Nobody falls to pieces better than Annette Bening.
On film, that is. Among the highlights on the actress’ resume are a collection of women who, while otherwise diverse, are teetering on the brink of emotional disaster: the greed-and-sex-driven con artist of The Grifters, the tempestuous gangster moll flirting with danger in Bugsy, the suburban housewife desperate disguise her flawed life in American Beauty, the British actress seeking revenge against her young social climbing lover in Being Julia and most recently the jilted schoolteacher distraught to the point of homicide in Mrs. Harris.
Running with Scissors’ Deirdre Burroughs, the rapidly unhinging mother of future author Augusten Burroughs whose condition is exacerbated by the treatment of a stunningly misguided therapist, is another in Bening’s stunning pantheon of fractured femmes, yet another brutally honest, complex and charming turn that awes even her most accomplished colleagues.
“She’s a tour de force,” says Joseph Fiennes of his Scissors co-stars. “She’s one of the greatest screen actors. I was incredibly nervous, but I loved doing scenes with her. She’s the real deal. Her chemistry and her connection to the character—you’re in the room and you’re in her room. It’s deeply affecting and that’s one of the great things as an actor you’re looking for.”
Hollywood.com: It’s both amusing and agonizing to watch your character unravel over the course of this film, and you sell both the funny moments and the frightening moments with an equal degree of honesty. Was that dichotomy part of the lure of this role for you?
Annette Bening: When I was approaching the part I just so wanted Deirdre to be real in the picture. I didn't want to do it, in fact, unless I felt from Ryan [Murphy] the same kind of interest in the care of the mental illness part of her character was done. Just had a real aversion to the other way of approaching, as something as kind of funny or glamorous. I mean, she's a very funny woman, obviously. I love that part of her. She's hilarious, but just in terms of playing someone with mental illness I felt an incredible responsibility to being responsible about that and making it real. In real life people with that kind of illness are incredibly destructive to themselves often and to those around them, and there is nothing funny about that. But since the story is about something, the story has something really serious to say, I felt when I was read it that it's about someone who's trying to address the story of their childhood. [Augusten Burroughs] lived to tell the tale and tell it with wit and humor and insight and is really trying to dump that baggage and trying to live as a grown up. I think that we all have that to a degree, so that's why I wanted to do it.
HW: Had you read Augusten Burroughs’ memoir before the script came your way?
AB: I hadn't read the book. I read the script first and the script is very much it's own entity. Ryan had such a personal connection to it when he went to Augusten [Burroughs]. I think that’s probably what Augusten saw. There were people who were more experienced and fancier than Ryan was, and he gave it to Ryan because I think that he felt that—and I saw that when I met with him—he was someone who really wanted to do something that was funny and entertaining and interesting that had something to it. He had a very strong connection to it, and as an actor you're really so much serving the director. It is their baby. If you are fortunate enough to be able to work with someone who's got that kind of connection to a piece of material then it really makes it worth it because you are serving them. I think that's what good movie acting is about. It's about serving some vision that is overall and I think that this movie is very much steered by Ryan.
HW: The real-life Deirdre’s behavior is so extreme, especially in regards to her son. She was clearly troubled, but was it hard not to judge her?
AB: At first when I looked at it I was just like anyone looking at the story, but then once I start to work on something, a good actor doesn't judge the character. None of us do. You have the luxury and the pleasure of just trying to get behind someone and say, 'Now, why?' That's the task. It's actually much easier to judge them. It's harder to then say, 'Well, why did they do what they do?' That doesn't mean that I can't still look at some of the things that she did and not feel horrified as a mother. I certainly do. Watching the movie – I haven't seen it in a couple of months, but the last time I saw it I just got a stomach ache. I just wanted to save the child. I just wanted to jump out of my seat and say, 'No. Wait a minute. Stop. Someone needs to protect this child.' But I think that's probably a reflection of the movie being a good movie because you feel that dramatic tension and for me it's worth it because of where it goes. He eventually does say, 'Okay, enough. I'm getting out of here. I'm going to transcend it.'
HW: You’ve played a few women on the edge. When you’re spending your day as a character in such an extreme emotional state, does it take a toll on you, or is it therapeutic?
AB: I think that it's therapeutic—I hope it is. There are days it feels more like it's taking a toll, but I think that if you're at your best it's cathartic. I wish that I could always feel that. I did a play recently and I wanted to have that cathartic feeling every night, and I feel like in a way that's what one should have. But some days you don't feel it as much and some days you feel that it's more of a wear and tear. It's so different on a film, though, because you're really only working on a given scene for maybe a day or two days, so you really only have to go down that road those times. It's not like repeating it over and over and over. So on those days there is an excitement even if it's a very painful thing. It'll be that thing of “What will happen?” That's the feeling. Maybe something surprising will happen, and that's what I want. I want to be off-balance. I want to have that controlled anarchy because you are the author of your own out of control-ness. You want to find yourself on uncertain ground, not just playing someone who is unstable. Even with a stable character, you want something surprising to happen, hopefully, because that's what the camera loves the most. That's what is great about film. It's that something that happens that's unexpected. It's great to even be in the room when you're trying to do that or when you see someone else do it. It's very palpable. You can see when something is planned, and when it's not, that's the hardest thing to do because the whole mechanism conspires against it. So being able to block everything out and feel that sense of catharsis, that is the best. And on some days you feel like, “Ah, that was good.” But most of the time you don't know that. Most of the time you wonder. Most of the time you're in this kind of uncertain state of like, “I think that was okay. I'm not really sure.” But you have the next thing that you have to do, and so you can't be celebrating because there's the next thing coming up. So it's more being able to tolerate that uncertainty. When I talk to students, acting students, I talk a lot about that, because there's an enormous amount of uncertainty not only in the profession, but just in the day-to-day of the work, and you have to learn how to tolerate that because it doesn't go away.
HW: Is it difficult not to take that home with you? You’re obviously married to another actor who would presumably understand if you did, but you also have another role to play as mom.
AB: Yeah, there are those times. I'm usually so relieved to get home by the end of the day. This one we shot here and so that was so wonderful for me. I felt so grateful. It was easier to kind of manage my whole family thing. I really make a point of it, especially on a picture like this, not to take it home with me. So I'm pretty good about that. I think that I've had my days when I was unable to shake it – I might've been short-tempered or something and I certainly have those days, but generally speaking I'm just kind of relieved. I feel a greater sense of like, “Oh, my God, my children, normal life. Thank God.”
HW: It seems that a lot of your character’s troubles came from her frustration over feeling she had a work of brilliance inside her that was blocked, and she was being denied the fame she thought she deserved.
AB: I know. I know, and there are so many people I think who feel that way. It's a mystery. I mean, certainly in Los Angeles, I know that I meet people sometimes who have aspirations, but what they really are aspiring to or what they really want I think is a feeling inside of worthiness, something meaningful. Who can deny someone that? But they attach it to things that are really not what they think they are. Even sometimes with actors I think—I mentioned speaking to young actors and sometimes when I'm speaking to people who are aspiring, when I talk to someone or someone writes me a letter or something I find myself thinking, “If you actually got the job could you really deal with it?” It's one thing to have an illusion about doing it and it's another thing when they say, “Okay, now go.” And everyone else is doing this, and they turn the camera on and go, “Okay, now do something.” That's when you're really faced with the reality of it. There is nothing glamorous about that. It's the work. So that's the part that I feel like I have a hard time articulating to young people who are sometimes seeking a kind of attention.
HW: You’ve certainly gotten the fame part, but on the professional side are you aware of how highly your peers regard you? I’ve never spoken with an actor who speak about Annette Bening—whether they’ve worked with you or not—in the most admiring terms.
AB: Thank you, that's very kind of you to say that. I'm very flattered and it means more to me than anything. It really does, and in fact probably to a fault. I was really thinking about this yesterday, because I went to see the opera downtown which was just fantastic, and I was thinking about how excited I get when I see something. I'm almost more of an audience than I am an actor. That's how I wanted to be an actress because I went and saw something in the theater and I thought, “Oh, I want to be a part of that.” So I have to say that part of it is just watching people. Like when I was watching Alec Baldwin, for instance, on this picture I was thinking, “How does he do that? How does he just walk in and do that when we haven't rehearsed. I don't think we've rehearsed.” I really did just watch him and I find that inspiring. I don't know if I can articulate this, but it's like one of the reasons that being human is so fascinating is that we only can inspire each other. We can't inspire ourselves in the same way that someone else can inspire us, and it's so funny that that's how it seems to b setup. I don't know quite why that is and why a story is the thing that sometimes can move us more than even our own lives. That's how we dramatize or fictionalize, sometimes non-fiction, whatever, but that's how we can experience what life means.