Between her celebrated performances as the unraveling Nic in The Kids Are Alright, dying legend Gloria Grahame in Film Stars Don’t Die in Liverpool, and one-third of the devious Grifters, Annette Bening has created a highly-respected filmography of complex female characters over three decades. But in the political drama The Report, Bening approaches the role of Senator Dianne Feinstein with a deft, quiet performance that feels entirely new. With four previous Oscar nominations, and this year’s Captain Marvel role under her belt, Bening continues to demonstrate an ever-expanding range and an apparently bottomless depth of skill.
DEADLINE: How did you come aboard The Report?
ANNETTE BENING: Scott Burns, the writer/director, sent it to me and I thought it was very strong. So, I met with him and just signed up. I had a very surface knowledge of what had happened when this report had come out. But I wasn’t that aware of it either. I found it really shocking and really important.
It’s a story about accountability and checks and balances. And what I found inspiring about it is that in this case, to a degree, our system really worked. We have these laws, they have to be respected, but it’s the force of character of a few individuals that allows this sort of wrongdoing to be uncovered. So, it was a lot of people who are responsible for the right thing happening, including a lot of public officials who deserve a tremendous amount of credit.
We spend a lot of time criticizing our public officials, but we don’t spend enough time appreciating them when they do the right thing. I just thought it was incredibly well done.
DEADLINE: The film is dense with facts about the CIA interrogation program and also their attempted cover-up. How did everyone get around making those facts palatable?
BENING: We rehearsed together and read through scenes. In those sessions we were asking questions and trying to penetrate more deeply into it, especially if I didn’t understand something or somebody else didn’t. Scott is such a good writer and having him also direct and be there to continue to work is really a great asset. There’s so much material, and to make it clear was really tricky. I thought he did a great job with that. That’s really to his credit.
DEADLINE: How did you prepare to play Senator Dianne Feinstein? Did you spend time with her?
BENING: I did not talk to her before we made the movie. But for many years, when I lived in San Francisco, she was on the board of supervisors, and automatically became Mayor because of the murders of Harvey Milk and [then Mayor] George Moscone. In a number of different ways our paths had crossed over the years. We had both gone to San Francisco State, and then of course she was my Senator. So, I watched her speeches, I watched her in interviews, I watched her doing investigations in the various committees that she’s been on. There’s lots of availability to watch and listen to her. I just wanted to do enough where you accepted it was her, and for the story of The Report to just speak for itself.
DEADLINE: The performance is really subtle. You can see Senator Feinstein wanting to get the truth out, and yet she quietly plays within the rules of the system.
BENING: Well, I talked to Dan Jones [lead investigator of The Report] a lot. Dan is the man who Adam Driver’s character is based on, and he was very much part of the making of the film. He’s a wonderful guy, a really interesting person, and he’s also very selfless and very humble. I asked him a lot about Dianne and what his experience of her was. She is someone who, as far as I can see, is pretty consistent in terms of who she is in public and who she is in private.
Part of the truth of the story is that she isn’t a firebrand. This is a woman who is straightforward and somewhat reserved, and so it was my job to just operate within the margins that she operates in. I just tried to approach it as truthfully as I could. [Senator Feinstein] plays by the rules, and I like the fact that in this case, she’s one of the people that really did the right thing.
DEADLINE: When The Report came out, Senator Feinstein gave a very honorable speech on the floor of the Senate essentially admitting the government made mistakes, which is so rare these days.
BENING: Yes. Even you mentioning it just stirs me in some way. She basically says the United States is admitting that we made a mistake and we’re big enough to do that. We did the wrong thing, and we are admitting it, and we are vowing that it will never happen again. And I just think that’s such an incredible moment for her to stand up and say that. And it is really such a heroic concept. Right now, we need to be reminded that’s what governments are capable of doing. It’s what makes our country, in this case, really great, that we were able to expose this wrongdoing and double down on vowing for it never to happen again. I mean, how many countries in the world torture? Many, many, many countries. And in this case, we admitted it and we vowed that it would never happen again.
DEADLINE: It feels like films like The Report are becoming a rarity. It’s tough to get them made.
BENING: I just feel very grateful. It’s very hard to make a political film that gets you in your gut. The subject matter is one thing, but trying to weave it into a narrative that keeps you glued to the screen is really, really hard. And that’s why there aren’t more of them. I just feel very lucky that Scott asked me to do it, and I’m very grateful to him and to everybody who worked on the movie. We almost didn’t get the movie made, we had people pull out of the financing, and then Vice News basically stepped up and helped us finish making the movie.
It’s a smaller film in terms of budget, but of course all of that is to the service of trying to make this movie, and everybody wanted to make it. So, I’m just glad that we got it made, and that everyone who was involved worked so hard. We had everybody just pitching in.
DEADLINE: Some films would have gone right to theatrics, but The Report keeps a focused, steady pace and tone.
BENING: Scott is a very, very experienced screenwriter. I think for a lot of screenwriters they live with this frustration of not ever being able to really get what they have in their head on the screen, because someone else is directing it. And so, he was someone who was just more than ready to direct. And one of the things that I was really impressed with when I watched it, because of course there are sections of the movie that I wasn’t around [for] when we were shooting them, was his casting.
One of the most amazing pieces of casting is Douglas Hodge, who plays [contractor and developer of the enhanced interrogation technique], Jim Mitchell. Douglas is this English actor who is quite a star on the stage. He’s famous for having played in La Cage aux Folles, and Cyrano de Bergerac. But when I saw the movie, I didn’t even know that was him. He so completely disappeared into it, and that’s Scott making a choice that was so imaginative and brave, and that goes for each person. Maura Tierney, Tim Blake Nelson, all the actors, they all feature in smaller, seamless scenes. Because of the cast, in a film like this, you feel that these people are actually in those circumstances. It really does allow you to suspend your disbelief. And that’s one of his talents as a director, his ability to cast really, really well.
DEADLINE: Do you find yourself leaning towards films that have more meaning for you these days?
BENING: Well, good writing is always the first step. And I think in the case of The Report, this is a very political film with a very strong story, and it’s an honor to be a part of it. I also enjoy being part of movies that are just sheer entertainment. I love going to the movies and I love seeing great stuff. Whether it’s a superhero movie, a small indie film, or something from France or Asia, or a musical, there are so many things to enjoy.
So as an actor, I just feel lucky to be a part of as many different things as possible. I know that when people stop and talk to me about different movies, sometimes it’s just a movie they’ve enjoyed for the sheer fun of it. Somebody else might stop and talk to me about The Kids Are Alright, and they’re gay or their kids are gay, and they relate to it in some really personal way. I did a Western, and people talk about that sometimes. So, it’s funny, it’s like we all need different things at different times in our lives. Sometimes we just need sheer entertainment, something that makes us laugh, and I think that’s really important too. I just feel lucky I get to do what I love.
DEADLINE: What was it like being on something as big as Captain Marvel?
BENING: It was complete, total fun. Often people say it must be fun to be in movies and you always want to say yes, but sometimes it’s just not fun. Sometimes it’s just bloody hard work. But in this case, I couldn’t have had more fun. I got to die in the dirt and I got to dance. For other people, it took months for them to shoot the film, but I just sort of waltzed in and did my thing. [laughs] And I just had so much fun. God, that was so great, I really enjoyed it.
Ryan Fleck and Anna Boden who were directing, they seemed like they were having such a good time, and handled it all so well. I really admire the way that they coped with dealing with being in the middle of such a huge machine. They just always had a sense of humor and they were completely collaborative and I just enjoyed it, every moment quite frankly.
DEADLINE: You’re shooting the role of Euphemia in the upcoming Death on the Nile, directed by Kenneth Branagh. How much fun is that?
BENING: Completely fun. I cannot reveal anything about it, which is so much fun to have to say. [laughs] The script itself is very smart, and it has certain updated elements that give it this whole other dimension. It’s still a murder mystery format, but there are all kinds of other things around it because it’s Ken Branagh, so it is also gorgeous. I mean I’m just knocked out by the beauty that is around me in this movie. I can’t believe I get to do this, it’s so fun.
Also as an ensemble, we are together most of the time, and we’re all enjoying that. You get into a project and you become this family, which we have very much done this time. It’s wonderful too because no one person is carrying all the weight. We all get to share in the storytelling in a really fun way. And everyone is so different from each other; I think that it could be quite enjoyable to watch. I suspect it might be.
DEADLINE: Between The Report and your performance as Kate Keller in Arthur Miller’s All My Sons on Broadway, there seems to be an interesting theme of people’s “accountability” this year for you.
BENING: Well, it’s just a great theme isn’t it? And it’s one of the great themes that Arthur Miller explored over and over again, too. It’s a theme that we all come back to as human beings. At what point are we held accountable for what we do, our sins, or our crimes?
God knows that right now in our politics, whether it’s in the U.S. or in Europe, we have to ask these questions about accountability. What is the truth? What is a crime? And are there people that can break the law and get away with it? Will people who have broken the law be held accountable? These are great themes that we’re still exploring as deeply as we can.
DEADLINE: Do you still get that giddy joy when you get a new script or project that might be next for you?
BENING: I think that that’s a great a way to talk about it. Giddy joy, I love that. When I read something that I really love, I just absolutely feel it in my gut. I think that’s true of a lot of us who get to do what I do. You only get one innocent read. And that experience for the first time is what you will eventually try to recreate when you’re telling the story. So, I just feel very lucky. I love the craft. I love doing the craft. As I get older, I get further and further away from my training, and I think that helps. Forget everything that you know, and to be able to approach something with just a fresh and open spirit is the whole aim. So, yeah. I just look forward to reading something that I just can’t say no to.
DEADLINE: Let’s call this the punk rock stage of Annette Bening.
BENING: I’m totally stealing that.