As portrayed by Jodie Foster in The Mauritanian, Nancy Hollander is a character that fits the adjective “tough” to a T. She is a lawyer who firmly believes in the United States’ legal procedure, her principals driving her to provide even suspects of terrorism with the representation that they are promised in the Constitution, and she develops a thick skin because of the intense public backlash that comes as a result. It’s a key hallmark of the performance by the Academy Award winner, and as I recently learned during an interview with her, it was something that she actually pushed for more of in the script when she was first offered the part.
I had the great pleasure of speaking with Jodie Foster late last month during the virtual press day for The Mauritanian, and my first question was about her character’s specific attitude – which I had read the actor wanted further enhanced when she was first considering the project. Foster began by explaining that she felt some freedom within the role to change things (Nancy Hollander is a real person, but she isn’t exactly a known public figure), but she primarily wanted her toughness to have an impact on the way that audiences’ view the film’s subject: Guantanamo Bay detainee Mohamedou Ould Slahi. She said,
I didn't think there was any reason to do a real impression of Nancy since most people don't know her. I did, however, have her lipstick and her nails and her hair and all that kind of stuff. And there were certain things about her that I think are very true. But the most important thing was to tell Mohammadou's story and to have Nancy's character in some ways serve that part of the plot and that part of Mohamedou's character.
The Mauritanian is an adaptation of Mohamedou Ould Slahi’s memoir Guantanamo Diary, and chronicles his experience being taken from his home in Mauritania shortly after September 11, 2001 and being detained without any charge for nearly a decade-and-a-half. The United States government falsely believed that he was involved in the orchestration of the Al Qaeda-organized terrorist attacks, and kept him locked up for years without representation. Despite public outcry against Ould Slahi, Nancy Hollander agreed to be his defense attorney, and while working on his case unearthed some terrible truths about his treatment.
Continuing, Jodie Foster explained that she wanted her version of Nancy to have a notable toughness about her at the start of The Mauritanian (which certainly has an impact on her relationship with Tahar Rahim’s Mohamedou Ould Slahi), and that way the film could unfold a particular emotional arc for her. Said Foster,
I chose to sort of broaden out her tougher side, make her a little bit less palatable in the beginning. And then as time goes on to see her shift and change. I do think that the real Nancy is quite defended. She's had to be, I mean, she's been defending guilty people for many, many, many years, and I think that does take its toll. And in the film, I kind of mushroomed that that out a little bit.
Jodie Foster ultimately delivers an excellent performance, and it’s one that is already being celebrated in a high profile way, as last week it was announced that she has been nominated for Best Supporting Actress at the 2021 Golden Globes. The Mauritanian arrives in theaters this Friday, February 12.