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’20th Century Women’ Star Annette Bening on Why Acting Still Scares Her

TheWrap Oscar magazine: ”You feel like you’re on a tightrope,“ the four-time Oscar nominee says


A version of this story about Annette Bening first appeared in the December 9 issue of TheWrap’s Oscar magazine.

Even now, she still gets nervous. “You’ve got your fear and your doubt and your insecurities, and they’re always there,” said Annette Bening, 28 years into a film career that has brought her four Oscar nominations, two Golden Globe wins, SAG and BAFTA awards and enough acclaim that you might figure she walks onto a set pretty confident in her abilities.

“You always think, ‘Will I be able to do it?’ It changes over the years, but it doesn’t ever go away. I think it’s just human nature to have some fear.”

The latest film to scare her is “20th Century Women,” writer-director Mike Mills’ ode of sorts to his mother. Following the 2010 film “Beginners,” in which Christopher Plummer won an Oscar for playing a fictionalized version of Mills’ father, “20th Century Women” tackles his other parent through Bening’s character Dorothea, a single mother raising her son in 1979 in the seaside town of Santa Barbara, California, with the help of a ramshackle house full of eccentric roomers and guests played by Greta Gerwig, Billy Crudup and Elle Fanning.

Dorothea is a progressive thinker but also a worrier, a strong woman grappling with puzzling times–and Bening anchors a delightful cast of characters in Mills’ lovely, time-hopping blend of comedy and drama.

20th Century Women

“Annette has the emotional intelligence to do a character like this, and she’s super funny,” said Mills. “It was so easy to think of Annette as Dorothea, even before I met her. She has the androgyny, she has the intelligence, she’s such a moving actress, she’s the perfect age, and she looks her age in a very beautiful way, which was very important to me.

“And mostly, Annette’s so smart and so able to hold complexity in her characters, to hold contradictory things. And I was really trying to write a character that had that.”

That complexity, though, was one of the things that worried Bening about playing Dorothea. “I loved the story, and I felt like it was my world, even though I grew up in San Diego, not Santa Barbara,” she said. “But Dorothea was very enigmatic to me. Mike and I talked endlessly, and I would tell him, ‘I’m trying to figure this woman out. You said she was this, but now you say she was that. How can she be this and that? That doesn’t make sense.’

“But as I got further into it, I started to see that it was a good thing. You’re trying to make sense of someone, which is normal — but as people, we don’t make sense. We have contradictions. And if you’re getting in a deep way into a contradiction or a paradox, you’re getting into maybe having a glimpse of something that’s truthful.”

Greta Gerwig Mike Mills and Annette Bening

But Bening, 58, was not just making up a character or interpreting what she saw in the script. She was also playing a version of Mills’ own mother, which means she was competing with the memories of the man behind the camera. Asked if that ever caused a conflict, she chose her words carefully.

“That’s an interesting question,” she said slowly. “Let’s say that that was not a problem, but a creative point of contact that caused sparks in a good way.” She paused. “Mike is very warm, sweet, he’s this beautiful man, but there’s a filmmaker in there that is very tenacious.”

For his part, Mills said he happily turned ownership of the character over to Bening. “I love having a real person in my head when I’m writing,” he said. “Especially if it’s a person that I love and who is important to me, and I have some close proximity to, it gives me a mission as a writer.

“But it always takes me so long to write these scripts that I’m like, ‘Please, give me somebody else in my life.’ I’m always trying to tell the actors, ‘It’s your car now– you take the keys and drive it.’ And for their acting to be good, it has to be their character.”

20th Century Women

Mills also led the cast in improvisations and insisted that they have dance parties every morning in the house that served as the main set. The idea was to move beyond awkwardness into bonding, and Bening said she took it in stride.

“Listen, that’s what we do,” she said. “We just love to bond. I don’t know how to put this without sounding ridiculous, but it is our job, because it’s these connections between people that we’re trying to act out. That is the joy of acting, these connections, and we are used to establishing emotional intimacy quickly.

“There’s something really fun about trying to be as free as possible, and that is a very enjoyable part of acting. But there’s also a necessary tension to that. You feel like you’re a little bit on a tightrope, which I love.”

Bening is now in her fourth decade as an actress, with Oscar nominations for “The Grifters,” “American Beauty,” “Being Julia” and “The Kids Are All Right,” and with four children with her husband, Warren Beatty. “I’m definitely at the life’s-too-short part of life now,” she said, laughing, “and I’m looking for terrain I haven’t gone over before. The further away I get from acting school, the more enjoyable I find acting to be, and the freer I feel.

“The goal is to feel like, ‘This is where I am in my life, this is the skin I’m in, this is the experience I’m having, and I want to enjoy it.’ That is the real goal, in acting and in life.”

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