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Ruminating Spirit: Jodie Foster on Depression, Healing and the Human Condition

by Katrina Gay, NAMI Communications Director

Advocate Winter 2011 coverThe Beaver, an upcoming comedy-drama directed by and co-starring Academy Award-winner Jodie Foster, is the story of a man living with depression and its impact on his family. The film explores the complexity of personal challenges many people struggling with depression encounter as they journey on their path to healing. NAMI had an opportunity to view the film pre-release. Recently, we had the privilege of talking with Jodie Foster about her interest and experience with this project. Following are excerpts from this discussion.

Why did you feel it was important to undertake this project?

Sometimes, you are drawn to things and you don’t know why. You have some idea of what they are, and then they touch you for unknown reasons. At first they are conscious, and then, little by little, there are other things there. Like all of the movies I have made, in The Beaver there is a real discussion of loneliness and its impact on our lives, how to survive it and accept it as a human condition, how to hold onto others. It is part of my own struggle in my life. On one hand, there is something incredibly beautiful about being alone. No one is with you when you are acting—it is an oddly ecstatic situation and unlivable at the same time.

These two things intersect in the film. There is this father who has a serious mental illness that probably requires treatment. He is sinking further down with his condition, and he thinks he only has two options: a life sentence and a death sentence. He feels powerless to feel anything anymore. He takes this desperate act to live by having the beaver [puppet] do what he can’t, and that is connecting with his family. It is a crutch for him and very much a lifesaver. It enables him to be all the things he is not: a positive and successful person. And over time, he realizes that this prop is taking him over and he has no voice at all any more. He becomes destructive, and his family can no longer accept it.

The movie is also the story of a son and his lifetime of living with his father, as well as the impact of his illness on his wife. The truth is that all of the family members are solitary and all incredibly alone as a result of this condition. The end of the movie is in some ways where the healing process begins, when they are finally able to accept their solitariness and bind together.

still from The BeaverDid you do any sort of special research on depression in order to prepare for this project?

I read a lot, obviously. Depression is a part of all of our lives. Everyone has experience with it either in their own families or with friends. I had a lot of personal connection to this topic.

There is a scene in the movie where your son’s character displays signs of deep depression and your character gets really tough with him, as your character was focused entirely on your husband. I would love to hear your thoughts about doing that scene, not only from the perspective of director and actor, but also as a mother.

As a mom, it is complicated. The scene could have gone, “Honey, I am so worried about you, could you please get off the couch?” But this is not how it happens in life. Instead it goes, “My God, you are going to play video games all day! All day?” She is worried for him and it comes out in a way that tells us that she does not know what to do. We relate because we don’t always have answers. At that point, she looks at it as passivity and not necessarily depression. In reality, the son, unbeknownst to her, is desperately afraid of inheriting his father’s mental illness. He is very afraid.

Did making this film change the way you view depression or your understanding of what families dealing with depression are going through?

It is something I came in with. When you are acting and you squeeze everything out of the sponge, however, you learn much more about it. I took this very personal topic that I have a lot of feelings about and I say everything there is possible to say about it. It deepens my understanding and sympathy, and I can see myself through all of the characters.

The notion of the ruminating spirit has had a big impact on me with regard to this topic. There is the type of person who sees a problem, tragedy or complicated situation and instead of running from it, they ask questions. Why did this happen? Let me think about this in 500 ways. Let me write about it. Let me examine, examine, examine. In some way, I believe that some depressed people show that they have the propensity to ruminate, in some cases on sadness. We know that depression is a serious thing; it is not just about sadness, and there is nothing romantic about it. In part, this is why I do dramas. To face tragedy and sadness is more effective when I don’t run from it. There is some correlation between the ruminating spirit and people with depression that I think is intriguing. There is a line, of course, when it is very dangerous with depression, and that is part of what the movie addresses as well.

In discussing the film, you repeat a theme that is so prevalent at NAMI, and that is a message of hope, that “you are not alone.” This is so familiar to many NAMI members. Through their own experiences of pain and achievement, successes and failures, they reach out to others to offer help and hope in communities all across the country. Some say this is part of their own healing process, that the shared experience offers them, and others, comfort. I was thinking of this when I watched the film.

Yes, the film does take that path. In the beginning, it is almost comedic—a man sleeping all day, over and over. He is just sleeping, all alone. He has children and a family, but he is so very alone. Through the course of the movie, as he moves through an attempt at suicide and then recoils from it, the beaver puppet offers a way to connect. The family is so desperate that they join in. And after another series of painful experiences, at the end of the movie there is reconciliation between the character and his son, two of the loneliest people in the movie. And it is then that the healing begins. Healing begins even when [there is], or in spite of, the absence of easy answers.

What do you want other people to know? If you had one thing to say to NAMI members, what would it be?

There are many people out there who have the capacity to understand depression and mental illness. We can’t give up on one another. We are not alone in this experience and in this life. We are born with comedy and tragedy, and that is, in some ways, the human condition. But, at the end of the day, we have each other.