Older Articles
South China Morning Post
Cover: Monday Focus
December 20, 1999

JODIE FOSTER, MOVIES AND MOTHERHOOD
Filming Anna and the King in Malaysia was a scary prospect, the actress tells David Cohen ahead of its Hong Kong premiere.
Perhaps no other actress commands as much respect and affection in Hollywood as Jodie Foster. She acts, directs and produces films with equal skill. The film business is unanimous in praising her artistry, professionalism and intellect.

So it seemed out of character in the spring of 1998 when she dropped out of the lead role in "Double Jeopardy" at the last minute, without explanation. She turned out to have a legitimate excuse: she was pregnant. Her son, Charles, was born that fall, and it would be a few more months before she could return to work.

Then when she finally did go back to work, she had not acted for almost 2 years. She was not sure that she would be still be up to it.

"I was worried," she admits. "I was just worried I wasn't going to care. And the truth is that when you're extremely tired and you're trying to do two things at once, if you have to give something up, you'll give up the work, because he's just more important."

"My priorities are different. I don't worry as much about whether the sun's going down, or whether somebody's yelling on the set, or whether somebody's late. Your focus is always on him, no matter what you do."

Foster is promoting her new film, Anna and the King, but she rarely does interviews now. "I have time for the creative part of my job," she says, "but I don't necessarily have time for the business side, for the image stuff."

She is also fiercely private. Until now has not discussed motherhood or her son with the press. In fact, her only public word about her pregnancy was a March 1998 statement that she would not discuss the identity of the father or "the method" of fertilization.

If she has a lover or companion, she does not say so. She is a 37 year-old single mother _ a rich, successful and secure single mother, but single nonetheless.

Another actress with a new baby might have chosen to return to work in a small movie, filming close to her California home, something convenient and cautious. Not Foster. She packed herself and her son off for six months in Malaysia, filming an epic romance that would take her to several cities, mountains and tropical jungle.

"I was scared at first," she remembers. "I thought, oh my God, did I make this big mistake? I thought of it as this great adventure that (Charlie) would enjoy and he would learn things, and then I got there and I thought this was a big mistake, it's so far, it's a 23 hour flight, and it's so far from my mom and my family."

"And very quickly he just thrived. He just had a great time and was happy and never got sick and enjoyed every minute of it. We really made good friends there. It was a wonderful escape for me with him, because it was just sort of us and nobody else. It was nice."

The real Anna Leonowens had a more difficult time. The young English widow came to the Thai court with her young son in 1862, hired to teach the King's children. After several years in Bangkok, she returned to England with no husband, little money and few prospects. She supported herself by writing a series of articles on her experiences. They proved so popular that she expanded them into books.

Many experts and historians doubt the veracity of Leonowens' stories, yet her saga caught the attention of Hollywood and was filmed in 1946 as "Anna and the King of Siam," with Rex Harrison as King Mongkut.

That led to the Rogers and Hammerstein musical "The King and I." Yul Brynner's performance as the King became a legend but "The King and I" thoroughly infuriated the Thai government. The film is banned there to this day.

Foster calls the criticism understandable. "They don't like to see a leader who was that important dancing and singing and basically kowtowing to white woman. Rightfully so, because he didn't. It just wasn't true."

"King Mongkut, at this time that she knew him, was a 65 year-old man who had spent 20 years of his life as a monk, travelling everywhere in Southeast Asia with a begging bowl, spoke five languages, negotiated treaties between countries. He was an extraordinary leader, and they're very sensitive as to his portrayal."

The new film strives to be more respectful, if not quite authentic. Firstly, it is the first version of the story to feature an Asian actor in the role of the king. This script was written with Chow Yun-Fat, and has been in the works since long before his American debut in The Replacement Killers. Mongkut might not be 65, but he is dignified and courageous.

Anna is also more flawed than her screen predecessors, which meant that the role demanded a skilled actress. Foster now seems like the obvious choice, but as director Andy Tennant remembers, she was not the first choice.

"Nobody was really sure if she was back in the movie business or not," Tennant recalls "She'd just had a baby, and she hadn't done a movie after Contact, and so she wasn't really on the list. When we found out Jodie Foster liked the script, it was like, you've got to be kidding."

For her part, Foster wanted the role for several reasons. First, she had been travelling in Thailand the year before and fell in love with the place. Second, she had never done this kind of epic film, and was intrigued by the idea.

Most of all though, she says, "I really wanted to make a movie about Asia from an Asian perspective. I didn't want to do another kind of colonizer movie in India where people drink tea and have affairs with each other."

The new Anna and the King is bigger and more exciting than the earlier versions. There is more danger, as King Mongkut struggles against English military adventurism and faces an internal revolt that threatens his life and his children. There is more ambiguity; Anna is shown as more flawed and makes some serious mistakes.

There is also more scenery, as Anna travels throughout the kingdom, by horse, barge and elephant. Unfortunately, it is the scenery of Malaysia, not Thailand. Plans to shoot in Thailand had to be scrapped due to Thai government objections.

"They did like the original script and they made some comments originally when we were going to shoot in Thailand." says Foster. "But they had a bureaucracy problem. They could just never make it work."

"I think that whether they allow the movie to be shown in their country or not, they'll be happy with it, because I think it really shows Mongkut in a true light."

Anna and the King is mostly Chow Yun-Fat's film, as director Tennant is quick to admit. "He has the more colorful role. He has all the funny lines. He doesn't carry any of the baggage that Jodie's character does."

"But Jodie, much to her credit, very much wanted to play Anna rigid, a woman who couldn't get out of her own way. I thought that was a brave choice, because most actors like to be the likable one. Jodie wasn't like that at all. She wasn't afraid to be a little arrogant, a little full of herself, a little wrong. So Yun-Fat was able to get in there and steal the movie."

For her part, Foster is happy to put aside being liked and focus on a complex love story between two mature people. "They're not kids who come together and are trying to make out. These are people that have a real sense of continuity, a sense of the kind of sacrifice that they would have to make to love each other. So that's why they don't do it, why they give it up. Which I think it a really kind of interesting, noble, more mature look at a love story."

"They sacrificed their own personal lives for the good of the society. That's not a very popular idea anymore, because we believe that our pleasure and our happiness is really important. I believe that. I don't sacrifice my happiness for very much. But that wasn't Victorian times."

Shooting Anna and the King was arduous for everyone involved. Sets were spread across several cities. Production had to be shut down briefly when Tennant shattered his fingers in an onset accident and Foster cracked a rib during the same week. The film fell behind schedule and some scenes were never shot, to Tennant's frustration.

The chaos was made more bearable by the kindness of people she met in Malaysia. "They love children," she explains, "So you could really take him to a restaurant, and I could put him in my lap and he'd fuss or whatever and the waitress would say no that's okay, give him to me.' And I'd eat the rest of my food and then she'd give them back.

"They really really like kids. Which is not necessarily true of Europe. Europe is a lot harder to be with children than in Asia."

She loves to travel and to read, speaks several languages, yet snorts at stories about how brilliant she is _ "You don't believe em, do ya?" She also admits to some diversions that do not fit the intellectual image.

"I watch TV. I never used to watch TV, but I watch TV now," she says, a bit sheepishly. "One of my great guilty pleasures is Married... With Children.' I love that. And that's like a real lowbrow comedy. I watch the reruns of it religiously. I watch shows that I've seen five times, I watch them over and over again. And The Simpsons. My lowbrow things."

At work, though, she is very careful to choose roles that make a difference in the world. " I don't know, maybe I'm being foolish and romantic, but I think movies can change things. Maybe in a small way. But I think they have the opportunity to inspire people to grow and to think about things differently and to be changed, and I want to be a part of making things better, not making them worse."

What, then, would she like audiences to think about with Anna and the King? "I hope that they're inspired to travel, you know, to go places and to really learn about other cultures and to be curious. So many Americans, because it's such a big country, never go anywhere. So they don't have a real wide understanding of what's happening in the world. They're really missing out, because it's just so interesting to find out about other cultures."