Annette Bening Talks ‘NYAD’ and Telling Diverse Stories Onscreen

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Photo Source: Nathan Arizona

You might be shocked to learn that, despite being nominated four times, Annette Bening has never won an Oscar. She’s now earned her fifth nod for “NYAD,” Jimmy Chin and Elizabeth Chai Vasarhelyi’s biopic about Diana Nyad, the long-distance swimmer who, at the age of 64, swam 110 miles from Havana to Key West. The film also digs into her complex, loving relationship with her friend and coach Bonnie Stoll. Here, Bening talks about how spending time with the real Nyad deepened her understanding of the role.

What drew you to Diana’s story?

When I sat down to read the script, I didn’t quite know what to expect; and I was just knocked out…. I loved the story, and I found her very funny, and I found the whole thing really moving—but also [the fact] that I’m being asked to play it. I just never would have imagined in a million years that when I was [in my 60s], I would be asked to do an athletic movie. I mean, that’s just so crazy. So I was just like, Oh, my God, yes; I have to do this.

You’ve taken on a lot of roles in films that center older women, which is sadly rare in Hollywood. Why do you think this kind of representation is so vital?

For so long on the screen…there were so many stereotypes about women and who we were. And right now, we do have an opening up of all kinds of stories—not just about women who are older than 30, but about…people of color, queer people, Native American people. We have these ideas that are so limited and wrong…. And it’s really refreshing to be able to say, Oh, no, no, no, no—the truth about people’s lives has just not been told.

And I think that’s true of Diana and Bonnie, two queer women who are now in their 70s, and the particulars of their relationship…. They met years ago, they [briefly] dated, and they’ve been soulmates since then. The whole idea of chosen family is necessary for a lot of queer people because their own families aren’t accepting of them. That all goes without saying in the film in a kind of great way.

You and Jodie Foster, who plays Bonnie, spent time with your real-life counterparts. How did that help you understand their dynamic?

The first time I met Diana and Bonnie, I met them together, and it was like being in a wind machine. The two of them have so much energy and so much curiosity. [Their relationship was] so evident right away. And then the four of us ended up getting together all the time…. And in the case of Diana, I’m advocating for her; I only want the best [for her], and I want to defend her. I respected the fact she understood that in order to create a character arc and a narrative, we had to emphasize certain things about her and deemphasize other things in order to tell the story.

Your portrayal of Diana is so complex—the film highlights her positive qualities, but also her negative ones.

Yeah. And I think it’s pushed a few people’s buttons; I’ve heard that people are like, “Well, she’s not always likable….” All I can say is: Don’t we kind of need to see that sometimes? Our metric for how we’re able to accept [those traits] in a woman is different than how we’re able to accept [them] in a man. 


“NYAD” Courtesy Netflix

That’s so true. We’ll have biopics about men where audiences say, “Oh, he was really complicated, but he was a genius.” And then when it’s about a woman, they’re like, “Is she thankful enough?”

Does she spend enough time at home, taking care of other people? Does she smile enough?

This is a very physically demanding role. What did you do to prepare?

I got in the pool, and I started swimming; and then I got really scared because I thought, What am I thinking? How can I possibly get myself to a place of feeling like I can do this? I hired a really good coach. Her name is Rada Owen; she was an Olympic swimmer…. And I just put everything I could into [practicing], not knowing how things would end up…. But it ended up that it was like: OK, it works, and it [feels] plausible…. So I just worked my ass off. But, you know, that’s what we do [as actors]; it’s the job, and it’s a joy to be challenged.

Do you have a part you’ve always dreamed of playing?

I did when I started in the theater, because I was just so enamored of all the great playwrights; I love the intellectual challenge of being inside the head of George Bernard Shaw or Chekhov or Arthur Miller. But not so much now. I am really lucky that interesting things [keep] coming to me. I love the craft—and just the people, right? It’s like: Who do I get to be in the room with? Do I get to be in the room with Jodie Foster? Well, that must be a good thing. And it was a good thing.

Which role shaped you most as an actor—and as a person? 

As a performer, it was when I did my first show in New York. It was a play that was Off-Broadway called “Coastal Disturbances”; and then it moved to Broadway. I did it for almost a year…. The demands of doing a performance over and over and keeping it fresh. And then, personally, I guess it would be when I did “Bugsy,” because [that’s when] I met my husband, [Warren Beatty]. That completely changed the trajectory of my entire life because we ended up falling in love. And now we’ve been married for almost 32 years.

What advice would you give your younger self?

Follow your gut; you have a stomach brain that tells you about [your] choices. Also, don’t worry so much; have a good time. Try to do the day you’re in. But it’s a process…. There’s no point at which you don’t get scared, insecure, have doubts, have anxiety. That’s normal, and you just have to figure out ways to get through that stuff on a daily basis and have a sense of humor.

What performance should every actor see and why?

I have a lot. One that flies into my head is Kate Winslet in a number of things, [like] “Mare of Easttown….” She’s one of the people that I just really don’t want to miss in anything. Gary Oldman is another one of my favorite actors to watch—pretty much anything he does, including his most recent thing, “Slow Horses.” I just marvel at his talent.

This story originally appeared in the Feb. 22 issue of Backstage Magazine.