Jodie Foster doesn't like to sit behind her desk when other people are in her office. She's the kind of boss who views the trappings of bossiness with faint embarrassment. So when four staff members of her new company, Egg Pictures, troop in for a Friday-afternoon meeting, she pulls her chair into the center of the room and joins them in a circle. Balancing a plump Filofax on one knee, she ticks off items as if efficiency were encoded in her genes, speaking with the unrushed self-assurance of someone utterly secure in her power as a leader, as a decider, as a (though she might loathe the word) player.
Foster lays down the law politely about the budget for furniture in Egg's large new L.A. offices (''It cannot exceed our projections. It just can't''). She divides phone messages into calls she should return, calls somebody else should return, and calls nobody should ever return. She discusses the state of a dozen films her company may produce, script by script, separating writers who need coddling from those who need goosing, directors who will get a call from those who merit a meeting. ''I want us to be really selective about who we work with,'' she tells the young turtlenecked and blue-jeaned Eggsecutives. ''If we're not serious about making a movie, let's not do it.'' Rolling through her agenda, she betrays no self-consciousness, except, perhaps, for the fingers that she sometimes rakes through her straight blond hair or uses to adjust her elegant tortoiseshell glasses. Neither hair nor glasses are out of place. Her hand just needs something to do. Like its owner, it gets bored easily.
Cynics who have seen too many actors dabble at being executives might be tempted to write all this off as Foster's latest performance, marked by the same acumen and painstaking attention to detail that characterize her screen work. They'd be missing the point. At 30, running her own company, Jodie Foster seems less an actress playing the role of CEO than a born CEO who happens, by fate, to be an actress. Perhaps the only actress who could convince a movie company to bet on her prowess as an executive to the tune of $100 million a figure PolyGram Filmed Entertainment could easily put into Egg's films in the next few years.
''The Hollywood community looks at her,'' says one studio executive, ''and they don't just see an actress. They see momentum.''
Foster hatched Egg while making Sommersby, the post-Civil War romance with Richard Gere that opened to warm reviews and good grosses in February. As Orion Pictures where she had a nonexclusive deal lurched toward bankruptcy, she began to look for a new pact that was ''not an actor's deal, not even a director's deal, but a producer's deal.'' She found it with PolyGram and built her new company christened Egg ''because it's feminine and about beginnings and doesn't sound like Greek mythology'' by telephone and fax while sitting in her trailer on location in Hot Springs, Va., waiting for the cameras to roll. ''When you're an actor,'' she says without irony, ''you've got to occupy your days somehow.''
Increasingly, Foster finds it difficult to occupy them with acting. ''I'm dying to work dying to. But it's become harder for me to say yes,'' she says. ''I haven't acted in a year. It's almost becoming ridiculous, but I can't seem to find more than one movie a year to commit myself to.'' Even Sommersby, whose years-long development she followed as it passed through the hands of Tom Cruise and director Sydney Pollack and into Richard Gere's, went through extensive revisions at Foster's behest. Her character, Laurel, grew from a ''naive, very weepy woman who was duped by an impostor'' into ''somebody who chose to deceive herself'' before the actress agreed to sign on.
''Yes, I'm picky,'' she says, ''and no, unless I understand where a movie is going, I can't be good. But look at how few real roles there are for women right now. I look at Basic Instinct and go, 'Huh?' It is shocking to me that after the success of The Silence of the Lambs and Thelma & Louise, last year was so bad for women. And I know the next year's going to be bad too,'' she says matter-of-factly, ''because I've already read all the scripts.''
It makes for an odd, what's-wrong-with-this-picture scenario: After 25 years in the business, two Best Actress Oscars in four years (for her breakthrough adult role as a rape victim in 1988's The Accused and again for 1991's Lambs), a well-received directorial debut (Little Man Tate), and a mountain of screenplays at her door, Jodie Foster can't find work as an actress. And she doesn't seem to mind.
''I have to say I've never been happier,'' she says softly, curling into a corner of her office couch and tugging her pullover sweater toward the knees of her scruffy jeans. ''In terms of the professional-achievement stuff, thank God I'm in a better place than I was. After the Oscars and directing, I'm sure I'll find some new goals, but they won't be the big looming neon kind that can hang over your head. I would never want to be in my 20s again,'' she adds, almost shuddering. ''I wouldn't have said so then, but I was very unhappy. The feeling of not knowing everything you don't know...it was awful. All that panic.''