The spotlight was shining brightly on Annette Bening Tuesday night, but if the veteran actress certainly didn't show any signs of feeling the heat. As part of AFI Fest's Conversations programs, Bening was honored at the Egyptian Theater in Hollywood Tuesday evening for her distinguished body of work as well as her upcoming feature, "The Face of Love."
Bening arrived in an elegant all black ensemble, but started the conversation with a laugh before reminding herself, "No, this is serious." Still, the four-time Oscar nominee kept the mood light throughout the 45-minute discussion while providing thoughtful answers to Arie Posin's (the evening's moderator and Bening's director for "The Face of Love") questions on acting, her career, and her future. Following the Q&A, audience members were treated to a surprise screening of "The Face of Love." Bening shared quite a few valuable insights, especially for fellow actors. Below are the highlights of her conversation.
"On stage, I often find myself watching the person who's listening."
When asked to give advice to the actors in the room, Benning took a beat and then said one word: "Listening." She described a scene she did during rehearsals early in her career when her directors told her, "You're just not taking in anything that your scene partner is doing. You've got it all planned out, and you're not listening. I thought, 'Oh my God. They're right.'"
"It's nice not to be working with machines."
Bening spent a good portion of her time discussing the difference between stage acting and film acting. After considering the positives and negatives to both, she started with the above quote before stating, "I still enjoy the experience of being in a room and trying to make something happen in the moment, and not having the cameras, microphones, people, and all this stuff." Bening also said it was difficult to switch from theater to film. "The little short scenes felt very odd," Bening said. She had grown used to the lengthy, continuous flow of a play and doing brief, one or two page scenes felt foreign at first. "Then, after not having done a play in a while, I remember thinking, 'I have been concentrating for 40 minutes. I can't sustain this. [laughs] I'm used to doing the little scenes and this is just really too long. Can we take a break?'"
"You have to find the moments over and over and over."
Bening tried to be as specific as she could on the subtle changes between stage and film acting, but she keyed in the time constraints provided by each medium. "One of the things that's really different between doing a movie and doing a play is, when you're doing a play, you have to find the moments over and over and over, obviously, depending on [how long the play runs]. As an actor, that's very demanding. In movies, you might be trying to find something for two days. That's a very curious difference. It doesn't mean it's easier at all. You have to try to realize whenever that moment is and you only get those moments to do it. I always find that a little frightening."
"The really important thing is the first read because it's the only time you get it."
Later Posin asked her to go over the process she uses to choose her next script. "The really important thing is the first read because it's the only time you get it," Bening said. "There's only one time that you don't know what the story is, so that's so important. Sometimes you're reading something and you don't know it will be important in your life. You're reading this script and you start to get involved. It's not an intellectual experience."
Bening used a recent story she was reading about a bullfighter who knows he's watching the bull, his feet, and his eyes as a metaphor for how she goes about reading scripts. "If he starts to think, he's in trouble," Bening said. "So it's like that. You know if you're thinking you're not in the best place. So on an initial read of a script that is interesting, you're not thinking. You're just in it, like the audience when they see the movie. Usually your intellect is quieted, and that's part of the immersion."
"Not that acting is crying. It's not."
When asked if she saw acting as pretending to be someone you're not or telling the truth about a character through your own experiences, Bening told a story about a recent shoot with a little boy who was asked to cry during a scene. When the director asked him to do it, Bening said he just did it on the spot. "[The director] said 'Roll,' and he did it," she said. "I was just watching this, thinking, 'Okay, I have to rethink the whole thing! Wait. You just do that? How does that work?' Not that acting is crying. It's not. But he was really good, and he was just pretending."
"If you're still crying when the curtain comes down, that's a problem."
Bening was able to draw one line between pretending and truth in acting. After describing her process as cathartic, she said,"It's kind of like something runs through you rather than it being about you. In a way, I feel like it should feel that way. When you're involved in it in a neurotic way...if you're still crying when the curtain comes down, that's a problem. That has to do with something else. I think it's healthy to be able to stop and let it go."
"Believe the good ones and ignore the bad ones."
As they prepare to unveil their new film to the world and, more specifically, to critics, Posin said Bening gave him the above advice. He then asked her if she felt critics usually get it right when they review her work and does it matter if they're right or wrong? "Yes, it matters," Bening said. "Every person's opinion, in a way, does matter." Bening said she doesn't read reviews during the play's theatrical run unless she hears there's "a really good one." "I feel very lucky I don't have to be a critic. They have so much power now, in a way, in our business. It used to be more of an art form than it is, just because of the technology. That's a natural thing. There are many more opinions out there."
"The Face of Love" screened Tuesday night at AFI Fest and is being distributed by IFC Films.