Thursday, December 22, 1994 - Page updated at 12:00 AM

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The Story Of `Nell' -- Jodie Foster Plays An Isloated Woman With Open Emotions

Jodie Foster made an auspicious directing debut three years ago with "Little Man Tate," in which she also played the mother of the precocious title character. But she won't do both jobs again.

"It's so tiring, you only get four hours sleep a night," she said by phone from San Francisco. "It's OK if you're a supporting character, but I don't know how people do it."

Although she's directing the new Holly Hunter movie "Home For the Holidays," she won't appear in it. She plays the title role in "Nell" (which opens here Sunday), but her behind-the-scenes involvement was limited to co-producing the picture with Renee Missel.

This time Foster, who turned 32 last month, has cast herself as an isolated backwoods woman who has developed her own language. After her mother dies and she's forced into coping with civilization, she is befriended and studied by a doctor (Liam Neeson) and a psychologist (Natasha Richardson).

"I've played a lot of characters who were very layered and socialized, people who used their brain to protect themselves," she said.

"This character is totally the opposite. She doesn't know you're supposed to be ashamed. She's direct and emotionally available, something I never thought would come naturally to me."

Oscar comparisons

Still, critics have drawn comparisons with the storyline of "Little Man Tate" and with the independent women Foster played in "The Accused" and "The Silence of the Lambs," the movies that won her Academy Awards for best actress.

"People say I've done outsiders, marginalized by this society, and Nell would fit into that category," she said. "But otherwise she doesn't share a lot with the boy in `Little Man Tate,' or other parts I've played."

She sees Nell's naivete as quite different from feral children ("She's not a wild child") or autistic characters ("She was not abused").

"You try and not think too much. You try and feel a lot, and I tend to think so much. I had to develop a kind of emotional connection, an availability, the sense of someone who wants to connect. No amount of research will tell you how to do that."

Directed by Michael Apted, a British filmmaker with a feeling for non-urban stories ("Coal Miner's Daughter," "Gorillas in the Mist"), it's quite a switch from her last two pictures: "Sommersby," in which she played the initially suspicious wife of a man who claimed to be her long-lost husband (Richard Gere), and "Maverick," in which she and Mel Gibson played con artists trying to outwit each other.

"It's a pretty big chasm, isn't it?" she laughed.

While the filming of "Sommersby" was physically grueling, and she didn't make another film for 18 months, her recent experiences have been much jollier: "I had so much fun on `Maverick' that by the end of it, I didn't feel I needed to take six months off to recuperate."

She went directly from the set of "Maverick" to the North Carolina locations of "Nell," though she was convinced the remoteness of the place would lead to the cabin fever she experienced on the rain-drenched Virginia locations of "Sommersby." She also wasn't sure she could play such an innocent.

"I was really panicking about what I was gonna do. It's been more of a personal challenge, certainly. I thought I'd finish the movie a mess, but it was probably the easiest thing I've done. You're lucky to get to play a character who's this open."

Seattle origins

The script by William Nicholson ("Shadowlands") and Mark Handley is based on Handley's play, "Idioglossia," which was given its first professional performance by Seattle's Group Theatre in 1987. Missel saw a 1989 Los Angeles production and started developing it.

"Renee has this incredible knack for finding raw, interesting, almost weird theater and seeing a soul there. She found Mark and tracked him down. He had written the first screenplay, and we talked about where it needed to go."

She sees tremendous differences between the play and the film. For one thing, Nicholson discarded the language that Handley used and came up with his own invented words. For another, the movie spends most of its time outdoors.

"The play was set in Washington state, all in one room," she said, "and it was much more interested in the phenomenon of male fantasy. What kind of woman would this man dream up in a vacuum? In the play I don't think Nell was meant to be someone who really existed. She was not rooted in reality, which is why it's theater."

Nevertheless, she says Handley is happy with the changes: "He wrote me the most beautiful letter about how much he loved the screenplay, and how it honored where the play came from and how it took it to a different place."

Crucial cut

Earlier this fall, she saw the film several times at test screenings, including one at the City Centre in Seattle that encouraged her and Apted to make a crucial change.

"We had a prologue that we felt just bogged down the opening of the film," she said. "After the Seattle screening we took it out."

Apted, who has established almost a separate career as a documentary filmmaker ("35 Up," "Moving the Mountain"), went after the film rather than waiting for Missel and Foster to come to him. So did Neeson and Richardson.

"Michael came to us," said Foster. "It's amazing how many people will come to you, want to direct, want to be in a film, when a script gets Xeroxed and passed around.

"Liam was one of the first people on our list anyway. I'd known Natasha since her dad (the late Tony Richardson) had directed me (in `The Hotel New Hampshire'), but I don't think we knew they were together at the time we were casting. She has such intellectual authority. She doesn't have to put on glasses and a funny hairdo to suggest someone who's gone to college."

Jeremy Davies, the young star of "Spanking the Monkey," is the only actor who had to be talked into making the picture. He plays Billy, a scrawny bully who discovers Nell and torments her.

"He's so great," said Foster. "We're so lucky. People kept telling me how great he was in `Spanking the Monkey,' but he didn't want to come in. He thought he had to be big and athletic. He had a complex about not being a big jock."

Does Billy ever come back to bother Nell? And what happens to Nell during the years that pass quickly at film's end?

"I think the movie does a really nice thing," said Foster. "You're allowed to ask has she changed, has she been able to remain intact? I love the ending, knowing that there's something that she's lost and she'll never have again. The final image is so bittersweet."

Copyright (c) 1994 Seattle Times Company, All Rights Reserved.


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