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Annette Bening--American Beauty

The actress discusses her Oscar-nominated performance, and her new film WHAT PLANET ARE YOU FROM?

By Steve Biodrowski     March 01, 2000

Annette Bening didn't exactly shoot to stardom. It only seems that way. After several years on stage (earning a Tony nomination in 1987 for 'Coastal Disturbances'), the actress came to Hollywood, where she made her film debut in the forgettable THE GREAT OUTDOORS (1988). A year later, she gave a memorable performance in VALMONT, director Milos Foreman's alternate adaptation of the source material for DANGEROUS LIAISONS. Ironically, this film brought her to the attention of Stephen Frears, who had directed DANGEROUS LIAISONS, and he cast her in THE GRIFTERS, adapted from Jim Thompson's hard-boiled novel. Bening's performance as the hard-edged femme fatale earned her first Oscar nomination (in the Supporting Actress category). From there, she went on to star in GUILTY BY SUSPICION, REGARDING HENRY (directed by Mike Michols), and BUGSY, where she met her husband, actor-producer Warren Beatty.

Bening's first brush with fantasy was an aborted one: cast as Catwoman in Tim Burton's BATMAN RETURNS, she was forced to drop out when she became pregnant with Beatty's child. Since then, Burton cast her in his all-star annihilation opus MARS ATTACKS!, and Neil Jordan (INTERVIEW WITH THE VAMPIRE) gave her the lead in his psychic thriller IN DREAMS. Now, her science fiction comedy, WHAT PLANET ARE YOU FROM?, is set to open Friday, March 3, but the really hot topic on everyone's mind is her second Oscar nomination, this time in the Lead Actress category, for AMERICAN BEAUTY, DreamWorks' 1999 sleeper success that seems to be the odds-on favorite to take home the Best Picture statuette next month. The film is not commonly considered a fantasy effort, yet the dramatic devices (narration by a dead character) and visual strategies (surreal sequences portraying the protagonist's fantasies) do make it of interest to genre fans, not to mention fans of great cinema in general.

How is the experience of being nominated again, ten years later, different for the actress? 'There are a lot of people nominated in the supporting category this year that I relate to, and I'm very happy for them,' Bening explains. 'I'm thinking about the young women more, just in terms of relating to them, because I really wasn't very known, and it was kind of a smaller picture, and it was so incredible. It was exciting--really, really exciting--and it is again. If anything, I feel like I can appreciate it more now, because I know how rare it is that something really comes together. I'm very intrigued by the process of making movies, and I love it. I've made plenty of movies that didn't end up coming together as great movies, but I got so much out of doing them. So I understand that, when there's a next chapter and the rest of the world likes the movie, it's just such a gift. And in this case, with this movie and all the people involved that I really care for, it makes it even more special. It's like a miracle when movies actually work, because there's just so many variables. It's very, very, very difficult to make a good movie.'

Of course, there sometimes seem to be predictable trends in Academy voting, and the most revered and respected films are not always the winners. Consequently, the question has occasionally been raised in recent years: Just how meaningful is the Oscar? Is it really a symbol of excellence, or is it just another Hollywood marketing tool? 'Well, it's not that--not when you're involved!' Bening exclaims. 'In this case, with AMERICAN BEAUTY, the movie was made for all the right reasons. It's just so funny and unusual that it's become this success. Believe me, there are a lot of projects that come to me that are involved in trying to be popular. The decisions about the script, about how much money to spend--everything is geared toward 'How do we get the most people in?' Or a movie's just so expensive, they feel, 'Look, we're spending $70-million; we've got to think about how we get a lot of people here.' This was a movie made without any of those considerations. They made it very cheaply. DreamWorks gave us $15-million to make the movie, which is relatively inexpensive. So they said, 'Go make your movie. You want that guy that nobody knows who he is? All right, take that guy.' So it was made in a very pure way, and we all did it for love. It happened to be a very harmonious set--which it didn't necessarily have to be. There are plenty of low-budget movies where everybody is miserable. This wasn't that; on this, everybody got along very well. Sam Mendes, the director, is a very, very special person. He's one of those really rare talents, and he's a great guy. So we all just made it that way, and we made it quickly. They gave us a little more money as we went along, because we had to reshoot a few things, but they left us alone, thinking, 'This is a nice small movie, and it has an edge, and all that's fine because we can probably make our money back.' Then, it's become this popular movie, which is very affirming. It makes me feel the opposite of cynical. And I have felt cynical when I have watched where the Academy puts some of its attention in the last few years. I've had a few existential crises myself thinking, 'Okay, that's the Best Picture? And I'm in this business? I've got to rethink this!' But for me, it's the opposite in this situation, because it completely affirms doing what you love for the right reasons--because you want to work with particular people on a particular piece of material. The guy that wrote this script--it's his first produced screenplay, but I happened to know him in New York. He was a playwright working in this little company that literally made no money, doing plays that nobody saw. So this is the same guy, and this was his first screenplay to get produced, and it got him a lot of recognition. So it was very affirming for everybody.'

Bening is expecting another child shortly, but she does hope to attend the Academy Awards presentation, not only for herself but also for Beatty, who will be receiving the Irving G. Thalberg Award, handed out for lifetime achievement by producers. 'I really want to be there,' she says. 'My husband's getting the Thalberg Award, and that means so much to him--he's very, very proud of it. I don't want to miss that, but... I'll do everything I can to be there, and I'll leave it up to fate. With the Thalberg Award, I think it's particularly special for him because he started producing at a time when really no actors were doing that. Now a lot of actors have production companies and put their names on films, but they don't really do the work of a producer, whereas my husband really does. So I think that means a lot to him. He's known as a very good producer--very fair, very tough, very passionate. So it's a thrill, and it does make it more special, absolutely.'

In Bening's new film, WHAT PLANET ARE YOU FROM?, there is a ripple of unintentional laughter that occurs during a moment when her character reveals her profession: real estate agent. Audiences, of course, make the connection with her role in AMERICAN BEAUTY, and laugh at the coincidence. Does Bening think there's a chance that her Oscar nominated performance may continue to be the one that strikes a chord in viewer's memories, even after the awards are over? 'I don't know,' she admits. 'I know a lot of people--in fact, so many people--say to me, 'You know, I know that woman. I grew up in Seattle, and my mother's best friend was a real estate agent, and that's her!' Originally, the character in WHAT PLANET ARE YOU FROM? was not a real estate agent. When they did the rewriting, I noticed that, and I was working on AMERICAN BEAUTY at the time. I did mention, 'You know, that is what I'm playing right now.' But it was so right for this woman, for Susan Hart, because she's somebody who's not really had a real job, and she's been an alcoholic and not had good relationships and been promiscuous. So the job needed to be something that was bourgeoisie and solid and said, 'Now I'm a grown-up person; I have this real grown-up job.' So it seemed appropriate.'

Bening had been attached to the project from the early days of development, when Garry Shandling asked her to read the script. 'Garry's a very dear friend of mine,' she explains. 'It was about four years ago actually that he sent me the script. I thought it was really intriguing. We got a bunch of actors together in a room, sat around, and did a reading. It went very well. So I said, 'Look, I'll do this right away, but I have to tell you I'm thinking about having another baby, so if you want to do this I may not be available if you don't do it right now.' He couldn't really do it right then. We didn't have a director; we didn't have a lot of the things we needed. And he really wanted to write more on it. He did that, and I had a baby. He had two more years on his series after that, and he kept working on the script, and the studio was very supportive of him. Then Mike Nichols read it, and it all sort of came together.'

According to Bening, the years of rewriting did not substantially alter the script she originally read. 'It's not that different,' she says. 'If there was anything I did, it was, 'Don't cut that; don't cut that; don't cut that.' He would want to change it to make it better, and I would be fighting for the earlier stuff, which I did in some cases. I felt very strongly about it, and that's a good sign. If I were to say, 'Oh, I don't really care about it,' then that's not a good sign. He was interested in story and structure and some of the other elements, so he didn't want to just leave it as it was.'

Bening did offer some small in put into the script, which is after all about how men and women misunderstand each other (in this case because the man literally is from another planet). The actress explains, 'I did have some input into the scenes with my girlfriends, because I can remember saying, 'We don't really talk that way when we're alone.' Not that we're any better at knowing how men really relate to each other when we're not around. They were very receptive. By the time we were in rehearsal there was a little bit of writing and tweaking and details being adjusted, but I don't think there was anything major. It was pretty much intact by the time we started shooting.

The script remained intact even after shooting started, thanks to director Mike Nichols insistence on shooting what was written. 'We didn't ad lib that much,' says Bening. 'I would have loved to; I love to improvise. I don't think we ever did. We would have more. Mike doesn't really do that. It's costly, for one thing, on a movie; rarely do you really get to improvise. I can count the times on the movies I've been in, because it's just too costly. There's fifty million people waiting for you to finish a scene so that they can get on to the next scene, and that's their entire agenda: to finish. Mike's a real stickler about that, and I suppose that comes from being in the theatre. I know I used to be more that way. When I started doing movies, I studied scripts like they were written in stone, because I had been raised in the theatre, and it's all about the word there--it was my training. It took me awhile to learn that the words, generally speaking, are less important than what you're doing, on film. Once in awhile there's great, great dialogue, and that's what really lives. But generally speaking, it's not that; it's what's going on in your face and inside of you, and you could be reciting the alphabet and it wouldn't matter. So I wish we had done more actually, and Garry could have done more. But we didn't; we stuck to the script, and said it right.'

As for working with Nichols, who had previously directed her in REGARDING HENRY, she says, 'It was very similar in terms of our relationship. We just know each other better. He treats everyone very well. He's a very good audience. He's very trusting and easy going on the set.'

Doing light comedy may seem to be a bit of a departure from the films that first brought her attention, but it is not really a new experience for the actress, considering her previous alien encounter in MARS ATTACKS! Does she approach comedy and drama differently? 'I don't think so,' she says. 'If there's anything you have to watch out for in comedy, it's trying to be funny--it's deadly. And most people that I've worked with who've done a lot of comedy never talk about what's funny. They talk about what's true--investing it with absolute conviction--and that's what ends up, hopefully, being funny. So I don't really think so. If anything, I do the opposite, which is I try to focus on the reality of it for me and the person I'm playing rather than 'Oh, isn't this a funny little problem I have?' Like in a movie like this that's lighter, I take it absolutely seriously, because the more seriously I take it, the more potentially funny it will be.'

One of the more absurd moments, which works because the character isn't trying to be funny, occurs when Susan Hart announces her pregnancy to her alien husband by dancing to her own a capella rendition of 'High Hopes.' Bening explains, 'That was in the original script. I remember learning it years ago when we did the reading. I remember getting the Frank Sinatra CD and playing it in my car. Usually, you're listening to Sesame Street and things that make you nuts after awhile, but I was listening to Frank Sinatra, and my children loved it, because you can understand every word and the songs are great. It was my own naiveté that I didn't understand it would be something they would love. So that was just Garry's idea that that would be how she told him that she was pregnant. And,' she adds with a laugh, 'that was my dance! I get all the credit for my own choreography!'

The character is a bit naive, falling prey to the machinations of an alien whose hidden agenda is world conquest. This is quite different from the manipulative, scheming characters that initially seemed to be forging a reputation as a femme fatale for the actress. Somehow, Bening has managed to avoid being typecast, but not through any conscious effort on her part. 'I don't know if there are any pitfalls about having 'sexy' in your repertoire; I don't think there's anything wrong with that,' she says, admitting. 'No, it is not something that I consciously thought, 'Well, I'll do some sexy and some not.' Variety is everything in acting, and it is for me. Being able to play different parts is such a joy. The reason I do it is to do all kinds of different things. It was ironic that I started that way, because I was never like a 'sexy gal' all the time. It's ironic that that's how I ended up being seen in the movies to begin with. I never considered myself glamorous or sexy. I was just a repertory actress doing Shaw and stuff in San Francisco. That's part of celebrity; that's part of the thing that's created around you that may not have as much to do with you as with people's ideas about you.'

With another Oscar nomination under her belt, Bening seems to have established a career that will continue to be successful for some time to come. But things did not always look so promising; in fact, her first attempt to work in front of the camera turned out to be a disaster (from which she, fortunately, recovered). 'When I started, I was doing plays,' she recalls. 'I had done a lot of repertory and regional theater, and I moved to New York and got in a show that was off-Broadway. Then I was like the new New York actress--and I'd been there only six months, because I'd moved from California. I went up for every pilot and every television thing and every movie, except for maybe one or two that I wouldn't go up for because they were so disgusting. I could remember the ones they called me back for and said, 'Dress more sexy and come back again.' I thought, 'That was sexy! I'd better not go back--it's just too horrible!' I did a pilot, and it actually wasn't a terrible experience, so I hate to say that [it was the worst]. It's a cliché, but I learned so much from it. So I did this pilot, and there's so much hype around being in a pilot: 'Oh, it's going to go.' I had never worked on camera, and I didn't know anything. I was the girl, the romantic lead; I was supposed to be smart and a book publisher. I was very insecure on the set because I just had no experience with the camera and how it works. And then you wait. You shoot it, and it's 'Oh, is it going to go or not?' When they announced it would, there was an option that never occurred to me, which was that they were going to pick it up but they weren't taking me. Basically, I was fired! But they'd all been so nice, and I was confused by the whole thing. They were embarrassed, because I'm a nice person, so they felt terrible. So they never really called me and never really took care of it right. I was just totally devastated. Every insecurity was confirmed: I'm not sexy; I don't know how to do this; I can't do this on camera. When you come from the theatre, you hear all these things about film acting or TV acting: you're going to be too big, too loud; I just felt like this gigantic, loud person. So I learned a lot from that. They shot six of them. It was called IT HAD TO BE YOU, and Patricia Kelly played it. They cancelled it after that. Years later, I ran into the people that worked on it, and they said, 'You know, we were so embarrassed at the time; we didn't really handle it right.' I said, 'It's okay.''

Finally, what does she think about the suggestion that Warren Beatty should run for President? 'If at some point he decides to run, it would be great for him,' she says. 'He as a point of view that's not represented right now. There are a lot of people who don't agree with him; I happen to agree with his point of view. He's a real lefty, and the Democratic party has moved way to the center. There are just so many people who aren't benefiting from how well our country is doing, and nobody's talking about that. So he did take this opportunity of somebody saying 'What if Warren Beatty ran for President?' and he just didn't say no. He made a couple of speeches and wrote one piece. That's all he did. He didn't give one interview in print; he didn't give one interview on television regarding the question. I think what he had to say--he doesn't necessarily have to be him, but I wish that point of view were represented. If he does do it some day, I would support him, but he's really a moviemaker, and you can't really do both. You'd have to decide 'I'm really going to commit myself to this public service life.''

Making the jump to a political life may be a challenge, but according to Bening, it wouldn't be much more difficult than the challenge she faced on her latest picture: 'Keeping a straight face working with Garry every day is pretty tough.' she laughs.

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