Annette Bening: The mother of reinvention

In her new film, Annette Bening plays a woman who falls for a younger man; she talks to Tiffany Rose about life and love
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The Independent Culture

Annette Bening has a habit of making a hit movie and then disappearing for a couple of years to have a baby. Then, just when you think she has slipped into oblivion, she surges back with another box-office victory.

And now the 46-year-old star has done it again, with the period drama Being Julia which premiered at the 29th Toronto Film Festival, and for which she is being touted as an Oscar contender.

"Maybe I should keep bearing more children?" Bening quips, readjusting her long, lean body to find a comfy position in a velvet antique armchair in the penthouse suite of Toronto's Four Seasons hotel. She has been married for almost 13 years to Warren Beatty, and they have four children: Kathlyn, 12; Ben, 10; Isabel, 7; and Ella, four.

"You know, strangely enough, having a lot of children helped me go through the process," she offers. "Pregnancy, giving birth and infancy is such a huge experience for a woman, and it's so profound.

"Before I had children I just went from role to role. I was always working on something - reading, and researching and that was the fun of it for me. I would cherish all that preparation I did for a role: meeting the script writer; finding out about the era of the movie. It really was a glorious time in my life.

"But my ambition really changed when I had children. It really scared me the first time I fell pregnant, and had to stop making movies for a while. Then, after having my first child, I'd get back into the groove of film-making again and I remember thinking: 'Oh I see, it comes back. I get it. It's a cycle'. Duh, as my children would say, like Bart Simpson."

However, she did relinquish a handful of career-defining roles during some of her pregnancies, including the coveted Catwoman role in Batman Returns, which was snapped up by Michelle Pfeiffer, and Demi Moore's provocative part in Indecent Proposal, which upped Moore's per-film price tag to $12m.

Today, Bening is exquisitely dressed in a navy striped shirt, beige trousers and a chocolate-brown leather jacket. She has spiky hair, a creamy complexion, slightly snub nose, topaz eyes which widen like saucers when she emphasises a point and, unlike the majority of Hollywood actresses of her age, she doesnot believe that her livelihood is dependent upon the skill of a plastic surgeon. She is also extremely articulate,taking time to deliberate before giving her long, thoughtful responses to questions.

"I started out wanting to be a classical actress on the stage. Later I received an acting degree in theatre, and I worked on Broadway in New York. Then I began auditioning for movies and I actually landed one, which was when I realised I had no idea what I was doing on a set."

Bening laughs again: "I didn't know anything about marks or close-ups. I was very inexperienced, and so for a long time I felt like I was a stage actress making movies. It was also funny for me to be doing these short little scenes, where you act for three minutes. I remember thinking: 'This is weird. You just walk in and you do this little scene and that's it? How strange.' I was used to acting for three hours at a stretch."

She reaches across the coffee table for a bottle of Evian, talking all the while: "Funnily enough, later on I did a play in LA where I had to act for a long time, and I couldn't concentrate, because I was so conditioned to doing film!" Pouring herself a glass of water, she muses: "But now I really feel like a movie actor."

It's impossible to forget the image of Bening as Myra Langtry, the heart-stoppingly sexy con-woman in Stephen Frears's The Grifters, flouncing onto the screen in a very tight dress (and later on, sans dress), with a smirk on her face that could melt metal. Not only did her breakout performance place her firmly on the Tinseltown map, but it earned her both Oscar and Bafta nominations.

Nine years on, in 1999, Bening collected a Bafta for playing the adulterous wife of a suburban everyman (Kevin Spacey), suffering a mid-life crisis in Sam Mendes's Oscar-winning American Beauty. Her portrayal of an over-ambitious, shrill estate agent rang true for Bening.

"In the 1970s, when I was a teenager, I saw these kind of suburban wives who had been raised to think that being a mother was what they should do, and that it was going to satisfy them. Then the women's movement and the Pill hit, and motherhood was devalued. Suddenly everybody's lives were changing so dramatically. I was the babysitter in the background, watching these women's lives fall apart. They were having affairs, getting divorces."

Bening's own reality is quite different. Her life changed dramatically at the age of 33, when she met and fell in love with Beatty, then 54, while playing his tough-talking girlfriend, the real-life actress Virginia Hill - to his gangster Bugsy Siegel - in Barry Levinson's Bugsy.

Bening had been married previously to the actor/director Steven White, but when she got together with Beatty it made headlines. Beatty, who had been serially linked to such fascinating beauties as Natalie Wood, Julie Christie, Joan Collins, Diane Keaton, Jacqueline Onassis and Madonna, was finally settling down. There was something enchanting about their whirlwind romance. Even Beatty, usually tight-lipped about his personal life, once remarked: "Annette was able to do what no other woman has done."

Bening believes it's a case of simply being in the right place, at the right time. "I've many friends who are single, around my age, who haven't met the one to start a family. There are a lot of men who think they're not ready and say: 'I don't know if I should have children, because I've totally fucked up my dog!' "

One of four children, Bening was born in Kansas and raised in San Diego by her father, an insurance salesman, and her mother, who sang in church. She swears she never went to the cinema as a child. "Acting was such a foreign thing. I had never ever met an actor, never been to the movies or theatre. I don't mean that we were in some cultural wasteland, it was just that my parents were not into that kind of thing," she frowns.

"In a way there have been certain advantages to that, and certainly when I fell in love with the theatre, I had never seen many plays which most people had watched as a kid. They were all new to me, which helped me see the characters for the first time, in an innocent kind of way."

Her stage work included Spoils of War and Coastal Disturbances, which earned her a nod for a Tony award. After her success in 1990's The Grifters, she secured meaty roles in such films as Regarding Henry, The American President, The Siege and 2003's underappreciated Open Range, alongside Kevin Costner.

Bening relocated her family to Budapest to shoot Being Julia. With two full-time careers and a houseful of children, the primary deciding factor for choosing a role is down to the logistics of filming schedules.

"I don't always discuss the material with Warren," Bening says, taking another sip of water. "He is a very good script analyser, but there have been certain movies where I've read the script and known I wanted the part, so then I didn't bother him. But we have to work out the logistics. Such as, if we want to do this picture in Paris in January, what about the kids? Can we work it out?"

Bening has received rave reviews in the US for her role as Julia, a fortysomething actress who rules the 1930s West End stage. Her theatre-producer philandering husband is responsible for engineering her career but Julia, who seems to possess everything, realises that her days at the top are numbered. She feels threatened when an ingénue uses the casting couch to land a part, andseeks comfort with an American man half her age.

"I can remember when I was an ingenue, coming into a theatre company; I felt a little bit of resentment from one of the actresses, but it wasn't personal. She wasn't mean to me and I admired her," Bening smiles.

"But I don't feel that way. I seek actresses out. When I worked with Maggie Smith, I asked her to tell me about Othello - what was that like? I didn't know how she would respond, but she was so friendly. She loved that somebody was interested in her."

After watching Bening master a flawless upper-crust London accent, it's easy to forget she is actually a Kansas gal. "I did listen to a lot of old tapes which I played in my car while I was driving around LA, or getting stuck in traffic," she smiles.

"There's a wonderful Noël Coward recording of Private Lives, with Gertrude Lawrence, which is beautiful and extremely soulful. For me listening is key, it's like hearing music. Then, on the set in Budapest, I had an English coach who practically beat it into my psyche."

Julia experiences a younger man - is this something Bening can relate to? She shakes her head vigorously. "I've never fallen in love with a guy who was very much younger, so I can't speak about it," she states.

"But I can relate to what Julia does with this boy. She projects her own needs onto him, and we're all guilty of that! We've all created that person and then suddenly, guess what, you wake up and say: 'Wait a minute; I have no connection with this person I was creating them to be. It was all about my needs.' I find that very human."

Our time has run out; Bening stretches her long legs, and proceeds to the door. Suddenly she turns back and beams: "Fortunately for me, I have always been interested in older men."

'Being Julia' is released on 19 November

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