SFSU Magazine Summer 2005: Getting Real With Annette Bening

Annette Bening in a stylish pin-striped suit smiles for the camera


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Annette Bening as Julia Lambert kicks back with a beer in this scene shot during filming Getting Real with
Annette Bening
In a business where divas are a dime a dozen, Annette Bening proves that down-to-earth and movie star can be one and the same.

This past spring Annette Bening's performance as fading stage diva Julia Lambert in "Being Julia" brought her a Golden Globe, an Oscar nomination and a flurry of interviews with the press. But before she can get back to being Annette, she is taking on another new identity in "Running With Scissors," a film based on the Augusten Burroughs memoir of the same name.

When SFSU Magazine reached Bening by phone in late March, it was 6 p.m. and she had just finished a day of filming in the Los Angeles area, not far from the home she shares with her husband, actor Warren Beatty, and their four children.

"I like what I do very much," Bening says. "But after this movie is over, I'll be very happy to not be calling attention to myself." |

In "Running With Scissors," Bening plays a delusional poet who entrusts her only child to the care of a not-so-trustworthy psychiatrist. Is it a difficult role for a devoted mom to step into? Perhaps if she judged her characters, Bening says. And she doesn't.

"My job as an actor is to see through the characters' eyes, to find the reasons why they do what they do," she says, adding that she passes on roles that are polar extremes of Pollyanna or wicked witch. "I'm attracted to complex people with lots of layers," she says.

In preparation for her latest role, Bening says she has been reading the work of Anne Sexton, a poet who struggled with inner demons: "It's harrowing stuff that will really curl your toes."

Acting chose her
The youngest of four children, Bening was born in Topeka, Kan., and raised in San Diego. Her father managed an insurance company and taught Dale Carnegie self-improvement courses. Her mother was a professional church soloist. A teen-aged Bening was known as the best babysitter in her neighborhood and worked as a secretary at her father's office, as a Photomat clerk and as a waitress at Happy Steak.

As for acting, "I didn't choose it," Bening explains. "It chose me." It was during a field trip to see Shakespeare on the stage of San Diego's Old Globe Theatre.

"I like the immediacy of acting," she says.

During high school Bening appeared in several plays, including "Godspell." She graduated a year early, got her scuba certification and went to work as a cook on a 65-foot scuba-diving boat. "Not a very glamorous job," she says.

After a stint at San Diego Mesa College, Bening enrolled at SFSU. She says that she wanted to move to a city but not Los Angeles. "And I had heard that State had a big, active drama department."

Professors at SFSU recognized a rising star in Bening. Professor Emeritus Alex Flett says, "Some students really have it." What is it? "A sensitivity, dedication and a drive. I think drive is the most important, a determination that you're going to succeed. Nothing is going to stop you."

Bening recalls that Flett and her other instructors, Jack Byers, Jack Cook and the late Stuart Chenoweth, Robert Graham and Tom Tyrell, were then nearing retirement age. "So I had great, smart, wise and seasoned people to learn from," she says. "I feel grateful that I had a chance to learn from veteran professionals."

Bening won leads in a wide range of roles, starting with "Tartuffe." "It was exciting just because I got cast," she says.

Robert Merryman (B.A., '79), who played opposite Bening at SF State in "Light Up the Sky," remembers that she was always prepared and always first to audition. Professor Tyrell told their acting class: "Annette is going places."

Laurel Ollstein (B.A., '80), today a theater professor at Loyola Marymount University, acted alongside Bening in "Country Wife" and "Mouse Trap." "For the age we were, Annette had an incredible grace and confidence," she says. "You didn't want to take your eyes off her."

Bad Girls, Beatty and Motherhood
After graduating with honors from SFSU in 1980, Bening completed the advanced training program at the prestigious American Conservatory Theater (ACT) and went on to join the theater's acting company. There for the next five years she enjoyed challenging roles. Proving her range of abilities, Bening played Emily in "Our Town" and Lady Macbeth on alternating nights in her final season.

"I started in theater and I'm very proud of that," Bening says. "Those few years as an actor on the Geary Theater stage grounded me professionally and personally."

Former classmate Ed Decker (B.A., '81; M.A., '84), director of San Francisco's New Conservatory Theatre Center, has stayed in touch with Bening and confirms that Hollywood has not changed her. "She's still the same person I met
in 1976. Annette knows her roots and remembers her friends."

At ACT, Bening met fellow thespian J. Steven White. The two married in 1984 and later moved to Colorado where White ran the Denver Center Theatre. Bening continued her acting career on its stage, starring in "Pygmalion" and "The Cherry Orchard."

At 30 Bening appeared in her first feature film, 1988's "The Great Outdoors," a comedy with Dan Aykroyd and the late John Candy. Going from stage to screen was an adjustment for the classically trained actress. "I didn't know how to work with the camera. It took a while, sitting down felt funny, and so did speaking quietly. I had always been taught to project," she says.

After five years of marriage, Bening parted ways with White in 1989 and moved to New York. She quickly landed the lead in
the off-Broadway drama, "Coastal Disturbances," and earned a Tony nomination for her performance when the play moved to Broadway.

A few career disappointments followed, including a TV pilot she would shoot -- only to have it later air without her.

"Just to be a working actor is a success," she says. "It's a terribly difficult, challenging, harrowing profession. You have to be strong and willing to take lots of rejection."

Bening would gain added stature playing her first bad girl (first, if you don't count her portrayal of Lady Macbeth). "Villains are fun. Every woman who has been brought up to be a good girl wants to explore that other side of herself," she has said.

During her prolific acting career, Bening has played the bad girls well, starting with Myra, the ruthless hustler in "The Grifters," for which she received her first Academy Award nomination in 1990. Her portrayal of the manipulative Myra also caught the eye of her future husband, who cast her in another bad girl role opposite him in 1991's "Bugsy."

Beatty told a reporter that it took only minutes for him to fall in love. The two wed the following year and today have four children, Kathlyn, Benjamin, Isabel and Ella.

"Motherhood came so naturally. I never considered whether or not I'd do it," Bening says. "With four children, I'm wildly busy but I like having a big, chaotic life."

Remembering Her Roots
In that big, chaotic life, Bening has made time for her alma mater. In 1991 she returned to campus to break ground on the addition to and renovation of SFSU's Fine Arts building.

During the dedication ceremony Professor Byers remembers that Bening was impressed to see then-San Francisco Mayor Art Agnos among the special guests. Byers recalls Bening gasped and said, "Wow, this really is a big deal." Apparently Byers's former student didn't realize that she was the big deal people had come to see.

In 1995 Bening was named SFSU's Alumna of the Year. After wrapping up production on "The American President," she spoke at commencement that year. "To come back and talk with students here is meaningful to me," she told graduates. "When I was a student, I always wondered what it was like to be in the business."

Bening recalls that Professor Tyrell once told a classmate to pursue acting "only if you have to." Today her advice to students is largely the same: "Try to do anything artistic and people will say you're nuts. But follow what you love and you'll find yourself in the right place -- -or at least in the right ballpark."

Professor Flett recalls Bening sharing her insight with students as part of a conference he organized on campus in the 1990s. "She was there with her agent who kept telling her, 'We have got to go.' Annette just wouldn't go. The kids were thrilled," Flett says.

There were other visits that went undetected by the media, Byers remembers. "Whenever Annette was in town, she'd call the [theatre arts] department and see if there were any students who would like to talk to her," he says. And, Byers adds,"Annette always mentions San Francisco State [during interviews]. A lot of stars don't bother giving credit to their schools."

Bening has also provided financial support for both the University Scholarship Fund and the theatre arts department.

Wendy Amorose (B.A., '80), the supervisor of SFSU's costume shop, likes to tell her Annette Bening story to any student who complains during a fitting. In the early 1980s Amorose was working as a costume cutter for the Berkeley Shakespeare Festival where Bening performed one summer. Amorose recalls that in one play "Annette had four looks and one was so horrid -- I mean it was the ugliest thing I have ever seen." Still, Amorose says she never heard any complaints from the actress. "Every time Annette came in for a fitting, she was gracious and chatty. She would always find something positive to say. That solidified in my eyes what a consummate professional she is," Amorose says. "And I've seen a lot of primadonnas."

Back on stage
In 1999 Bening was nominated for both an Academy Award and Golden Globe for her performance in "American Beauty." She returned to the stage later that year for the first time in a decade. Bening played the title role in Ibsen's "Hedda Gabler" at Los Angeles' Geffen Playhouse, and she did so under the direction of another well-known alum, Tony Award-winning director Daniel Sullivan (B.A., '75). The other cast members scurried out the door after rehearsals, but Bening always stuck around to jot down notes about her performance. "Annette took refuge in the rehearsal hall to perfect her work. I rarely see that in actors," Sullivan says. She is not only one of the best actresses around, he says, but is also "an extraordinarily gracious and pleasant person who doesn't have the kind of vanity that so many actresses have."

When the play premiered, Professors Byers and Flett were in the audience to watch their former student's performance. After the curtain fell, Bening greeted her professors warmly and invited them to follow her to dinner. "When we were leaving it was like a dream I might have had as a little kid, when anything associated with Hollywood was so magical," Byers says. "We came out and a group of people were waiting to get autographs. Annette did a little routine where she said they must have confused her with someone else. She kissed us both and then drove home to Warren."

-- Adrianne Bee

More: Annette at a Glance