Annette Bening on Identifying With Virginia Woolf, "Insecurity and Fear" That Never Goes Away (Q&A)

Photographed By Austin Hargrave
Annette Bening has received Oscar noms for her work in 'The Grifters,' 'American Beauty,' 'Being Julia' and 'The Kids Are All Right.'

"A lot of being an actor is just being receptive. Receptivity is a kind of not-knowingness, of absorbing what's around you," says the '20th Century Women' star, who will be receiving the Lynn Stalmaster Award for Career Achievement at Thursday's CSA Artios Awards.

The experience of acting is one "of not quite knowing what is landing and what isn't," says Annette Bening, "so you're in that state of unknowingness." Luckily, audiences are not, thanks to her performances in films from 1990's The Grifters to 1999's American Beauty to 2010's The Kids Are All Right to her latest, Mike Mills' 20th Century Women. In recognition of her work, Bening, 58, will receive the Lynn Stalmaster Award for Career Achievement at the Artios Awards, presented by the Casting Society of America — and emceed by Joel McHale — on Jan. 19 at the Beverly Hilton. A New York ceremony that evening, hosted by Michael Urie, will honor The Public Theater with the newly named Marion Dougherty New York Apple Award. Bening spoke with THR about her craft and her new film.

Is there a person in film or literature whom you particularly identify with?

Virginia Woolf. The way she's able to inhabit these women — in some way I aspire to that. Her books always make me feel better. I did [an audio recording] of Mrs. Dalloway, and reading aloud with headphones was one of the most exhilarating experiences I've ever had.

Who has most influenced your work?

I went to the American Conservatory Theater, and Bill Ball ran it. I got into the repertory company, and he was a huge influence. He was very kind, somewhat crazy and brilliant, and he had a very aspirational sort of mentality. I have this quote of his on my wall: "I'd like an actor to go anywhere in the country and [have people say], 'He gets the best out of himself and he honors the people he's working with and he brings out the creativity of others … by the attitude of their approach, the clarity of their mind, the respect that they have for their work.'"

What lessons do you wish you had learned when you were younger?

Most lessons come at the time they're meant to, and the things that have meant a lot to me I probably wouldn't have been able to absorb when I was younger — one of them being that you never arrive at a place where you're not developing and changing. With that goes a certain amount of insecurity and fear. That doesn't go away for anybody, no matter how successful or accomplished.

What did 20th Century Women teach you?

The importance of listening. That's something I've had to learn and am still learning. As an actor, I came in feeling a lot of my job was to put out, especially when you're in the theater and you're having to speak at a volume where people can hear you. But, in fact, a lot of being an actor is just being receptive. Receptivity is a kind of not-knowingness, of absorbing what's happening around you without having a preconceived idea about how that may or may not affect you. [Now] when I go to a play, I love watching the person who's listening. In cinema, certainly when you think about iconic moments, it's often someone who is silent. The camera is an incredible instrument to facilitate that experience.

What surprised you most about Mike Mills?

He never seems like he's judging, and yet he will see things with the utmost clarity. He's like a laser beam with a bullshit detector, but you never see him exercising it.

What would surprise people about you?

(Laughs.) I like to walk my dog.

This story first appeared in the Jan. 27 issue of The Hollywood Reporter magazine. To receive the magazine, click here to subscribe.