For 32 years, movie star Annette Bening has always stood out, in films such as “Valmont,” “Bugsy,” “The American President,” “The Women” and “20th Century Women,” earning four Oscar nominations along the way (for her performances in “The Grifters,” “American Beauty,” “Being Julia” and “The Kids Are All Right”).
“I’ve been asked to do really interesting characters in the midst of great stories with great writing,” Bening said. “And great writing usually involves flaws. It’s not about playing people who are strong. It’s about trying to find the humanity in people.”
And she’s at it again, this time on Broadway, in Arthur Miller’s “All My Sons.” For Bening, being on stage has been a kind of homecoming. “My family’s from the Midwest. I was born in Kansas. So, many of my relatives in Iowa had this very backyard,” she said of the play’s setting.
Both she and the production have been nominated for Tonys this year.
Set in 1947, “All My Sons” centers on the Keller family, whose two sons were in World War II. After one, a pilot, was reported missing, their mom, Kate, can’t accept even the possibility he could be dead.
Correspondent Serena Altschul asked, “How do you feel about Kate?”
“I love her,” Bening replied. “That’s the pleasure we have as actors. We get to love the characters because we don’t have to judge them.”
Bening said it’s a role she always wanted to play, in part because the story mirrors events in her own history: “My mom’s family had two sons that went to the war, my Uncle Russell and my Uncle Roy. They both enlisted after Pearl Harbor. They were both in their late twenties.”
Roy became a Marine, Russell a pilot. “His plane crashed from mechanical failure. The body of his copilot was found, but my Uncle Russell’s body was never found. So, there’s a lot of personal connection in my family to the world that Arthur Miller was writing about.”
And, she says, she draws on that connection each night.
Altschul asked, “Do you get a certain catharsis when you relive what Kate goes through every night? Are you working through that loss, in a way?”
“I have a theory that maybe if you’re working in the right way, it is a cathartic experience. So afterwards, you feel unburdened,” she replied.
Her first and only other time on Broadway was in 1987’s “Coastal Disturbances.” She earned a Tony nomination then, too, and soon Hollywood beckoned.
“I was lucky,” she said of the great opportunities in her film career. “And I also didn’t start doing movies ’til I was almost 30. I wasn’t a kid.”
In 1990, she met actor and heartthrob Warren Beatty on the set of the film “Bugsy.” They married in 1992.
Altschul asked, “How does one make a marriage work for 27 years?”
“Well, I think mutual respect, and that we very much want the same things,” Bening replied. “So, he’s very tolerant of living with me!”
“And you of him, right?”
“Yes. I would say yes,” she laughed.
“There were skeptics in the beginning; what do you say to them?”
“What can I say? I don’t know, we’ve been married 27 years. We have four children. I think that sorta says it all, doesn’t it?” Bening laughed.
And, she says, together they created the life she dreamed of. “I always wanted children, from when I was really little, like a little girl, seven or eight years old. And my children, who are now adults, they’re in the stage of their lives where they’re getting their education and they’re working and falling in love. And it’s also a very cool stage of parenting that I’m really enjoying.”
Bening prefers to let her kids speak for themselves. For instance, her oldest, Stephen, is outspoken as an advocate in the transgender community.
Altschul asked, “What can you say to other moms wanting to help their children find themselves and be exactly what they feel they are?”
Bening replied, “Well, it’s what we all want to do as parents. And I think that the tricky part is, that your kids have to go through difficulties and pain. And I didn’t even know it, but there was a part of me that thought, if I got it right, I could maybe parent my kids in such a way that they wouldn’t have to experience pain,” she laughed. “Which is, of course, ridiculous! You want to shield them.
“But what you learn is how powerless you are. You have a lot that you can do to help and love your kids. And of course, you do anything you can to support them and love them. But they go through what they’re gonna go through. And they have a right to do that. And there’s a dignity to that.”
As her children move on, she says, for Beatty and herself it seems like old times. “My husband and I now, we have more time just for each other, and for work. And I can come and do this play in New York.”
“Has he come yet?”
“Yes. An dhe’s been incredibly supportive and enthusiastic.”
And he’s not the only one. Critics, audiences and, of course, the Tony Awards nominating committee are raving about Bening’s performance.
But, Bening said, “We don’t talk about it.”
You don’t? “No, we don’t talk about it. We just focus on the work.”
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Story produced by Mary Raffalli.