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Annette Bening: Acting Is 'A Fabulous Way To Expand Your Own Heart'

May 10, 2018
Originally published on May 11, 2018 12:49 pm

Annette Bening has made her career in film and television, but she hasn't always been comfortable in front of the camera.

"For so many years I was really intimidated ... " she says. "I felt very comfortable on the stage ... I didn't really do movies 'till I was almost 30."

Now 59, Bening has "fallen in love" with filming. "You can get so many things across with the camera that one just can't do onstage," she says.

Bening is now starring in a screen adaptation of Anton Chekhov's 1895 play The Seagull. Bening played the same role in the early 1980s while studying at the American Conservatory Theater. She says film is an ideal genre to capture the nuances of Chekhov's work. It's the "private moments," she says, "that we try to get at in the dramatization on film that we just wouldn't be able to find on the stage."


Interview Highlights

On the roles Chekhov wrote for women

The kinds of women that you see in his plays — women who are like Masha in The Seagull [played by Elisabeth Moss] ... She is hilarious and funny — but she's also got a very dark side. ... Chekhov was really at the beginning of that time where the complexity of women's inner lives was being dramatized really for the first time.

On when she started thinking of herself as feminist

It was when I went to community college in San Diego. ... That would've been '76, '77 and I took a women's studies class and I remember getting so mad at the injustices of the world for the first time. ... I realized how unequal the world was. ... I remember [a beauty contest] being on television and I just burst into tears at how disgusting of a display that was.

On acting expanding her heart and opening her mind

One of the pleasures of acting is that every time we get to enter this other imaginative world that's not our own ... it's such a fabulous way to expand your own heart and your own thinking. Because when you play a character ... you can be completely subjective, and you don't have to judge the person, you only have to totally back them up. You're their advocate. You're fighting for everything that's in their lives.

On growing up in a four sibling family and having four children of her own

I always wanted a big family ... the chaos of a big family with all of the stuff that comes with that always interested me. I have to admit, that sound — when my kids are home and everybody's around and I hear ... people talking and laughing and, of course, in some cases arguing, or maybe there's a door slam or whatever that is — I love that. I always wanted that.

Although, I looked at other people that only had two [kids] and I thought, "Oh, that's so sensible. One on each hand." For some reason, I just couldn't stop. And my husband was the same way. He really wanted to have a big family, too, so we just kept going.

On her 'stop and start' approach to show business

When I stopped for the first time to have my first baby, I really lost the desire to work and that was quite a shock, because I had always loved it so much and I thought, "Oh no, does this mean I'm not going to want to do it anymore?"

But what I realized was that that was a cyclical thing and it happened each time I had a baby and I really enjoyed being away from show business, quite frankly. I really enjoyed stopping and turning away in the other direction of life, and just being with my family. ...

I was able to stop and start a lot. ... Of course, so many people can't, they just can't stop and start. But in my profession I can, so I was able to take years off at a time and then, I guess, I had enough going on that I felt like there would be something out there when I went back.

On what she has learned from her transgender son, Stephen

For so long, you feel like you're teaching your children about the world, and now, for sure, I feel the opposite way — that they're teaching me about the world. That's true of all of my kids, certainly true of my oldest son Stephen — that there's been a whole new kind of universe opened up to me and to all of us in the family ... because of who he is. That is a fantastic part of being a parent. I love it.

On her decision not to hide her age, or have cosmetic surgery

It's just a personal choice, something that we all have to ask ourselves and, of course, as actors one of the things we do is we face ourselves. ... That is not always easy, whether it's literally or figuratively, "facing oneself" is part of the process.

For me, that's the choice I've made is not to do any of that. I don't consider it virtuous — it's just me. That's my approach. Maybe it's because I also started in the theater, and when I started, [I] formulated my own aspirations as an actress. One of them was to continue acting all my life. And ... I wanted to try to portray the age that I was and not get stuck in any given period of life.

Therese Madden and Seth Kelley produced and edited this interview for broadcast. Bridget Bentz, Molly Seavy-Nesper and Beth Novey adapted it for the Web.

Copyright 2018 Fresh Air. To see more, visit Fresh Air.

TERRY GROSS, HOST:

This is FRESH AIR. I'm Terry Gross. My guest is the great actress Annette Bening. She's best known for her roles in "The Grifters," "American Beauty," "The Kids Are All Right" and "20th Century Women." She's been convincing as a seductive con artist and as a single mother who's feeling increasingly distanced from her teenage son. She's now starring in a film adaptation of Chekhov's 1895 play "The Seagull." Bening plays Irina, a famous and narcissistic aging actress trying to convince herself and others that she's still in her prime. Our film critic David Edelstein wrote (reading) there's no living actor more able to show the tension between the performer and the desperate person underneath, struggling to hold the mask in place.

Set in Russia, "The Seagull" is about a family and friends spending time together on a country estate. Each person is in love with someone else in the group who doesn't love them back. It's also about two generations of theater people - Irina and her son, who rebels against her and wants to shake things up with a new kind of theater. The son is in love with a young actress, Nina, but the actress falls in love with Irina's lover, Boris. In this scene, it's time for Irina and Boris to return home, but Boris begs her to stay an extra day. Irina is sure it's because Boris wants to spend more time with young Nina. Boris is played by Corey Stoll.

(SOUNDBITE OF FILM, "THE SEAGULL")

COREY STOLL: (As Boris Trigorin) Tell me why can't we stay.

ANNETTE BENING: (As Irina) Because, darling, I know why you want to stay, but get control of yourself (laughter). You're a little drunk. Sober up.

STOLL: (As Boris Trigorin) No. Be reasonable. You're capable of sacrifice. Be a true friend. Please, be generous. Let me go.

BENING: (As Irina) Be generous? What? Are you that infatuated with her?

STOLL: (As Boris Trigorin) I'm attracted to her. I - this could be what's missing in my life.

BENING: (As Irina) What? The love of a little country girl? That's how little you know yourself?

STOLL: (As Boris Trigorin) I can't stop thinking about her, even now. I'm talking with you, but it's as if I'm asleep.

BENING: (As Irina) No, stop, please.

STOLL: (As Boris Trigorin) I'm possessed by the thought of her. This could be my last chance at a love like this. Please, I'm begging you. Let me go. Let me go.

BENING: (As Irina) No, no, no. You can't say those things to me, Boris. I'm just a woman, like any other.

STOLL: (As Boris Trigorin) This is your chance to be a woman unlike any other.

BENING: (As Irina) You're torturing me. Please, you're scaring me.

STOLL: (As Boris Trigorin) I've never known love like this before. When I was young, I spent every minute struggling to survive. And now, it's in front of me, a love I've never known, and you want me to run away from it.

BENING: (As Irina) You have lost your mind.

STOLL: (As Boris Trigorin) I don't care. Please, let me go.

BENING: (As Irina) Oh.

GROSS: Annette Bening, welcome to FRESH AIR. Thank you so much for coming. I'm such a fan. Most of us know you through movies, but you actually got your start on stage doing classic theater like Chekhov. In fact, you did "The Seagull" when you were young - right? - like when you were in your 20s right after college or in conservatory.

BENING: Yeah, when I was in acting school at the American Conservatory Theater. I did it when I was - yeah, when I was a student there, which was an incredible experience. It's what most people do when they're in acting school. Chekhov is a big part of all of our educations because he was such a brilliant writer and because he was writing at the time that basically modern acting was getting articulated in a way that we now understand it by Stanislavski, who was an actor in the company and became this great teacher and writer about acting. And so it all happened at the same time at turn-of-the-century Russia. So we all studied the plays. And so I did get to do it when I was in my second year at A.C.T., so yeah...

GROSS: So as an actress, what strikes you as being the most original, the biggest break from the past in "The Seagull?"

BENING: Well, the roles for women at that time written by Shaw, Ibsen, Chekhov and a few others reflected how that was the beginning of really an enormous change in all over the world in women's lives. And Chekhov particularly loved women. He, in fact, fell in love with the leading actress of the Moscow Art Theatre, and they got married and he wrote these parts for her. She played the role that I play in "The Seagull," but he had many love affairs and was clearly a guy who was interested in women but also had great sympathy for them. And so the kinds of women that you see in his plays, women who are like Masha in "The Seagull" who's basically probably a drug addict and certainly an alcoholic, and she is hilarious and funny, but she's also got a very dark side - so these kinds of women had never really been seen dramatized before. And Chekov was really at the beginning of that time where the complexity of women's inner lives was being dramatized really for the first time.

GROSS: So you had, I'm sure, like, some kind of vocal training during your stage work when you were studying classic theater. Can you talk about that at all, about what you learned, about how to project your voice in a theater without a microphone, how to enunciate without sounding false?

BENING: Oh, I loved all that stuff. I loved - we had lots of voice classes as well as speech. So voice classes is about understanding the physiology of breathing basically because volume is just the - a question of being able to take in a lot of air and expend it quickly. That's basically volume, so trying to do that in a natural way. We learned a lot about analysis of text as well and how different inflections in your voice can invite different responses from the audience. The guy that created A.C.T. is a man named Bill Ball. He, among others, founded the theater, and they had a repertory theater as well as this conservatory that I was a part of.

And he used to talk about the sustained inflection a lot and how important it was to understand the difference between a down ending and an up ending and a sustained inflection and that the sustained inflection is something that hopefully leads one to listen because you're leaving blank air where there's no resolution in the voice. And he talked a lot about that. He would do it over and over. He would literally play notes on the piano and try to teach us about inflection and all of that stuff (laughter). And I found all of that quite fascinating actually. I loved it.

GROSS: I don't know if you would agree with me about this, but I find sometimes when I'm watching actresses on stage that when they speak louder, their voices get higher. And my voice gets higher when I speak louder and...

BENING: (Laughter) Really?

GROSS: Yeah. If I'm speaking in front of an audience and I'm not confident in the microphone, I start talking like this.

BENING: (Laughter) I think that happens to me, too. I think definitely.

GROSS: Well, what - no, but give me some advice. Give me some advice that other women could use, too. What should we do in a situation like that where we hear our voices getting higher as they get louder and they don't need to get higher in pitch?

BENING: Well, with that or with any kind of nervousness because basically what that's coming from is pressure and stress and nervousness that we all feel because that's normal. We're getting up in front of people or we're on the radio in front of people talking, and it's nervous making. So when I was thinking about doing this interview, I really respect you. I love your show.

GROSS: Thank you.

BENING: And I was nervous, right? So I'm thinking - so as I'm sitting here, I'm deep breathing (laughter). That's what I do. I mean, really, that is what they taught us in school. And it is, of course, taught in many different ways. But to take the time to stop and make sure you're inhaling deeply, to prepare, and exhaling. In fact, if anything, the more important part is to remember to exhale because we tend to hold our breath when we get nervous, and then that's part of how our voices start to get higher as we go because we're nervous. And that all begins to clench up in our diaphragm. So we were taught to remember to keep breathing and breathing deeply. That helps a lot to ground you in the moment.

And I still practice that all the time, especially once you're actually doing something because once you're actually in the moment and acting, hopefully your mind is very clear. You're not really thinking in the same discursive mind that you normally do. You're hopefully finding a place where you're not really thinking a lot except you're looking at your partner, you're listening, you're trying to take in the moment, and then you're trusting that all that stuff that you've thought about beforehand will work for you. But one thing you can definitely still consciously do is breathe. Make sure you're breathing.

GROSS: If you're just joining us, my guest is Annette Bening. And she stars in the new film adaptation of Chekhov's "The Seagull." Let's take a short break here, then we'll be right back. This is FRESH AIR.

(SOUNDBITE OF KIDNAP KID'S "LIKE YOU USED TO (FUR COAT REMIX)")

GROSS: This is FRESH AIR. And if you're just joining us, my guest is Annette Bening. And she's now starring in a new movie adaptation of Chekhov's "The Seagull." In the last few years, I feel like I've been seeing you in more movies and really happy about that. I think I'm right in saying that you kind of slowed down when you were raising your children. You have four children. So are you kind of fully back in the swing of it now that your children are in the late teens and 20s?

BENING: It has definitely made a difference.

GROSS: (Laughter) I'll bet.

BENING: My youngest is 18, just turned 18. She's just about to go away. So yeah, no, it does make a difference because when they're little, you got to be on the floor. And when you're on the floor, a lot of the time, you can't be off doing stuff. But yeah. So that's true. I have been able to do more, and that's great fun for me. I really enjoy being able to respond spontaneously and go off and do stuff when I can.

GROSS: I think for women, it's kind of frightening to take time off to raise their children because they never know - if they want a career, they never know if they'll be able to get back in when they feel ready, when they feel like their child or children are old enough to re-enter the workplace or re-enter full time. Were you ever worried that people in the movie industry would forget you or write you off?

BENING: There were times, I suppose, I would worry about that. I also found that when I stopped for the first time to have my first baby, I really lost the desire to work. And that was quite a shock because I'd always loved it so much. And I thought, oh, no, you know, does this mean I'm not going to want to do it anymore? But what I realized was that was a cyclical thing, and it happened each time I had a baby. And I really enjoyed being away from showbusiness, quite frankly. I really enjoyed stopping and turning way in the other direction of life and just being with my family. And so that was a great pleasure.

And then I was able to stop and start a lot, which I never really thought about that before I had kids as an actress that that would be such a wonderful thing to be able to do because, of course, so many people can't. They just can't stop and start. But in my profession, I can. So I was able to take years off at a time. And then I guess I had just sort of enough going on that I felt like there would be something out there when I went back. But there's always lulls and ups and downs, and that certainly was true for me.

GROSS: Did it make you feel good that you were secure enough in your identity that you were able to leave work for periods and to even lose your desire to work and still know who you were, to not feel insecure, like, my fans might forget me or casting directors might forget me, directors might forget me?

BENING: I don't remember feeling that really a lot. I - I'm sure I went through moments of being concerned about that. But I had wanted to be a mom since I was a little kid, literally since I was a little girl, probably 8 or 9 years old because I was the youngest of four. And I wanted my mom to have another baby because I wanted to be a big sister, and she wouldn't do it. And right at that time, I remember starting to glom onto like the little kids in my neighborhood.

So I would be playing with the next-door neighbor who was a toddler and kind of taking care of them a little bit. And I started babysitting when I was 12. And I just - I've always wanted to be a mom. It's just came very early to me that I wanted to be a mom. It always attracted me long before I even really knew what that was about except, I guess, watching my own mom. So that was something that is - was and is so much a part of me that maybe also I just had so many kids so quickly, I was just too busy to worry (laughter).

GROSS: You were 1 of 4 children in your family, and you have four children of your own. Is four the magic number for you?

BENING: You know, I - when I was little, my dream was to have five. I don't know why I got onto that number. Maybe it's because I wanted to out-do my own mother and say, I have five. I don't know. I always wanted a big family. The idea of the sound of kids in the house and the chaos of lot - of a big family with all of the stuff that comes with that always interested me. And I have to admit, that sound, I - when my kids are home and everybody's around and I hear that sound in the house of people talking and laughing and, of course, in some cases arguing or maybe there's a door slam or whatever that is, I love that.

I always wanted that, although I looked at other people that only had two and I thought, oh, that's so sensible. You know, two, one on each hand. But I - for some reason, I just couldn't stop. And my husband was the same way. He really wanted to have a big family too, so we just kept going (laughter).

GROSS: So I want to play a scene from a film in which you played a mother. And this is the film "20th Century Women." I love this film, and I love your performance in it. And it was written and directed by Mike Mills, who based it a bit on his own mother. And so you play a single mother who is in her 50s and who is - whose son is now a teenager. And she feels him just like drifting away from her because now he's into the world of, like, punk rock and skateboards. And this is a world she knows nothing about. And it's set in 1979. And so much has changed from the time of her youth to the time of his youth. And she reflects on that at the beginning of the movie.

But in this scene, your son has just participated in this game with his friends in which, like, you hyperventilate and then somebody like squeezes your diaphragm from behind and you kind of pass out for a few seconds, except your son passes out for like a half-hour. And so he's rushed to the hospital. And you're kind of like crying at his bedside. And then when he kind of comes to and he finally comes home, you ask him, like, why would you do that? Why did you do something so stupid? And here's that scene.

(SOUNDBITE OF FILM, "20TH CENTURY WOMEN")

BENING: (As Dorothea) Jamie, why did you do something so dangerous?

LUCAS JADE ZUMANN: (As Jamie) I don't know. I mean, everyone was doing it.

BENING: (As Dorothea) So you just went along with it?

ZUMANN: (As Jamie) It looked like fun.

BENING: (As Dorothea) That's just dumb. Why would you do something so stupid - just following along? You know you almost died, right?

ZUMANN: (As Jamie) You don't need to worry about me.

BENING: (As Dorothea) Why didn't you think? Jamie, hey. Jamie, what is going on? Why'd - what? You're not going to talk to me now?

ZUMANN: (As Jamie) I'm not the one who doesn't talk.

BENING: (As Dorothea) What? Come on. You scared the hell out of me. Why - why did you hurt yourself like that?

ZUMANN: (As Jamie) Why do you smoke yourself to death?

BENING: (As Dorothea) Hey.

ZUMANN: (As Jamie) Why are you fine being sad and alone?

BENING: (As Dorothea) I - I - you - you can't talk to me like that. We don't - you don't say that to me.

GROSS: So that's a scene from the 2016 film "20th Century Women" with my guest, Annette Bening, and Lucas Jade Zumann as her son.

So I know Mike Mills, who wrote and directed the movie, based your character in part on his own mother. Who did you draw from to become the character? And are there things you took from your own life as a mother and from how you saw your mother mothering you?

BENING: I think that happens every time I'm working, that I think about my own experiences and my - certainly, my experiences with my own mom. I have a great mom. I love her dearly. She's really great to all of us. Interesting - I wanted to just mention, that scene, Mike wrote - we were able to do some additional shooting after we had done the bulk of the movie sometime later, and he added that scene. He wrote it and added it in later, and so we came back to shoot that.

So I think that's - the reason I mention that is for a couple of reasons - for people who do this kind of work to remember that that kind of thing happens, and sometimes those are the things, if you have that kind of time to do, if you have the money to go back and shoot a little bit more - sometimes you can add things in which really are key. And Mike did it very strategically and, I thought, wisely. He had this moment of feeling this gulf between you and your teenager and trying to reach across it and wanting to keep them safe is - what parent can't relate to that? I mean, that is a universal thing. Obviously, some kids are risky - take more risks than other kids. But certainly, that was something I felt, you know, with my kids - and also...

GROSS: You know...

BENING: ...And also that they nail you.

GROSS: (Laughter).

BENING: They can say things to you that are so perceptive, that are so on the money that maybe you haven't even been able to admit to yourself that - it's astonishing.

GROSS: Well, you know, I think - this is a generalization, but I think a lot of people who grew up in a kind of anti-authoritarian period didn't want to be authoritarian with their children. And your character says to her son, you can't talk to me that way. Would you talk to your children - would you ever say to your children, you can't talk to me that way? Or do you feel like that was inappropriate?

BENING: I would say that (laughter). I would say that, and it would fail.

(LAUGHTER)

BENING: But that's - I kind of feel like in that moment in the movie, she has nothing better, you know? She's has the - that's the best thing she can come up with is, you're not allowed to say that to me, or don't say that to me. Yeah, I think...

GROSS: Because he did nail her, yeah.

BENING: Yeah, because he's right.

GROSS: My guest is Annette Bening. She stars in the new movie adaptation of "The Seagull." We'll talk more after a break, and David Bianculli will review the new Showtime series "Patrick Melrose." I'm Terry Gross, and this is FRESH AIR.

(SOUNDBITE OF DEVO SONG, "GUT FEELING/(SLAP YOUR MAMMY)")

GROSS: This is FRESH AIR. I'm Terry Gross back with Annette Bening. She stars in the new movie adaptation of the Chekhov play "The Seagull." She's also had starring roles in such films as "The Grifters," "American Beauty," "The Kids Are All Right" and "20th Century Women," which is the film we were talking about when we left off. It's set in 1979. Bening plays a single mother who's been very close to her son, but now that he's in his teens, she's feeling increasingly shut out of his life.

So there's a scene in "20th Century Women" that really sticks with me. And it has, like, larger feminist implications, so I want to talk with you about it. And it's a scene where your teenage son in the movie has been reading a feminist essay because his good friend is a young feminist, and she's given him this anthology, a now-classic anthology called "Sisterhood Is Powerful." It's an anthology of feminist essays. And she's hoping that he'll become a feminist and be the kind of man that feminists like her like. So he's reading this essay, and he comes across one that's written by Zoe Moss. It's called "It Hurts To Be Alive And Obsolete," and it's a personal essay from the perspective of a middle-aged woman who feels like when you become middle-aged, to the rest of the world, you might as well be invisible, and it makes you feel obsolete. And he wants to read that essay to you. I guess he thinks that you will identify with it.

So he reads part of the essay to you. And then you turn to him, and you say, so that's how you think I am? You think you know me now? And you seem to be offended to be identified with this essay. And it made me think how a lot of people of your character's generation - and, again, this is set in 1979, and she came of age, like, before feminism - how to a lot of women of that generation feminism was something of a threat maybe because they feared that, with all the new freedoms that women had gained, somehow it might seem that in the eyes of other women, their lives as, you know, like, homemakers and wives and mothers were diminished in some way. I'm wondering, like, when you started counting yourself as a feminist and when your thinking about your identity and your future was shaped by that. Did you have conversations about that with your mother?

BENING: Yes, I think I did. And I definitely remember when it was for me. It was when I went to community college in San Diego. I went to school called Mesa College. I'm very proud of that. And so that would have been '76 - '77. And I took a women's studies class. And I remember getting so mad at the injustices of the world for the first time (laughter). I'm laughing now. But I was. I was literally woken up, and I realized how unequal the world was.

And I remember the idea of beauty contests at that time. I remember one of them being on television. And I just burst into tears at how disgusting of a display that was. And so, yeah, no, I remember that very well. In fact, I also remember, when I was at Mesa College, Jane Fonda came and spoke at our little community college in San Diego. And she was talking about feminism and the women's movement. And I remember she had like waist-length hair. That really made a big impression on me.

(LAUGHTER)

BENING: Anyway, so, yes, I remember it very well. And it was a time that people were really waking up to these things in a new way. And it meant a lot to me. And I think it meant a lot to my mother as well. I think, like the character in Mike's movie that I played, my mom is a feminist at heart. And she also is someone who really loved raising her kids and loved being at home and loved the role that she played and being there for us in the way that she was and doesn't - didn't ever feel any ambivalence about that really. She was - that was her life. And she was one of those people that was born at that time who was really good with that and embraced that.

GROSS: So you recently - well, it was a few years ago - starred with Julianne Moore in the Lisa Cholodenko movie "The Kids Are All Right." And you played - you and Julianne Moore played a married couple with two teenage children who were fathered by a sperm donor - an anonymous donor. The teenage daughter tracks down the sperm donor, and you reluctantly agreed to a family meeting with him. And he changes the whole family dynamic. Your kids start hanging out with him. You later figure out your spouse, Julianne Moore's character, is having an affair with him. I want to play a scene. This happens at a restaurant after you've had a fight. You're at a table with some friends. You and Julianne Moore have had a fight. Then you go to the bar part of the restaurant and start trying to talk it through. But the fight gets a little worse.

(SOUNDBITE OF TV SHOW, "THE KIDS ARE ALL RIGHT")

JULIANNE MOORE: (As Jules) Oh, my God. What is going on with you?

BENING: (As Nic) It's this whole Paul thing. It's just driving me crazy, all right? I feel like he's taking over my family.

MOORE: (As Jules) No. No, Nic. No, he's not. He's not.

BENING: (As Nic) OK. OK, I'm sorry, all right? I guess I'm just exhausted.

MOORE: (As Jules) Yeah, maybe you just need to take some time off - recharge, right?

BENING: (As Nic) Yeah, right. Who's going to pay for that? I mean, look. I'm sorry. But, you know, I feel like I'm carrying the whole load here.

MOORE: (As Jules) Yeah because that's the way you like it. That's the way you keep control.

BENING: (As Nic) What are you talking about?

MOORE: (As Jules) Come on. You hated it when I worked. You wanted me at home taking care of the kids. You wanted a wife.

BENING: (As Nic) That is just not true.

MOORE: (As Jules) Well, you didn't like any of the nannies. And you sure didn't back my career.

BENING: (As Nic) What are you talking about? I just helped you start another business.

MOORE: (As Jules) Yeah, so you can feel better about yourself.

BENING: (As Nic) No, Jules, so you can feel better about yourself.

MOORE: (As Jules) Are you even attracted to me anymore?

GROSS: OK, that's my guest Annette Bening with Julianne Moore from the 2010 movie "The Kids Are All Right." What parts of yourself did you draw on to play this role?

BENING: Let's see. I loved this part. I felt so at home in it. I loved Nic a lot. Gosh, I guess just, like, always - that's what I always do is draw on parts of myself when I'm working. So I'm sure I have a part of me that is trying to control. I'm sure I have that. I'm sure my husband would say that - and my kids probably too. I think I keep it under control - that I'm not too bad with that. But certainly. that's true. I would say I have that, yeah.

GROSS: So I'm thinking you've - I'm thinking that in the past few years you've probably thought a lot about sexual orientation and about gender, in part, because of this role in "The Kids Are All Right" and also because I know your oldest son is trans. And I know you try to let him speak for yourself and not speak on his behalf. And I will not ask you to do that. But I have a question about you. Having - has having a trans son and having played a lesbian in a movie - has that gotten you to think any differently about issues of identity when it comes to sexual orientation or gender?

BENING: Absolutely. And it's one of the - one of the pleasures of acting is that every time we get to enter this other imaginative world that's not our own - or, in this case, sexual orientation or whatever - it's such a fabulous, you know, way to expand your own heart and your own thinking because when you play a character you have this fabulous thing that you can be completely subjective. And you don't have to judge the person. You only have to totally back them up. You're their advocate. You're fighting for everything that's in their lives, just like in some ways we fight for what's important to us in our own lives.

And with my children, I feel like especially now that they're young adults, I'm just learning more and more from them. For so long, you know, you feel like you're teaching your children about the world. And now, for sure, I feel the opposite way, that they're teaching me about the world. That's true of all of my kids, certainly true of my oldest son, Stephen, that there's been a whole new kind of universe opened up to me and to all of us in the family because of Stephen because who he is. And that is a fantastic part of being a parent. I love it.

GROSS: So here's a question about gender identity that I want to ask you as the parent of a trans teenage son. Was it a steep learning curve for you to learn about this?

BENING: Yeah, it was. My son is now 26. And so when he came out, it was many, many, many, many years ago when he was a teenager. So yeah, it was, definitely. And I think there's a lot more out there now for people to read about, to understand because it's so much more a part of the cultural conversation.

GROSS: OK. Let me reintroduce you here. If you're just joining us, my guest is Annette Bening. And she's now starring in a new film adaptation of Chekhov's "The Seagull." Let's take a short break here, then we'll be right back. This is FRESH AIR.

(SOUNDBITE OF VITO LITURRI TRIO'S "JUST A DREAMER")

GROSS: This is FRESH AIR. And if you're just joining us, my guest is Annette Bening. And she's now starring in a film adaptation of Chekhov's "The Seagull." You've described your parents as being very politically conservative. And you and your husband are both very liberal. Do your parents support President Trump, and if so, has that been a source of disagreement or a subject to avoid in the family?

BENING: I love my parents so deeply. They are such great people. I'm so proud of them. They're amazing. And they are Republicans. And they are Trump supporters. I think they're still Trump supporters. I haven't talked to them about it recently. No, there's never - it's actually been quite a relief, I think, in my family and with my kids that they have somebody, if they choose to, to debate with with my parents being Republicans because so many of our friends - not all of them, but many of our friends - are Democrats as well. So it's been a healthy thing in the family. I really enjoy it. And we do talk politics, not too much.

And, I mean, when I was a kid growing up, we understood the rules for politics and sex. They weren't articulated a lot. It was sort of an unspoken thing when I was growing up. So even though my parents were very conservative, it wasn't like we sat around and talked about politics all the time. However, in our house, we do. We talk about politics incessantly. And all of my kids are also very political. And they read. And everyone's always talking about something and debating about something. So the debates that have happened with my parents are good-natured and respectful. I have to say it's never gotten ugly. There have been a few times I did have to breathe deeply in order to continue the conversation, and I'm sure they felt the same way (laughter).

GROSS: So you're 59 now. To my knowledge, you haven't had cosmetic surgery. And your face has some natural wrinkles in it. And I want to thank you for that. I understand and respect why many women and men would have work done. But as someone who isn't going to do that, I really love seeing women and beautiful women like you age naturally and just see how life changes one's face and to see how beautiful you remain. And it enables your face to be so much more expressive than if you've had a lot of work done because I think your skin gets stretched so tight it's hard to have those kind of subtle changes of expression that seems so important to have when you're an actor. So - but when you're an actor, it's almost expected that you're going to do this. Can - yeah.

BENING: Yeah. No, I appreciate you saying that. I - it's funny. When people ask me about this, my first impulse is always to try to defend other people that choose to do that. So I do feel...

GROSS: No, exactly.

BENING: Which you did, yeah. It was in your question. Which I also feel that it's just a personal choice - right? - something that we all have to ask ourselves. And, of course, as actors, one of the things that we do is we face ourselves. Or at least that's part of what we do. And that is not always easy. Whether it's literally or figuratively, facing oneself is part of the process. So for me, that's the choice I've made is not to do any of that. I don't consider it virtuous. I just - it's just me. That's my approach.

I - maybe it's because I also started in the theater. And when I first kind of formulated my own aspirations as an actress, one of them was to continue acting all my life and that I wanted to try to portray the age that I was and not get stuck in any given period of life. And that was part of my sort of idea about what I wanted to do. So that's just the choice that I've made.

GROSS: So I want to ask you one question about your marriage, which I know is very private. You're married. You're married to Warren Beatty. You met on the set of "Bugsy," which you both starred in. And, you know, he had a reputation at the time of being like quite the playboy. And like, you've been married for over 20 years. You have four children together. What made you think at the time that someone who had that kind of like playboy reputation would be capable of like settling down and building a family?

BENING: It's actually 26 years now that we've been together.

GROSS: That's a long time.

BENING: Yeah. It's a long time. Let's see. I don't know. I - all I can say is I, going back to your instincts, I trusted my instincts, let's say. And so that's what I did. I fell in love. We wanted to have children, and we started doing that right away and turns out we did the right thing.

(LAUGHTER)

GROSS: Good (laughter). OK. So when you're home and the TV is on and you're going across the channels and one of your earlier movies comes on, do you leave it on or do you turn it off?

BENING: (Laughter) If I have time, I will often watch it. And it's quite fun because what happens when you make a movie is you have all these memories of the moment when you're doing the scene or the day or whatever it is. And so the associations you have while you're watching the film are all to do with things that have nothing to do with the movie itself. So you're having that experience that, of course, no one else has because everyone else is just watching it for what it is, this story that's being told. So as more time goes by, I forget more and more about what was happening at the time, so I can watch the movie and see it differently. So I have. I've done that. I've watched movies that I hadn't seen in a long time and thought, wow, that seems like another lifetime sometimes, not always but sometimes. And sometimes I'm - I feel really proud, and it brings - generally brings back great memories because I've had - I've been so lucky, and I've got to do so many things that I love so much.

GROSS: Annette Bening, it's just been a treat to talk with you. Thank you so much.

BENING: Thanks for having me. I love your show.

GROSS: Annette Bening stars in the new film adaptation of Chekhov's "The Seagull." After we take a short break, David Bianculli will review the new Showtime series "Patrick Melrose" starring Benedict Cumberbatch. This is FRESH AIR.

(SOUNDBITE OF PATTI SMITH SONG, "WITHIN YOU WITHOUT YOU") Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.