DATE October 27, 2006 ACCOUNT NUMBER N/A
TIME 12:00 Noon-1:00 PM AUDIENCE N/A
PROGRAM Fresh Air
Interview: Annette Bening discusses her acting career
DAVID BIANCULLI, host:
This is FRESH AIR. I'm David Bianculli, TV critic for the New York Daily News
in for Terry Gross.
Our guest is Annette Bening. She's currently starting in the new film
"Running with Scissors," based on the best-selling memoir by Augusten
Burroughs about his dysfunctional childhood. Bening was nominated for an
Oscar for her roles in the films "Being Julia" and "American Beauty." Her
other memorable roles include the president's girlfriend in "The American
President," the con woman in "Grifters" and the femme fatale in "Bugsy," the
movie in which she met her husband, Warren Beatty.
In "Running with Scissors," she plays the manic-depressive poet who is the
mother of the Augusten Burroughs character. Here she is, leading a women's
poetry group. One of the women is reading her own poem aloud.
(Soundbite from "Running with Scissors")
(Soundbite of music)
Unidentified Actress #1: (Reading) "And when the sun comes out, the daffodil
looks skyward, wet in the rain but not broken. Triumphant trumpet..."
(Soundbite of whispers and sighs)
Actress #1: Did you like it, Deirdre? I've been working on it since the last
meeting of the poetry club. You said, `Write what you know.'
Ms. ANNETTE BENING: (As Deirdre) It's sentimental. It's emotionally
dishonest. It implodes into nothingness. I was bored.
(Soundbite of music)
Ms. BENING: (As Deirdre) Were you bored, Christie?
Unidentified Actress #2: It sort of didn't go anywhere.
Ms. BENING: (As Deirdre) You didn't tap into your creative unconscious,
(Soundbite of hiccough)
(Soundbite of music)
Ms. BENING: Who wants to read next?
(End of soundbite)
BIANCULLI: Terry spoke with Annette Bening last year. At the time she was
starring in "Being Julia," playing a celebrated British stage actress in 1938.
TERRY GROSS, host:
Some actors are always on. I mean, some people become performers because they
see life as theater and they're always on and they always want to be on stage
and the center of attention. But I think other performers are actually kind
of shy, and when they're not on stage, they're just different. I mean,
they're not necessarily larger than life when they're offstage. I think for
your character in the movie, she sees life as theater. She is usually on even
when she's offstage. What about you?
Ms. BENING: No, I don't see myself as someone who's always on. Maybe it's
because I also have a life where I have so many responsibilities and things
that I do that are outside of working and acting. But I agree with you about
actors, and I find it very interesting that some actors are much more
introverted and shy. I know I feel much more comfortable and always have when
I'm working. If I'm working, acting, doing--on a stage or if I'm on a set and
I'm working and I'm the center of attention, that, to me, feels normal and
comfortable or, you know, appropriate, I guess, is the word. In life, just
being me, being the center of attention, sometimes I find very uncomfortable.
GROSS: Can you explain that difference, why you're uncomfortable having
Ms. BENING: Yeah, I don't know. It's funny, 'cause I can remember when I
first started, I was doing only theater for a number of years, and I was in--I
started getting interested in movies, 'cause I would see a good movie, then I
would think, `Oh, God, that's so powerful, and someone has to be in them, and
maybe someday I could.' But I had been working as an actress on the stage. I
didn't have an agent. I didn't know how to go to interviews. And I remember
coming to Los Angeles for the first time, and I didn't even stay, but I sort
of came and visited and met a few people, and they would say, `Well, just go
in and be yourself.' And I would find that very intimidating.
I felt like, `Well, if you give me a script, I know what to do.' I know how to
do that. That, I'm comfortable doing. But just chatting with people, I
didn't understand why that was important. I do understand why it's important
now, especially in front of a camera, why it's important to just have a
conversation with someone and see what they sound like, how they move, what
are their rhythms, what is their kind of nature. But I didn't really even
understand that then.
GROSS: You made your first movie when you were 30, which is comparatively
late for an actress who is really well-known for her movie career. Why was it
so comparatively late that you made your movie debut?
Ms. BENING: I wanted to be a classical actress. That's why I started. I
really knew nothing about the theater or acting when I started. I just went
to a play in San Diego, where I was growing up. My English teacher took our
class to a play at the old Globe Theatre, and I fell in love with the kind of
marriage of ideas and emotion that seemed to be going on. And I loved
watching the actors, and I liked the sweat on their faces and the sound of
their voices. And it was Shakespeare, and the whole thing gets kind of seemed
So I began to get interested in it, and I began to do plays when I was in
junior high and high school, and that's how it sort of started. So coming
around to movies--I didn't watch movies thinking about being a movie star or a
movie actor. I just thought about being on the stage, and my heroes were
people like Eva Le Gallienne and Eleanora Duse, and those were the people that
I would read about. And then a lot of the English actresses, Judi Dench and
Maggie Smith and people that were on the stage in England who came from
And so I went to San Francisco state, I got a theater degree, and then I went
to a conservatory in San Francisco at a theater there called the American
Conservatory Theater. Out of college, I went there. And in-between, I was
doing Shakespeare festivals. So that's sort of where I got my start. That's
what I wanted to do. And it wasn't until later that I began seriously
thinking about, well, maybe trying to go to LA or New York and trying to get
an agent and trying to start doing movies.
GROSS: Let's talk about one of your early films, and this is "The Grifters,"
which you made in 1990. And this is a film--John Cusack is a small-time con
man and he's caught between his mother, who's a real scam artist, and then he
meets you and you're a con artist, too. So he's kind of, in a way, trapped
between these two women, his mother and you. And I want to play a scene from
the film. And this is--at this point you're telling Cusack that you have a
new scheme and you want him to be your partner in it.
(Soundbite from "The Grifters")
Ms. BENING: (As Myra Langtry) Hon, guess what? I have to tell you right
away. I called a fellow I know in Tulsa, the one who plays my chauffeur. He
says that there's a sucker there that's made for us and a broker that just
shut down. We can use their office, not change a thing. Now I can scrape up
10 grand if I try. If I got a couple of aces in the hole, some markers I
could call on for something real, that leaves 15 or 20 for your end. We can
start this weekend, get the sucker into position.
Mr. JOHN CUSACK: (As Roy Dillon) Hold it. You're talking some pretty tall
figures. What makes you think I've got that kind of money?
Ms. BENING: (As Myra Langtry) Well, you must have. Now you know you do,
Mr. CUSACK: (As Roy Dillon) Maybe I like it where I am.
Ms. BENING: (As Myra Langtry) Well, maybe I don't. I had 10 good years with
Cole, and I want him back. I gotta have a partner. I loved him, I loved him.
Believe me, brother, I kissed a lot of (censored) frogs, and you're my prince.
Mr. CUSACK: (As Roy Dillon) Do I get any say in this?
Ms. BENING: (As Myra Langtry) No, because...
Mr. CUSACK: (As Roy Dillon) That's what I say. What I say is no. We don't
(End of soundbite)
GROSS: That's a scene from "The Grifters."
Annette Bening, did you go back and watch a lot of film noir before performing
in "The Grifters"?
Ms. BENING: I did watch some. Stephen Frears, who directed the picture,
gave me some ideas. He also had me watch a lot of Gloria Grahame, and she was
a wonderful actress who did a number of those film noirs. And there was
something particular about her that he liked and then I began to kind of fall
in love with. She's a very interesting person as well, her own personal life.
But I also felt that in that particular character in that picture, the style
of it was really influenced by the costume designer. His name was Richard
Hornung. He's passed away but he was a great designer, and I just--every once
in a while, you go into a fitting for a film especially and you feel like the
designer hands you the character. And in a way, I think Hornung did that,
because he had such a specific eye and a specific idea, and for Anjelica as
well. I mean, Anjelica looked incredible in the picture. So those
costumes--and also I completely changed the way I looked. I cut my hair, I
dyed it and I did all this stuff. So that helps.
GROSS: You know, you said that the clothing really gave you a sense of the
character. Of course, there's one scene in which you're wearing absolutely
nothing. And this is a scene where your landlord wants the rent, you're
really behind and you kind of invite him into your apartment. He walks in;
you're lying there naked in bed, waiting for him. And he says, `I need the
money,' and you say, `Oh, it's over there,' and you point to the far end of
the room where the money is. And you basically offer him the choice of, you
know, the rent money or you. And you know, it's a very seductive scene, one
of several seductive scenes in it. And it made me wonder, before you became
an actress, were you familiar with that sense of using your body in such an
overtly seductive way? It's something you see all the time in the movies, but
I always wonder if the actresses who know how to do that in movies really have
lived any of their life that way.
Ms. BENING: No, Terry, I have to say I probably could say pretty safely, no,
I had never experienced anything like that. I thought that the comedic nature
of the moments in which Myra, if I remember her name right, Myra in "The
Grifters," was naked--it seemed right. And because it was comedic, it seemed
particularly appropriate. And so doing it actually was pretty liberating.
That moment, though, when that guy--the guy actually ended up jumping on top
of me. That was not my favorite moment.
But there's another moment--there's another scene where John's actually
chasing me around. I'd forgotten about it, and then I saw it recently and
thought, `Wow!' Yeah, he sort of chases me around the room, throws me over his
shoulder and everything.
No, it was actually very liberating at the time. Yeah.
GROSS: Liberating in what sense?
Ms. BENING: I--taking your clothes off, running around. It was. It was
liberating. It's like, `What's the big deal?' you know.
GROSS: Right, right.
BIANCULLI: Annette Bening speaking with Terry Gross last year.
We'll hear more after a break. This is FRESH AIR.
BIANCULLI: Let's get back to Terry's interview with Annette Bening.
GROSS: Let's talk about "Bugsy." And this is the movie in which you met your
husband, Warren Beatty. And he plays, you know, Ben Siegel, Bugsy Siegel, who
builds up a lot of Vegas. And you play Virginia Hill, who, you know, becomes
his lover. Now this is a scene from when you first meet, and he's just met
you, he's very interested in you. You've walked away. He's just found out
from his friend that you are actually the girlfriend of Joey Adonis, and
he--you know, Bugsy walks back in your direction and has this conversation
(Soundbite from "Bugsy")
Ms. BENING: (As Virginia Hill) Look, you're Ben Siegel and I'm Virginia
Mr. WARREN BEATTY: (As Ben Siegel) Yeah.
Ms. BENING: (As Virginia Hill) Now why are you so interested in a gal who's
going with your friend?
Mr. BEATTY: (As Ben Siegel) What friend? Joey A? He's no friend of mine.
He's an associate of an associate. You still going with him?
Ms. BENING: (As Virginia Hill) If it were New Year's Eve, he would be my
date. Who would your date be?
Mr. BEATTY: (As Ben Siegel) Wife.
Ms. BENING: (As Virginia Hill) Wife?
Mr. BEATTY: (As Ben Siegel) Esta.
Ms. BENING: (As Virginia Hill) Esther?
Mr. BEATTY: (As Ben Siegel) Esta, E-S-T-A.
Ms. BENING: (As Virginia Hill) Good. Let me guess. I bet Esta lives her
life faithful to her one and only Ben, who plays around like a jackrabbit on
the side and lies about it through his teeth.
Mr. BEATTY: (As Ben Siegel) I don't lie to Esta.
Ms. BENING: (As Virginia Hill) That's noble. What do you do, confess your
sins three times a day? Now exactly does Mr. Esta want from Ms. Virginia?
Mr. BEATTY: (As Ben Siegel) Right now Mr. Esta is having a tremendous
amount of difficulty imagining anything he doesn't want from Ms. Virginia.
Ms. BENING: (As Virginia Hill) Are you ready for a divorce, Mr. Siegel?
Mr. BEATTY: (As Ben Siegel) Never.
Ms. BENING: (As Virginia Hill) Well, my, oh, my, you're pretty ferocious for
a mom's concern, aren't you?
Mr. BEATTY: (As Ben Siegel) Yeah.
Ms. BENING: (As Virginia Hill) The rest of the time you're just another
good-looking, sweet-talking, charm-using, (censored)-happy fellow with nothing
to offer but some dialogue. Dialogue's cheap in Hollywood, Ben. Why don't
you run outside and jerk yourself a soda?
(End of soundbite)
GROSS: That's a scene from "Bugsy." My guest is Annette Bening.
When you auditioned for this movie, did you have any sense that by the time
the movie was over that you would be soon to marry Warren Beatty?
Ms. BENING: (Laughs)
GROSS: Did you have a sense that this was going to be that kind of chemistry?
Ms. BENING: Actually, by the time I was meeting people--at this point in the
work, I was actually--I didn't audition. So I went and met with Barry
GROSS: Oh, you were past that.
Ms. BENING: Yeah.
Ms. BENING: Yeah, exactly. At that point, I was just, like, meeting with
people and I didn't have to read, although I would have, I'm sure, if they'd
asked me. Anyway, so I just met with Barry Levinson first; I had a drink with
him. And then I met Warren for lunch, so then I guess it was after that that
they asked me to do the picture. No. The answer is no, I wouldn't have
GROSS: Is it ever confusing when you're doing a role with someone and it's a
role where the two characters fall in love--is it ever confusing what emotions
you're feeling, like, from the character and what emotions are real?
Ms. BENING: A friend of mine, I remember, when I was working in the theater,
called it `scene spill.'
GROSS: Scene spill? I like that.
Ms. BENING: Scene spill. I know, it's a great expression. Let's see. No,
I don't think so. I think really down deep, no, I think you kind of know
you're pretending or you know it's real life. And what's interesting, too,
about chemistry on screen--I don't think there's any way of knowing when
chemistry will work and when it won't work and what that is. It's a very
intangible quality when you're watching something and you see two people and
there's that magical thing happening between them on screen, because I've done
pictures that that, you know, wasn't necessarily going on between me and the
other actor at all, not that we weren't friendly, but it wasn't like there was
any kind of romance going on. And it seems like it kind of sparkles and
works, and then other times it doesn't. So it's a funny quality to try to
GROSS: Were you willing to admit to yourself that you actually felt something
for him before the film was over? Because I could see how, like, real
feelings could interfere with the making of a movie, 'cause real feelings
could also end; real feelings could be combustible. And you don't--I mean, if
you're serious about making a movie, you don't want that to intrude on the
reality of the movie.
Ms. BENING: Yeah. What if it ends before the movie ends, right?
GROSS: Exactly. Well--no, exactly.
Ms. BENING: No, it's a problem. No--yeah, I began to know as we were making
the picture that there was something going on between us, for sure. I mean,
we were discreet about it and we were--you know, kept quiet about it. But,
yeah, you know, we started to fall in love. So, yeah, that was going on. But
I think in general, people--you know, all of us are very careful about those
relationships and having to, you know, draw the line and draw a distinction
between what is pretend and what isn't.
GROSS: You are now the mother of four, so you have your hands full in private
life. Your children age from--what?--age four to 13 or something like that?
Ms. BENING: Mm-hmm. That's right.
GROSS: So what balance do you think you want in your life between, you know,
being a mother and having your career?
Ms. BENING: I think balance is really--it makes sense, but in a way I think
it's kind of overrated. Actually creativity, I think, comes from excess, and
that's probably the trickiest part of wanting to have a life with children,
where you have this responsibility and you want to be there for them and take
care of them in the way that they need. But then you also want to find a way
to keep track of what's going on inside of you creatively and your own
separate, creative evolution. And that--you need excess in a way for that.
So I feel lucky because I can do it and I can do both. I get to do movies and
also have my life with my children. I don't think I'd be good at only
working, going from project to project or play to movie or whatever. I think,
for me, it makes much more sense and works much better to have all of these
So I feel lucky that I can do that. You know, having spent a lot of time when
I was in a position where I was just trying to get work to be in a position
where I can choose to work or not work feels like a privilege. And with
film--then when I do go, like I made a movie about a year ago and I'm about to
start a film in March--then when I do go in to shoot a picture, I feel like I
can really focus on it because it's been a year again since I was actually
shooting every day. And that becomes an incredible experience for me and a
real joy and a real challenge. And I don't feel like I'm doing the wrong
thing because I'm not always doing it.
GROSS: I really like what you said about people are always talking about
balance, but, you know, in some lines of work, it's not about moderation.
It's really about throwing yourself into it.
Ms. BENING: Yeah, and that's important. And that's what's tricky because,
as a mom, you do want to be balanced to a degree, right? You want to be
consistent, and you want to be there for your children in a way that they can
feel safe and predictable. And that's important for children, and they
deserve that. But that--there's a dichotomy there between that and what
you're trying to do, you know, in your creative life.
GROSS: A couple like you and Warren Beatty are probably, you know, as close
as it gets in America to royalty. Do you know what I mean? Because the level
of celebrity is kind of on a par with what royalty might be in another
country. And I--it seems to me that that must be a blessing and a curse at
the same time. So...
Ms. BENING: Yeah, I think you're right. I think that's a perfect way of
putting it. It is. The part where, you know, people say `royalty,' I mean,
that's something--it's a story that people kind of make up because it doesn't
really have anything to do with us personally or the way we live our lives or
any of that. So I guess that's the tricky part of becoming known on any
degree, that you deal with people's ideas of you and projections that people
have about you. I'm sure you deal with that on the radio, how people conceive
of you vs. how you really are or how you see yourself. So I do think a
certain amount of sorting through that helps when you can kind of say, `OK,
that's someone's idea of me vs. who I really am.'
GROSS: Well, Annette Bening, I want to thank you very much for talking with
Ms. BENING: Thanks for having me.
BIANCULLI: Annette Bening, speaking with Terry Gross last year. Annette
Bening currently stars in the new film, "Running with Scissors."
I'm Dave Bianculli, and this is FRESH AIR.
(Soundbite of music)
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Interview: Linguist Geoff Nunberg talks about the difference
between progressives and liberals
DAVID BIANCULLI, host:
To some people, the word `progressive' suggests only the early 20th century
movement and party that gave way to liberalism in the New Deal period. But
the word has never quite died out, and nowadays it's used increasingly by
people on the left who want to distinguish themselves from the liberals.
Our linguist, Geoff Nunberg, thinks he knows the real difference between
progressives and liberals.
Mr. GEOFF NUNBERG: People don't like distinctions without differences. Soda
and pop, rap and hip-hop, breakfast nooks and dinettes, however close two
words seem to be, we're naturally going to try to tease out a difference in
meaning. So as more people take to styling themselves as progressives rather
than liberals, you see more efforts to carve out an ideological difference
between the labels. At the New Republic blog, the historian Eric Rauchway
traces the origins of the distinctions to the Roosevelt era, when the early
20th century progressive movement was giving way to the liberalism of the New
Deal. The difference, he says, is that liberals are content to make an uneasy
truce with capitalism, while progressives favor more vigorous social
experimentation. And the political writer David Sirota argues that liberals
favor expanded social programs whereas progressives favor more direct
limitations on corporate power.
Those are solid philosophical distinctions, but they don't have a lot to do
with how the labels are actually used. You can't predict how people will
describe themselves by polling them on the issues or interviewing them about
their philosophy of government. And for that matter, you don't really have
to. You usually have a pretty good idea which people are going to call
themselves progressives without knowing how they come down on single pair
health care or the estate tax. It's enough to know that they live in a
university town or work for a nonprofit, listen to Pacifica Radio rather than
NPR, read blogs like Daily Kos and Eschaton, or don't have any conservatives
in their Monday night poker game. This has less to do with ideology than
genealogy. Far more than liberals, progressives see themselves in the line of
the historical left. Not that America has much of a left to speak of anymore,
at least by the standards of the leftists of the Vietnam era, who were a lot
less willing than most modern-day progressives to identify themselves with the
Democratic Party. But if modern progressives haven't inherited the radicalism
or ferocity of the old movement left, they're doing what they can to keep its
tone and attitude alive. At the heart of that attitude is a sense of
superiority to all those middle-class liberals whose wan political commitments
were tempered by self-interest. You think of Phil Ochs' song 1965 song "Love
Me, I'm a Liberal," a sardonic catalog of the hypocrisies of middle-class
"I go to all the Pete Seeger concerts. He sure gets me singing those songs.
I'll send all the money you ask for, but don't ask me to come on along. So
love me, love me, love me, I'm a liberal."
When Ochs wrote those words, of course, the liberal label was still riding
high in the saddle. A decade later, it was in tatters, the victim of
political turbulence over Vietnam and the civil rights backlash. By then, the
right was covering liberals with new social stereotypes, fitting them out with
Volvos, white wine, Brie and other accoutrements that suggested their vast
distance from heartland middle Americans.
By the 1980s the Democratic politicians were cutting and running from the
liberal label, particularly after Ronald Reagan branded it as the `L-word,' in
a speech to the 1988 Republican convention. Some of them simply explain that
they don't know like pigeon-holing. When you hear a politician say, `I don't
believe in labels,' you can be pretty sure you're listening to somebody who
would have proudly worn the liberal label 40 years ago. But others switched
to the progressive label in the hope it wouldn't raise any of those fatuous
L-word stereotypes. During the 2003 California recall election, Gray Davis
contrasted Arnold Schwarzenegger's conservative agenda with his own
progressive agenda, this from a Democrat who had never been known for cruising
in the party's left lane. It's the same strategy that the Ford Motor Company
adopted after the Edsel bombed in the late 1950s. They changed the grill and
trim and successfully marketed it as the Ford Galaxy on the assumption that
nobody would notice it was the same car.
Of course, when Berkeley professors or social activists use the progressive
label among themselves, it's the political equivalent of a fraternity
handshake. They know that it's meant to convey their ideological purity
rather than simply to conceal their Volvo ownership. But those nuances are
apt to be lost on Americans who have no idea that the word `progressive' ever
wore a capital letter. People who not only haven't heard of Walter Lippmann
or Robert La Follette but who are probably a little cloudy on Phil Ochs too,
for them, the P-word is simply a way of not saying the L-word, which is the
term everybody else uses for the left-hand pole of American politics, etched
on the split screens of the cable talk shows. It seems to confirm the
suspicion that liberals don't talk the same language as other Americans, even
when it comes to pronouncing their own name right. That's the progressives'
bind. You can't distance yourself from the negative liberal stereotypes of
Phil Ochs without also corroborating the negative liberal stereotypes of Rush
Limbaugh. The more that Democrats avoid the liberal label, the more
cheerfully the right steps in to redefine it, driving it to the margins of
political left. Of course, progressives will deny that they're out to trash
the liberal label and insist that their differences with liberals are
basically philosophical, not stylistic, even if it isn't always easy to put
your finger on what they are. The irony is that it's chiefly that insistence
alone that divides this issue. The difference between progressives and
liberals is that progressives believe that there is one.
BIANCULLI: Geoff Nunberg is a linguist who teaches at the School of
Information at the University of California at Berkeley.
BIANCULLI: For David Gross, I'm David Bianculli.
(Soundbite of music)
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