Being Julia: An Interview with Annette Bening
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By Todd Gilchrist
THE PERFORMANCES THAT JULIA GIVES IN THE FILM ARE DIFFERENT FROM THOSE YOU MIGHT GIVE ON STAGE?
BENING: Yeah, I think she was, in Somerset Maugham's mind, she was an actress, a popular actress. Actually, she did get - I remember now in the book, he talks about, you know, how she started. So, she was - she would do Ibsen, so she was a serious actress, but she wouldn't do - she never did Shakespeare. She figured out that she wasn't - she had been a regional theatre actress, that's actually mentioned in the screenplay, so she started in a little theater company. So when I was playing it, I didn't really think of it in different terms. I just thought - I mean, she was a good actress, she was a great star, she was a diva, she was like the queen of the London stage, so I figured, well she had to have been a good actress. It's not a story about like a would be actress, she was really a great actress, but she has lost her way, at the beginning. So this is a woman who's done eight shows a week since she was a young woman, and just no problem, you know, eight shows a week, that's her thing, it's like an athlete running a race, she knows how it goes. But she's at a point in her life where she's stopping and thinking and reassessing, because it's not coming easily any more.
HAVE YOU EVER ENCOUNTERED ANYTHING AS CRUEL AS WHAT JULIA DOES IN THAT LAST SCENE?
BENING: No, I didn't. I haven't. I haven't - no, it'd be horrible. No I haven't, I haven't had anything like that, you know, when I was doing a lot of plays, I was usually an ingénue, I was the ingénue, 'cause that's when I started. And so I have not done many plays of late, but no, I never experienced that, and I never saw anyone do anything like it. It's quite a theatrical moment, so. But I think in this story, what it's really about, it's not so much humiliating the younger actors, but a woman who's fought - is trying to get herself back up on her feet, and what's triumphant about it is that she's using her own creative power. She's using her own talent in which to kind of put herself back together again, and I like that idea.
JULIA PUT HER CAREER BEFORE FAMILY, BUT YOU'VE DONE THE OPPOSITE - WHAT'S YOUR TAKE ON HAVING IT ALL?
BENING: Well, I guess that's a question because that's what's everybody's wondering, and it gets projected onto actresses, but that's what everybody's struggling with who's got a creative life or has to make a living, is how to find a way to do it both. I think for me, because I wanted to have a family from when I was very young, when I was a kid, it was when I really figured I knew that that's what I wanted to have in my life, was children. So it was always a fundamental given for me, that if I could, that that's what I wanted to do. I never thought, do I want to, do I not, should I, shouldn't I. It was always when, when do I do that. So, I don't think I would be a person who was good at just being able to do my own life, and do whatever I wanted. I have a few friends who don't have children, and I ask them, so, don't you stay up as late as you want, and then you sleep in the morning, especially if they're like writers or whatever. You know, or even, what's that like, you just travel when you want to travel, I mean all that stuff, and I don't really envy it. I think about it, because I have a lot of responsibility, I have four kids. But for me, it's those necessities that give life its real - give my life a richness, and I feel really grateful for that. I don't think I would be good at being in the acting profession and dealing with having a public life, if I didn't have my family. I think it would be much, much harder, and I think it is really hard for a lot of people, just to cope with, you know, having a lot of attention, and part of it you want, and you know you're an actor, and you want people to see what you do, I like this movie, I love this movie, I really want people to enjoy it and see it. But sometimes drawing attention to one's self is - when you're doing interviews and stuff, it's a little bit tricky.
DO YOU THINK IT'S HARDER NOWADAYS FOR FILM COUPLES TO KEEP THE WORK SEPARATE FROM HOME LIFE THAN IT WAS BACK IN JULIA'S TIME?
BENING: It's a good question, if it is easier now. I don't think it's necessarily harder than or easier now, or the other way around. I think that it's part of how you stay sane, is being able to have a sense of yourself which is separate from the work. And so I guess everybody has their own way of doing that, or maybe they don't, maybe they don't need that, I guess I do. I need to have a certain amount of my life which just - well, it just is not a part of this part of my life. Where I'm working, and performing, and doing interviews. And so, I don't - to me that's normal, it's normal to separate it and to say, well, you know. But yeah, in another way, it's all kind of one big pot, it's all one life, it's my life, sort of all kind of mushed in together, and it's the chaos of it, in a way, that I love. I love being busy, and I love having a lot going on, it's exciting.
DOES PLAYING A ROLE LIKE THIS HELP YOU RELINQUISH THAT SORT OF VANITY THAT COMES WITH BEING AN ACTRESS, ESPECIALLY IN TERMS OF ACTORS GETTING OLDER?
BENING: I don't see myself as having to compete with younger actresses, I don't feel that. I think that being able to play a role where I can take off a mask, in a way, because it's a movie about masks in a way. I think good acting is not - I remember hearing someone say this once, and I wish I knew who it was, it's a contemporary actor, I can't remember who said it, that good acting is more about taking off a mask than putting one on. And that's - in our movie acting, certainly that's true. With the camera so close, and you can see right down into your, you know, soul. Hopefully. So, being able to do that, in a way, is terrifying, and in another way, truly liberating. It's great. And I like that about it. I don't see myself as competing with other actresses. I see, I mean, I went through a time when I was in New York, and I was going to lots of auditions and trying to get parts, and even then, you're not really competing with the other actresses, you aren't, I mean, there is a competition going on, but it's not like something you can win in that way. You're all sort of in it together, and I think that it's no more so than a lot of other kinds of jobs. You guys are all competing you can say. Or you can say, well no, you know, I do my job, and I do my writing, and then everybody else does theirs. So it's not about winning, it's about trying to do the best you can do.
CAN YOU TALK ABOUT YOUR SCENES WITH MICHAEL GAMBON, AND HIS CRITIQUES?
BENING: Oh, well he is such a character, he's a great man. He's a great, great man. He's been knighted, he's such a hoot, I mean, I met him when I did 'Open Range,' because he played the villain in 'Open Range,' and I remember I was coming to the set, we were out there on this gorgeous set in the Rockies, and they had built this town, this Western town, and I was in my costume, and he had put on his costume to come out to the set, and [laughs] I said, it's so nice to meet you. And he said, how is every Englishman free, being in a Western? He's a lot of fun, I mean, he's a great character. And he just works like crazy. I mean, goes from movie to movie. I think he was making three movies at the time that we were making 'Being Julia.' So every day that I got to be around him, he's the kind of guy - you just want to go and sit in the corner and talk to. He's got a million stories, he used to be a gun maker for the queen. He was a guy that didn't really become famous. He was well known in the theatre in England, but he wasn't really a famous person until 'Singing Detective.' So I don't know - you guys meet a lot of actors, but from my point of view, someone who - when they've had enough of adult life where they weren't famous, there's a different kind of persona there, because they didn't have to deal with being famous when they were very, very young. So he's just a guy very comfortable with himself. He loves people. He loves to have a drink. He loves to go out and have a good meal. You know, and he's very hard working. I just love what he does in the movie. He's so present. And perfect for the part, so that was really lucky, that we got him to do that.
WERE YOUR KIDS EXCITED THAT YOU WERE WORKING WITH MICHAEL GAMBON BECAUSE HE PLAYS DUMBLEDORE IN THE HARRY POTTER FILMS NOW?
BENING: You know what, it hadn't come out yet. That's right, when we were making - in fact, 'Harry Potter' was one of the movies he was making, when we were doing 'Being Julia.' Because he had just been cast as Dumbledore. So he was still making that, that one just came out a few months ago, so they hadn't seen him in it.
WERE YOU BY YOURSELF IN ENGLAND?
BENING: No, we were - no. I took my kids, the two older ones came and went because they had - it was summertime, and they had other stuff that they were doing. But we shot most of the movie in Budapest, Hungary. And then we were in London for a few weeks, and we were in the Jersey Island, which is in between France and England. We were there for about a week as well.
HOW LONG DID YOU MAINTAIN THE HAPPY SCENES, DID YOU DO THEM ALL AT ONCE?
BENING: No, we didn't do all the happy scenes together, no they shoot based on sort of where they are and let's see, there's all the scenes in one location, they shoot those all together. So no, it was not shot in continuity. It was shot out of continuity.
AS A WORKING MOTHER, DO YOU HAVE TIME TO EXERCISE AND DO ALL THOSE SPECIAL THINGS THAT OTHER ACTRESSES DO?
BENING: Well, I do have to take care of myself, not only because I'm in the movies, just for mental health reasons. I exercise for me. You know, maybe it would be nice to not have to do that in order to feel good, but I do, I feel like I have to, to feel good. To clear my head and all of that, so. You know, I do take care of myself.
I'VE SEEN YOU ON THE WALK.
BENING: On the trail? Oh yeah, do you walk that trail? That's great! I was there this morning! Because I knew I was going to be in a hotel all day long, I thought, no, I've got to get out and get some fresh air.
WAS THERE EVER A CONCERN THAT YOU WOULDN'T PICK UP THE BRITISH-NESS OF THE FILM?
BENING: Well, the accent was the most important - you know, but I guess I've spent enough time in England to know that, you know. No, I didn't worry about the English-ness of it. I worked on the accent, and I thought about that carefully, and you know, that's something that when you're an actor, you work on from the time you're in acting school, everybody's always doing accents. And you're always having to learn accents, and learn sound changes, and the English as well as the American, so everybody. You know, all the English speaking world, we're all working on different accents all the time, so. And of course, almost everybody else was English, there were two Canadian actors, but really most were English actors, so that always helps too.
IS THERE ANY DIFFERENCE BETWEEN BRITISH AND AMERICAN ACTING?
BENING: That's a good question. I don't know, I think they're - I think perhaps the differences have been lessened. I think in the past, like around the time that method acting became so prevalent, that it used to be American actors were thought to be the kind that would work more from the inside out, and that the English actors worked more from the outside in. Like, for instance, an American, a method actor would think well let's see, I have to be sad about something, so how did I feel when something really sad happened to me, my grandmother died, or something more tragic than that. Where the example from the outside in would be, let's say I'm going to put this hat on, and then I'm going to put on a moustache, and then I'm going to put false nails on. Now how does that make me feel, how does that influence my behavior? So, I don't think that exists so much any more, I think it's more a combination of the two, and that most actors are doing a little bit of both, they're looking inside and asking those kinds of questions about your emotional state, and then you're also dealing with whatever good things from the outside that you can do that might be helpful.
AS A DEMOCRAT, HOW DO YOU FEEL ABOUT ARNOLD SCHWARZENEGGER BEING GOVERNOR?
BENING: Oh! Well, as a democrat, I would prefer having a democrat as a governor, but that's nothing against Arnold [Schwarzenegger] personally. But I think that one of the things that I do complain about, is about funding for the arts, and I was just appointed to the California Arts Council. I was so excited, I thought, well this is cool! I'm on the California Arts Council, wow! They are an entity which basically disperses funds, disperses tax dollars to the betterment of the community in terms of arts organizations, whether it's big philharmonics or little programs for kids in the afternoon, or senior citizens, or some disadvantaged group. But there's no money now. There's almost zero money for public funding of the arts, not only in California, but across the country. It's a real philosophical shift in our country, away from the government having a role to play in our cultural lives. So it's leaning more and more towards - that's something that the public does, if they want to do these things, they have to go out and raise the money, this isn't something that we as the government support. And I don't agree with that, and I feel such a debt, especially in California, because I went to public school, the first play I went to see was at a local non-profit theatre. I went to public high school, public junior college, public college, the non-profit theatres that I started in were all helped out by public money, and namely what the public money does, is it gives it that kind of base to work from. Everybody still has to go out and raise money, but at least there's a structure that they know that's in place that can be helped. Well, that's really changing now, and I hope the governor, as well as a lot of other state officials and federal officials, look at that really carefully. Because we all need that in our lives. It's children who need that, who need that joy and that fun and that way of - not only the joy and the fun, but the way of seeing ourselves and perceiving ourselves through music and dance and drama, and movies, and all these things that we as adults enjoy in our lives, well we need that to be part of our lives from when we're little. If we don't have public support of it, there's gonna be fewer and fewer people who have access to that in their lives.
COULD YOU TAKE THAT UP PERSONALLY WITH THE GOVERNOR?
BENING: Well, if given the opportunity, I might bend his ear a little, just like I've bent your ear, I might.
IS YOUR ART COUNCIL ONE OF THE ONES HE WANTS TO GET RID OF?
BENING: I wouldn't be surprised. I don't know about him personally, whether he would want to do that, there are certainly people on his side of the aisle that would like to do that. But I think too that there are a lot of republicans who also support public funding of the arts.
WHICH OF YOUR MOVIES DO YOUR KIDS LIKE?
BENING: You know what, they haven't really - and some of them, they should see, and I just haven't shown them to them yet.
BENING: Uh, yeah. That one I think I'll wait on. [laughs] I think that should come a little bit later. But they've seen 'The Great Outdoors,' which is the first picture I made, with Dan Akroyd and John Candy, which is a family comedy. So that's one they've seen.
ARE THEY IN SCHOOL, OR...
BENING: They're involved in everything that we're involved in, and so yeah, they are in their schools, they're doing stuff.
MAYBE THEY COULD SEE 'REGARDING HENRY.'
BENING: Yeah, that's right, that's a good idea, I should do that. I just, I don't make too much of all of that. And it's not like they're that interested, they're involved in their lives and what they're doing, and so they have plenty of time and plenty of years that they can go back and see stuff. For them, that's all in the past, so they're not that keyed in on it.
DO YOU LOOK BACK AT YOUR OLD MOVIES?
BENING: If they're on - for instance, recently I did the DVD for 'Bugsy,' which I had not done on a couple of films, I don't know, maybe I was wrong, but they were doing these interviews and talking about the behind the scenes stuff, and I have a little bit of an issue with that, I think that we all talk too much about what goes on behind the scenes. So I sort of said, well can I not do that? But anyway, on 'Bugsy,' my husband produced the picture, so I was more convinced. And he and Barry Levinson, who directed it, and Jimmy Toback, who wrote it, they're all friends, the three of them, they all sat down together and did an interview for the DVD. And they said, please will you? I said okay. So I watched the movie again, having not watched it in a long time, I thought wow, what a good movie! [laughs] It's such an interesting, weird combination of elements in that picture. I'm very proud of it, I think it's a very well made movie, beautifully shot. And my husband's performance I think is really great, and so that was fun. And if something's on TV, I'll sit and watch it. It takes a while, it's interesting, at this point, you can really begin to see a movie like other people see it, is after years and years, when you can't remember any more what the circumstances were on the day that you shot that scene, which is inevitably what you think about when you watch a movie, you're thinking about all kinds of things that don't occur to anybody else, just because you're in it.
A LOT OF ACTORS SAY THEY NEVER GET TO A POINT WHERE THEY CAN WATCH THEIR OWN FILMS.
BENING: I think it takes a long time, many many years. I'm just getting to the point where I can do that, and look back, and think, oh who's that, I don't recognize that person. And so I can begin to see it.
HOW DO YOU FEEL ABOUT HOLLYWOOD'S SO CALLED DISCRIMINATION AGAINST WOMEN?
BENING: I think that a lot of it is commerce. It's just commerce. It's not any particular conspiracy against women, I think it's about the almighty dollar, in Hollywood, a lot of the time. A lot of people are here to try to make movies, that most people in the world will see. And so there is that. There is that element. But there's a lot of people, and I mean a lot, if not more people, who are interested in making - in film making. And about good stories. And it doesn't necessarily have to appeal to everybody in order for people to want to make these stories. So I'm around these people all the time, that want to make these pictures. I've been really lucky, I don't feel I can complain. And I don't think it's useful for women to think of themselves as victims of something. Is there a cultural bias against women? Probably. There probably is. But I don't think that that's something - if that is the case, which it probably is, then really, the question is, who is gonna decide, who's gonna say, let's see, how do we get this story made? And a lot of people who are making serious movies, have to fight to get them made. Not just women. Men have to fight too. So, the way I look at it is, you know, join on in. Get in there. Find the story you want to tell. If you don't want to write it, find somebody to write it. And for those of us who are lucky enough to be in the position to fight that good fight, then that's how I feel. I think it's tricky when - if you choose to internalize a sort of bias that there might be out there, for women to see themselves that way, in some sort of negative way, that's the problem. We don't want to do that, you have to be really careful of that. Wait a minute, if there is this prejudice, you don't have to agree to that. You don't have to buy into it.
DO YOU HAVE ANY PROJECTS YOU'RE TRYING TO GET MADE?
BENING: I'm working on a number of things, yeah, but I don't talk about it, because I think it's not smart, you've gotta wait and see. But yeah, when people come to me with things that aren't - often people come to me with things that aren't quite done, you know, it's a book, or it's a script that's not right yet, or it's an idea for something, and then I'm sort of joining in the fray, I become part of the group, and we're all in it together, trying to get something made. But you know, if you go to any film festival, there's always a lot of people there that are trying to make serious movies. Not only film festivals, it's just one place where people gather to do that. And you know, that's part of the business. Movies are such an ephemeral thing, except for studio movies, I guess they're a little less ephemeral, but even so, trying to get this kind of particular group of people together and stay together is always a challenge, that's why producing is such an art.
WHY DO YOU THINK ACTORS' MASKS, SO TO SPEAK, ARE MORE PRONOUNCED?
BENING: Sometimes, it depends on the individual. I think that when I go around in life, if you observe people closely, you don't have to be an actor to have a performance. You don't have to be an actor to have a way of coping, I mean, if there's a way of talking about that without it being - minimizing it. It's a human thing. I guess that's how I see it, you know, it's a way of dealing with one's own insecurity, in a given situation. That's also part of it, isn't it. I mean, you in one situation, you might feel quite comfortable, and you don't feel you have to put on something, or you have to perform. But in another situation, you might feel that. You know, whether it's with your parents or with your children, or with your - if you're meeting someone for a job interview, you know, it depends on the circumstance in which you feel like the most comfortable. And when you get up in the morning, depending on what circumstance you're gonna face, what do you decide to put on that day, you know? If you have five pairs of glasses, which do you choose? How do you choose to look? So, I think probably that's true of some actors. But it's also true of just a lot of people in life, having nothing to do with being actors.
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