TORONTO — Mel Gibson can relate to the emotional turmoil that envelopes his latest leading man role — that of a husband and father undergoing a tortuous mental breakdown in The Beaver, says long-time friend and director Jodie Foster.
In fact, striking parallels between Gibson’s private life and his starring turn as a disturbed man who can only communicate through a beaver hand puppet is a big reason why he agreed to take the unconventional part, Foster said during a recent visit to Toronto.
“I think when he read the scene of a broken man sitting in a hotel room with a bottle, hugging the television set (and saw) the patheticness of that, of wanting to change and feeling like a loser and not knowing how . . . I think he understands that from a completely core place in his life,” said Foster, who stood by the 55-year-old star during recent ugly scandals that included accusations of domestic abuse.
Nowhere in Gibson’s thinking was the hope that such a risky role would rejuvenate his frayed public image, adds Foster, who also stuck by Gibson when he reportedly made anti-Semitic and sexist slurs in 2006 during a drunk-driving arrest.
“When he takes roles as an actor, he doesn’t think about his persona any more, he doesn’t have to. He’s worked as long as I have and the only reason for him to act is because he loves it and because it moves him.”
Gibson has been plagued by scandal for much of the past decade, but very little of his recent woes actually occurred during the nine-week shoot last fall, said Foster, pointing out that Gibson and ex-girlfriend Oksana Grigorieva welcomed a baby girl during filming.
It was after shooting wrapped that Grigorieva accused Gibson of hitting her during a fight at his Malibu home in January 2010, resulting in a charge of misdemeanour spousal battery.
As part of a plea deal, Gibson was put on three years’ probation last month and ordered to get domestic violence counselling for a year. The plea did not include an admission of guilt.
However, Gibson was in the middle of a bitter custody battle when he returned to set last summer for reshoots, said Foster. On his last day of work, telephone recordings were leaked online in which Gibson appeared to unleash a series of sexist and racist rants against Grigorieva.
Foster refused to comment on the incidents, saying only that she can vouch for the man she befriended when the two co-starred in 1994’s Maverick.
She said the two had long conversations about his career, his passion for emerging film technologies, and of course, his personal trials.
“He’s a great friend. He’s interesting, he’s incredibly loyal, an incredibly deep thinker and (he) understands struggle,” she said.
Gibson was the first actor Foster went to with the role of Walter Black — the head of a failing toy company whose chronic depression estranges him from his angry teenage son, played by Anton Yelchin, and forces his long-suffering wife, played by Foster, to kick him out of the house.
Drunk and suicidal, Walter is drawn to a beaver puppet he digs out of a liquor store dumpster and ends up wearing it on his left hand. It’s not long before he assigns it a Cockney accent and insists that family and co-workers address him solely through the stuffed proxy.
For a while, the move appears to turn everything around. Through the puppet, Walter emerges from his gloom, reconnects with his family, and revives the fortunes of his ailing toy business.
Foster said the complicated role required Gibson’s deft touch.
“I know that he was right for a number of reasons: one, because he can do the humorous side and he can do the light thing and do the beaver thing with the accent and allow the audience in that way,” Foster said.
“And he has that kind of star lightness, a lightness of touch. But I also, as a person, know how deep he can go. Look at him as a filmmaker — Apocalypto, Braveheart, Passion of the Christ — he’s an extremely deep filmmaker, somebody who does understand emotion on screen and he was wiling to trust me.”
Foster said she consulted mental health groups including the National Alliance on Mental Illness to adequately represent depression, something she noted is little explored in mainstream film.
She added that the heavy subject matter made the script a tough sell in Hollywood, even though it topped the 2008 Black List of best unproduced screenplays of the year.
Of particular contention was a pivotal scene in which Walter takes drastic steps to confront his illness directly. But Foster said there was no way she would compromise on her vision.
“It was clear there was only one independent studio that said yes to that scene. All the others, the requirement was: ’We don’t want that scene in it.’ So the producer even went out of his way to generate a script that did not have that scene in it and I said, ’Well I would never make that film.”’
“The Beaver” opens in Toronto on Friday. It heads to Vancouver and Montreal on May 20 and additional cities on May 27.