Being Annette Bening

The veteran actor reflects on her illustrious career.

WORDS Jeanne Wolf
March/April 2019
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I guess you could say that my new film has made me cool. My first comic-book role would have been Catwoman in Batman Returns, but I got pregnant and happily had a baby instead. Now I’m in Captain Marvel. I love that Brie Larson is the superhero, which proves you can be a captain whether you’re a man or a woman. The filmmakers tried hard to keep the character I play a mystery. All sorts of people have been guessing, from fanboys to comics experts. It’s been so much fun. I confess I did let Warren in on the secret. I’ve never done anything like it. The production was huge, really overwhelming.

I’m finally going back to Broadway. It’s been many years, because we live in L.A. and I didn’t ever feel like I could be away from my kids as long as you need to be. But our youngest just went away to school, so I thought, What the heck? On stage, it’s hard to do nothing and be good. For film, less is more. All My Sons is a play I really wanted to do. Arthur Miller gets to the heart of how far we’ll go for our family and what we’ll do for survival. I do have some trepidation—whatever you want to call it— about stepping out there every night. But there’s always an element of fear I feel about any performance. It’s funny, because once I’m doing it I’m not as terrified as imagining what it’s going to be like.

When I first got parts in major movies, I realized people have certain illusions about you—they make you into something you’re not. I remember the first time they asked me to do the Johnny Carson show. I had always loved it. But I was so nervous. I thought, What am I going to say? I’m not funny. So I turned it down. Now I think, I could have been on the Johnny Carson show!

I did Valmont with that nude scene and my image was suddenly sexy. I had never seen myself that way and, frankly, I don’t miss it. The scene was in a bathtub and I was wearing a nightgown. It did become pretty transparent but the water was warm and I felt very natural.

The Grifters put me more in the spotlight. I got my first Oscar nomination. It was quite remarkable how much fuss people made over that movie. That kind of fame surprised me. The biggest change of all was meeting Warren. He wanted to talk to me about playing the part in Bugsy. I don’t know what I expected. He was so enthusiastic—like a little kid.

When we did Bugsy together, it transformed my life. People talked about the chemistry we had, like, “It must be easy because you two were obviously so connected.” It doesn’t work that way. You can end up doing a zillion takes and not getting it. But I have to say, when I saw us in our scenes together, I thought we were pretty great. Everybody knows that he’s a perfectionist. But you know what? People like it when someone says, “I’m not going to settle. I’m gonna really make this the best it can be.” There’s not a lot of people who do that or who can do that.

Having my first child with Warren before we were married was definitely a challenge. I remember having to lie down on the floor of the car to go to the doctor with my huge belly to hide from the paparazzi. I just always wanted babies. It was a strong dream of mine. I had been a babysitter and taken care of so many kids that it was second nature to me. I felt I had to learn more when I got a puppy.

Warren and I have been together long enough to discover the profound differences in each other. That’s what makes life interesting and fascinating and spicy. The biggest gift you can give is allowing the other to have their flaws and bad moments and frailties and to be understanding of that.

I started having kids very quickly and your whole life becomes that. I got to play interesting, sexy parts but life shifts so profoundly that you’re never less than being a mom. There’s no way that I could be a good parent and be as self-involved as I was about my career before I was a mother.

I’ve been fortunate to work with a long list of great leading men. Some were intimidating, like Robert De Niro in Guilty by Suspicion. He was hard to get to know. I was so young and he was the veteran. But I learned a lot from him because he’s the real deal.

Harrison Ford was superb in Regarding Henry. He also loves to joke around. Harrison and Mike Nichols, who was directing, sparked a lot of laughter on the set. I personally don’t try to stay in character between takes. It’s like if you keep staring at something you almost can’t see it anymore. You have to look away and then come back and surprise yourself.

A few years later I did American Beauty, which won the Oscar. I played a woman whom some people loved to hate, but I did get nominated. Then, in 2003, I had such a crush on Kevin Costner when we filmed Open Range. He’s so committed and a real leader. Every time I get to see him it makes me happy. That was another adventure that I got to have with my kids, going and making that Western.

I look at my kids becoming young adults and it’s so different than the time that I was raised in. We all have to be aware of political correctness and think carefully about things as they affect our lives. But the world has changed and, for the most part, for women especially, this is a very, very positive thing. I hope it resonates through all kinds of professions. Listen, we all have challenges. I don’t share a lot publicly about those intimate things in my life because they involve other people.

Taking on the role of a lesbian mother in The Kids Are All Right was an experience I’ll always remember. That was one character I would love to play again. I remember I went on a trip to Cuba and a young man came up to me and said, “We saw that film in my small community and it opened up people’s minds.” He was gay. He said it helped everyone to understand that it’s just another form of love and there’s nothing threatening about that.

I’m grateful that I’m not starting out now. It’s very tough for young actors coming into the business with social media and how they have to deal with it. I’d been around. I didn’t do my first movie until I was almost 30. That makes a big difference. It doesn’t screw up your head as much and you can keep your feet on the ground more easily.

I’ve always kind of reserved a piece of myself. It’s an illusion about life that some dream can come true and everything will be easy for you. You are always searching. Some people have said that I hide behind my glasses, and in some ways that’s true.

But I’m glad that I still have that tingle in my gut about acting. I love it so much. I’m very lucky to have my family and my career. When you love what you do, whether it’s being an actress or a mom, then that’s the joy and that’s where the growth is.

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