What Keeps Annette Bening Up At Night?

Throughout her four-decade career, the actress has become known for playing difficult women. But it’s the difficulty of the roles themselves that really interests her.

Article by Ligaya Mishan

annette bening_1The actress Annette Bening, photographed in Simi Valley, California, on June 9, 2023. Dries Van Noten coat, driesvannoten.com. Photograph by Katy Grannan.

This is what it means to command a room. Onscreen, the long-distance open-water swimmer Diana Nyad, as incarnated by Annette Bening in the new biopic “Nyad”, does not slink, sashay or flounce. Watching her walk, it seems absurd that such verbs should even exist. After all, this is a woman who, having retired from her athletic career on her 30th birthday, decided at 60 — an age at which many women find themselves shunted to the sidelines — to revive a dream of swimming the more than 160 kilometres from Havana to Key West, Florida, through waters regularly roiled by storms and teeming with sharks and swarms of venomous box jellyfish, whose stings have been likened to electrocution by those fortunate enough to survive them. There’s no strategic coyness to her stride, no adjustment to the wants of others. Bening’s Nyad moves through the world absolutely certain of her place in it. Which is not to say smoothly: rather, she fully occupies her body, fully is her body, attenuated perhaps with the toll of age, but still a compact of muscle and force, presence and weight. She possesses space. She concedes nothing. 

For much of the film’s two-month shoot in 2022, Bening, now 65, spent three to eight hours a day in the water, in a 71-by-71-metre tank off the coast of the Dominican Republic. Two stunt doubles stood idly by. The film’s husband-and-wife directors, Jimmy Chin and Elizabeth Chai Vasarhelyi, are no strangers to feats of athleticism and grit: their Academy Award-winning documentary, “Free Solo” (2018), chronicles the American rock climber Alex Honnold’s terrifying ascent without ropes or safety gear of the 914-metre cliff El Capitan in Yosemite National Park. But watching Bening, they were astounded. “The stunt coordinator said, ‘This is crazy,’ ” Chin, 50, recalls. “ ‘Nobody does this.’ ” She did long stints in a constricting full-body jellyfish-proof suit while wearing a silicone mask and acrylic retainers, which Nyad had used to keep jellyfish from slipping into her mouth and stinging her tongue — a setup that made it tough to breathe. All the while Bening had to act, of course: the wild agony of a jellyfish attack,
the disorientation as her strength fades.

In theatre — Bening’s first love; she did not appear in a film until she was 30 — truth is conjured out of scraps and sometimes less, and actors may take on any age or body type, without makeup or prosthetics, and be believed. But in film, a genre that visually collapses the distance between viewer and performer, more is required. Before “Nyad”, Bening’s most intensive ocean experience had been working as a cook on a scuba diving boat off San Diego when she was 16. So she started training with the American Olympic swimmer Rada Owen in 2021, a year before shooting. Owen “also coaches kids, so she was used to dealing with beginners”, Bening tells me over a late breakfast in Los Angeles in June, under the brooding of the marine layer, calmly elegant in dark jeans and a plaid shirt unbuttoned two stops below
the neck. 

The first time she plunged into a pool after reading the script, she was almost immediately out of breath. “I had no idea what I was doing,” she says. “But I liked that.”

In her 35 years in film, Bening has shown a particular genius for characters who are themselves performers. Some are literally so, like the blithely dissolute movie extra in the 1990 comedy “Postcards From the Edge” (based on Carrie Fisher’s novel of Hollywood misadventure), who pronounces the malapropism “endolphin rush” with dazzling self-assurance, and the imperious actresses of “Being Julia” (2004), “Film Stars Don’t Die in Liverpool” (2017) and “The Seagull” (2018): creatures of the stage who are unable to shake the habit of pretending when off, each with their own fine shadings of narcissism, coquetry and tenderness. Others bring a facade to their daily encounters, deploying charm to get what they want while holding their real selves in reserve, as with the small-time con artist in “The Grifters” (1990) who wears ditziness like a halo, her voice as sunny and juicy as an orange put to the squeezer, and the ravenous-to-succeed real estate agent in “American Beauty” (1999), with her metronomic mantras and immaculately dishevelled hair, which with each scene grows more vertical and more like a barely tamed animal, ready to spring. 

Her latest role might seem a departure: a woman with no apparent interest in the social niceties of artifice. “It was liberating,” she says, to play someone so free to pursue what she wants. Yet her version of Nyad is also eyeing the crowd, with the marathon swim as her greatest performance, a bid for the history books and an audience for eternity. What fascinated Bening about the character in the script — and she’s careful to note the distinction between the actual Nyad, 74, whom she befriended while making the film and says is “incredibly warm and charming”, and the domineering persona she plays onscreen, whose thorniest traits give the narrative arc and momentum — was in part the swimmer’s fanatical devotion to her mission. (Because of the SAG-AFTRA strike, which started in July, Nyad, a sports commentator, wasn’t available for an interview.) Bening is drawn to obsessives: she talks admiringly of the 2022 documentary “Turn Every Page”, about the maniacally meticulous biographer Robert Caro, and those who in their drive to master their craft exhibit a sometimes excessive desire for control over not only themselves but the world around them.

She tells me how one night in high school, when she was the lead in a play, during intermission the theatre teacher picked up a table and slammed it down on the floor because she thought the cast lacked energy. “She wanted to wake us up,” Bening says, still marvelling at the memory. “I was in awe.” The actress loved the disproportionality of it, of caring so much. Too much. “For people who are doing serious things like brain surgery, that’s a different matter,” she says, but “in our case, or with any creative act, it’s not rational to care so much.

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Givenchy coat, givenchy.com, Ralph Lauren Collection pants, ralphlauren.com, Wolford tights, wolfordshop.com, Schiaparelli earrings, schiaparelli.com, and The Row shoes, therow.com. Photograph by Katy Grannan.

“That whole thing about caring — I still feel it,” she says. “And when I notice it in myself, because I’m older now, I go, ‘What is that?’ The thing that keeps you up at night. Sometimes I can’t sleep. I want to sleep.”

Although Bening has portrayed a number of historic figures — among them Senator Dianne Feinstein in “The Report” (2019) — she had never done a full-fledged biopic. She’s tended instead to gravitate towards original material, projects that rely on the imaginations of writers and that are increasingly under threat as studios turn to what they call IP, or intellectual property, pre-existing entertainment that comes with a built-in fan base. One approach to the biopic is the kind of deep, uncanny impersonation that has won accolades for actors like Austin Butler in last year’s “Elvis”. (Nyad, an openly gay athlete, was already a public figure — having set long-distance swimming records in her 20s — before the fame that came with her Cuba-to-Florida swim.) But Bening knew that for the sake of her latest film’s narrative success, she needed to burrow further into the character’s dark corners, “wanting to portray her in a way that’s authentic”, she says, “but at the same time have some laughs and tell a story that people enjoy”.

Bening has long been heralded for playing so-called difficult women, from the monumentally self-absorbed poet manqué in “Running With Scissors” (2006) to the impatiently efficient doctor with a drifty wife in “The Kids Are All Right” (2010), convinced that she alone is keeping her family afloat (she’s not wrong). “It’s not about quote-unquote strong women,” she says. “That’s really boring, to only have stories about strong people. We need to know: what are their faults? Their blind spots? We all have them.” 

Sometimes audiences resist, wanting more gold-hearted heroines to root for. “She captures female intelligence, power and strength,” says the director Mike Mills, 57, who entrusted Bening with a role inspired by his mother in the quietly profound and profoundly funny “20th Century Women” (2016). “Which the world isn’t always ready for.” After “Nyad” premiered at the Telluride Film Festival in September, an article in Variety suggested that the title character might be too “challenging” for viewers — in other words, hard to love. In any script, Bening sees herself as her character’s “advocate”, she says. “I felt very protective of Diana. Can you imagine someone playing you — how vulnerable you would feel?” (Bening says that the two of them “ended up being able to talk very frankly”, and when Nyad visited the set, they swam together in the ocean.) Vasarhelyi, 44, recalls deep conversations over a tricky scene in which the swimmer tries to bulldoze her navigator into going back out to sea after he’s told her the weather conditions are too dangerous. Bening experimented with different registers, testing how far she could take the character’s reckless disregard for the lives of others without crossing the line into villainy. But there’s no malice to her Nyad, just a single-minded ambition of the type that tends to be applauded in male leads (see, most recently, Cillian Murphy in “Oppenheimer”). 

“How to get it right?” she asks. “It’s always a bit of a gamble. When you’re making something, you just don’t know.”

When Bening was  trying to break into films in her late 20s, after seven years as a stage actress in San Francisco, Denver and New York (where she made her Broadway debut in 1987 in Tina Howe’s “Coastal Disturbances” as a young woman oscillating between neurosis and rapture, for which she earned her first Tony nomination), she auditioned for “Dangerous Liaisons” (1988), an adaptation of a play based on Pierre Choderlos de Laclos’s barbed 18th-century novel about the antics of restless aristocrats. Hardly any lines were on offer — she was up for the role of the saucy courtesan on whose alabaster backside the libertine Valmont pens a letter — and she didn’t get the part. But shortly after, in an odd and maybe karmic coincidence, she instead landed one of the leads, the Marquise de Merteuil, in Milos Forman’s “Valmont” (1989), which draws from the same material.

By then, Glenn Close, in the 1988 version, had made the character her own. Rarely do you get to see two world-class actresses go head-to-head in the same role at almost the same time, although at that point Close already had four Oscar nominations under her belt and Bening, 11 years younger, had no Hollywood credits beyond a few minutes on a 1987 episode of “Miami Vice” and a single film, the largely unnoticed 1988 farce “The Great Outdoors”. Where Close as Merteuil is scornfully magisterial, Bening is silkily sly, half-kitten, half-snake. “Dangerous Liaisons” is the greater film: it gives the antics of its louche characters the heft of tragedy, which is a kind of redemption. “Valmont”, which flopped in its rival’s wake, is frothier and thus ultimately bleaker. You can hear the devastation coming in Bening’s laughter when she reveals to Valmont, her ex-lover, that she’s been sleeping with a younger man. Even as she laughs — and keeps laughing, cruelly, triumphantly and then fraying into hysteria — she knows she’s gone too far; that this is a pyrrhic victory, a blow from which they, but above all she, will never recover.

“She’s so deft that way, to be serious and funny at the same time, to flip that switch so fast,” says Lisa Cholodenko, 59, who directed Bening in “The Kids Are All Right”. An entire taxonomy could be organised around Bening’s laughter, which spans octaves, from champagne bubbles to the peatiest depths of Scotch. Bening can do more with a laugh than most actors do with whole monologues. In “American Beauty”, humiliated at a party by her husband’s flat-affect revelations, she comes close to opera, with a cascade of giggles ascending into little high near yips. Her bit-part floozy in “Postcards From the Edge” has only three minutes of screen time but makes of it an incandescence, opposite Meryl Streep, no less, offering at one point a low, worldly chuckle, then dropping her jaw so the sound kicks up to the roof of her mouth and becomes an almost conspiratorial snicker. There’s a tinge of one-upmanship — she and Streep’s character have bedded the same man — but so faint that, were she accused of such a thing, she could bat her lashes and claim plausible deniability. 

This ability to tap into ever-shifting microclimates of mood may have saved Bening early on from being defined (and confined) by her looks. Forman, who cast her in “Valmont”, clearly saw how she could use the appearance of vulnerability as a weapon, with her delicate, fine-boned face blossoming upward like a heart. So did the director Stephen Frears, who passed on her for “Dangerous Liaisons” but a year later gave her what would become her breakout role, as Myra Langtry, the giddily upbeat con artist in “The Grifters”. Here again Bening evades the obvious, rejecting the standard markers of a femme fatale. When a jeweller tells Langtry, not unkindly, that the goods she hopes to sell are fake, she stops at the door on the way out, closes her eyes and smiles, so purely that it’s not even a con, and turns, beaming, to offer the jeweller the “one thing” she has left. “You’re looking right at it,” she says and, instead of bravado or desperation, what comes through in her voice is the bright pop of optimism: the expectation that, no matter how cornered, through sheer willpower she can manifest an escape. 

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The tabloid headline from Bening’s star turn in “Bugsy” (1991), released when she was 33, was that she’d won the heart of the film’s lead, Warren Beatty, 21 years her senior and, for three decades, Hollywood’s most tenacious bachelor. While the film was still being edited, Bening announced that she was pregnant, and the couple married in 1992; they had their 31st anniversary this year. In the clamour over their love story, it was easy to miss the radical refusal at the heart of her performance as the gun moll Virginia Hill, who doesn’t tease in the way of a classic siren so much as lay down terms, and who insists on treating her gangster lover as an equal. 

If there’s a through line in Bening’s work, it’s how her characters seem ever to be negotiating their status as objects of desire — although what they’re really grappling with is power: how to get it, wield it and keep it, in a world threatening to take it away at every step, which closely tracks the shifts in the zeitgeist from decade to decade. She has a knack for appearing in films that define the moment: “The Grifters”, which is based on a 1963 novel and speaks to the amoral avarice of boom-time America in the Reagan years; “American Beauty”, a commentary on the spiritual dead end of American prosperity; “The Kids Are All Right”, with its relaxed, matter-of-fact treatment of gay marriage. When I ask if this is a quality she explicitly looks for in a script, she demurs. “It’s all in the writing,” she says, adding that it’s important to remember that in the midst of the Writers Guild of America strike (which ended, after 148 days, in September). 

Part of the battle sometimes is simply claiming the leading role, if only in her characters’ own lives. There’s a parallel here to Hollywood itself, which remains resistant to the idea of the older woman as the protagonist. Bening has defied that to a certain extent: “Nyad” is the eighth film in which she’s played a major role in the past decade. Not all found success at the box office. “I’ve made so many movies that nobody paid any attention to,” she says. “In my profession, you do a lot that people aren’t interested in — but we are.” While making “Nyad”, she says, it struck her that “it wouldn’t have mattered” if Nyad had never completed the swim; if she had just tried and tried again, always falling short and always rallying for a return, however stung, swollen, battered and sapped of strength. Until “the efforting”, as Bening puts it, became an achievement itself.

The actress has appeared in nearly 40 films throughout her career, and yet in recent years she’s been somewhat out of the public eye, less visible than some of her peers, like Angela Bassett, Frances McDormand, Julianne Moore and Tilda Swinton. This is hardly for a lack of ambition. Rather, she seems, almost anachronistically, not particularly interested in putting herself forward, beyond the screen. Ask Bening about herself and you may discover that you’re suddenly talking about someone else. She’s a master at the gentle deflection and quick to praise the contributions of others, saying that one of the perks of the job is being surrounded by interesting people who are passionate about what they do, from the underwater photographer Pete Zuccarini, who shot pictures on the “Nyad” set (“He takes this gigantic breath and then he goes down”) to her “beast” of a co-star Jodie Foster, who plays Nyad’s best friend and reluctant coach with equal parts generosity and exasperation (“She’s a badass, and she doesn’t suffer fools and she’s smart as hell”). 

This attunement to others is in part a reflection of Bening’s time on the stage, where the bond of the ensemble is paramount. “There’s a built-in selfishness to film acting,” says the playwright and actor Tracy Letts, 58, who starred alongside Bening in “All My Sons” on Broadway in 2019. The theatre demands a kind of self-effacement in which, he says, “your concern is not making yourself look good but making everybody around you look good”.

Letts wondered if Bening’s gifts — “I’m a bit wistful that we might’ve lost the great American theatre actress to films” — could be attributed to her “Midwestern sensibility”. She was born in Topeka, Kansas, spent her early childhood in Wichita and still thinks of her family as Midwestern, even though they moved to San Diego when she was seven. A trace of Midwestern propriety clung to her the first time she met with movie agents in New York when she was 25: “I remember seeing another girl who was in jeans and looked really casual and kind of hip, and I was in this little suit, a skirt and blouse,” she recalls. Even now, despite more than half a lifetime in Los Angeles — she and Beatty, 86, are known for presiding over lively dinner parties (“If you go to that household, you’ve got to be prepared to talk about politics and 20th-century history,” Mills says) — something of the Midwest persists in her public manner, that paradox of simultaneous warmth and reserve. For our breakfast, she chooses an unassuming neighbourhood spot in the San Fernando Valley where the waiter treats her exactly as he treats me, with no special deference. When I tell Bening that after our meeting I’m visiting my father-in-law, who lives nearby, she offers to give me a ride. 

You could argue that the ensemble is in fact Bening’s natural habitat. She was the last of four children born within five years, and she and Beatty have four children of their own. (Only the youngest, Ella Beatty, 23, is an actress, too, and graduated from Juilliard last year.) When Bening had their first child, she was startled to find that she’d lost her desire to act, though she’s uneasy with the idealisation of motherhood, “what a good mother is or isn’t — what a good woman is or isn’t — and is that defined by sacrificing the self?”. Nevertheless, there were roles she turned down — famously, Catwoman in “Batman Returns” (1992) — because she was pregnant or didn’t want to be away from her children for too long. “The thing that being in the theatre really teaches you is that sense of mutual vulnerability and mutual purpose,” she says, which could as easily be a description of a family. “She’s really close to her parents,” Vasarhelyi says. Bening’s mother, now 94, was a stay-at-home mum who sang in church; her father, who died in September at the age of 97, sold insurance. Up until his death, they still lived in the same ranch-style house in the neighbourhood that Bening grew up in, San Carlos. 

While in high school, Bening did some secretarial work for her father, who was teaching classes on Dale Carnegie’s principles of salesmanship. Foremost among them: being interested in other people. The key is not faking it. You have to genuinely care.

Bening’s physical transformation as Nyad is remarkable, rigorous and free of vanity. But equally so, perhaps, is the transformation she’s undergone onscreen and off over the past two decades: her acceptance of the steady, mundane process of aging, which so many in Hollywood, female and male, have tried to defy. In casting the role, Vasarhelyi says, “We needed an actor who wasn’t afraid of what a 64-year-old looks like.”

Not that Bening thinks her decision to forgo cosmetic alterations is in any way noble. “There’s all this pressure on women to have plastic surgery,” she says. “And then when they do, they’re punished for it.” She hardly set out to be a flag-bearer for aging gracefully, whatever that means. “You do it as you go,” Bening says. “As I’ve been inching along, I’ve felt more and more free.” She remembers, from her childhood, her mother slathering on Noxzema or Ponds. That was it. When her mother went out, she “had her eyebrows done and her lipstick on”, Bening says. “Now I’m just down to the lipstick.” As if on cue, she pulls a lipstick out of her bag and slides on
the colour without breaking eye contact, no mirror required. It’s a reminder of how much of beauty is aura and certainty — knowing who you are, that you have a place in the world.

“Am I thrilled every time I see my wrinkles? No,” she says. “But when I thought about being an actress, I always imagined it happening over my whole lifetime. That was my aspiration.” The trouble — and this is a banality — is that Hollywood doesn’t seem to know what to do with older actresses who aren’t straining to look younger. In the 1990s, Bening was consistently paired onscreen with older men: Michael Douglas (a 14-year gap), Robert De Niro (15), Harrison Ford (16) and Beatty (21). Then the pendulum swung and, in “Being Julia”, she was 22 years older than her callow (and frankly boring) lover, played by Shaun Evans, and 18 years older than Corey Stoll in “The Seagull” (2018). She reunited with her husband onscreen for “Rules Don’t Apply” in 2016, only she, at 58, was relegated to the role of mother of the young starlet, whom he — at age 79, playing Howard Hughes — seduces. 

In an early scene in “Nyad”, Bening, restless and keyed up, slashes at a ping-pong ball. “I’m not done,” she says. “I have more in me.” Now, in this improvised restaurant backyard abutting a parking lot, with astroturf below and the June gloom over the valley starting to clear, Bening is unruffled. She acknowledges that she’s privileged to be able to choose whether to work or not; to take only the jobs she wants. “But there’s always something I want,” she says, her voice sinking almost to her ribs. She doesn’t move, but it’s as if she’s leaned in. There’s a flicker in her eyes — wickedness? exultation? — and it’s gone. 

This is an extract from an article that appears in print in our eighth edition, Page 80 of T Australia with the headline: “Annette Bening”