Mauritanian, The: Jodie Foster on her Political Biopic–Elegey for Lost America?

The Mauritanian:

Courtesy of STXfilms

Jodie Foster in ‘The Mauritanian’

“I’ve never been a big fan of biopics, I just don’t like the form, Jodie Foster says about her choice of screen roles. “I really prefer making films about ideas, and then being able to shape the character and the story. I tend not to do biopics because I feel like there are things I want to change and you can feel stymied by real characters because you can’t make them do things they wouldn’t normally do.”
Her new movie, The Mauritanian, is the exception. Directed by Kevin Macdonald, it’s based on the true story of Mohamedou Ould Salahi, a terror suspect held for 15 years in Guantanamo Bay without charge. Foster plays Nancy Hollander, the defense lawyer determined to give him a full defense.
She’s quick to point out that in a career spanning almost half a century, she has played only one factual part, in the 2000 Anna and the King. That tale has received many iterations, including the Oscar winning musical, The King and I, which became Yul Brynner’s signature role. But Anna had been dead for centuries, and she was a big liar, so it was easy for me to fabricate who she was.”
But the Mohamedou case was “so interesting, and its extraordinary story so nicely crafted, like a real dramatic film, that I was totally drawn to it. The Mauritanian opened up a world to me that I didn’t know much about.”
There were other reasons that facilitated her selection: “First of all, there’s the provenance of Kevin Macdonald (The Last King of Scotland), who was already signed on, He’s somebody I’ve always wanted to work with. I really thought he would be the right director for this particular movie, do it like a documentary, bring to his customary non-judgmental approach, and the specific way he navigates as a filmmaker.”
Additionally, when she heard that the acclaimed British actor Benedict Cumberbatch (best-known for his Oscar nominated role in the biopic The Imitation Game) was already aboard, “it made my decision pretty easy to make.”
I do have to mention that Nancy Hollander is actually a lovely person, whereas my Nancy Hollander is a little meaner, not very polite. The real Nancy is very soft spoken and speaks very calmly, and she has warmth.
But I thought it was important to create a character that in some ways exaggerates certain parts of her and then subdues other parts of her. I play her as more guarded in terms of her personal connections with clients, because she knows she’s there for a very specific mission. But this was a special case for her that she’ll never forget. Even though I dress like her in the movie, and we look a little bit alike, the real Nancy is a lot nicer than my Nancy.”
“Nancy’s got this prematurely silver hair for a good portion of her life, and she always wears red lipstick, even when she went to Guantanamo, and those nails. She was kind of a contradiction. She likes to drive race cars, and she likes to listen to country western music, and to step dance. It was wonderful to honor that, because I think that normally, if you would have created a character like that you would never have given her the nails or the hair or any of that stuff.”
But this story was so incredibly meaningful, and I really wanted to be a part of bringing Mohamedou to the screen. I wanted people to love him and know this Muslim man who has been portrayed as a figure of fear and terrorism, to see him as a real guy who is affectionate, and flawed. He still has so much humanity, the ability to forgive his captors, that’s really an amazing story to bring to global audiences.”
She feels that “this film is has a lot to do with 9/11, with the fear and terror that inspired the government’s reaction. We decided that we would stop a second terror attack by any means necessary, even if that meant incarcerating thousands of innocent people, just to get Arabs off the street. I mean, which is essentially what they did, almost they let go almost every single detainee in Guantanamo after 10 years, or however many years. But they did this knowing that this was illegal, that it did not live up to the Constitution or the Geneva Convention, which they just threw that out the window, because they were so scared.
“We have dark parts of our history, like the Japanese imprisonment internment camps, that are very much a part of who we are, and we need to examine them, and really come to understand our part in it much like we did after reconstruction with Jim Crow South. We had to look at that and realize what damage we’ve done.
Foster began her career as a child model before making appearances in such films as Scorsese’s 1976 Taxi Driver, for which she received her first Oscar nomination playing a teenage prostitute. Since then, she has been in some of the most iconic films of the past three decades: The Accused, in 1988, for which she received her first Best Actress Award, and Jonathan Demme’s The Silence of the Lambs, which swept all the Oscars in 1991, including a second nod for Foster as Best Actress.
Over the past two decades, her acting career has slowed down for a variety of reasons, there’s a paucity of meaty roles for women her age (she’s 58) and she has become more picky. 
Foster has learned how to separate her professional from her domestic life: “It’s a skill I adopted over the years. What I carry with me is the obsession with an idea, talking a lot about the research and books I’m reading as preparation. To make full commitment to a role, you have to be obsessed, so I kind of bring my obsession home, but I don’t bring my character home.”
The new movie brings both painful and joyous memories about the traumatic 9/11 attack: “I’m an American and I was around during 9/11. I was pregnant at the time, I was on bed rest, and I was due to have the baby in a matter of days. It was a very particular moment in my personal life.”
Foster singles out the fact that “our film deals, perhaps obliquely, with the residual effect of what 9/11 meant to Americans and what it made us become. It’s a way to process this weird transformation our country went through, when we went from being innocent about our effect abroad to this tragic moment that would lead to the “War on Terror,” sort of a political war we waged against whoever we determined was going to threaten us.”
This story plays out through the experience of one guy, Mohamedou, wrongfully-incarcerated inmate at Guantanamo, and what happened to him there. He was caught in the wrong place at the wrong time, who coincidentally had connections to this world that led to him being kidnapped and having 15 years of his life taken away for no reason.
“I don’t love political movies unless they make emotional connection, and I think this film really lives in that
arena because it’s about the amazing journey of Mohamedou, who he was before he got there, who he became while detained, and how he emerged from that. He wrote five books in Guantanamo, including his memoir on which the film is based, so our movie is a testament to Mohamedou and to his faith. When you’re in a situation like this, and you don’t have anything else, faith is what keeps you from devolving into the worst of yourself. He became the best of himself. When you meet him, you see a funniest guy, and for all the tragedy he faced, his sense of humor is remarkable, and that allowed him to transform out of these terrible circumstances.”
Initially, they had many Skype and Zoom calls, and he would check in with us. Kevin was able to travel to Mauritania to meet him. Then, by some miracle, the South African government was like, “OK, we’ll get you a visa.” He just showed up, and we didn’t know until maybe a couple of days before he got there.
Foster met him in person, when he visited the set: “We didn’t think he was going to be able to come to South Africa, where we shot, because after he was released, they retained his passport. He wasn’t able to leave Mauritania, even to go to Germany to visit his newborn son for almost two years almost.”
He had an amazing time in South Africa, and Nancy was able to be there with him, and the two of them were like an old married couple. They played tourist around Cape Town, and we got to have some good with them.
In 2010 she wrote a piece for the New York Times in which she spelled out why she saw it as her duty to defend individuals accused of terrorism. She had faced criticism for helping inmates like Mohamedou preserve that right.
Guantanamo Bay is not a prison; it’s a detention center. The detainees were just people who had been turned in by people in their communities who had responded to an ad from the U.S. government that said, ‘If you suspect anyone of terrorism, call this number.’ That’s it, that’s all they had.”
“To me, the only point for acting now is telling stories with meaning. I’ve been doing it for a very long time, and I’m picky about what I choose to spend my time on, because I’m older and there are other things in life I want to be doing. As powerful as the art form is, I only want to do it when it feels meaningful.
In this film, though there was real responsibility, I said to her, “Look, I could do an imitation of you, but I don’t think it would be interesting.” I think it’s more interesting to present the facts about her that were important to the story, which ultimately is Mohamedou’s story. There are things that aren’t included about Nancy that are absolutely fascinating about who she is, and they could be great for another movie, but not this one.
One of the most creative things you do when you make films is to pare away what’s not essential and to really figure out what tapestry of a story you want to tell, especially in a film that’s an hour and a half long. If it’s an eight-hour long series, then it calls for different kind of sensibility. But really good storytelling means taking things out.
As for her estimable co-star, she says: “Tahar Rahim is so pure and he has this great energy that he brings to set. When people ask me what I love about making movies now, it’s sitting in a room with a guy like that and being able to witness and support someone who is giving the performance of their life. I feel like it’s not my time; it’s my time to support him. It’s so exciting to finish the day and go back to your hotel room and remember what he brought to the scenes that day.”
“It was a hard shoot for Rahim, as his partner had a baby during the shoot: “He would finish a scene and jump on a plane and spent maybe 10 days with the baby, and he had to lose 15 pounds and come back and shoot the torture scenes. He’s not a native English speaker, though he speaks English well, and he doesn’t speak Arabic at all. And then they had to change the schedule on him because I got really sick—I had this terrible flu—and suddenly he had all these monologues to deliver. The poor guy got dealt every difficult blow.”
Foster seems to accept the new movie culture as a reality: “As artists, we do what we do in any format, whether that’s on an iPhone screen or a movie screen. I don’t really care, if it still allows me to express myself as an actor. The pandemic has been, and will continue to be, a major blow. But you have to let go of some preconceived ideas that we hold from our own nostalgia about what movies are. For me, movies are going to a theatre, like I used to do with my mom, and bringing a snack, and maybe you see a double feature. That’s all going to be different now, and that’s OK.”
She says “The new movie is very relevant to my kids today.” Foster has two sons, Kit Bernard Foster, 19, and Charles Bernard Foster,17, with her former partner Cydney Bernard. “The story of Mohamedou happens when you throw out the rule of law, the Constitution, the founding elements of our democracy to pursue revenge. We have been living with a lawless government for the last four years that disregarded constitutional norms and democracy.”
Summing up the appeal of The Mauritanian she says: “Our feature is rare because it treats a Muslim in a humanized way. You fall in love with him as a protagonist, and for me, that’s reason enough to make the movie. It’s satisfying to feel like we’re making the world better by sharing these stories.”