JODIE FOSTER STILL shudders at the memory of losing her son, even though it was for only a matter of minutes. 'He was about 21/2 at the time,' she says. 'I was looking through a crowd and I could see him, but I couldn't get to him because there were all these people in front of us. I could just see him with his little blonde hair running around crying and calling my name. But I couldn't do anything. It was the most horrendous feeling.'
It's this sense of maternal anguish that the 42-year-old, two-time Academy Award-winner brings to her latest role in Flightplan, German director Robert Schwentke's taut psychological thriller.
In her first blockbuster role since Panic Room in 2002, Foster plays Kyle, a recently widowed aeronautical engineer returning to New York from Berlin with her husband's body in the cargo hold. She's accompanied by her six-year-old daughter, Julia (Marlene Lawston) who, like her mother, is struggling to come to terms with her loss.
The drama starts when Kyle awakens to find that Julia has vanished, sparking a mid-air security alert that leaves the cabin crew and audience wondering whether Foster's character has gone insane.
As in Panic Room, Foster is pushed to the edge as she fights to protect her family. It's a subject close to Foster's heart, given that she has two young children of her own.
'It's a feeling like you have one person who understands you and one person who you have this connection with - and they're ripped from you. It's true that when you have children it is the most significant part of your life and that's what moves you.'
She says motherhood helped her connect with her character. 'I think everybody has lost their kid for about a minute. And a minute is a long time when you lose your kid.
'That's the first place that Kyle jumps to in the movie - her daughter's probably all right, but she's lost and she doesn't know where she is. Then it devolves from there - the projection, the fears, the blaming of others and then madness and then the clarity that comes once she gets through that madness. It's a great journey for an actress.'
It seems as if Foster has been around forever. And she certainly started young. Born Alicia Christian Foster in 1962, she began acting in television commercials as a two-year-old, before landing her first dramatic role, in US sitcom Mayberry RFD, at the age of six.
By the time she reached adolescence, Foster was a veteran of several movie roles, but her real breakthrough came with her portrayal of the teenage prostitute Iris in Martin Scorsese's 1976 classic Taxi Driver.
That performance earned her an Oscar nomination - and the fixation of John Hinckley, who dedicated his 1981 assassination attempt of Ronald Reagan to her. Foster refuses to talk about the case.
It's a measure of her level-headedness that Hollywood took a back seat to academia for the first half of the 1980s, when acting commitments were shoe-horned around her studies at Yale, from which she graduated with honours in 1985.
As if making up for lost time, she won two best actress Oscars over the next six years: for her role as a rape victim in The Accused in 1988, and for her portrayal of FBI agent Clarice Starling in 1991's The Silence of the Lambs.
Since then, Foster has chosen her roles carefully, and now balances work with her parental commitments. By her own admission, she's a part-time member of the A-list. 'My children are old enough now that they understand I work part-time. I want them to know that work is good, that having a creative outlet is important for them, and that you look to your work to satisfy you and complete you.
'I never want to come home and go, 'Yuk, I've got to go to work again.' I never want to have that attitude. And to do that means I have to work a bit less so it doesn't take away from their time.'
Long periods out of the spotlight have made it easier for Foster to draw a veil over her private life, which she guards jealously. 'I learnt as a child actor that it was really important to have a life. And I had to go out and fight for one because if I hadn't it would have been taken away from me. I had to fight to go to Disney-land or go out trick-or-treating at Halloween. It's a bit like John Kennedy Jnr. When you're raised in the public eye you learn to safeguard that place - the real place - because otherwise you'd feel completely empty.'
Although Foster is that rarest of creatures - a child star who's managed to make a successful transition to adulthood without the cliched pitstops in rehab or worse - she wouldn't necessarily want her children to follow the same career path.
'If they wanted to go into acting I'd probably try to dissuade them. But if they were persistent, I'd support them. I'd probably try to teach them about the technical side of filmmaking so they'd see it as a technical job, which in many ways it is. It's a blue-collar job where you work hard and learn a skill that requires discipline.'
Of the present crop of child actors, Foster speaks admiringly of Dakota Fanning, the precocious 11-year-old star most recently seen opposite Tom Cruise in Steven Spielberg's War of the Worlds.
'If I have high hopes for any child actor, then it's for her. She seems like she's older than her years, but people said that about me, too. You're born with a certain personality. Your parents can try to change you as much as they want, but you are who you are.
'Once you have children you really realise that. People compliment you on your child and you say, 'Well thanks a lot, but I really had nothing to do with it. That's just who he is.'
'And I'm sure Dakota Fanning is who she is. She's just enormously talented - very self-possessed and very grounded, and that bodes well for her future. And what a great career she's had. She's been able to be a substantial actress in real roles - not just the cute kid.'
Despite her part-time workload, Foster has retained her place as one of Hollywood's heavy-hitters, commanding fees reported to be US$12-15 million per picture. Yet she remains attracted to low-budget productions, appearing most recently with a memorable cameo in last year's Un Long Dimanche de Fiancailles (A Very Long Engagement), the first world war romantic drama by French director Jean-Pierre Jeunet.
'I do some mainstream, commercial American movies because that's what I do. I'm kind of well cast for that because I know how to hold a whole film in my hand. But every once in a while I like to do these small parts. [A Very Long Engagement] is the only movie I've made in Europe for 15 years, so it doesn't happen that often.'
Foster says she's puzzled that more French scripts don't find their way to her agent. (She speaks flawless French). 'I'm always surprised that I don't get offered more movies in France as a French person. I try to find the roles, but it's hard because my agents don't speak French, so I'm the one that has to read everything. But, honestly, I really want to work with a great European director.'
Foster will next be seen in Spike Lee's crime drama Inside Man , due for release next year. She appears opposite Denzel Washington and Clive Owen. Further down the line she has a hankering to land a role that will demand a specific skill.
'I have this burning desire to do a movie that required me to master something physically for six months. Whether it's playing the violin or being a conductor or being a tennis player. Something that required that level of mastery. It's something I'd love to do, but nobody's ever asked me. I seem to get the brainy movies.'
Flightplan opens on October 13