Jodie Foster knows that you can’t talk about The Beaver without addressing the elephant in the room: the unholy mess of Mel Gibson. In the movie, which Foster directed, he plays a walking disaster whose manic bid for redemption, via a puppet, makes his family, and viewers, cringe. There’s no disputing the scary power of his performance. But you can’t watch it without being reminded of Gibson’s own demons, and his need to salvage a ruined reputation—especially with lines like “people seem to love a train wreck.” Foster won’t deny that Gibson’s story upstages the one in the movie. “And is that a bad thing?” she asks rhetorically, sitting down with me in Toronto last week. “I don’t think it’s a bad thing. But I don’t know.” Then the 48-year-old Foster, crisply attired in pale blue shirt and black slacks, just laughs. “I don’t have any choice. The good news is that I’m not the distributor. It’s not my job to market the film.”
Well, in a way it is. Foster, who plays Gibson’s distraught wife in The Beaver, has been busy burning up the promotion trail while her star lies low. Gibson, who is locked in a custody battle with ex-girlfriend Oksana Grigorieva over their daughter, pleaded no contest to a misdemeanour battery charge and was sentenced to three years’ probation and a year of counselling. That was in March, days before Foster attended The Beaver’s South by Southwest festival premiere without him. After its release was postponed three times, the film finally opens here this week. And it’s likely Gibson will brave the red carpet for a Cannes premiere this month. “I think Mel’s going,” says Foster. “The French love him. They were like, ‘Did he have a scandal?’ They don’t know. They honestly don’t know.”
A family drama spiked with dark comedy, The Beaver is the story of Walter Black (Gibson), a severely depressed toy executive, whose wife and teenage son (Anton Yelchin) have abandoned him as a hopeless case. After hitting bottom with booze and pills, and making a pathetic attempt to hang himself from a shower rail, Walter gets his mojo back via a bossy alter ego—a beaver hand puppet with a cockney accent. Eerily empowered, Walter charms his younger son with a new-found passion for woodworking, and rejuvenates his sex life and his company. But there will be blood before bedtime.
The script, by novice screenwriter Kyle Killen, was a tough sell. “If the movie was starring Johnny Depp, and was not really about depression but about a puppet,” says Foster, “people would have been in line to make it.” But Gibson, she says, “brings the rawness of somebody who really understands struggle. It’s a beautiful side of Mel I’ve known for a long time, this real connective tissue, this deeply emotional man who has a broken side to him.”
The day that the tapes of Gibson’s horrifically abusive phone calls to Grigorieva were leaked to the press was The Beaver’s last day of filming. “It was a reshoot of the most important scene in the film,” she says. “ It’s the father-son scene at the end. It wasn’t fun. It was hard. God love him. He went to work and gave his two best takes. Both are in the movie. Then he got on the plane and left.”
Was Foster not at all angry with him? “He’s part of my extended family,” she sighs. “When somebody’s struggling, my first impulse is not to take the heel of my shoe and smash him into the ground. It’s to throw my arms around him and say, ‘It’s going to be okay,’ even though it’s probably not. Look, I’m a celebrity and I’ve spent my entire life in the public eye since I was three. And I’ve had to do a lot of awkward fighting to have a life that didn’t feel like a reality show, as has he. You can think what you think about Mel Gibson, but he’s not Lindsay Lohan. He’s a very private man who has raised a lot of great kids. He’s made extraordinary films. He’s the most beloved person professionally you will ever meet. That’s the man I know.”
Is serving as Mel’s public defender not beginning to wear thin? “It’s not frustrating now,” says Foster. “But I’m sure at some point I’ll curl up into a ball. It will hit me. Probably in a week and a half.”