Combustible Celluloid

Interview: Annette Bening

Solving Problems

By Jeffrey M. Anderson

Annette Bening, 52, first splashed onto the movie scene as the flirty, sexy, and slightly dangerous Myra Langtry in The Grifters. She received the first of three Oscar nominations for that performance. But rather than continuing in that strain and cashing in on her sex appeal, Bening quickly became an actress of class and style; she appeared absolutely regal as a gangster's girlfriend in Bugsy (1991), and landed herself the untamable Warren Beatty as a husband in the process. After that, she lent her grace to such films as Richard III (1995), The American President (1995), and Open Range (2003), went a little nuts in American Beauty (1999) and chewed the scenery with panache in Being Julia (2004). Not bad for a girl from Topeka, Kansas.

Ms. Bening -- who, of course, is a graduate of SFSU and a veteran of San Francisco's ACT -- recently visited San Francisco to talk about her new movie The Kids Are All Right. In it, Bening stars with Julianne Moore as Nic and Jules, a couple of lesbian moms raising two teenagers. It's the final summer before the daughter (Mia Wasikowska) goes to college and her younger brother (Josh Hutcherson) wants to meet their sperm donor dad, Paul (Mark Ruffalo), which winds up creating more drama than anyone could have anticipated. I participated in a roundtable discussion. The questions below were asked by me.

Jeffrey M. Anderson: Nic and Jules have this incredible chemistry, so much so that the "lesbian" factor doesn't even matter. Within five minutes you're just watching a family drama. You came onto this late, much later than Julianne did. I'm curious... do you feel that you're really clicking with her during the moment? Can you feel the chemistry?

Annette Bening: That's a very good question. I don't know. One is in an uncertain position, when you're working. Now we're sitting here and the movie's done, and there's a certain fait accompli about it. It is what it is. When you're shooting, there's always a sense of exploration. One take is always different than another take, because of the moments that are leading up to it, including the real-life moments that are happening on the set, the pressures of making sound, and are there problems, and do we have enough light, and does someone need to leave? Those tiny little things influence the moment that you're in. And you're always wondering what might happen in the next moment. So there isn't a sense of, "OK! Nailed that!" And yet, at the same time, sometimes you do have a sense that maybe something is working. It's always a bit tentative. I wish it was more concrete. But it never is. It just never is. Because of Lisa establishing a kind of comfort on the set, there was a smaller transition from when everyone's kinda talking to "quiet" and "rolling." You want as little transition as possible from that into the camera rolling. And I think she does that.

Jeffrey M. Anderson: When you get a script this strong, do you have suggestions, or do you throw caution to the wind?

Annette Bening: It sort of depends. Lisa said last night that I had a lot of suggestions, but I don't remember. I need to sit down with her and say, "what were they?" Some of them I remember. But she remembered that I had a lot, so I think that I do, but more than I used to. When I started, I thought, "what do I know?" And I suppose that was true to a degree. I remember very vividly reading a script and thinking, "that's kind of boring and that doesn't work." And I might mention it, but very modestly, and just sort of be ignored. And then I would see the movie and I would think: "that's the part of the movie that doesn't work. Maybe I actually saw something that wasn't right?" So now I'm almost 52, so now when I see something, I say it! Seeing a problem isn't that hard. Solving it is a different thing.

Jeffrey M. Anderson: Do you watch your films?

Annette Bening: I do. And sometimes I'm very critical, and sometimes I'm not. It depends on my mood. Sometimes I'm very moved (laughs). I love it, and other times I have my vanity: "Did I have to look like that?" I've always been very critical of myself, and you have to watch it, because it can paralyze you. There's only so much you can do. Other people are also seeing things you don't see, and you see things other people don't see, and you're remembering things. You have associations about the day and the shooting, and the moment in your life that have nothing to do with the movie that nobody else would ever see. But after time goes by, what I've noticed because now I've been doing movies long enough, I'm forgetting! And I can't remember, that movie I made in France... was that the day I was exhausted, or was that the day we traveled from yada to yada, and shot in the middle of the night? Now it's been so long that don't remember and I can see them more like other people see them.

May 26, 2010

Annette Bening Movies on DVD and Blu-Ray
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Partial Annette Bening Filmography:
"Miami Vice: Red Tape" (1987)
The Great Outdoors (1988)
Valmont (1989)
The Grifters (1990)
Postcards from the Edge (1990)
Bugsy (1991)
Regarding Henry (1991)
Guilty by Suspicion (1991)
Love Affair (1994)
The American President (1995)
Richard III (1995)
Mars Attacks! (1996)
The Siege (1998)
American Beauty (1999)
In Dreams (1999)
What Planet Are You From? (2000)
Open Range (2003)
Being Julia (2004)
Running with Scissors (2006)
The Women (2008)
Mother and Child (2009)
The Kids Are All Right (2010)

Movies Unlimtied