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Jodie Foster Shares 9 Behind-the-Scenes Facts About ‘Silence of the Lambs’

Clarice Starling was the role that the actress knew that she had to play


For many, when you think of Jodie Foster you can’t help but reflect on her performance as FBI cadet Clarice Starling in Silence of the Lambs. It’s certainly a subject that kept a gathered audience of nearly 1,000 riveted when the film was presented at the TCM (Turner Classic Movies) Film Festival held in Hollywood this past April.

The 1991 film sees Foster’s Starling being recruited by her superiors to convince serial killer Hannibal “The Cannibal” Lecter (Sir Anthony Hopkins) to help them track down another killer, nick-named Buffalo Bill (Ted Levine), before he murders his latest kidnap victim. What’s so powerful about the film is the developing “relationship” — as twisted as that sounds — between Lecter and Starling, with each of them drilling deeper psychologically into the other, peeling back the layers of who they are. Though, it should be said, Lecter seldomly gives up much.

Prior to the screening of Silence of the Lambs, Jodie Foster appeared on stage with TCM host Ben Mankiewicz to discuss the film as well as her approach to acting in general.

Anyone who has seen the film, comes away with the sense that Foster inhabited Starling as much as she does many of the characters she’s played in an incredible career that began in 1968 in a pair of episodes of the Andy Griffith Show spin-off, Mayberry R.F.D.

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1. Silence of the Lambs director Jonathan Demme was amazed at how Jodie Foster could effortlessly ‘become’ Clarice Starling

Anthony Hopkins, Jodie Foster, 1991
Anthony Hopkins, Jodie Foster, 1991©Orion Pictures/courtesy

“I didn’t go to acting class,” the actress explained at that screening, “so I had to develop a procedure or, I guess, a technique myself in order to concentrate. I’ve learned that what i need to do is drink a little coffee and then I need somebody to say, ‘Action!’ And that’s kind of it.

“But sometimes there are little tricks we can do. If I have a character who speaks a certain way or sits a certain way, has a certain mannerism, maybe I will do that just as a clapper is coming in; just as we’re going in for a take. And then that gets me back into whatever the character’s like.”

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2. Jodie Foster has a specific accent in Silence of the Lambs

Jodie Foster, 1991
Jodie Foster, 1991©Orion Pictures/courtesy

Explains Foster, “I did work a lot on the accent, because I love that kind of stuff. Everybody has their own way. Some people need to listen to music, for example, and that allows them to feel fearless and have confidence to start with something. I am not good at having to concentrate for long periods of time. As an actor, I can’t do that, so I need breaks. I’ve learned that about myself. I can sometimes distract the other actors, so I’ve learned to stay away from ’em, because I’ll be telling jokes or I’ll be telling some story or just be hanging out.”

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3. Jodie Foster desperately wanted to direct Silence of the Lambs

Actress Jodie Foster, poses during a 1988 photo portrait session in Los Angeles, California
Actress Jodie Foster, poses during a 1988 photo portrait session in Los Angeles, California George Rose/Getty Images

When she read the script for Silence of the Lambs, Jodie Foster found, as an actress, the material was irresistible. “It was an absolutely, intellectual, emotional, spiritual attraction to the material,” she says. “A writer friend of mine had mentioned the book. I read the book and I immediately tried to buy it so that I could try and make it a film. I found out that Orion Pictures had the rights and that they were going to make the movie with Gene Hackman directing his first film. The script was being written by Ted Tally at the time.

“Gene was not only going to direct it, he was going to play Jack Crawford, the Scott Glenn part. So I said, ‘I guess I can’t buy the book, but I want to be considered for Clarice Starling.’ Then Gene Hackman read the first draft, decided it was too violent for him and there was no way he could do it, so he dropped out. And within 10 seconds of me calling the studio and saying, ‘I’ve heard Gene dropped out, I’d really like to direct it,’ and I was told they had already given it to Jonathan Demme, who had just finished Married to the Mob. “

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4. She actually pleaded to be the second choice to play Clarice Starling

Director Jonathan Demme and Jodie Foster in a behind-the-scenes shot from 1991's Silence of the Lambs
Director Jonathan Demme and Jodie Foster in a behind-the-scenes shot from 1991’s Silence of the Lambs©Orion Pictures/courtesy

In the years before Silence of the Lambs, Jonathan Demme had made a name for himself directing what Jodie Foster calls “quirky comedies” like Swing Shift (1984), Something Wild (1986) and Married to the Mob (1988).

“When I heard Jonathan Demme was going to direct it,” she admits candidly, “I thought, ‘Oh, no, this is terrible news. Not only is he a comedy guy, but he’s gong to want somebody else for the part,’ which was true. And, knowing that Michelle Pfeiffer [who had starred in Married to the Mob] would be his first choice, I got on a plane, flew to New York and said I’d like to have a meeting with him.

“I sat down with him for whatever it was — 15, 20 minutes — and said, ‘This is why I would like to be your second choice. If anything should happen to her, if somebody breaks her legs…” He did laugh, and she ended up not doing the movie. I think if you have that much connection with material, you need to make that known.”

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5. Silence of the Lambs tapped into Jodie Foster’s belief of art being “choreography” and “the dance”

Silence of the Lambs Promotional Art, 1991
Silence of the Lambs Promotional Art, 1991©Orion Pictures/courtesy

In art, opines Jodie Foster, there is choreography and then there’s the dance. “Two sides of the equation,” she says, “and we have to juggle both. One part is the intellectual side, where you talk about your intentions and you make decisions and you make choices. As a director you say, ‘I want it to be black and white,’ or ‘I don’t want the camera to move, or I want the camera to move all the time so that it feels kinetic.’ You create these intentions, these choices, and that all hapopens before you say, ‘Action!’

“When you do say, ‘Action!,’ you just have to dance and feel. And a good actor, I think, can juggle between the two and have a strong intellectual side that’s able to make good choices and a strong emotional side that’s able, in the moment, to feel those things at that time. That’s really the beauty of Silence of the Lambs — it’s an incredibly intelligent text; the original book was really interesting. But there’s such feeling and intuition behind it as well.”

6. Everyone involved recognized that the project was something special

Anthony Hopkins as Hannibal Lecter, 1991
Anthony Hopkins as Hannibal Lecter, 1991©Orion Pictures/courtesy

“The second that first draft script came out of Ted Tally’s typewriter, we all looked at it and said, ‘This is perfect. There’s almost nothing to change.’ And almost nothing changed from that first draft. As each person came on, they were all just immediate yeses. I think that’s why we all did the best work of our life. Sometimes we’ll never reach that height and in a way it was all downhill from there. Sometimes it’s a once in a lifetime experience to feel that way.”

7. She was proud of the connection between Clarice Starling and Hannibal Lecter

Hannibal Lecter and Clarice Starling getting into each other's minds, 1991
Hannibal Lecter and Clarice Starling getting into each other’s minds, 1991©Orion Pictures/courtesy

When Jodie Foster and Anthony Hopkins were performing their scenes in Silence of the Lambs, they understood how special it was. “We didn’t know if the audience was going to think so or agree with us or whether the film was going to be successful,” Foster states, “but I think we felt pretty proud of this strange, complicated relationship that we had found that was sort of like a father-prodigal daughter. But then there was this odd — because they’re a man and a woman and he was a monster — strange, dangerous sexuality about it as well that’s hard to describe.”

8. The dark basement of the climactic scene was anything but

Jodie Foster, 1991
Jodie Foster, 1991©Orion Pictures/courtesy

In the climax of Silence of the Lambs, Jodie Foster is in a pitch black basement, gun in hand, the Buffalo Bill serial killer watching her with night goggles and ready to kill her. He doesn’t.

“What people don’t realize is that when we were shooting that scene,” notes Foster, “it’s a fully flood-lit room. If you look carefully, you’ll see the camera’s shadow.”

9. She believes Clarice Starling’s “superpower” is that she’s compassionate

Clarice Starling, 1991
Jodie Foster as Clarice Starling, 1991©Orion Pictures/courtesy

“Her power is not that she’s big and brawny, it’s that she’s compassionate for the victim,” muses Foster, “and that she’s willing to open herself up in terms of vulnerabilities. To understand that the killer is a human being, which is something that many of the other characters in the film won’t do. They keeping wanting to say he’s a monster. That Hannibal Lecter is a monster and Buffalo Bill is a monster. And her power is to say, ‘No, he’s not a monster. He’s one of us. He’s a human being. We need to examine what the reasons are that he makes the choices that he does.'”

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