Then she was making The Brave One, which has its world premiere at the Toronto International Film Festival on Thursday before opening in theaters Sept. 14. In it, Foster stars as a New York City radio show host whose fiance is beaten and killed by thugs. Wracked by grief, by fear, in the throes of what Foster calls her character's "existential crisis," the woman buys a gun and starts blowing people away.
And not necessarily the people responsible for the attack. On paper - and in the coming attractions, and even in the director's view - The Brave One, shot last summer in New York, is about vengeance.
That's not how the film's leading lady sees it. This isn't Death Wish, and she's not Charles Bronson.
"I know the basic outline, the premise, reflects that, but I don't see it," she says. "If anything, it's more a call to the movies of the '70s, like Taxi Driver - portraits of a descent into madness, and a descent into violence. And violence being an answer for powerlessness. . . .
"I really don't see her quest as a quest for revenge. It's something deeper and scarier."
Following a Central Park mugging that puts her in the hospital and her loved one (Lost's Naveen Andrews) in the grave, Foster's character, Erica Bain, buys a 9mm handgun. And without thinking (or is she?), she places herself in situations - in a convenience store, in a subway, late at night - where she is compelled to use it.
"She doesn't do any of those things because she's seeking revenge," Foster explains. "She does it because in a split second she enters into this world and takes that challenge. It's really quite different than Charles Bronson, I think."
Foster, 45, took on The Brave One several years ago, after Nicole Kidman left the project. A four-time Oscar nominee and two-time best actress winner (The Silence of the Lambs, The Accused), Foster is one of those A-listers who gets casting and director approval, who can say: I don't like this, let's change that.
So she did, bringing Terrence Howard on as an NYPD detective ("he's not afraid of softness - even playing a hard homicide cop, he's not afraid to be the guy who feels"), and hiring The Crying Game's Neil Jordan to direct. Foster supervised revisions to the screenplay, changing the lead role from that of a newspaper crime reporter to a radio show figure who walks New York at night, recording the beats and thrums of the city.
And Foster dug deep to find Erica Bain's dark, wounded core.
"In some ways, she is really damaged before the movie starts. And we don't know why, but we know that she's not complete, that she has no body, she's just this voice. And somehow this boyfriend, this guy - he plays basketball and he's sweaty and he has a beard and he's a nurse - he's all these things that are of the body.
"So when he goes, she's left kind of as a ghost, with no body to inhabit. And the gun, in a strange way, materializes her every time it goes off. There's this power, and this strange humanity, that's at once monstrous and beautiful that happens when you pull that trigger. Every time you pull that trigger you say, 'I live, you die.' "
Outside of stuff like Charlie's Angels and Resident Evil, it's not often that big Hollywood movies - big, serious Hollywood movies - put weaponry in the hands of women. If women do kill, it is in self-defense, a crime of passion. Foster was intrigued by the idea of messing with those precedents.
"It will be striking that she's a woman. They even say it in the movie: 'Women don't do things like this.' They don't commit random crimes. They take rage and they force it inward and they hurt themselves. . . . It's about self-destruction. . . .
"And it was an interesting question, to ask what if there is a woman who stops and says, 'I'm not going to destroy myself, I'm going to destroy you.' "
It's no coincidence that Foster cites Taxi Driver when she discusses The Brave One. The actress - who began her professional career at age 3, in TV ads - was all of 13 when she played a child prostitute opposite Robert De Niro's deranged Vietnam vet Travis Bickle in the landmark Martin Scorsese drama. Foster received a best supporting actress Academy Award nomination for her performance.
"Our movie lives in its shadow," she says of Taxi Driver. "It's one of the greatest American classics that we have. . . . But The Brave One is quite different. Number one, she's a woman, and that changes everything. Also, she's conscious. Travis Bickle had no idea why he was doing what he was doing. He was not a guy who thinks it through, who reads self-help books. He's primal."
She adds: "Also, the time's different. Not just America, but New York City. . . . New York in the 1970s was this terrible place to be. It was dangerous, it was smelly. . . . It [represented] the decay of America after Vietnam, and here is this man who is a product of Vietnam and who has this idea that he's going to rise out of the shadows and save this place, save his country, because he wasn't able to save it any other way."
Foster says that The Brave One, on the other hand, reflects a post-9/11 mind-set. "Waking up in a city that is 'the safest city in the world.' Which it is - there's a policeman on every corner, Times Square is now Disneyland, the bad neighborhoods have been gentrified, every condo is a $3 million condo.
"So why is it that the slightest odd look that you get on the subway and suddenly you're panicking, you're feeling like the world is going to end any minute?
"There's this undercurrent of rage and fear that is undeniable. . . . And you realize that in some ways it's always been there, that it's been there all along, and that it's part of us, it's part of our psyche."
Foster's elder boy, Charlie, creeps into the room where she's speaking on the phone. She sends him downstairs to get some breakfast, cautioning him not to wake up his brother, Kit.
Foster is not one to discuss her personal life. She has never identified the father of either child. But clearly her kids, born in 1998 and 2001, are her life.
"I think I'm famous for not working very often," she says, explaining that even doing one film a year is pushing it for her.
And yet, "surprisingly, I don't have a lot of downtime. By the time you do the junkets and the photo shoots and the looping and the costume fittings - all the stuff that you have to do - that's kind of it.
"But I have kids, so they have school, and they have holidays and Thanksgiving and the Halloween parade and the thousand things that I have to do for the family. That pretty much eats it up.
"And there's skiing, too," she adds with a laugh. "I like my Januarys and Februarys."
Contact movie critic Steven Rea at 215-854-5629 or email@example.com. Read his blog, "On Movies Online," at http://go.philly.com/onmovies.