Getting Up Close With Annette Bening
Movies for Grownups Career Achievement Award winner talks life, family and how she is still evolving
En español | It's a soggy day in London town, and those of us who are gathered to style, photograph or, in my case, interview Annette Bening are somewhere on a continuum of dishevelment from pleasantly windswept to wet English sheepdog. But here comes the four-time Oscar nominee, all tousled-blond sunshine as she bounds up the stairs, joining us at the converted Victorian match factory where we are meeting.
"I'm so glad I'm here!” she announces with a smile. Bening's bio says she's 5 foot 8, but she appears taller, perhaps a trick of her beautiful carriage or maybe of her confidence and ease. Within five minutes the actress, 61, is kicked back on an upholstered chair with her feet up, laughing about a transatlantic call from her spouse of nearly 30 years, Warren Beatty. “He had ‘one quick thing’ to say and kept me on the phone for 20 minutes,” she jokes.
"I think we're both still adjusting to the quiet at home,” adds Bening, who's away from L.A., shooting a remake of Agatha Christie's Death on the Nile. She and Beatty, 82, are newish empty nesters. It's just the two of them and their 130-pound Newfoundland “puppy,” Scout, since Ella, the youngest of their four children, left for Juilliard earlier this year.
And the winners are …
The Movies for Grownups Awards will be presented at a ceremony at the Beverly Wilshire Hotel in Beverly Hills on Jan. 11.
Where to watch
The ceremony, hosted by actor Tony Danza, will be broadcast on Jan. 19 on PBS, online at PBS.org/gperf and via the PBS Video App. The show's presenting sponsor is Consumer Cellular.
For all her steely magnetism on-screen, from her early breakthrough in 1990's The Grifters to her latest film, The Report — a post-9/11 drama in which she plays Sen. Dianne Feinstein — Bening, in person, is refreshingly authentic, open and clearly excited about what she calls “a growing sense of freedom and groundedness I haven't felt at this level before.” At a time when Hollywood seems to have finally awakened to the potential of older actresses in substantial roles, Bening is a woman who is feeling her own potential.
Raised in a long-lived family — her maternal grandfather made it to 100 — Bening sees herself as still evolving. “When you're younger, you think there's some point at which you arrive, but that's an illusion,” she says. The truth, she notes, is that we're continually changing and growing; in some ways this part of her life feels like a beginning. After decades of working close to home, for the kids, Bening aspires to travel more, to stretch her boundaries. She's seen the results of such newfound freedom in her friends, she says.
"A lot of women have a period of incredible growth after their children are no longer with them on a day-to-day basis.” How that freedom and growth will manifest on-screen for Bening remains to be seen, but it can only enhance an already remarkable career that includes Bugsy, the 1991 gangster film (she met Beatty on the set), and 2010's domestic drama The Kids Are Alright, which inspired the New York Times to call her performance “close to perfect.”
Bening is notoriously circumspect about her private life, so I'm caught off guard when she tells me, unprompted, about a text exchange she's just had with her older son, Stephen, about a novel he recently gave her called "Little Fish." It's the story of a young transgender woman who discovers that her devout Mennonite grandfather might have been trans himself. Stephen Ira, 27, a writer, was assigned female at birth and began to identify as transgender at age 14. Speaking publicly about her son's transition, something she rarely does, Bening says, “He's managed something that's very challenging with great style and great intelligence. He's an articulate, thoughtful person, and I'm very, very proud of him."
Parenting at this stage is less about holding on than about letting go, Bening has found. “When I was younger, part of me thought I could save my children from having to suffer, which was, of course, ridiculous,” she observes. “They have to go through their struggles.” The good news is that her kids, ages 19 to 27, are doing well, says Bening. “They're very much their own people now."
As such, the kids recently helped guide their mom through one of the distinctly modern opportunities that Hollywood affords an elite cadre of older actresses: the action-blockbuster role. Bening surprised even herself when she suited up in a formfitting metallic jumpsuit to play an intelligent cyborg in last spring's superhero movie Captain Marvel. “My kids had to explain the character to me,” she admits.
Although playing that part was a blast, she's more drawn to films that speak to a mature audience. “So much of what we hear in Hollywood is that it's youth focused. But, hey, we're out here, too, right?” she says. “We're looking for films that are stimulating, provocative, intelligent and not exploitative in any way.” Her favorite films of her career have not always been the most successful ones, she adds. They're the ones that have challenged her, that have moved her and that have had the potential of moving others.
"When you make movies, you want to make an impact on people, not just entertain them,” she explains. Sometimes a stranger in a shop or restaurant will grab Bening by the arm and tell her how much it meant to see a version of their own life's most important story on-screen. It happened after she played an older actress with a younger lover in Film Stars Don't Die in Liverpool and also when she portrayed a birth mother reunited with the child she'd given up for adoption in Mother and Child.
"It's great when a movie can speak to someone,” the actress says simply. “Those moments stick with me."
Bening behind the scenes
"What sets Annette apart is her ability to completely disappear into a part. That's no easy feat, given how luminous, engaging and substantial a woman she is. I enjoyed every scene I had with her.”
What's it like to work with her?
"Annette is an ultimate professional. She's someone who never stumbles. Her rehearsal is as good as her take. And there is no one better for keeping you on your toes."
"The way she carries herself, her grace and dignity, the way she handles language and the ways she operates with integrity outside of movie life — she's our generation's Hepburn."