Basking in Bening’s glory

It sure was good to have Annette Bening back onstage at what used to be called the Geary Theater.

Back in the early ’80s, when Bening was a grad student at the American Conservatory Theater, the Geary was where she honed her craft and took giant strides in a career that would turn out to be one of the brightest in Hollywood.

Last week, as part of ACT’s 40th anniversary celebration and San Francisco’s City Arts & Lecture series, Bening returned to the Geary, now simply called American Conservatory Theater, to talk about the craft of acting and everything she’s learned during the last two decades.
First of all, Bening at 48 (she turns 49 on May 29), couldn’t be lovelier.

With her straight blond hair and a gray skirt suit that showed of her great gams, Bening is every bit the beauty she was when she first started appearing on movie screens in movies ranging from lame (The Great Outdoors, 1988) to the sublime (The Grifters, 1990).

Her relaxed California good looks recall her childhood spent mostly in San Diego and belie the fact that she and husband Warren Beatty have four children, ranging in age from 7 to 15.

Sitting on the stage, Bening looked out into the full theater and said, “Feels like home.”
Recalling one of her first scene study classes, Bening said she finished the five-minute scene and felt pretty good about herself.

“Then they sat me down and gave me the talking to I needed,” she said. “I wasn’t taking in the other person. I was busy doing what I was doing and not receiving from the other actor. One of the things I remember most about studying here, and one of the things that helped me, was learning to listen and then learning to be heard.”

Growing up, Bening didn’t go to a lot of theater. One of her earliest experiences was a school trip to the Old Globe Theatre in San Diego.

Somehow, though, Bening knew that being a classical actress was what she wanted to do with her life.

“I have always been so uncultured. When I worked on Romeo and Juliet or A Doll’s House it was all new to me,” she said. “One of the things that drew me to the theater was the dramatic language and literature. I loved it. I still do. Movies can never have the language and the voices of theater.”

Addressing an audience peppered with ACT students working toward their master’s degrees, Bening said the thing you’re always working toward — and she even described this as “corny” — is the freedom of a child at play.

“That’s the whole deal: You have to lose the watcher, that part of us that watches,” she said. “I remember being a girl playing in the yard. I’d be playing frontier girl, and I’d be grinding berries or whatever, and there was freedom. I wasn’t worried about whether it was believable or not. It’s an exhilarating feeling — and you only get glimpses of this — when acting is effortless. You’re just in it.”

Though she values her ACT training, Bening said you ultimately try to forget everything you learned.

“One thing I like to tell young people is that there is no arrival,” she said. “There’s no moment when you’re not insecure. You learn to tolerate it and not to let it get to you. You say, `Oh, no, no. I’ve seen you before. I’ve heard you before. You’re not in charge.’ And you keep trying to get back to when you were 6 and grinding berries in the yard.”

Once her film career got going — the unmissable Bening performances are American Beauty, Being Julia and The Grifters _ Bening took a break from the stage. But after 10 years of movies, she went back to her roots for a 1999 production of Hedda Gabler at the Geffen Playhouse in Los Angeles.

“It took me a long time not to feel funny on a movie set,” Bening said. “I always felt like a stage actor pretending to be a movie actor. You’d work in short little scenes, and I was used to theater, where you continue without a break. But when I went back to the theater after about 10 years away, we were running Act 1, and I remember thinking, `I have been acting for 30 minutes straight. This is going on forever.’ It took a while to get back in that groove. Acting on stage takes incredible concentration if you’re really in it.”

Here are a few more pithy Bening observations:

On motherhood: “I thought I’d know more than they did for a lot longer.”
On DVD commentaries: “We’re all talking too much about what we do.”
On her first movie, The Great Outdoors: “I can’t believe I got another job after that.”
On being an actor: “You risk being a phony every time you put yourself out there. I wish I could fake it. If someone could teach me, I’d do it.”

Bening is being choosy about her projects these days so we don’t see her as much, but wouldn’t it be great if she had a proper Bay Area homecoming and decided to do a play for ACT?


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