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On the right track

Jodie Foster's car is out of gas and she has to bum a ride to a restaurant. Yet she's hardly running on empty. Foster stars in the new crime thriller The Silence of the Lambs. She has just finished directing her first film and recently established her own film production company.

Compared with her emotionally charged Academy Award-winning depiction of a victim of gang rape in 1988's The Accused, Foster's role as FBI trainee Clarice Starling in Lambs is a quiet, somewhat controlled hero.

And rather than select a high-concept screenplay loaded with box office fireworks for her directorial debut, she chose Little Man Tate, a gentle but potentially thorny account of an anxious child genius.

Even Foster's production company _ which will make movies for Orion Pictures that star, are directed by or produced by the actress _ was named modestly.

"I thought of every pretentious title in the world," she said. "But I thought Egg Pictures was simple and to the point."

Foster already has received early praise for her work in Lambs, a movie she said she "had to do."

Based on the best-selling novel by Thomas Harris and directed by Jonathan Demme, Lambs is one of those rare dramas that appears to succeed both cerebrally and viscerally.

As Agent Starling, Foster plays opposite an elegant serial killer named Dr. Hannibal "The Cannibal" Lecter (Anthony Hopkins). To gain his confidence and insight in tracking another particularly ruthless killer, Starling agrees to reveal her innermost childhood secrets and fears in a sort of "quid pro quo" game.

"It's an interesting, complicated character," Foster said. "There is no such hero for this. She isn't a version of Rambo. It's all about her brain. And it's not about some sort of squealy thing running around in her underwear, either."

Starling was an orphan who ran away from the relatives who cared for her because she couldn't stand the spring slaughter of lambs.

"What I liked specifically about that is that it's small. It's just one mundane, small thing in her life. It's not like _ well, then I had a car crash and I was disfigured and from then on, I never walked again," Foster said.

With Hopkins delivering a terrifying performance as Lecter, Foster's acting is almost impassive in comparison.

"Every movie and every character takes a different piece of music," she said. "If you're a jazz drummer, and you're playing a song, you can't just play a solo because you look good when you do it. You've got to play to the music.

"So is it dissatisfying to play that? No, not at all. Because it's right for the movie. See, that's what's different about me. I didn't become an actor so I could get on stage and be an actor. I already was an actor. It's just what I do. Some actors do other things. The thing that keeps me up _ and what I love about it _ is furthering the story."

Foster made her first television commercial at 3, debuted on the series Mayberry, R.F.D. at 4 and hasn't stopped working. Her breakthroughs came in successive years in two Martin Scorsese films: as a street urchin in 1975's Alice Doesn't Live Here Anymore, and as a 12-year-old prostitute in 1976's Taxi Driver.

It was during production of the latter film that Foster began to think of herself as a director. Subsequently, she graduated first in her class at the bilingual high school Lycee Francais and was cum laude at Yale University.

Forceful, passionate and erudite in person, Foster said that as the director of Little Man Tate, starring newcomer Adam Hann-Byrd as the child prodigy and Foster as his mother, her priority was simplicity. She honed the script to its sparsest elements and then walked onto the set. The film is set to open this fall.

"Will people think that I'm using my clout? Or will people say, "All of those actors _ they think they can be directors. What the hell do they know?' Well, I've said that many times myself," Foster said.

"I see it, and I completely see the reasoning behind it. But I've always tried to improve myself. In college, imagine my being a freshman and an actor and what kind of biases people would come to you with. You have to do 20 steps more than anybody else to prove that you're okay."

She's not sure yet how she did behind the camera, but she's confident she honorably served the story and her cast and crew.

"I've never taken an acting class, and I've never studied, so who knows what horrible things I might have told (Hann-Byrd)," Foster said. "The one thing that I never did was I was never dishonest about what I was trying to do. I would never say to him, "Your teddy bear is dead!' to solicit a reaction."