chat room

Jodie Foster and Rosemarie DeWitt on Black Mirror’s Terrifying Episode About Helicopter Parents

Jodie Foster and Rosemarie DeWitt. Photo: Getty Images

Spoilers ahead for the “Arkangel” episode of Black Mirror.

Jodie Foster didn’t choose which sci-fi horror story she’d direct for the fourth season of Black Mirror. But after helming episodes of House of Cards and Orange Is the New Black, as well as films like Money Monster and The Beaver, Foster wound up with one that she calls “the perfect movie for me,” a story that explores the way “technology reflects our own psychology” and compels her to think of her “fraught” relationship with her mother, Evelyn Ella Almond, who was her longtime manager.

In “Arkangel,” a single mother turns to technology to keep her child safe. She implants a tracking device in her daughter’s brain, which allows her to see and experience everything her child is seeing and experiencing. Played by Rosemarie DeWitt (Rachel Getting Married, United States of Tara), the mother becomes paranoid after temporarily losing her child at a playground. The episode follows their relationship from childhood to adolescence.

Foster and DeWitt spoke to Vulture in October in Los Angeles, weeks after sexual-assault allegations against Harvey Weinstein broke. They opened up about motherhood, the feelings that “Arkangel” evoked in them about raising children, their relationships with their parents, and the #MeToo watershed moment.

“Arkangel” takes helicopter-parenting to fascinating heights. What attracted you both to the episode? Why did you want to work on it?
Rosemarie DeWitt: I really wanted to work on it because Jodie was directing it, full disclosure. I wanted to do a Black Mirror. It’s so cool.

Jodie Foster: They handed this one to me, so I didn’t get to choose. I kept saying to my friends, “I cannot believe they handed me this movie because it’s the perfect movie for me.” It really is. I came from a single-parent family, a single mom, and my relationship with my mom was very deep and significant. It really was such an enormously foundational thing for me. She worked with me in my career, so that’s even more interesting. And it’s the most beautiful relationship of my life — and the hardest. The one that required the most struggle and the most work as the years went on. So I had a lot to say about this.

And also being a mom yourself?
Foster: Yeah, but I have boys and mine are older. And even I really related to the whole thing. You think about every aspect of that as a parent and also as a child. Every time you tell your child to do something, you are reminded of your relationship with your parents. It’s a circular thing. We’re always reminded. And there are so many small moments with my children that are impossible to describe to people — the effect that they had on me.

I remember the time my son had to have his tonsils out and tubes put into his ears. And as he’s going down, the guy is putting the thing on his nose. He’s 4 years old. He keeps saying to him, “We’re going to count backwards. We’re gonna meet an astronaut; here comes the astronaut!” And my son is like, “Yay, yay, yay!” You know he’s counting, and then he looks at me, and suddenly he realizes that something’s happening to him, and he looks at me with this utter betrayal and terror. And I absolutely start sobbing and he goes under. He thought he was gonna die, and I can’t explain to you what a huge moment that was in my life. It was the hardest thing in the world. It was like putting a dog down or something. No, a child. And then the child is looking at you, saying, “Are you killing me?” I can’t explain to him that it’s gonna be okay. Horrifying. Those moments. Those little, tiny, subtle moments. To be able to find a film like that where you’re able to, almost like Ingrid Bergman, look through those tiny, little moments for the secrets of that relationship.

We can track kids on their phones. This mom goes a lot further.
DeWitt: The question is, do you want it? Do you need it? Certainly, our experiences are what make us who we are. But then again, I had a moment last night. I was putting my 4-and-a-half-year-old to bed, and she wanted to sleep with a compass around her neck, but it was on a string. And I was like, “Absolutely not.” She started throwing down hard about it. And I was about to burst into tears. I looked at my husband and was like, “Please tell your daughter why she cannot sleep with this around her neck!” [Laughs.] My mind went to such a scared place, and she needs me to be really rational to explain it. It is really primal, sometimes.

Foster: What’s interesting about technology, of course, is keeping the child safe, but the by-product is that you get into your child’s body and have the experience that they’re having when they’re not with you. For all intents and purposes, you are always inside the body of your child. I had a mom who lived through me in a lot of ways. It was a very complicated relationship. I was an actor, and I was doing all the things she could never do.

DeWitt: And perhaps having some ownership of it with you.

Foster: The mother doesn’t even realize the impact of that, really. There’s an unconsciousness about that, about how she’s being fulfilled in ways that she was never fulfilled in her own life.

All of the little things are mind-blowing, like shielding her from the barking dog. You realize this little girl is missing out on so much.
DeWitt: Then you have a moment where she starts to exhibit some behaviors like, “Oh my God, is she gonna break?” from this sort of not-human experience.

Foster: It’s a lot of interesting questions about child-rearing, but also about being a woman and how we raise women, and what fears we bring based on our own lives. My child will never live what I had to live. I want her to not have to know that she’s continually sexualized, or that she’s lesser than, or that she’s not strong enough. I want her to not have those references, but there’s a price that she pays for not having those references. In some ways, she’s built the perfect monster, but then the monster is like, “Stop holding on to my leg or I’ll kick you in the face.”

DeWitt: She ends up with a kid who’s really craving these experiences, and in some ways, especially when we talk about female sexuality and young girls, she’s the initiator and the curious one. I think that it’s handled very deftly because the mother is reading it wrong.

Foster: She’s seeing her as a victim.

DeWitt: She’s seeing her daughter as victimized, but she’s not. She’s seeking out early experience. Natural curiosity about sexuality, and the mother’s fears and stuff are blinding her to the situation.

There was that interesting line from the grandpa character about how he remembered just opening the door and letting his daughter play, but now everything is arranged for kids, even their playtime. He was warning his daughter about what she was about to do.
Foster: But the answer to that is also really interesting, when she says, “Well, yeah, remember when my arm was broken and bleeding?” It’s interesting to hear a man say, “Well, God, I remember when we used to call girls tomatoes! And we used to have not-integrated bathrooms. I mean, come on! What’s up with this new way?” Actually, a lot of people were in pain and were suffering while you were just blindly going through your lives.

DeWitt: There’s also something about the dad saying it, too. My father had nine children, and when I had my first, he said, “None of my kids got up in the middle of the night.” And I remember thinking, You didn’t get up in the middle of the night! Every kid gets up in the middle of the night! There was a different way that men were involved in parenting, and like you said, they were unwatched and kids had to sometimes navigate out of their depth. So it’s all degrees.

Foster: For me, this is — it’s just rich. That’s Charlie Brooker. It’s amazing that he goes from writing the Christmas episode to “The Waldo Moment” to writing something so small and specific and subtle and rich, and I hope that Black Mirror audiences will appreciate the gift that they’ve been given, that one show gives them the opportunity to explore so many different types of storytelling. I love that about The Twilight Zone. I love that there’s this Burgess Meredith episode — it’s in black-and-white and it’s all incredibly tight — and then you’ll go to one where there’s a monster and know that they were exposed to so many different types of filmmaking, instead of sticking in your bubble and saying, “I just want to see the show about the meth heads” or whatever. Hopefully, people will like that. Hopefully, they won’t be like, “I don’t want to watch the girl episode.”

DeWitt: You might have some 21-year-olds who are like, “I don’t want to watch.” Although I do like our episode for that reason. I do feel there is a very rabid young base for Black Mirror that will very much identify with the daughter character because of the invasiveness they feel with their parents trying to control their moves on social media.

Did making this episode change how you want to raise your little girls?
DeWitt: They’re still really little, but you can’t bury your head in the sand around technology and kids. By the time you understand what something is, it’s too late. There’s a part of me as a human being, and certainly as an actor — I’m not on Twitter and Facebook and all these things — but I can’t ignore them because it’s not realistic to expect my kids are gonna think they’re lame. They’re gonna think they’re awesome! [Laughs.] So I’ve just slowly started to lean into technology in that way so that we can be in dialogue in relation to technology.

I’m wondering how you’re both feeling as women in the business, after the last few weeks we’ve had. How are you feeling about everything that’s come out? Is it troubling? Empowering? How are you doing around this?
Foster: It is an empowering moment. At the same time, there’s so much to say about it, and there are so many incredibly brave people that have come forward to speak truth to power that don’t have the opportunity normally to speak truth to power. But I do hope that there’s a movement toward truth and openness and communication, and that we’re hopefully becoming a better society. Awareness, social justice — that’s what we hope for. To be better and not worse, but with that transition toward the light. There’s a lot of darkness out there.

DeWitt: For people who were personally involved, it really feels like it’s theirs to speak on. But as a woman and talking to my friends and girlfriends, it’s really hard right now. There’s a lot of anger and a lot of sadness just coming up around how everybody relates to the #MeToo campaign or the dance of inappropriateness around unwanted attention around your sexuality. It’s a painful time that I hope becomes a really empowering time. I don’t know that it’s felt super empowering. I think the feeling around it has been grief.

Foster: Women have had amazing conversations, even with men around the table. There isn’t a woman I know who can’t say “me too,” and some guys are surprised by that.

DeWitt: And that hurts, too — that they’re surprised and don’t understand it, because I felt that we were having a shared conversation, and I don’t want us to pass the buck onto specific people. I want us to really look at what we can do to change the culture going forward because it really is an imbalance of power. It’s whenever someone with power is using it to hurt other people.

Foster: And that can be a Supreme Court justice. It can be a driver. It can be somebody who works for you, that you pay! I’m saying this because I was harassed by somebody who worked for me that I paid! “What’s he doing? What’s wrong with me? Why was I paying him?” Until the day where I was like, “This is crazy.” So, it’s not our industry. It’s not just our industry.

DeWitt: If you’re a woman of a certain age, you’re having so many “this is crazy” moments. The fact that you didn’t know it was crazy at the time also feels crazy.

That’s been one of the most enlightening parts of this. We’re all looking back and wondering why we didn’t see these incidents for what they were when they happened.
DeWitt: One girl said to me, and I’m gonna steal it right now: “The empowering thing is that we like ourselves enough now to feel entitled to really step out with it.”

Foster: This is a new time. We have things like human resources, which we didn’t have. I made The Accused how many years ago? That was an important conversation for people to hear. When you get raped, should you be asking yourself, “Should I have had that third glass of wine?” Really? Is that the question you should be asking yourself? Is that the question that you’ll be asking for the rest of your life? “Did I deserve it because I had a third glass of wine? Or because I was wearing those shoes? Because I didn’t bring a girlfriend with me?” Those are the conversations that women have in their mind.

DeWitt: Now that we collectively start to look that the question should be about the perpetrator and not the woman, it feels that maybe that’s shifting.

Foster: We’re women, so we get to play women all the time. We get to think about women’s stories and what propels us. And what are the forces behind the psychology of who we are? So much of that is foundational for who we are, so it’s an interesting conversation.

Right, because now we’re also talking about the woman who does try to speak up and instantly becomes the problem. She’s the one who pays for it — not the person committing the wrong act. This seems like a new concept to some people.
Foster: Welcome to women’s studies. This is what we’ve been studying. And it’s interesting to see the world wake up to it. We’re interesting, complicated people, and we have become that way because of the forces of our past. Being a mom, too, a mom of sons, I walk through life, I drop my sons off, and I see how different their lives are and what I hope for them. And I’ll be walking down the street somewhere and I remember my mom. I remember my mom saying something like, “Never be a stool pigeon!” I hear that voice! I hear that voice. “Don’t ever be a stool pigeon!” Or the look on her face when I would come in from college, she hadn’t seen me for three months, and she would look at me up and down like, What is she wearing? Has she gained weight? What’s her hair like? It’s the little things.

DeWitt: My dad is 85, and he still will look at me and say, “Oh, jeez, you didn’t put your face on!’” He doesn’t want to see me without makeup, and I’m like, “Dad!” [Laughs.] It takes a long time to change these things, but it feels like a good—

Foster: It’s awareness.

DeWitt: Awareness.

Foster: Honestly, that’s why we make movies. Obviously, lots of people make it for different reasons, but I feel like I grow as a human being because I get to make films. I get to express myself. I get to work things out. I get to say, “Why did that happen, and why did that guy do this?” It’s why I say in my movies that I never have any villains. I’m really fascinated by the villain psychology, so they end up being humanized, and everybody’s point of view matters.

Jodie Foster on Black Mirror’s Helicopter-Parent Episode