Monday 11 December 2017

Annette Bening: 'Women don't have to do everything'

Eve Barlow meets Annette Bening in Los Angeles to talk about movies, motherhood and her search for meaning

Lucas Jade Zumann, Greta Gerwig, Annette Bening, Billy Crudup and Elle Fanning in 20th Century Women
Lucas Jade Zumann, Greta Gerwig, Annette Bening, Billy Crudup and Elle Fanning in 20th Century Women

At 11am on a Friday morning, Studio City in Los Angeles is full of mums. Mums coming out of nail salons, mums dropping dogs off at day care, mums picking up fresh bread. Outside one deli, a mum with cropped hair and wearing a camel-coloured overcoat slides in through the front door. She moves towards a back booth and, complaining of a slight cold, orders chicken noodle soup. She could be any mum, but she's the mum: Annette Bening.

She looks around the 1950s diner. "I love the booths, I love the atmosphere, and…" she smiles, pointing at portraits of stacks of salt beef and rye, "I love the pictures of the sandwiches." It's a surprise, perhaps, that such Hollywood royalty can sit at a booth in an unassuming deli without anyone bothering her.

For 30 years, Bening - a four-time Oscar nominee, a Bafta winner for American Beauty and twice a Golden Globe recipient (for Being Julia and The Kids Are All Right) - has been bending ideas of family.

At the age of 58, her latest maternal portrayal in 20th Century Women is lauded as her most electric, searching and emotionally expansive yet.

"It's a familiar dynamic to me - playing people's mums," she says. The strength of her leading ladies could have something to do with the amount of practice she's had in real life. Despite her celebrity status, behind closed doors Bening has kept it traditional, even while married to Hollywood ladykiller Warren Beatty.

The pair have four children together, the youngest born when Bening was 42. The couple's relationship began on the set of Bugsy in 1991. "That changed my life," she says. They had a child the following year.

The story goes that Beatty promised Bening he wouldn't ask her out until shooting of the film wrapped. "That's not true at all!" she says. "This seems to be a new thing of his, but it's so not what happened. We were both single and it wasn't like we were doing anything wrong. Though we did hide it."

They still do. Contrary to their blockbuster status, the couple are private. You won't find Bening on social media. "No! Nu-huh" she says. "That's easier for me. But I feel for other people who have to be on there."

A self-identified feminist, Bening argues that women are never assessed for their work alone. "Women in showbusiness have to deal with people talking to us about our children. Men generally don't." She doesn't feel a sense of having compromised her career for family life.

When Beatty and Bening did Love Affair together, they were trying for their second child. "That I remember. You always remember when you get pregnant," she laughs.

"If I turned anything down, I was either having a baby or had just had a baby," she says, flatly.

They have managed to deflect the media's attention so much that I'm surprised to learn that their eldest - Stephen Ira - is transgender.

When asked about how parents deal with transitioning children, Bening grows fidgety, her eyes chastising me further as the words come out of my mouth. For a moment I feel out of order. I would never ask the mother of a cis child such an invasive question about parental concerns.

"I'm super proud of him," she says. "I leave it to him to say what he wants about his life. I don't think it's fair for me to speak for any of my kids, quite frankly."

Her new film, 20th Century Women (see review), in which Bening plays Dorothea, the mother of a teenage boy, has been called the most feminist movie ever written by a man. Based on director Mike Mill's mother, it lives on Bening's central performance. Thinking of American Beauty and Being Julia, I wonder if she finds it strange to work so often with male writers and directors on female-led stories.

"Huh," she says. "Well, look at Ibsen, the father of modern drama. The feminists at the time wanted him to be their posterboy and he refused. He called himself a humanist, not a feminist. That's always stuck with me."

She praises Mills for investigating not just his mother, but all the women in his life. "He was interested in trying to understand and empathise with women. He has a very strong, interesting wife [Miranda July]."

The answer, she says, is not just in women writing female roles, "but it's also in women writing for men, in women empathising with people from all kinds of different backgrounds that aren't their own." It's not enough for women to simply write the women they know.

Mills describes Bening as having the vision and intensity of an athlete. "It's a trip how alive and subtle her performance is," he says.

"She's like a ball bouncing down a hill, not predetermining anything. When you're interfacing with her, there's this very generous, genuine soul. It's only when she's not around that you think: 'Holy crap, what am I doing with Annette Bening?'"

He attributes her unique acting style to her own experience. "She's had a big, rich life as a woman and a mum, so she comes to her character with such emotional intelligence. I saw this consistent rebellious streak in her - this noncompliant, subversive soul. She's not going to do what you think she's going to do."

The experience of Bening as a mother was an equally eye-opening experience for her co-star Lucas Jade Zumann, who plays 15-year-old Jamie. "He said I'd always give him life advice on the set," she laughs, embarrassed. "Shit - that's who I am, a person who gives kids unasked-for advice."

Folding neatly into the film's themes, Bening herself reckons she learned more from her young co-stars Zumann and Elle Fanning than they did from her. "They're doing what they're doing instinctively. That's what we all want to find as grown-ups - simplicity."

During a scene when Dorothea walks in on Jamie listening to post-punk band The Raincoats and says: "Can't things just be pretty?" the writing captures a generational divide that feels particularly pertinent post-election. This has been a challenging time for kids who disagree with their parents. "Well, you know…" she pauses. "My parents are Republican conservative."

Bening's Kansas roots are in sharp contrast to her liberal present. She takes a breath. "I'm very strategic when I talk about politics. Sometimes I choose to, sometimes I don't. What we do in the work is very important. Within the material itself is where there's so much power."

Set against the backdrop of 1970s California, post-punk and second-wave feminism, the themes of 20th Century Women are becoming more salient. "We didn't make the film thinking that Trump would win," she says, "but the way that we watch back now is through a new lens. When Obama gave his farewell speech I was crying."

If you believe Bening, the journey she took to get here is all down to fate. The youngest of a picture perfect, two-son-two-daughter family. Her father was an insurance salesman, her mother sang in church. "They're still alive," she smiles (he is now 90, she is 87).

When Bening decided to take up acting in high school, her parents were accepting. "I stumbled my way along," she says. Despite having watched barely any plays growing up, Bening got serious about theatre at the age of 22 and applied to San Francisco University. Her only regret is that she never completed her Masters in Fine Arts.

Beginning on Broadway, her cinematic break came at the age of 32 with her Oscar-nominated role in 1990's The Grifters. Appearing nude, she was diminished as a Hollywood "sexpot", but her acting was always equal parts cerebral and rich in traditional drama. She recalls an article that placed her in an "older women" demographic in Hollywood only a few years later. "I remember thinking: 'Wow already?'"

Less confident off-screen, she turned down an appearance on The Johnny Carson Show early on. It was the first time she felt unsure of herself. "I thought, 'If you give me a script, I can do it'." Even now she's still surprisingly on edge when playing herself. "I still don't feel entirely comfortable. But I'm used to it."

Her success, she argues, is driven by great scripts. For American Beauty - her most lauded role - she praises screenwriter Alan Ball's "knife edge" writing over her own improvisation. "It's always about the character you're working on and the point you're at in your life. A great classical performance happens when the actor is right at the moment when they should be playing it."

Bening reads a lot of scripts, increasingly for TV, and this year she reunites with husband Beatty for his directed Rules Don't Apply (out on March 10).

She's also just finished filming Film Stars Don't Die in Liverpool, opposite Vanessa Redgrave. "If you can believe that!" she smiles. "That blew my mind, I'm still not over it."

As she makes her exit, I ask for some motherly advice. "I'm no expert," she says. "There's so much pressure on women now to be sexy, to become educated, to have a fulfilling relationship. And - oh yes! - you also have to have children, and you're supposed to be very happy when you're doing all of this. It's impossible. You don't have to do everything. Just do a little bit at a time."

She closes her eyes tight for a second. "It's not like we have to be happy all the time. Who wants that? The real thing we all search for is meaning."

20th Century Women is now showing nationwide

20th Century Women

Cert: 16; Now showing

Beginners, Mike Mills's 2010 indie drama about his father's coming-out at the age of 75, was a warm and perceptive character-driven piece. It's taken him seven years to put out this follow-up which returns to the writer-director's personal themes while also commenting on gender identity.

Mills takes us back to his upbringing in California where his formative cues came via his mother and sister. Annette Bening is the lone matriarch trying to hold things together. Son Jamie (newcomer Lucas Jade Zumann) is negotiating the first years of teen love with tricky girl-next-door Julie (Elle Fanning). The big sister is right-on punk photographer and tenant Abbie (Greta Gerwig). All three women conspire to raise Jamie in a manner reflecting their attitudes to men. The only male in his midst is William (Billy Crudup), a lazily-written and tokenistic construct of "the feminist man". Jamie sure has our sympathies.

Bening is the superb centrepiece of this otherwise affected, worthy drama.

★★★

Hilary A White

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