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Actress Annette Bening on her new role as famed swimmer Diana Nyad


Notice: Transcripts are machine and human generated and lightly edited for accuracy. They may contain errors.

Geoff Bennett: One of the year's most acclaimed acting performances now receiving Oscar buzz came from Annette Bening, a four-time Academy Award nominee known for such films as "The Grifters," "American Beauty," and "The Kids Are All Right."

In her latest, she takes on a formidable woman in her own right, the famed long-distance swimmer Diana Nyad.

Jeffrey Brown has our look for our arts and culture series, Canvas.

Woman: One hundred miles or 60 hours of constant swimming.

Jeffrey Brown: At age 60, Diana Nyad, played by Annette Bening in the film "Nyad," decided to attempt what she had been unable to achieve in her 20s, swim from Cuba to Florida.

Annette Bening, Actress: Imagine knowing in your bones that you could do something that only you could do, like fate.

Jeffrey Brown: Nyad herself navigated more than 100 miles through waters infested by sharks and venomous jellyfish, this time without a protective cage. She would fail and fail and fail again, before finally accomplishing her dream in 2013 at age 64, swimming for just under 53 hours.

For Bening, accepting the role was irresistible. Only then did reality hit.

Annette Bening: I didn't really think about it, but that is sort of a good thing, because that's how you end up plunging into things that are shocking and new and different, and you learn and you grow and you have a new challenge. And I don't regret it at all. It's the opposite.

But I did then pause and, wait a minute, I'm in a bathing suit, and I'm swimming, and I am 60 -- whatever I was at the time, 61, 62. And, wait, can I do this? Can I pull this off? And how's that going to work? So then I got into the business of trying to figure that out.

Jeffrey Brown: That echoes Diana Nyad herself, who titled her 2015 memoir "Find a Way."

She'd achieved fame early on for her epic swims, retired from the sport at age 30 and worked for decades as a sportscaster, before resolving to make waves again.

Annette Bening: I need to get myself functioning at the highest level. You're going to be my coach.

Jeffrey Brown: "Nyad" the film co-starring Jodie Foster as Bonnie Stoll, Diana's one-time lover, forever friend and coach for the swim, was co-directed by Jimmy Chin and Elizabeth Chai Vasarhelyi, a husband-and-wife team who'd previously explored the world of extreme sports in documentaries, including 2018's "Free Solo."

Determined to do her own swimming throughout the film, Bening trained for more than a year with former Olympian swimmer Rada Owen to capture the athleticism and drive of a woman who'd written of herself: "I'm either a stubborn fool or a valiant warrior."

Annette Bening: I love that. I love that she said that.

She is. She's an extreme person. She's an incredibly energetic, well-educated, worldly, charismatic woman. And she does have a single-mindedness, let's face it, that is extraordinary.

Jeffrey Brown: If you're playing a fanatically driven person...

Annette Bening: Yes.

Jeffrey Brown: ... who almost kills herself and drives even the people around her who love her...

Annette Bening: Yes.

Jeffrey Brown: I think she drives them crazy, right? Is that hard or is that kind of fun?

Annette Bening: Oh, it's fantastic.

Jeffrey Brown: Yes?

Annette Bening: It's such a great gift, because, in the profession that I'm practicing, we sort of come to ourselves, but we also escape ourselves. So there's this funny kind of duality to it.

In a way, it's a wonderful escape to be somebody else and to leave your own concerns and your own history and your own issues and jump into somebody else's shoes. But, at the same time, you're always confronting yourself as an actor. You're always dealing with your inner world. You're the instrument. So it's always -- that is also rattling around in your head, or, of course, you would be insane, because it is just pretend.

Jeffrey Brown: For all her Hollywood celebrity, including a longtime marriage to actor and Academy Award-winning director Warren Beatty, Bening started in theater and returns to it regularly.

Annette Bening: I will take of your favors, then. Take it!

Jeffrey Brown: In fact, we'd first talked in 2009, when she started a production of "Medea," the ancient Greek tragedy by Euripides.

She's clearly unafraid to take on challenging roles. With "Medea," scorned wife takes revenge to shocking extreme by killing her children.

Annette Bening: Did we drift?

Jeffrey Brown: Or "Nyad," where physical appearance is altered to reflect endless hours in water and sun, frequent vomiting and life-threatening jellyfish stings.

Annette Bening: That's very liberating. It's wonderful to just strip everything away, and I think that I was trained that way. I did a lot of plays.

Jeffrey Brown: Yes.

Annette Bening: And I really didn't start doing movies until I was almost 30. And so it didn't start happening, this whole thing about being glamorized, and having makeup put on you, and being lit in a certain way, and all the things that come with movie acting, that is -- it's all fine. It's an interesting part of the job.

But it's just a part of it. And being able to strip everything away in service of a story that you care about, that's -- it's a great feeling.

Jodie Foster, Actress: Look at the horizon. You see it?

Annette Bening: Is it the sun?

Jodie Foster: No, that's not the sun, babe. Those are the lights of Key West.

Jeffrey Brown: For all the single-minded obsession here, Bening says the real key to this story is how Nyad comes to see she can't do it alone, relying on a support team in and out of the water, most of all, friend Bonnie, and, for Bening, fellow acting great Jodie Foster.

Annette Bening: Diana needs Bonnie in order to do what she does. And it is also a reflection of our profession. We need each other so much in our work. It's interacting. It's listening. It's responding and being there for your partner and giving.

And all of that is so -- it's such a satisfying, joyous kind of exchange, even in tough scenes. And even in dark moments, to have that bond, that mutual vulnerability is such a key part of acting.

Jeffrey Brown: And it's probably worth saying, I mean, they are two women who are older than perhaps we usually see in the movies.

Annette Bening: Well, yes, there's been a lot of stories that just haven't been told about women. It's not that the stories haven't been there. It's that people haven't made them. Women don't disappear when they're 50 or 60 or 70 or 80. And stories are very interesting and very rich.

And I think we're in a time now where a lot of the stereotypes, not all, but a lot of the stereotypes that women were trapped in, in the movies are dropping away. It's not just about playing a -- quote, unquote -- "strong woman." That's not interesting. It's interesting to play somebody with nuances and flaws and vulnerabilities and also humor and also intelligence and the whole range.

Jeffrey Brown: And for you personally, you don't have a desire to swim from Cuba to Miami?

Annette Bening: I do not. But I still swim. It's just...

Jeffrey Brown: You do?

Annette Bening: Oh, I love it. I have always needed a certain amount of exercise and sort of maintain my inner equanimity. So now it's swimming. And I'm just -- I love it. It's the best.

Jeffrey Brown: One other enduring benefit from the film, Annette Bening reports, the friendship between Nyad and her that started during production continues, happily going the distance.

For the "PBS NewsHour," I'm Jeffrey Brown in New York.

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