In Hollywood, there's something we might term the Annette Bening Curse. It usually applies to great actresses who are taken for granted, women who are so consistently good, over a long period of time, that when it comes to awards, specifically the Academy Awards, they are sometimes passed over. Consider Glenn Close (six-time nominee, six-time loser) or more recently Amy Adams (five-time nominee who this year was passed over for two great performances, including one in Arrival, which was otherwise nominated for eight Oscars), and of course there's Bening herself. Bening first caught audiences attention as a fast-talking—a Bening signature—femme fatale in Stephen Frears' The Grifters, and she hasn't stopped knocking them out of the ballpark since. Yet, she's been passed over for the Best Actress prize four times—including the year she gave a definitive performance in American Beauty, the year's Best Picture winner—and this year, which was finally supposed to be her year, she was passed over for a nomination for her widely praised performance as a sensitive mother—another specialty of hers—in Mike Mills' 20th Century Women. Not that you'll find her complaining. In an interview she conducted for W's Best Performances issue, where her husband Warren Beatty was also featured, Bening seems most interested in disappearing into challenging roles that test her mettle and emotions. In fact, despite the hubbub at the Oscars involving her husband, Bening says the most affecting film of the year was Moonlight, which after some confusion was named the year's best film. "There's nothing like that," she says. "That is an absolute unique piece of work."
How did the part come to you?
I was called by my agent and told that a writer/director named Mike Mills was considering me for his next movie, would I please read the script, which was fun for me. I had seen Beginners, the film that he made the last time, and I had heard him interviewed on NPR. I'm an NPR junkie, and so I was in my car listening, before I had seen Beginners, and I thought, 'Who is this man? He's so delightful and interesting and insightful about that story,' which was of course about his own dad coming out of the closet when he was in his 70s, after his mom had passed away. So that was my knowledge of Mike.
And you read it, and?
I read it, and I just loved it so much because it takes place where I grew up. I mean, I didn't grow up in Santa Barbara, but I grew up in San Diego, southern California. So this was a film that was set in a place that was very familiar to me, that felt like home. And it's set in 1979, so I was 19, and I felt just very much connected to the whole story, and I felt I knew some of the people. I didn't feel I knew exactly who Dorothea was, who I would eventually play, but there was something about it that brought back that time to me in a very poignant way, but in a way that I had never really thought about before.
Did you find it nerve-wracking the experience of playing someone that obviously was so close to the writer/director?
Well, it just became a search. No, it was not nerve-wracking, I think in the way that you mean. I mean, I always have a certain amount of fear, and I'm always a little bit on edge but definitely Mike talks about how very, very personal it was, so that that became a fascinating part of it, and it became the really deeply personal part, which bonded me and Mike, and we now have this bond because of this search that we went on together.
One of the things that's amazing to me about your performance in this movie is it almost feels like a documentary, in a funny way, because there's a sense—you never, you never let the character be anything other than real, if you know what I mean?
Thank you so much. That means so much to me, because that was what I was trying to do, and in terms of the acting part, and I knew that there was something about her that I didn't want to quantify. There is something about her where you don't know quite what she's going to do, you don't know quite what she's going to say, and even when she says something, there are times you're not quite sure what she means, and she doesn't always do what you think she might do. That actually ends up being incredibly freeing, because in a way, of course, that's how we are in life. We aren't always one way, and we don't always do the thing that is expected, but to be able to take that and weave it into a narrative that makes sense, that isn't just unclear—that's the, that's the tricky part. So I mean, we worked pretty, we worked pretty carefully as we were going, trying to find that line. And it was also about someone who, in some ways, we knew had to remain somewhat unknowable.
So I wanna ask you some fun questions, and I feel you'll have a good answer to all of these. I hear you're a big emoji person.
I am. Mike was very surprised that I was an emoji person. Why? I seem like an emoji person to me. No, I love emojis.
It's like he was riveted by this. You send so many emojis. What's your favorite emoji?
Well, I like thumbs up. I'm also big on the heart. I like the Namaste. I also like the woman in the red dress. She appears quite often. Um, I like the one that's like a blue spiral. I learned from my children, and they had to download it into my phone for me, and then it was like, 'Oh, my God, this is incredible. I love it.' I've kind of stopped at this juncture, but then I get lazy, and I don't go in, and every once in a while, like for instance, in the last few days, I've been using that loudspeaker one, the gray loudspeaker. I've discovered that one.
And what does that one mean to you? [Laughs]I'm making some noise about something. Sometimes it does have to be all emojis. You understand.
Well, moving from emojis, what movie makes you cry?Moonlight made me cry. I think it's such a deeply, deeply beautiful, deeply felt movie, and that there's nothing like that. That is an absolute unique piece of work, so that's something that I've seen recently, that definitely does.
And what's your favorite love scene in a movie? And by love scene, I don't mean necessarily sex scene.
Every scene you play, and when you really think about it, that that's at stake somehow. Well, the one that popped into my head the quickest was the scene in [Beatty's] Reds at the train station, when they can't find each other, and then they turn and see each other and run towards each other. And that, that gets me every time.
And the final question, which I'm asking everyone: Where was your first kiss?
My first kiss? I guess my first kiss—well, I kissed these two different guys, and I can't remember which one was first. It was at St. Dunstan's Episcopal Church, and we had a youth group. I think it was Dave—I was probably in seventh grade, but he was much older. He was in ninth grade, and he was tall and cute and really nice, and I think that was the first kiss, although the memory that's more poignant for me is when I was in, I think, the sixth grade, and my dad had a conference. He was in the insurance business, and they had a conference in Banff, Canada, which is this gorgeous ski resort at the base of the Canadian Rockies, but it was in the summer, and we drove a camper van from San Diego all the way to Canada as a family. And so when we got up there, we were in a campground—the kids. I have two brothers and a sister, and we were stuck in the camper, and my parents went to the hotel to go have the conference that was three or four days. So we were living in this camper, and there was a boy. I don't even remember his name. I remember he had Converse on, like high-top black Converse, and I just had this crush, crush, crush, and we were getting into the camper van and I still, don't know whether it happened or not, but I thought I felt him put his hand on my back. It's funny, and I just remember that feeling. Isn't that strange? But at that little moment, I guess it was my first moment of like I really had a crush, and just the idea that somebody would, you know, touch me on my back. And then I waited till the next year to kiss Dave. [Laughs]
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