Annette Bening on What Her Transgender Son Taught Her and the ‘Ghastly’ GOP
The national treasure talks to Marlow Stern about helping the less fortunate during COVID, Kirk Cameron’s anti-mask protests, and that amazing “Sopranos” cameo.
Annette Bening has found ways to pass the time during the ongoing pandemic.
The four-time Oscar nominee (who should be a two-time winner) has been binging on books, documentaries, and The Queen’s Gambit. But she’s also dedicated much of her energy to a number of causes, from speaking up for transgender rights at a recent Human Rights Campaign gala (Bening and her husband, Warren Beatty, have a trans son); bringing down the house during Stars in the House’s 10-hour Election Day Vote-a-Thon; and raising money for The Actors Fund, an organization that’s distributed more than $18 million to nearly 15,000 people in the entertainment industry who’ve fallen on hard times during the COVID crisis.
“The idea that there are so many people out there economically struggling, as well as going hungry, is so heartbreaking,” she says. “Every community sees it, and I certainly see it in Los Angeles, this extreme amount of suffering.”
On Christmas Eve (Dec. 24), Bening will star in “The Christmas Letter,” a short comedy written by Eugene Pack about a family thrown into chaos over an annual Christmas letter. Matthew Broderick and Eva Marie Saint will co-star in the sketch, which is part of a series of performances dropping on The Pack Podcast to benefit The Actors Fund and Feeding America.
Bening spoke with The Daily Beast about the pandemic, the corrosive effects of Trumpism, and Christmas in the Bening-Beatty household.
I’m curious how you’ve been doing during this strange period of lockdown? It’s quite surreal, like we’re all starring in a dystopian movie.
Yeah, it is. And I think like most people, as long as we’re safe and healthy everything else is OK with us. The reality is that it’s devastating right now in Los Angeles. It’s very bad, as you know. The pandemic has really hit hard here. I was just reading a very sobering story about someone who’s very ill in the hospital, and the choices that the family has to make, and what the health-care professionals are going through trying to care for these people. So, it’s a pretty sobering time. But certainly The Actors Fund—what they’ve done, and what they’ve been doing during the pandemic—is truly remarkable. They’ve become this wonderful place to donate to if you want to help people in the entertainment community.
Because there’s this warped idea that Hollywood and the entertainment business is solely comprised of rich celebrities, which certainly isn’t the case. Most actors struggle from paycheck to paycheck, and there are tons of crew members and others that would be considered “working class.”
The most important thing to emphasize is that The Actors Fund is for everyone in the entertainment community—not just the actors. It really should be called The Entertainment Community Fund, because it’s for everyone in front of the camera and behind the camera, and in front of the curtain and behind the curtain. It’s servicing people all over the country. During COVID, The Actors Fund has distributed about $18 million to 15,000 people. And they do many other things, from providing housing and health care to helping people get insurance.
And “A Christmas Letter” is quite a fun way to raise money for The Actors Fund and Feeding America.
I’m vice chair of the board of The Actors Fund, and many of us that have been involved with the Fund have been trying to find different ways of raising money and raising awareness during COVID. And Eva Marie Saint, who is a treasure and an incredible woman—I’ve crossed paths with her over the years, and admire her enormously—they snagged me by just saying, “Hey, do you want to do this reading? It’s for The Actors Fund and Feeding America, and Eva Marie Saint is doing it.” I said, “Sign me up.” The idea that there are so many people out there economically struggling, as well as going hungry, is so heartbreaking. Every community sees it, and I certainly see it in Los Angeles, this extreme amount of suffering.
I know they recently passed a COVID relief bill that essentially gives out $600 checks to most people, but that seems woefully insufficient. And in general, the federal government’s inaction in helping people and small businesses during the pandemic has been sickening.
Yes, I agree with you. I think “sickening” is a good word. The good part of the package, and the part that people aren’t paying as much attention to, is the unemployment relief.
Right. They’re providing $300 a week in unemployment benefits—but only in some states.
So yes, the one-time payment of $600 seems grossly unfair and not enough, and if you look at the numbers and the way that we’re helping people in our country compared to the leading democracies in the world, we’re way behind. It’s really appalling. Our small businesses need help so badly, and I’m with many, many other people in sharing in their frustration that the bill has taken so long, and is now getting held up again. It’s absolutely essential that those of us who can do everything in our power to help.
It does seem like we’re hopefully turning a page as far as support for the arts goes with the incoming Biden/Harris administration, because the Trump administration repeatedly tried to eliminate the National Endowment for the Arts and was frankly run by a philistine.
A Democratic administration definitely bodes well for the arts, and Mary Ann Carter, the head of the National Endowment for the Arts under Trump, she’s very eloquent when it comes to talking about the economic role that the arts plays in the country, and the billions of dollars they contribute to our economy—and also, the troubling economic hits that the non-profit and for-profit cultural institutions across the country have taken under COVID. I think we do have reason to be optimistic as we head into the new administration, and I’m certainly going to do everything I can to support the arts, and talk about the importance of the arts in our culture and our education.
I’ve really admired your advocacy—particularly during the lockdown period. I’ve seen you participate in lots of Zoom events raising money for various causes, including the recent Stars in the House Vote-a-Thon on Election Day. Maybe this is just me as an outside observer, but it seems like you’ve been more vocal on politics during the Trump years. Did it awaken something in you, seeing this unconscionable amount of corruption and lack of empathy for others?
Yes, I suppose that’s true. I have always been I would say judicious about where to take the spotlight that being an actress has given me, and when I chose to use it, and step up, and shine a light on something that I felt was important. I have done that over the years. But definitely under Trump, I think many, many public figures—whether you’re a journalist, or an athlete, or a chef—there’s all kinds of different people who have chosen, given what’s going on under Trump, to step up. It’s a turning point in our country, and many of us feel that in whatever way we can, using our voices to repudiate Trump and Trumpism—which is going to be very much with us as we move into the future—I think it’s important. The bend toward fascism around the country and around the world is obvious, and that’s what everyone who sees the bigger picture is talking about. This country is not unusual in that way, but what’s unusual is what’s been tolerated and bolstered at this time among the people who support Trump, and the Republican Party—and what’s happened to the Republican Party—is ghastly, and it’s very bad for our country. The fact that our Republican Party has become so corrupt, and corrupted by him, is really disheartening.
It really is.
I’m still optimistic that the new administration will be able to right a lot of the wrongs, but you know, I was just looking at another rally that was going on in Los Angeles today with people singing Christmas carols and celebrating people not wearing masks. How can they do that at the same time that health care workers are exhausted, and they’re keeping people in hospital hallways because people are so ill.
And that rally was organized by the actor Kirk Cameron.
Yeah, I read that.
And it was under the guise of Christianity, and I can’t think of anything less Christian than going out there in the middle of a pandemic and not really caring for your fellow people—and in fact endangering your fellow people by promoting unsafe health practices. This virus is so much about respecting and caring for your community, and taking the necessary measures to keep them safe, and events like these really seem to fly in the face of that.
Yeah. The anti-science, anti-mask theme was of course trumpeted by Trump himself, and it’s cost a lot of lives. There’s a great documentary that Alex Gibney did [Totally Under Control]. It’s very sobering and depressing, but it has the order of facts as far as what happened early on in the pandemic.
OK, so on a much lighter note, I’m curious if there have been any shows that you and Warren have been binging during the pandemic? I’ve been watching a lot of Great British Baking Show myself and going for some lighter, spirit-raising fare.
That’s a great question. Well, we jumped on The Queen’s Gambit bandwagon for sure. I thought it was genius. I just loved it. And we’ve been going way into the documentary world. There’s so many great documentaries right now—it really is a worldwide renaissance in documentary.
Did you see Dick Johnson Is Dead? I loved that one.
No… tell me about that.
It’s by the filmmaker Kristen Johnson, who was a documentary DP who shot things like Citizenfour and directed another excellent doc called Cameraperson.
Oh! You know what? I have not seen that one but it’s on my list. I’m going to write that down. I will check that one out. But yeah, we’ve been doing a deep-dive into documentary. I’ve also just been reading so much, and that has been a great soother for me during this time. So many people are having such a hard time, and I just feel so lucky to be able to help out where I can.
What have you been reading?
Well, let’s see… what is at the top of my list? I just read Middlemarch, which I think is the best novel I’ve ever read. Truly genius. I read a book that I’d formerly dipped into but hadn’t read all the way through, The Varieties of Religious Experience by William James, which really lifted me up. What else? Elena Ferrante’s new book [The Lying Life of Adults]. James Baldwin—I got way into him. I think about the reading journey I’ve had during this time! [Laughs] E.M. Forster, who’s one of my favorite writers ever. Virginia Woolf…
It’s strange, because I’ve had a hard time remembering things I’ve done, or watched, or read during the pandemic even though it’s technically been a less physically active time.
There’s a timeless quality about this period. It’s like, you don’t know what day it is and the chronology of how things have happened and unfolded is sometimes elusive. I think for a lot of us, the early COVID period is so different than this part.
One thing I really loved that you did during this time was your Human Rights Campaign gala speech about trans rights. I think it’s very important. I’m curious what it’s been like for you to raise a trans son and how that’s opened your eyes to everything?
My son is now almost 29, and I have four amazing children. I adore them and they’re all adults now, so we’re way past the point of me being the teacher. They’re the teachers now. They teach us, and they teach me. My son has taught me a lot about what it means to be a human being, and be responsive to your own development, and your own notions of self. These are evolving issues for a lot of people, and that’s why some people don’t come out until they’re older—or they come out and as they come out, they might shift and change the way they express their sexuality or their gender. I think seeing this close-up as well as having friends who are trans—this is a great boon, because it emphasizes how important it is that we tolerate, and love, and understand other people in the way they choose to represent themselves. It’s not a threat to anyone else if someone has a different gender or identity. That is important to me, and being part of that message is important to me. I think what Eddie Izzard did recently has been really important—the fact that she has claimed her pronouns and the way that she is.
And Elliot Page as well.
Yes! These are evolving matters, and it’s like how some people come out as gay, bi or non-binary—this can happen at any point in life, and we all have that right and that freedom to express ourselves and to continue to explore the way we express ourselves our entire lives. It’s a beautiful thing and it’s always happened, it’s just never been understood, recognized, and validated. A piece of it that’s so essential is how that’s expressed in our legislation, and how discrimination hurts people. It certainly hurts trans people. That was a wonderful thing to be a part of.
When you talk about the rhetoric concerning trans people, someone who continues to promote dangerous and false theories about trans people is J.K. Rowling. I’m not sure why she is so obsessed with trans people. The things she’s promoting are so ugly and hateful toward the trans community, and these people are arguably the most marginalized among us—the community that experiences the most violence of any. I can’t really fathom why a billionaire would want to target a vulnerable community in such way.
Yeah, I don’t understand it either. I certainly can’t explain it to you. I don’t understand it at all.
OK, so I feel I’d be remiss if I didn’t ask, but as a huge Sopranos fan I absolutely loved your cameo on the show. That dream sequence where Tony keeps trying to get your attention, and your delivery of that Godfather line, “I don’t want my husband coming out of there with just his cock in his hand,” was so perfect.
[Laughs] I forgot that one! Oh, I was really flattered. I received the episode out of nowhere, and read it, and thought, “Wow—this is fantastic, and bizarre, and surreal.” I spoke to David Chase briefly, and went and shot it in a day in New York. And John Heard, he was there and at one point breaks into that Lionel Richie song! [Laughs] It was really a treat, and when one is shooting something like that, it’s just work like every other day when you shoot. You’re just in the midst of trying to find these moments and figure them out, so it was really fun. I could see, even as we did it, that this was a world in which all of the actors who were there every day working on the series, it was very familiar to them. They had been working long days for years and years, so it’s a lot of hard work for them. But it was a lot of fun, and really a lark!
You will always be the movie actress that Tony Soprano dreams about.
[Laughs] I feel very flattered!
What is Christmas usually like in the Bening-Beatty household? I’m picturing a huge holiday bash with Shirley MacLaine bringing a bottle of whiskey.
Well this year, it’s going to be very quiet. We usually have our family around. We have a big family and are very close, but we won’t be doing that this year because of COVID. So we’re just going to stay safe—I hope like most people.
I hope so too. Do you all watch The Apartment around Christmastime? It’s fun to have a relative star in one of the greatest Christmas films ever.
[Laughs] You know, we haven’t done that. But it’s not a bad idea.