JODIE Foster is deadly serious about her new film. So what's new? This woman has earned Oscars for her portrayal of a rape victim and an FBI agent on the trail of a pyschopath, and earned critical acclaim for her intelligent, underplayed directorial debut Little Man Tate. Now though, she has just finished shooting a big budget, all-action, all-laughs mainstream roustabout alongside the same people who brought us Lethal Weapon. And she loved every minute of it. The film is Maverick, a Warner Bros-released big-screen take on the 1950s series which starred James Garner as a debonair, card-playing drifter with a flair for getting into and out of trouble in the Wild West. It's about as mainstream as films can get, echoing Hollywood's recent obsession with old television series (The Addams Family, The Beverly Hillbillies, The Fugitive, The Flintstones). It's directed by Richard Lethal Weapon Donner and stars his old sparring partner Mel Gibson. Foster's role is that of the beautiful, wily, but ultimately decorative Annabelle Bradsford. Clarice Starling it ain't, but that's not phasing Foster - even when every interviewer she meets expresses surprise that Jodie Foster has done a Western. She laughs: 'It's not really a Western, I have to say. It's just a romantic comedy, you know? Total comedy. It could have happened on Mars, it wouldn't matter... I've been looking for a comedy for about 10 years. Ten years really is a long time. And the interesting thing about it is that I read the script on a Thursday afternoon; I said 'yes' Friday morning; we met, and I was in costumes by Saturday.' Something must have been very right about the project because Foster is a notoriously picky actor. Her last outing was in the seriously romantic Sommersby, so what drew her to this one? 'It's more the comedy really, because I had just done a romantic movie. I like being light, and I really needed that. I just didn't realise how much I missed it. And it was the happiest movie of my life. The happiest working situation. I've never had sucha nice time. No problems. It was effortless. It was on the most beautiful locations. Everybody was great and totally professional. And it was just really charmed. I was so sad the day we finished shooting, you know, because I knew I would never have another movie like this again.' Whoa there! Let's get this straight. We are talking about Maverick here, not Hamlet (although Gibson did have a go at that too). As cable TV viewers and those in countries with healthy re-run schedules would testify, it was a fun series, one that stood out from the glut of Westerns produced predominantly by Warner and ABC in the late 1950s and early 1960s. It even won an Emmy in 1958 and sparked two revivals. Garner, you will remember, was Brett Maverick, the gambler who somehow managed to get out of trouble by the skin of his teeth, Jack Kelly and Roger Moore co-starred and Garner occasionally popped up as Pappy Beauregard. In the film version, Gibson plays Maverick while Garner dogs him as the heroic, inscrutable and unflappable lawman Zane Cooper. Their dogfight takes them from the untamed prairie to smoky backroom poker tables where Maverick decides to pit his wits against the Best of the West in a lucrative championship game. That's where Foster's Annabelle comes in. Co-starring are James Coburn, Graham Greene (Dances With Wolves), Linda Hunt and Alfred Molina. It all sounds fun and the advance word from the United Statesis that William Goldman's screenplay contains pleasant reminders of The Sting. But why the fuss? 'If you must know, I'm a big fan of the old TV show,' Gibson says. 'We still get it in reruns in Australia and I think it's on cable in the States. I love episodic TV and that's what Maverick was. And it was very television. I think it's a good vehicle toupdate and have fun with and, I promise you, you'll find it very entertaining. This is one of the few movies where horsing around is part of the whole plot of the script, so it's been a lot of fun to do.' Foster adds: 'Oh, it's definitely Mel Gibson's movie. But I like that. To tell you the truth, you have a lot more freedom in some ways as a supporting character because you get to be totally eccentric and off the wall, and you can be nasty and mean and horrible. You don't have to be the straight man and support the whole movie. I don't care about that stuff, you know. I've had my own movies. I will. I've done everything.' Even so, the resourceful and spirited Annabelle must fit somewhere into Foster's list of characters. She usually plays people whom she wants to redeem or save. 'Phew...,' she ponders, 'Well, I tell you what. This is what I was attracted to: that she's somebody pretending to be somebody else. She's pretending to be a caricature of the femme fatale, Southern woman, who can't do anything for herself, who's a poor damsel in distress. The truth is that she's an incredible con woman. And she's none of those things. And all she really is, is just this eccentric who wants to play poker. Who's just incredibly greedy. 'Maverick, on the other hand, is on the outside a caricature of every Western mythology you could ever think of. The guy with all the guns, who could flip them and do all that stuff. And the truth is that he's kind of scared of everything. He's completelyvulnerable, he doesn't believe in any kind of violence and wouldn't cheat anyone. He's easily manipulated. So he's masquerading as this macho cowboy. And the two of them know that about each other, and they love each other for it. The movie just kind of dumps on all those myths. The macho guy and the femme fatale, the useless, passive woman.' Thanks to the production clout of both Gibson's Icon Productions and Donner's company Donner/Shuler-Donner Productions, Maverick boasts impressive settings and fixtures. Academy award-winning director of photography Vilmos Zsigmond (Close Encounters Of The Third Kind) rolled his cameras on locations including the Columbia River, where an authentic riverboat set the stage for Maverick's adventures, and the open expanses of Bishop, California, Yosemite National Park and Lake Powell, Arizona, where productiondesigner Tom Sanders (Bram Stoker's Dracula) created an entire town on the north shore of the lake. And pulling all their strings was Donner, an action adventure director par excellence. As Foster admits, it was certainly a different experience working with him. 'Oh yeah. It was totally new. I've never worked that way at all. But don't forget, he did all the Superman movies. He did The Omen. I mean, what could be more different than Superman, The Omen and the Lethal Weapon movies? And he directed Ladyhawk. He's directed a lot of different styles of film. He's a very eclectic guy. 'We had a great time. You know, Mel had just finished directing his movie [The Man Without A Face]. So he used to make fun of it a lot. He'd just make jokes about the two of us, having directed our films, and I think he [Donner] liked it. I think he likedknowing that we were looking out for the movie, as technicians as well.' And the mutual appreciation society is rounded out by Mr Sexy himself. What about Mel, Jodie? 'I really love him, I think he's my favourite co-star I've ever worked with. He's just a special man.' What makes him so special? 'You know there are certain people you can meet in 10 minutes and you just say, 'this is my favourite kind of person.' Mel, he's not saccharine. He's a real person. He'll put Band-Aids on a child's knee who's fallen on the ground. I mean, he probably has atemper, or whatever, but he's just so well adjusted and so giving. He's fascinated about what other people say. He'll ask you questions and he'll remember years later. 'I think he really expected me to be a very different person. I think he expected me to be really serious. I mean I do have a different sense of humour to his. He's got a much more physical sense of humour, and I'm very - kind of - wry and nasty.' Foster is also highly unpredictable. No sooner has she reluctantly abandoned the corsetted trappings of Maverick than she is off on another tack, talking about her next directorial work on 'a small family movie' and about her next project which is alreadyin production in North Carolina. That project is called Nell and is directed by Michael Apted. Foster is producing and acting in it. It's about a woman who is discovered in a forest cabin and who has had little contact with any kind of society. She speaks an indecipherable language and acts, well, differently. A country doctor played by Liam Neeson and a psychologist (Natasha Richardson) try to decipher her language and study her with a view to bringing her into the real world. 'It's a fascinating, but really heavy drama,' Foster says. 'I'm definitely going to have fun at the end of this movie, when it's over. Yeah, this is a very tough one. It's all physical and emotional, and those are not my strong sides. I'm very thought-oriented and very - kind of - language-oriented. It's just not what I do that often. It's very hard for me.'