LOS ANGELES -- Some cinematic karma involving mishaps to a couple of actors from Down Under brought Jodie Foster and director David Fincher together in "Panic Room," which opens Friday.
Nicole Kidman's recurring knee injury early last year left Fincher without his lead actress on the thriller ''Panic Room'' three weeks into shooting.
A few months earlier, Foster's latest directing effort, the Depression-era circus tale ''Flora Plum,'' was shelved after star Russell Crowe injured his shoulder while training for the film.
With the deadline approaching for a potential actors strike, Fincher needed a name actress fast to keep his production from being shut down. Two-time Academy Award winner Foster unexpectedly happened to be out of work.
Within weeks, ''Panic Room'' resumed shooting with Foster in the lead.
''I kind of like jumping into films. I like being on the spur of the moment,'' Foster said in an interview. ''I also knew that unless they found somebody kind of my stature in the next two weeks, the film was going to be canned because there might be an actors strike. I really liked the script, and it was important for me to do that for David Fincher.''
Co-starring Forest Whitaker, Dwight Yoakam and Jared Leto, ''Panic Room'' follows a mother and daughter who take refuge from burglars in a fortress-like sanctum inside their Manhattan brownstone.
The character mutated somewhat after Foster signed on. Initially, the newly divorced mother had been envisioned as a bit more helpless, Fincher said.
''I think Jodie Foster can do anything except maybe play helpless,'' Fincher said. ''I think she's worked without exception in the 35 years of her career to bring characters to life who are smart and thoughtful and capable and curious. Kind of all these good qualities, yet ravaged by certain realities. She's not willing to play the unrealistic hero who has no faults.''
''Panic Room'' is the first film in more than two years for Foster, 39, who has scaled back on acting because of directing projects and commitments to her two sons, the youngest born last September. Since ''Nell'' and ''Maverick'' from 1994, Foster has starred in just two films, ''Contact'' and ''Anna and the King.''
Foster decided against doing ''Hannibal,'' the sequel to ''The Silence of the Lambs,'' which had brought her second best-actress Oscar (the first was for ''The Accused''). At the time, she was busy preparing to direct ''Flora Plum,'' but she also was uncomfortable with how author Thomas Harris had developed her character, Clarice Starling, in ''Hannibal.''
''It's not the same character,'' Foster said. ''Thomas Harris just went to a different place with this one.''
Besides ''Panic Room,'' Foster has a supporting role as a stern nun in ''The Dangerous Lives of Altar Boys,'' a teen drama opening in limited release in June. She also is a producer on the film, one of the last coming from her production company, Egg Pictures.
After a 10-year run that included such films as ''Nell,'' ''Waking the Dead,'' the TV movie ''The Baby Dance'' and her second-directing effort, ''Home for the Holidays,'' Foster decided to close down Egg Pictures.
She said producing became too much of a chore and she wanted to focus on her family, directing and the occasional acting job.
''Producing is just the worst job. The only reward you can really claim as your own, the only one which is truly yours and no one else's, is whether the movie does well at the box office, and I don't make those kinds of movies,'' Foster said. ''I'm never going to make 'Titanic.' It's not who I am.
''Most of what I did as a producer is philanthropy, giving an opportunity to young filmmakers to be protected, to help them and to use all of my connections in order to let them have THEIR films.''
Foster got her start at age 3, as the Coppertone girl in tanning-lotion commercials. Her early television work included ''The Courtship of Eddie's Father'' and ''Paper Moon.''
A role in Martin Scorsese's ''Alice Doesn't Live Here Anymore'' was followed by Foster's Oscar-nominated turn as a teen-age hooker in Scorsese's ''Taxi Driver'' in 1976.
In the early to mid-1980s, Foster slowed down to earn a literature degree at Yale. After she graduated, she had impressive performances in the small-scale films ''Five Corners'' and ''Stealing Home.''
Her career was flagging, though, and she resumed an internal debate she'd had since childhood about whether writing, directing or studying political science might be more to her liking.
''I never thought I wanted to be an actor. I always thought I wanted to be something else, so I was always looking for other things,'' Foster said. ''I figured I would do it while I'm a kid, and it was the way I knew to make money. I don't mean that in a crass way. It was just the only skill I had.''
Foster viewed 1988's ''The Accused,'' in which she played a gang-rape victim, as her last try. She had applied to graduate school and was ready to say goodbye to Hollywood.
Then ''The Accused'' took off, earned her an Oscar, and was followed in 1991 by ''Silence of the Lambs'' and Foster's directing debut, ''Little Man Tate,'' in which she also co-starred.
''I kind of got this one last crack at it,'' she said. ''Part of me just hated this idea of letting it go and not being necessarily successful at it as an adult. And it was like my ego in a weird way that made me want to make that last try.
''Then once 'The Accused' did well it kind of changed me. I realized that no matter what I did, as an actor or something else, that I had to be in the movie business.''
Foster still hopes to direct ''Flora Plum,'' and she's been developing a film in which she would star as director Leni Riefenstahl, who became a pariah after World War II because of her masterful propaganda films for Adolf Hitler.
Unlike most actresses approaching 40, an age when choice parts for women become scarcer, Foster is content to take an acting job every few years when the right part comes along.
''I've been in the business for 36 years, 37 years. I think everybody naturally after about 35 years reaches a stage where they just have a different perspective on it,'' Foster said. ''Most people aren't my age when they reach that stage, so I think that's what confuses people, but it's just that I've been in it for 15 years longer than most people my age.
''I think I just reached a point where I wanted to make movies because I cared about them and because it was something I hadn't done. It's hard to find movies that you haven't done when you've made so many.''
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