In Running With Scissors, the film adaptation of Augusten Burroughs’ memoir about surviving his dysfunctional upbringing, Annette Bening plays Deirdre, the author’s narcissistic, bipolar mother. We caught up with the three-time Oscar nominee at the film’s Beverly Hills premiere, where she talked about preparing for her offbeat role, working with director Ryan Murphy (creator of Nip/Tuck), and her attitude toward a certain ”fickle” organization…
ENTERTAINMENT WEEKLY: Kristin Chenoweth, one of your Running With Scissors costars, said she was going to retire if you didn’t get an Academy Award nomination. And Augusten Burroughs claims watching you is like watching a home movie. How do compliments like that make you feel?
ANNETE BENING: That is so nice. I am very, very flattered… and I very much appreciate that. But Kristin should be warned that the Academy is very fickle, and she is much too young to be making wagers like that.
Do you think this is the kind of role that will grab the Academy’s attention?
I don’t know. That is really not my business. I did the work and I loved doing it. I love trying to figure it out and explore. The rest of it is not up to me. [Deirdre] is such a complex and funny character. She changes so much in the course of the film; she has such depth of feeling.
What attracted you to this movie?
I like what the movie says about childhood: You can address your childhood and move on. It is normal to leave some things unresolved. It happens. But also as a grownup, you can be the author of your own life and do what you want. You don’t have to be a prisoner of what happened to you when you were a kid. This is such an extreme example of what could happen to you as a kid, but we all have things we can relate to within the story, and we all had our own things we went through. Mental illness and addiction affects so many young people, and I liked that Augusten is such a survivor and he turned his life around. And I did admire Deirdre’s passion for writing and poetry, even if it came from a very sick place.
I’m assuming your parenting style, of course, is the complete opposite of Deirdre’s. So how did you prepare to play someone like this?
I had the luxury to prepare, think about it, and research. That’s one of the greatest joys of what I do for a career — you are just daydreaming and working it out before you step foot on a set. I watched a lot of documentary films and did a lot of reading on manic-depressive illness. I studied [Pulitzer Prize-winning poet] Anne Sexton [who suffered from depression and committed suicide in 1974] and her work. I had an interest in the illness before I was signed on to this film even. It is a long process. It is like planting seeds so that when you get there and walk on the set, it grows with the addition of the script and the other actors and the costumes. All the work you did almost becomes irrelevant, and you just go with your intuition at that point. You hope it all comes together when the camera starts to roll. And in this particular situation, I found another great resource in Augusten. He is so entertaining and articulate about his life experiences. He has processed them very thoroughly and has allowed this bizarre childhood to make him stronger, not kill him.
Speaking of Augusten: What was it like to try to faithfully re-create some of his real memories?
It was so funny and bizarre and sometimes so gut-wrenching. I felt an incredible responsibility toward Augusten and even toward Deirdre to not overplay it or screw it up. You have to try and find the reality of the situation. You don’t play it dark or sad. It is dark or sad or funny, and you just focus on being the character in that situation. That’s the job. You just have to play the truth of it. I have done scenes that I thought would play one way but then when they reach the theater, the audience reacts completely differently than you assumed they would.
What was it like working with Ryan Murphy?
He was an ally; he trusted you. As an actor you are in a very vulnerable position, and you do need someone there who can guide you, because you are on unstable ground. You want to be off-balance and a little out of control so that you are acting and not just saying lines as yourself. It helps to have a great director who understands that, and he can be there at those moments when you could go one way or another and you want him to help you decide which route to take. It was very much a collaboration.
Plus, you’ve got some amazing costars.
We started with the scenes with Alec Baldwin [who plays Burroughs’ alcoholic father], and I was so knocked out by him. I really was. I know him personally but had never worked with him. When he walked on the set and was doing what he was doing, I was like, How does he do that? We didn’t rehearse or anything and he was so generous to me. I love watching other actors. I never tire of that. That is one of the only things that gets me out of the house and away from my family. Joe Cross [who plays Burroughs] also amazed me. He is just a kid, but I learned stuff from him. He was really prepared and professional and I think he is handling all of this early attention with grace. That’s not easy.
So what’s next for you?
I enjoyed working with Ryan so much that I would work with him again. Ryan announced that he wanted me to be in Dirty Tricks, his next film, about a woman involved intimately with the Watergate scandal. I would love to do it. When he’s ready, all he has to do is give me a call. But I have no idea what the next thing I do will actually be. I don’t plan too far ahead. I like being at home with the kids too much.