it out” for as long as she could.
“Then I did ‘The Accused,’” she said. “I saw the movie in a rough-cut form, and I thought, ‘Wow this film’s terrible, and I’m awful in it.’ So I did my GREs, and I said, ‘Okay, now I’m definitely going to go to grad school.’ And then the movie came out, and I won an Oscar for it.” The audience erupted in laughter.
“But it is very telling, this feeling of failure,” said Foster, “which seems to be a theme in my life. Even coming here. I felt like everybody else was smarter than me. I had to pretend that I knew what I was talking about. All of these other students just seemed so amazing. I think that if you don’t have that feeling of being insignificant and wanting to be significant, you must not be significant. I think that pushes you to not be satisfied with who you are and pushes you to be the best person you can be.”
Foster said it was the social lessons of Yale that stuck with her the most. “I can’t give you one fact from a history class; I don’t remember one theory. Somebody said, ‘Pythagorean,’ and I was like, ‘Who remembers what that is?’” said Foster. “I really don’t remember one thing, but I feel like I learned more as a human being here than really anywhere else. It really was those human lessons, and some of them were incredibly painful.”
Guido asked if she has kept in touch with her college friends.
“My friends are my Yale friends,” said Foster. “I’ve made a few new friends but not too many!”
Dumb luck, directing, and Time’s Up
“I’m just really lucky. I understand that the reason I’m standing here with that dumb, boring, long resume is that I had a lot of things handed to me because it was the right time,” said Foster.
Citing writer Malcolm Gladwell’s assertion that it takes 10,000 hours of practice to become world-class in any field, Foster acknowledged that her success was due in part to “what I put into it, but a lot of it is just the dumb luck of being there at the right time. My work as an actor was at the right time because I was a 3-year-old, 4-year-old, 5-year-old who wore my brother’s sneakers and had a husky voice and wasn’t going to act like a girly girl, and that was very unusual in 1966-67.”
“As an actor making a transition to directing,” she added, “there really hadn’t been very many women at that time. Because I had been a child actor, I had this opportunity to work with these men who felt like they were my dads. I was given opportunities that most women directors were not given at that time because I wasn’t a foreign face. It’s just incredibly lucky that I had people who believed in me. Most women directors don’t have that story.”
“When I started making movies and television, I never saw another female face – ever. I saw the lady who was my makeup artist – and occasionally script supervisor – and the lady who was playing my mom. Otherwise, it was just me and a bunch of guys. And that changed very, very slowly, that there were technicians that were women. But directors? It’s almost not changed now. I mean, I’ve only made one movie in my whole life where the director was a woman,” Foster said.
Guido asked the actor for her response to the Time’s Up movement – the movement founded earlier this year by Hollywood celebrities that calls for an end to sexual harassment in the wake of #MeToo.
“I’m so psyched about this time because I think there’s a consciousness in the culture that’s rising,” said Foster, “and it’s really painful. It’s a really painful transition time. It’s painful for men; it’s painful for women. It’s painful for young women. I think Millennials have difficulty understanding ‘Who are we supposed to be and what are we supposed to say?’”
“Those are very tough questions, complicated question,” she noted. “Like lots of social justice movements, you want to heal right away, but if you look at what happened after slavery or during the civil rights movement — I mean we’re still processing the end of slavery and understanding that there are so many bits and pieces that weren’t healed. That’s why I always like to talk about Desmond Tutu’s ‘Truth and Reconciliation’ in South Africa that they did after apartheid. They said, ‘We’re all going to sit in a room and talk about what really happened from everybody’s perspectives, so that we see the entire, full complexity of the human experience.’ So anyways, that’s a long-winded way of saying I don’t have a soundbite for this moment in time.”
Making art and meaning
Guido asked Foster if she had advice for aspiring actors or filmmakers in the room.
“For actors,” she said, “the biggest thing I think is that you think you always have to not be yourselves. There’s this impulse as soon as you’re out there to bleach your hair like everybody else, or pull your face the way everybody else does, or make your voice sound like this other person. But the most important thing is really your true self. Finding that, really finding out who you are through other characters, it’s a lifelong pursuit.”
She added, “A lot of actors have to struggle at the beginnings of their career with all the coolness — acting is the least cool profession in the world. You have to embrace being quirky because you’re going to have to dance badly with a fake mustache on.”
“Filmmakers, you just have to do it more,” she said. “These days that’s really easy. These days people have cameras, they have iPhones, they have computers. We didn’t have all that. We actually had to go and learn the equipment. Now, you just have to get out there and do it. If there’s anything I’m unhappy with in my career as a director is that I’ve done so little of it.”
In closing, Guido asked Foster about her Cecil B. DeMille award acceptance speech at the 2013 Golden Globes, and what she meant by “my writing on the wall.”
“What is a signature? What do I stand for? What is meaningful, what do I think is meaningful about my life?” asked Foster, rhetorically.
“That is a life-long journey. I think the best way to figure out what your signature is is to do things that you love and are drawn to for reasons that might be entirely unconscious, keep doing that, and the suddenly look behind and go, ‘Wow, there’s a pattern.’”
“For example,” said the alum, “I did probably five or six movies where I was a rape victim before I suddenly turned around and said, ‘I sure do a lot of movies where I’m getting raped. What is that? Why am I interested in that?’ I had to go back and really look at the history. Not just my history but my mother’s history, my grandmother’s history. What part of that was instinct? What part of that was telling their stories? Me as an instrument of their survival?”
“When you do art, when you make a movie, you get to decide what the beginning and middle and end are. You get to make a decision about what is closure, what is closure to you. So this idea of a signature … you’re saying, ‘This is who I am,’” she said.
“That’s why I make personal films. ‘This is who I am.’ Every one of those characters is some part of me,” said Foster. “That’s why my movies don’t have a bad guy and a good guy. Everybody’s a bad guy and a good guy. Everybody’s point of view matters and everybody’s point of view should feel fully human and authentic — and fully complicated.”