Annette Bening makes her yearly foray unto the big screen with Being Julia, a film adaptation of the classic W. Somerset Maugham novel. It is a period film but highly relevant to today’s world. She plays Julia, a famous actress that avoids the trappings of age and surprises everyone around her. It’s a real female empowerment story. Annette sparkled during the interview. She was upbeat and had an extremely professional demeanor. You get the feeling that she’s a very classy person. The film is a showpiece for her acting skill. It’s much more glamorous than anything she’s done recently. I think she wants to show everyone that she’s still got it. And she does.
What was your first reaction to the script? Did you have to play Julia?
Annette: I read it and I just couldn’t believe it. I was just knocked out. I couldn’t believe the richness of it, the literate, smart writing, and the density of the language. A lot of great movies don’t have a lot of dialogue. Movies really are, primarily, a visual medium. So when you get a script that has lots of dialogue, lots of color, a whole range of emotions, and a whole journey; I was just completely knocked out when I read it. I thought, “Oh my God, this is really exciting.” And then the next thought was, “I hope I can pull it off.”
Julia has a seemingly perfect life, but she’s unsatisfied and unfulfilled. Are her emotions just as relevant today?
Annette: Somerset Maugham often wrote about this idea, this kind of relationship, and he wrote about it with such a personal kind of ache. From what I understand, that was reflected in many of his relationships and so he really understood it. What I think is amazing about what he does is he shows you the pathos and the ache and pain of it all, but it’s never sentimental. He never takes anything too seriously. You can laugh and smile if you want to, yet there’s great drama. Ultimately it’s a comedy. When he wrote this, he was in his early 60s, he was very bitter about the theater. He’d been a hugely successful playwright and always kind of underrated, even to this day. One of the pleasures of this, for me, was reading up on him. He was a physician who became a writer, but he had a kind of way of clinically looking at things very carefully, objectively. He had a way of focusing in on a human relationship, especially in “Of Human Bondage”. In this one, Julia ultimately triumphs; she ultimately gets back on track and figures herself out. That’s not always true of his stories, but in this one she really does.
Istvan Stabo’s [the director] films are very dramatic, very layered, but this had a playfulness I hadn’t seen before. Can you talk a bit about working with him?
Annette: I had total faith in him. I have sort of blind faith, once I jump into something. He is overwhelmingly experienced, and even though he hadn’t done something like this before, I knew how much he wanted to, and he felt deeply about the woman, and about the people. What’s interesting about comedy, if the writings good, you don’t have to worry about that, as the actor. You might even think you know something’s going to be funny, and sometimes things get laughs that are quite surprising, especially in this. But when I was playing it, I wasn’t playing it to be funny at all. What you do is you try to play the truth of it, whatever that means. You try to play the reality. It’s not your decision, whether or not it’s funny. It’s the writing that dictates whether or not it’s funny. But approaching it, you’re approaching it with absolute sincerity.
Julia has a healthy sex drive. Was that one of the reasons the film appealed to you?
Annette: Yes. Sexuality is a very tricky thing to dramatize. It’s a very tricky thing in all our lives, such an important part of everyone’s life. The fact that it has that in it, and this is a woman who is going through a dilemma and stumbling around, and one way it’s expressed is through her sexuality. I loved that. I found that very human and I felt a lot of compassion for her about that.
Her affairs are not sordid. She and her husband had an arrangement.
Annette: It’s not an American story, and when you look at it you can really tell, because it doesn’t have that sort of puritanical overtone to it. The relationship between the husband and the wife doesn’t really fall into those boundaries. Yet, it’s obviously a mutually satisfying relationship in those kinds of ways. So it doesn’t smack of that kind of moralistic storytelling.
Jimmie Langton, Julia’s first director, has a major influence on her. Did you have a teacher who was similarly influential?
Annette: You know, I was really lucky, because I had a mentor. I had a guy who ran the theater where I was in conservatory. By the time I was there, he was towards the end of his career. But he was great to me, and a little crazy and genius, really talented, really nutty, and he would give talks to the company. I went through the conservatory and was asked to be in the company, which was my absolute dream. But he really encouraged me, and when I was in training I got offered to be in the Shakespeare festival in Oregon, but I didn’t yet have my equity card, and I had done a few Shakespeare festivals by that point. That was the ultimate, my ultimate dream, was to be in that Shakespeare festival. I thought, they want me to play Juliet, I’m quitting acting school. I went to see him. I wanted him to know I got the offer. He said, oh no, you can’t leave, a career is like a line, I remember him talking about an arrow, and an arrow has a long arc, and you’ve got to think of you’re career as long. He asked me into the company, and he gave me great roles, and really allowed me to stretch my wings.
Talk about transitioning from theater to film?
Annette: When I first started doing film, I was afraid of being too big. People in the theater would always say that. I certainly didn’t know about movies. I would think I’m too big, I’m too loud. I’m used to doing performances in a 1000 seat theater, and when you’re in a movie you just have to talk really quietly, in a corner, and it was so weird. These short little scenes, it just felt really foreign to me, and now it’s the opposite. I’m very comfortable in front of a camera, I’m intrigued by it. And the thing was, I didn’t want it to be too big, I wanted it to be real. And yet I knew, this is a diva, lets face it, this is what this is about, a larger than life woman. It’s really the writing that I felt gave me the balance, because in the writing, there’s the opportunity to do the big gushy theatrical stuff, and there’s also moments where everything is deconstructed. The makeup’s gone, the wig’s gone, the fancy costume is gone, and she’s just another person like you or me, feeling like an idiot, a fool, and breaking down. I had an opportunity to do all of those things, mix them together in a way.
In the book, Julia is forty-six. You’re forty-six. Can you talk about that, being a woman over forty in Hollywood today?
Annette: I never thought of acting as just being about being young. I never thought of it that way. I envisioned, in a hope, that I could always work as I got older. So as I get older as a person, I like trying to reflect in a way where I am, what I’m going through. This is not me, this is a character. This is a story about a fictitious woman, but certainly whatever I can bring to it in my own self, my own experience, my own frame of reference, and my imagination; somewhere between what was in Somerset Maugham’s mind, and the director’s mind, and the writer, Ronald Harwood, who did the screenplay, some kind of crazy combination of all of us. As a human being, I just feel better, I like aging, I like the process of knowing myself better and feeling more at home in my own self. I have so many things outside of me that my life’s about, my children, my family. Sexism certainly exists in Hollywood and in the world in general. There are different questions that a forty-six year old actor is asked versus a forty-six year old actress. There’s sexism, for sure, but I don’t think women should internalize it. You get to decide where you are in your life; you can’t let the cultural prejudices determine that.
From Stage Beauty to the upcoming Finding Neverland, Hollywood actors have taken a new interest in British Theater. Can you explain why?
Annette: I saw that, it’s gorgeous. We always have been fascinated with the British. They’re fascinated with us in different ways. They have a real culture of theater there, and they have a real history. I know that when I started as an actor, a lot of people I admired were stage actresses in England. There are so many reparatory companies, its such an integral part of all of the culture. We have it in America, but it’s sort of in concentrated pockets, in a few regional cities, and certainly in New York. So I think part of it is an slight inferiority complex that I think we have. They also envy us in a way, they envy our guts and our impulses and our instincts and our sweat, and lack of diction. We admire them for their style and their precision and their ability to show class.
Did Being Julia make you want to go back to theater?
Annette: Yeah. It really did, and I want to, but because of my kids it’s tricky. And I’m sure I will, as I get older.
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