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As far the annals of horror thrillers are concerned, 1991’s The Silence of the Lambs has a firm place among the best of all time. However, a recent interview with the film’s director brings up the rather Starling…err, startling revelation that Jodie Foster was not the actress he initially had in mind for the lead role. In fact, she was not even close.
In a fascinating interview at the Austin Film Festival with fellow filmmaker Paul Thomas Anderson, The Silence of the Lambs director Jonathan Demme discussed the casting process for the film’s main character, the young, fresh-from-Quantico FBI Agent Clarice Starling. It turns out that Jodie Foster was nowhere on Demme’s radar, as he had names like Meg Ryan, Michelle Pfeiffer, and Laura Dern on the short list in front of her.
Yes, it may seem like blasphemy now. Pitting a smart, relatable heroine, played brilliantly by Foster, in a demented battle of wits with one of the most memorable villains in cinematic (and now television) history, the film was both a psychological and dramatic masterpiece. At the time, however, Demme just didn’t think Foster believably conveyed Clarice’s quandary, despite the fact that she was already an Oscar winner for 1988’s The Accused.
Michelle Pfeiffer was someone that had been circling the role early on in the process, but the darkness of the film made her think twice. At the time, Jodie Foster apparently campaigned passionately for the role directly to Demme, who remained recalcitrant in his refusal. Eventually, one of Foster’s pitches about her approach to the story resonated with Demme, who, in the interview, relays Foster’s pitch, saying,
There’s all these movies with men going in and saving a bunch of people, doing one thing or another. But this story [The Silence of the Lambs] is about one young woman trying desperately to save the life of another young woman. In order to do that, she’s faced with the overwhelming obstacle of all these men.
At that point, Foster’s words sparked some profound ideas for Demme. With that said, he still had no intention of casting her. He was looking heavily at a then-white-hot Meg Ryan, who Demme thought was a compelling actress that, unlike Foster, he could "believe." Ryan also happened to be riding a lot of momentum off 1989’s When Harry Met Sally and her three roles in 1990’s Joe Versus the Volcano. The Silence of the Lambs seemed like it would be the perfect opportunity to take America’s newest sweetheart and pit her against some of the most vile characters ever put on screen. Well, after Ryan got ahold of the script, it was clearly not to be, seeing as she was allegedly "offended" that such a grim, ghastly film would come her way.
Jonathan Demme went back to the drawing board with Laura Dern, who, based on her auditions, he says, "was just IT." However, she was clearly not prominent enough at the time, and he began to consider advice he was given by the studio, Orion Films. They were firmly in the pro-Foster camp, with her coming off an Oscar win and her status of being universally loved. (Would-be Presidential assassins notwithstanding.) At that point, Demme came to a decision, factoring in the notion of just how much Foster loved the part and how much it would mollify the studio, before finally caving.
Of course, what followed was an artistic masterpiece that dominated the box-office and swept both the Oscars and Golden Globes across the boards. While we would see Julianne Moore play Clarice Starling in the 2001 follow-up, Hannibal, you’ll get few arguments against the notion that Jodie Foster best conveyed that characteristic mix of innocence and determination which the character embodied.