In Hotel Artemis, the directorial debut of Iron Man 3 writer Drew Pearce, Foster’s Nurse runs a private high-tech medical facility inside a retro Los Angeles hotel. Set in the year 2028, violent political protests have led to all-out warfare between cops and civilians in the streets, and all the cities’ top assassins head to the Artemis to get their bullet wounds patched up. Nurse and her buff assistant Everest (Dave Bautista) attend to Sofia Boutella, Sterling K. Brown, Brian Tyree Henry (Atlanta), and Charlie Day’s criminals, while Jeff Goldblum’s big bad arrives to cause more mayhem.
When I spoke to Foster over the phone last week, she told me there were a few reasons Hotel Artemis drew her back to acting – not that she ever really left. Part was tackling a genre she hasn’t done before, part was the emotional story central to the Nurse, who’s grieving for a son, and part was the makeup job, which ages up the 55-year-old actor a couple decades. “I was really looking for something that felt more like a transformation and felt more like a character performance,” she told me.
But don’t get too used to seeing Foster back on screen; her main passion remains directing. She told me why she’s most excited about developing projects for streaming – Foster is totally cool with you watching her work on an iPhone – and how she’ll take a hard pass on directing a superhero franchise anytime soon. I also asked Foster about an old photoshoot for The Silence of the Lambs that resulted in a delightfully absurd publicity shot of her as Clarice Starling holding a real-life lamb. As it turns out, that photo was a potential option for the film’s poster.
It’s really exciting to see you back on the screen and acting again.
It was actually really fun. It’s not like I had a plan somehow to not act, it’s just that I really wanted to focus on my directing. The balance – it used to be, when I was younger, the balance was 10 percent directing and 90 percent acting. I think that has flipped now.
It’s been five years since your last role. Were you just waiting for the right script that spoke to you to call you back to acting?
Yeah, pretty much. I mean, I read everything. I am a crazy reader and I’m quite creative about it. In fact, this script I just sort of found mysteriously. It wasn’t even out in the agencies or available. Because I’m so picky, I have to really pour into things. And sometimes I’ll flip roles or I have to think creatively. I was really looking for something that felt more like a transformation and felt more like a character performance; not so much carrying the film on my shoulders and doing the same kind of genre that I have done before.
This does feel like a departure from the roles most people know you for.
Yeah, I think that’s the fun part. And I really was looking forward to that. I kept asking around like, “I’d really like something that feels more of a physical transformation.” So it is amazing putting on a little fat pad and some teeth and a wig and all of that stuff. It really forms the character and allows you to show a different side of yourself and have more fun.
How intense was the makeup and physical transformation part of the process?
Not that intense. I would love to tell you that I spent four hours in prosthetics, but actually not quite. [Laughs] But yeah, there was a lot that went into it, and it was a little painstaking because we didn’t have the money to do something that was very elaborative in terms of prosthetics, so everything had to be hand drawn. And knowing how little time they had to shoot the film, I mean really, it was only shot in 30 days. It really had to be something that was imperceptible to the naked eye.
In many of the action-intensive roles you’ve played, you’re front and center in the action. But here, Nurse is the caretaker while the rest of the cast gets in on the action.
Yeah, it’s an ensemble, which I love. I’ve done a lot of ensembles as a director. In a way, that’s really my bend, as a director. That’s what I have always loved, great casts. And that’s a testament to Drew and what he was trying to do. Part of the movie is this sort of kick-ass, sci-fi, action film, and the other half is this vintage hazy nostalgic look at movies from Hollywood in the 1920s, 30s and 40s. It’s amazing how he was able to marry those two, and part of the way he did it was using the style of the actors. Using these different acting styles and bringing them together within this place that almost feels like a fable.
The way that I conceived it as a movie, it was really like a parable of all these people caught in this gilded cage that they can’t get out of. Everybody’s protesting too much. “I am a healthcare professional.” Or “I am the assassin.” Or “I fix people, I can’t do anything else.” It’s this identity that is rooted in this idea of meaning and destiny and iconography of “This is who I am.” It really felt to me like [the characters] were stuck in limbo and they weren’t accepting that they had to let go of this life and move on. Especially Nurse, who’s plagued by the ghost of her past and still trying to redeem how that all went down. By trying to fix other people, maybe somehow she can magically bring her own son back. This woman is on this sad and tragic hamster wheel, going around and around, continuing to fix people in ways that she wasn’t able to fix her own child.
Based on the trailer, which sells this as fun action sci-fi, I was surprised at how emotional the story ended up being. You get some really raw moments in this.
I always liked that part. For me that’s the whole point of acting. I’m not sure I would bother acting if it didn’t have that. I might go see movies that don’t have that, but I really don’t want to bother acting without there being an emotional center. That’s what was so nice about Nurse’s story and also with [Dave Bautista’s] Everest. This kind of mother-son love story between the two of them, where you get this feeling that she sort of took them off the streets where he was headed in a bad direction and gave him a purpose. He’s this pouty teenager who’s indebted to her and loves her and would do anything for her, but is also kind of grumbling that mom is telling him he can’t put his feet on the couch. I just thought that one moment where they have this hug where her face goes into his tattooed bicep, I though that was, I don’t know – for me, it was this moving center of the movie.
Has spending the last few years focused on directing informed your acting at all? Do you have a director mindset when you act now?
I think I always have, really from the time I was a little kid. If anything, I’m the least likely person to be an actor. It was my family business and I started at three, but I don’t have that personality. I’m not that person. I don’t want to dance on the table for everybody or do impressions. Like I said, it was never my personality and it’s always something I had to struggle against to do my job. I always saw movies more as a director. It’s an interesting job to combine those two things, the intellectual side, the physical side and the emotional side, you know? You have to be able to work in all three directions. Acting, obviously much more physical and emotional, and directing, much more intellectual.
After doing TV and a big studio film, where do you see your directing career going from here?
I don’t know. I’m much more interested in streaming and cable at this point. I just feel like that’s really where the kind of narrative that I love is right now. And the opportunities to tell stories, and for people who are really interested in the story and really strong scripts and strong narrative. I sort of feel like that’s the direction I’m headed in. I think this is the golden age of television right now. I was very lucky to have lived in the golden age of cinema in the 70s in America. I just feel like TV and streaming is where it’s at right now.
Has streaming offered you more possibilities than you’ve found in the studio system with film?
Well, strangely I get offered a lot of features. It’s really the direction that theatrical films are headed right now. It’s just a weird transitional moment that we’re experiencing. I’m not saying that it’s good or bad, it’s just different. The kinds of movies I want to make are more geared towards streaming and cable.
Are you interested at all in a franchise films, or more in projects that are more personal to you?
I don’t think those are necessarily the only two goals that are out there. But no, not interested in the franchise hero, superhero movie at all. It’s just not what I do. I’m glad other people do it and there’s always been those kinds of films, and there will always be those kinds of movies. It’s just now there’s been kind of, there’s a word for it in business where features as a business model have been more keen on, 95 percent of what they do is $200 million plus action films that appeal to all four quadrants that are these high-risk action films. It’s just not what I do. It’s not what I’m interested in as a director.
What I think the great contribution of a director is, is not how he uses a crane or how he helped choreograph a fight scene. I think that the greater contribution of a director is the understanding of character and how to build a story from beginning to end that has an arch that’s moving. I think those things are better served on the small screen right now. And that’s fine. Honestly, because I’m an artist, I mean it’s just the best scenario because I don’t really care whether it’s on an iPhone or on a big screen or on a home screen. The medium is less of a problem or of interest to me that what I get to spend my time thinking about and doing.
Do you have anything lined up to direct next yet?
Uh, no I don’t. I might be starting something in the fall, but I’m not sure yet. So I never talk about it. But no idea. I’m not one of those people who … I think I was when I was a kid where, you know, I worked all the time. I’d do four movies a year and people would make me multitask, but I don’t enjoy that. I really like having the experience of making a film and then going, “Huh, I wonder what I’m going to do next?” I’m not really interested in juggling 10 things at a time and some directors live that way. You look at somebody like Ridley Scott and it just amazes me. I mean, the guy, he might even be 80.
Yeah he’s 80 now.
Right, and he is at all times in post, in prep, and in production on three different movies. That’s amazing to me. Like I just don’t know how somebody does that. I have no idea how that’s done. That’s not me.
It must be nice to be more selective and take more time on projects at this point in your life.
Yeah, it’s a privilege really to be able to do that, but I think that it makes your films more singular and that’s the way I focus. I’m a hyper-focused person. I just focus on one thing at a time.
So you may not remember this, but my site recently did an article where we collected a bunch of old promotional movie photos that have nothing to do with the actual movies. One of my favorites is from The Silence of the Lambs. It’s a photo of you holding a real lamb, which is just hilarious. Do you remember that photo shoot at all?
Yeah. You know, Jonathan Demme was super creative and he did not want to leave the campaign to the studio. So he organized a series of photo shoots while we were doing the film as tries for what might happen on the poster. One of those was Clarice as the lamb. And the reason why was because, you know, Lecter in his cell, he kind of like paints the virgin… he paints these Italian Renaissance drawings. So one of his Renaissance drawings is Clarice and Clarice is like a woman carrying a lamb. So they thought, well, he’s going to draw that thing anyway, let’s do the photograph of it.
So they brought in the lamb and they did all that stuff, but we also, that very same day we did kind of like a poster try where they put up a plexiglass and then they put all these moths on the other side of the plexiglass and shot me through it. And a couple of other ones where Lecter is standing behind me and you can’t see his face, but you just see his eyes over my head. We shot all these different things.
When it came time to do the poster, Jonathan had worked on all of the materials himself, created it himself with the graphic artist and graphic designer, and then presented it to the studio and said I think it should be this one. And if you’ve ever seen The Silence of the Lambs poster, it’s pretty amazing. It won every award. But he had to do all these other crazy poster tries in order to get to that one image.
Hotel Artemis opens June 8.