TV discussion

Black Mirror: Foster holds up ‘Mirror’ to society

Jodie Foster didn’t know anything about Netflix’s Black Mirror before she discussed the dark anthology series with the powers-that-be at the subscription-based website while looking for a project told in short-story form. With two Orange Is the New Black episodes and one of House of Cards already to her credit, she didn’t expect to find the perfect project in the fourth season’s premiere episode, “Arkangel.”

“It was kind of strange that it was so perfect for me,” Foster said during a December TimesTalks live conversation series in New York City.

The two-time Oscar-winning actress-turned-director’s first move was to immediately binge-watch the first three seasons of the show. And she quickly got hooked.

The same thing happened with the episode’s star, Rosemarie DeWitt. The 46-year-old actress, who has a 4-year-old daughter and a 2-year-old daughter, has admittedly been choosy about her projects. With only family fare as Moana and Cars on her radar, she didn’t know about the power of Black Mirror. Doing the show was a no-brainer, she said. “It was perfect writing … and it was Jodie.”

Unlike many of the Black Mirror tales, “Arkangel” starts a mere two minutes into the future. It revolves around a device used to the safety of children. And as the tale unfolds, the mother at the center of the story lives vicariously through her daughter, raising all sorts of questions about the lines between parents and their children.

Part of what Jodie found so intriguing was that the main character’s relationship with her daughter seemed to reflect her own mother’s attitudes – when it came to a movie camera instead of a futuristic device – during her own early years in the film industry.

As late as the ‘90s, Foster’s mum was still trying to keep a hand in her acting career. When her mother expressed disapproval of Jodie’s choice to dye her hair black for the Oscar-nominated performance of the title character in Nell, she told her mom point blank to stay away for three months. “You put fear in me,” Jodie recalled. “If I have fear, I can’t do my job.”

DeWitt, who said she took baby monitors out of her kids’ rooms when they were three months old to respect their privacy, also understands the “gauzy place” between mothers and daughters. “That panic moment when they’re out of your sight line … there’s just layers upon layers.”

This particular story needed to be told with a female bent, both director and lead agreed. “It’s a different movie with a son,” Jodie explained. “When you have a boy, you’re raising a man, something you’ll never be.”

But with women, the thought process tends to be more circular and less linear, DeWitt added. “There’s not a lot of dialogue, most of what’s said is said without words.”

“Arkangel” serves as a real cautionary tale, DeWitt said and fans of Black Mirror will recognize that designation fairly well. “We’re living in an age of fear … and there’s an opportunity to use technology for safety,” she explained.

Worse yet, it’s a monster we created, Foster pointed out. “Technology is attempting to give you what you ask for,” she said. “…But we don’t realize that we’ve created things that think millions of times faster than we ever could.”

Still from the first episode of Black Mirror Season 4, directed by Jodie Foster

The Yale graduate is no slouch in the thinking department, though. She’s directed kids often, and does so in this story with relish. Foster said her approach is much the same as with adult actors. “[You do so] with respect and all that, and then occasionally you say, ‘Look at my finger, look at my finger’ or ‘Do what I do, do what I do.’”

She never gets too tied up in what she would do in her actors’ shoes. Even if there’s an occasional moment of “Move over, let me do that,” she loves the mystery of the portrayals. Part of that might be because Foster said she’s never bowled over by her own performances, she’s pleased with them but never knocked out. “I just get what I anticipated.”

DeWitt isn’t so sure. “She could act the s-h-i-t out of this part,” she said of Foster, adding that as a director, “It’s like having a good mom. It’s magical, there’s a lot of freedom. It’s dreamy.”

Foster admitted her career ambition was to become a director, even though she knew a lot about its inherent difficulties. “Every decision is yours, you have to see big picture at all times,” she said. “As a performer, the hardest thing is never knowing if you got it right.”

And those who want to see her act again will get to in short order. Foster laughed that she’s being called upon when someone has a female character with wrinkles. She described her part in the upcoming futuristic feature, Hotel Artemis, by first-time film director Drew Pearce as an almost-70-year-old shut-in. “There’s only so many years you can do the exact same thing over and over again,” she said. “But I still love [acting]. So when I do it, please go.”

The multi-tasker has the utmost respect for Black Mirror creator Charlie Brooker, who has written all the episodes. How does he do that? “Nobody can figure it out,” Jodie laughed. “He is chained to his typewriter most of the time.”

Her favorite episodes of the anthology so far have been the complicated, emotional ones — “The Waldo Moment,” “White Christmas,” and the show Foster described as a real indie one, “Shut Up and Dance.”

DeWitt agreed with that supposition, adding “Playtest” and “Be Right Back” to her list of favorites. “There’s something to like in all of them,” she said.

Maybe, but during the TimesTalks question-and-answer session, one fan had a point to make about plotlines not delving into character of the companies employing technology. “I’m gonna take that one back to Charlie,” Jodie said. “I’m going to send him that, ‘cause he’s always looking for new ideas.”

“I think you’re going to get a story credit actually,” DeWitt added.

All six episodes of the fourth season of Black Mirror will drop on Netflix on 29 December.

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