‘All the world’s a stage’ proves a fitting life motto for Annette Bening, an actress who loves to challenge, learn from, and heal herself through her craft. Having started acting in a Shakespearean theater company, she has blossomed on stage and screen by disarming audiences through an illustrious career of memorable roles. Whether she’s playing a concerned mom (The Kids Are All Right, 20th Century Women) or an unhappy wife (American Beauty), a fictional politician (The American President) or a real-life senator (The Report), a murder suspect (Death on the Nile) or an AI ruler (Captain Marvel), there’s no denying that she’s done it all— or so I thought.
The four-time Oscar nominated actress swims and sings in her latest feature as she portrays Diana Nyad, the legendary 64- year- old Olympian athlete who was the first person to swim from Cuba to Florida without a shark cage. However, NYAD is more than just an inspirational sports biopic. It places an equally earnest value on the relationship between Nyad and her best friend-turned-coach, Bonnie, portrayed resolutely by Jodie Foster. Bening secures big emotional payoffs through even the film’s most imaginative moments, proving that her charm and persistence can go the distance in making the film an entertaining success.
In our conversation, which took place while Annette was in Australia resuming production on an upcoming mini-series halted by the SAG strike, she affably details her time training for the gutsy role, working with Oscar-winning directors Jimmy Chin and Chai Vasarhelyi (Free Solo) on their first narrative feature. She shows reverence in channeling Diana and Bonnie’s infectious energy and portraying their remarkable friendship onscreen and hopes that the film’s cinematic quality will inspire viewers on a journey to find their own raison d’être.
Nick Ruhrkraut: Annette, thank you so much for joining me. Let’s get right into Nyad, the performance for which you’ve earned a lot of deserved praise this year. How did you get involved in the project and what inspired you to want to portray Diana Nyad?
Annette Bening: They sent me the script that had already been worked out, and I knew that Jimmy Chin and Chai were going to direct it together, and they are incredible. They’re a married couple who, as I’m sure you know, have done incredible documentaries and that’s kind of their metier, is documentaries, but they really wanted to make a narrative film. So they found this project and then they brought it to me. So I was thrilled. I just loved it the second I read it. I was captivated. I was moved. I was really touched by it. And that’s always the important part, is being moved. I just thought, what an incredible story and an amazing feat. It’s an amazing athletic feat, as well as the fact that it was about this relationship between these two women like I had never really seen dramatized before. I just immediately said, yes.
NR: Diana and Bonnie, they have this loving, life-long friendship. And like you said, I don’t feel like we see that on-screen often, these central relationships that are between women over 50 and that highlight their sexuality. Can you talk about building that charismatic relationship with Jodie?
AB: Sure. It’s tricky to dramatize a good friendship because you need conflict to make a good story. And so the fact that the conflict really centers around this swim, that’s what kind of makes it possible to tell the story about what their bond was and is. So they had been lovers way back in the day briefly and then had just been friends for decades basically. So Diana was a marathon swimmer all through her 20s, then she retired, became a broadcaster, and did a lot of other things. And then she woke up at 60 and said, “Wait a minute, that swim that I was unable to complete, the one that I was really obsessed with, Cuba to Florida, I never figured out how to do it. So I have to figure out how to do it now.”
And she swam for quite a bit before she told anybody that she was thinking of doing it. And so she goes to Bonnie and she’s like, “Okay, you have to do this with me.” And Bonnie said, “That’s insane. You’re old, you’re too old. And what in the hell? You couldn’t do it when you were in your late 20s and now you think you can do it?! It just makes no sense.” Then they told me they were going to ask Jodie Foster to do the other part, Bonnie, and I didn’t really know Jodie, but I thought she’ll never do it. She’s very selective, whatever. She could play Diana. (Laughs)
So then they said, “Oh, she’s interested.” I was like, “You’re kidding. Oh my God, fantastic.” And so we met and I talked and she had lots of ideas, as she does. She’s very, very good on structure and also just the practicalities of making movies. And the practicalities of making movies on water, they’re famously difficult to do. Anyway, she’s an amazing person and I immediately was just like, “Please, do it.” I don’t know that I begged her in person, but in my silent prayers, I was like, ‘Oh, I hope she does it,’ because that would so ground the movie. Just as in life, Bonnie is very grounded and very much sane, and Diana is more the dreamer and the charismatic storyteller.
And of course, they were both professional athletes and really athletic people, but Diana was the one that wanted to do this swim. So their relationship’s fascinating. We studied it, we all got together. I met with Bonnie, Jodie alone, and then I met with Diana alone and Jodie and Bonnie met alone, and then the four of us would get together. And we really got to know each other very well. They were just as curious about me, which was funny. Because when I went over there to meet them the first time before Jodie was even on the project, they wanted to know all about my life and everything because they’re very curious, very energetic. Their energy is like, ‘Whoa!’ They’re really, really amazing people, wonderful people to be around. Hell of a lot of fun, great senses of humor. So yeah, we started digging in.
NR: A lot of that is portrayed on screen. As you portray Nyad, she’s a very serious character, but there are also so many funny lines in this movie, especially between them. So I love that you capture so many different elements of their personalities and the relationship between the two because it’s very heartfelt and that bleeds into needing to portray a real person in Nyad herself. And you’ve portrayed many powerful, complex people before on screen and Diana is no different. She’s courageous and unwavering in her commitment. What was the hardest part in showing all of her complexities?
AB: I felt such a responsibility to her the more I got to know her and the more fond I became of her personally. And she really let me in. We talked very intimately about her experiences. She wrote a book about the whole thing, and that’s kind of what the movie’s based on. It’s called Find a Way. And she goes into great depth about her own life and her father, who she thought was her biological father, but was actually her stepfather, who was a very charismatic, brilliant, kind of con man basically is what she called him. But she grew up with him and he had a big influence on her, positive and negative. And her relationship with her mother was very complex. And she also had this terrible history with her own swim coach when she was in high school.
So all of that, and then of course, just sitting with Diana and looking into her eyes, and there’s this quality in her that I wanted to try to find because there’s this real vulnerability, there’s an openness. She also loves life and she loves discovering new things and traveling and meeting new people. And she’s also really in the moment in a really refreshing way that sometimes I don’t feel I can be, and she has that. So I really wanted to try to find that heroic part of her. Because face it, you have to be unusual to swim 54 hours and it’s crazy, and to be determined to do it and to fail over and over. And then eventually, she figured it out.
But I knew that I needed to give the character an arc. I knew that that would be important for a good story. And so she allowed us to bend the absolute facts of the story a little bit in order to find that way of meeting her in one place in the beginning of the story and then at the end that she’s really a changed person. So I tried to find a way to get all of that in all the scenes that we had. And we worked a lot on the script and we worked a lot on these moments thinking them through for both of us, both me and Jodie to try to find all the different colors as best we could. Because just a strong character, that’s not interesting. Because we all have our doubts and our insecurities and our injuries and our human stuff, and that’s what a great movie has, is all of that, not just a great athletic achievement.
NR: And it succeeds at being an inspirational film as well.
AB: I’m so glad! So glad. Thank you.
NR: I love when you first jump in the water and you are actually singing “The Sound of Silence,” which evoked this scene from The Graduate to me when Dustin Hoffman is pushed in by his parents. And here, it’s the opposite, where you are jumping in freely and this song becomes an anthem for you. Were there any songs that inspired you along the way during production?
AB: Ah, that’s a great question. I know one thing I will say about the music is, I think the music and the soundtrack are really beautiful. And I only saw it in its final version because we were on strike when it came out. And so I snuck into the back of the DGA Theater when there was a screening there just by myself and watched it on a big screen with the music and everything. It was like, wow! The cinematic quality of the movie meant a lot to me. And that’s what cinema can sometimes have, which is that the medium itself takes the story and just sort of lifts it to this other level with the photography and the music. And I know that when “Heart of Gold” comes on, the Neil Young song, that really got me.
Because I think also one of the things that Diana would do is that she would sing songs to herself when she was swimming. And she would know how many times she had to sing a certain song to swim a number of hours. And if she sang the song to herself 291 times, she knew that at the end she will have been swimming this many hours. That’s literally how her brain works. And she would say, “I never lost count. And I would sing over and over to myself in a meditative state,” and then she would come out of the water and she would be right. “Oh yeah, it’s been X amount of hours.” So that just gives you a window into that human being and that brain.
NR: You swam so many hours every day during training. What did that experience feel like in becoming Nyad, having to go through those trials and feeling that physically, mentally, and emotionally?
AB: Well, I trained for about a year before we started shooting, and we shot for a few months. It is wonderful to be able to look back now, but I was really overwhelmed at first. I underestimated just because I love the story so much, and I just thought, “Well, I have to do this. I have to play it.” And I didn’t really think about the logistics of it, which is odd, but whatever. It’s not rational. When you just love something, it’s like falling in love. You don’t think about it, you just do it. And I just fell in love with it. So then when I had to really then go back and say, “Okay, well, oh, it’s me and I’m swimming in the, oh, wait a minute, I have to look like I know what I’m doing. Can I do that?” And then I started swimming. I’ve always been in the water a lot. I was a diver, a scuba diver when I was a kid. I worked on a boat. I was in the ocean a lot.
And so that part of it, just being in the water didn’t scare me, but the swimming I had to really learn. And at first really, I thought, “Oh my God, what have I done? Can I do this?” And I’m 65 now, so I was kind of like her age and– what the hell, what was I thinking that I could pull this off? So then I was scared and fear can be a great motivator. And I also had a great coach. I hired an Olympic swimmer, Rada Owen is her name, and she was the perfect person for me because she was very positive. She doesn’t work too hard. She has a really good mentality. She still loves to swim. She coaches swimming with kids. And I think that helped because she’s used to working with beginners.
And we just started doing it, and she jumped in the water with me and she was literally showing me. And my hand would be like that. She’d say, “Annette, you know the hand has to,” and I’d be like, “Oh yeah, the hand.” And then the breathing and then your mind is in 50 different points of the body. Because at first, that’s what a beginner’s mind is, but that’s also a beautiful thing, especially as we get older, to have the beginner’s mind and to learn something brand new. It’s just so great. And I love the challenge actually. Even though I was scared, I loved the challenge. And then the more I got into it, the more I was like, “Yeah, I can do this. I can do it.” And just trying to face my own insecurities and just feeling, “Okay, well, I’ll just do the best I can. That’s all I can do.” So I worked really hard. And I went to a gym and I had a trainer who was a great guy and he worked with me too. So that was fun.
NR: That’s great. With the diving you mentioned, was there any on-location filming where you could dive and did any of that come back to you?
AB: I didn’t actually scuba dive. We shot it in the Dominican Republic and we used a tank. They have a beautiful big tank there, 70 meters by 70 meters, where we shot it and got in the water and everything. Although we did have one day in the ocean, but that was all. Unfortunately, we couldn’t do more than that because it’s just logistically crazy difficult to shoot in the water, in the ocean, out in the open sea. But we did jump on a boat at the very end, me and Jimmy and our underwater photographer and did some stuff.
So I didn’t scuba dive. I haven’t really done scuba diving in a while. I want to, again, I love to free dive. If I can, I prefer free diving, just paddling around with fins and the snorkel and maybe diving. If you’re in a good place, shallow is better anyway, and I learned that when I was a scuba diver. It’s funny, people always ask, “Well, how deep did you go?” But really, the beautiful stuff, depending on where you are, is sometimes 30 feet. So it’s not like you’re that far down. It’s just that you don’t have to come up and breathe. You can just be down there in the water, which is fantastic and was a great experience for me. So no, I need to go diving again. I have to make that happen. I thought about trying to make it happen here [in Australia], but we’ll see. There’s always work that gets in the way. But that’d be fun.
NR: Yes, right up the Gold Coast. I did that when I was younger with my family. That was a wonderful experience.
AB: Did you go to the Barrier Reef?
NR: Yeah, I think it was off Cairns that we ended up diving. My ears almost didn’t let me. I had trouble going down at first, but it was beautiful.
AB: Yeah, I know just where you’re talking about, that’s what everybody tells me. So it’s definitely on my bucket list to go up to that part of the world and dive. And I know what that feels like when you can’t clear your ears. It’s actually quite scary. It’s a terrifying feeling. So yeah, it’s on my list.
NR: Amazing. Speaking to the inspirational quality again, I love that we end with Diana saying those three mantras when she ends her swim and then get to see the real life Diana, Bonnie and you and Jodie together with them. Is there any other message that you wish viewers would take from the movie? And what did you learn about yourself in your intensive training and in portraying her?
AB: Well, I was inspired by her. I was personally inspired by her and by the story. I think underneath the story and why it touches me is that Diana had to find a way to feel her life mattered enough to do this. Because that’s the thing about making a big leap, is why. Why do that? We can all kind of not take on big challenges. And sometimes it’s important not to. Sometimes it’s important to sit on the porch with your feet up and read a book. That’s an important part of life. I know she says, and I get it, for her, it was the other shore. It was that swim getting from there to there that she needed to do for herself, was in the mystery of her existence, in the mystery of her experience of self. And that we all have something. Whether it’s a relationship or some challenge with another family member or whether it’s work or whether it is a creative endeavor, writing that book or whatever it may be.
Jimmy Chin, one of our directors, is an alpinist. He deals with this all the time. People that need to take, he himself is one, they take these incredible risks to achieve something. That’s in them. That’s what they need to do. And I guess that’s what we all have to do for ourselves is to discover what is in each of us that allows us to experience who we really are? And I guess in the craft that I practice, I’m constantly bumping up against that in myself. So there’s an escape to it. When you’re pretending to be somebody else, there is an escape that’s really delicious and intriguing. But there’s also, at the same time, this paradox because you’re also confronted with yourself, you cannot escape yourself in a way. And you want to bring your own self to it. And you want to be open to the camera and open to the experience, and it can be scary.
Because you’re constantly in a state of uncertainty when you’re working, you’re not like, “Oh, I know this is what I’m doing or I know this is what this is going to be.” You in a way can’t know what it’s going to be. If you do know, it’s probably not very interesting. If it has a little bit of the unknown, the ineffable, the thing that goes beyond words, then maybe it’s of interest. And you have to follow your own gut. When I read it, I loved it. And that’s why I thought, ‘Well, if we can get this right, maybe other people will have the experience that I had,’ which is, ‘Wow, here’s this really interesting person who did this thing with her best friend. What’s that like?’ So we tried.
NR: Well, you succeeded. That’s a beautiful answer and NYAD is a wonderful movie. Thank you so much for joining me and have a good rest of your production, trip, and time off.
AB: Thank you. Thank you, Nick.
NYAD is currently streaming on Netflix.
Photo: Liz Parkinson/Netflix