Dancing onscreen is tricky (just ask Armie Hammer), but in Annette Bening’s latest role, as movie star Gloria Grahame in Film Stars Don’t Die in Liverpool, Bening makes it look as natural and unself-conscious as breathing. In one of the film’s most memorable scenes, the unassuming Peter Turner (Jamie Bell) stumbles upon Gloria, his new neighbor, casually practicing her disco dancing with the door wide open. Within minutes, the strangers are shimmying up against one another, sweating to A Taste of Honey’s “Boogie Oogie Oogie,” exuding raw sexual chemistry. There was a choreographer on hand for the dancing scene just in case — “you tell me if I need her or not, I’ll just dance,” Film Stars’s director Paul McGuigan recalled Bening saying — but unsurprisingly, Bening, who also got down to Black Flag in last year’s 20th Century Women, was a natural.
Much like Bening, Grahame was a real-life film femme fatale, starring opposite the likes of Humphrey Bogart, and winning a supporting actress Oscar for The Bad and the Beautiful in the 1950s. At age 55, in the 1980s, she began a love affair with Turner, a younger boy-next-door from Liverpool. Years after their split, she returned to Europe with a fatal cancer diagnosis, wanting to spend her last days in Turner’s family home. Film Stars Don’t Die in Liverpool, adapted from Turner’s book of the same name, follows those final moments, telling a sweet, sad story of star-crossed lovers saying good-bye. Bening told Vulture about perfecting Grahame’s high-pitched voice, true love, why she finally feels comfortable as a film actress, and ordering California Pizza Kitchen with Warren Beatty.
You’ve been attached to an adaptation of Peter’s book for a long time. Why was this story important to you?
I just loved the book. Peter had this relationship with Gloria Grahame. He was this actor from Liverpool. He meets this woman who had been a movie star. They have this very intense relationship. They break up, and then suddenly she comes back into his life, which is really what this story is about, and then suddenly she’s gone. He told me that it took him a couple of years after she was gone, he said he couldn’t sleep, he was just preoccupied, and one night he just said, “Okay, I’m getting up and I’m gonna start writing.” And I think, for me, don’t we all have one relationship — at least one that ended — that we never quite resolved inside of us? And I think that’s what this is. The book is beautiful, it’s tasteful, it’s a discrete slender volume. We had the book as our source material, and Peter there too.
What was it important for you to get right about Gloria?
She has such contradictions and complexity. I mean, there’s the illness — I felt really responsible to try to get that right. There’s the progression of [her cancer], and of course we can’t ever shoot in order, we have to jump around quite a bit. But also the fact that in one moment I think she would feel quite confident, quite sexy, quite like, “Okay, I’ve got this young guy and I’m gonna have this thing.” And then the next minute she would feel, “Wait a minute, wait. Am I okay? How do I look? Am I too old? How do I live my life?” So she had both, you know, and I think that’s true of a lot of us. Great characters and great human beings have frailties and then they have heroic parts too, and I knew the writing had everything, so I felt such a responsibility to try to find as much as I could, to be as open as I could. That’s the thing, to be open.
Thinking about Gloria, I think of that line from Slaughterhouse-Five about coming unstuck in time [“Billy Pilgrim has come unstuck in time”]. She’s aged out of her status as a femme-fatale starlet, but she’s dating this younger man.
Oh, I love that. I love that.
In the movie, you speak in this very girlish high-pitched voice. Was that hard to master?
I just thought about that and I just kind of decided that was what I was gonna do. She would change her voice in movies as well. I watched her movies like crazy, you know, and I still watch them. Her voice would vary, but I just chose to keep it high.
How did you approach her aging? She’s kind of comfortable with it but not comfortable with it at the same time.
Without knowing a lot about her, I didn’t want to invade the privacy of her family. She has kids that are still around. We don’t even really know where some of them are, but her oldest son Tim, who’s in the movie for a second, I got to meet him. He came to our screening in London, he really liked it. That was an incredible blessing, and of course I just wanted to corral him into a corner and ask him a million questions about his mom and his life and with her, but we couldn’t. But I felt a huge relief when I met Tim, and he told me a few things, and his dad was Nick Ray, and he was the oldest of her children — she had four — so he had a complicated life, and I always thought about him.
I know Gloria married one of her stepsons — so would that have been Tim’s brother?
That’s right. His half-brother, exactly, because his dad had been married before. Gosh, what a complicated situation he was born into, but he loved her. He said she was tough but that she was fun, that she was a great mom. He really adored her.
What do you think of Peter and Gloria’s relationship? Do you think of them as being sort of star-crossed?
That’s an interesting way of putting it. I guess you could say that. I was with Peter recently and somebody asked him kind of this question and he said, “There was a connection.” You know, and isn’t that it, right? If you’re lucky enough to have that experience when you fall in love with somebody, there’s this connection, and you can’t make that happen even when you have met someone you would like to be in love with. I don’t know if you’ve ever experienced that.
A little bit, yeah. You can’t talk yourself into it or out of it, it just kind of is.
You can’t make it happen, nor can you unmake it happen if you have that thing for somebody. I get the feeling that what started as crush — something that could have been just an affair, I think, for both of them — deepened into something much deeper than that. And then they broke up. And I think the fact that they were not together at the time, when she calls him saying, “Hey, I’m sick. Can I come and stay?” [is important]. He happened to be back in Liverpool because he happened to be doing a play. So she ends up in his house in Liverpool, living with his family, seriously ill, and he’s going off every night and doing a show with the Liverpool Playhouse. I mean, you can’t make this stuff up.
What was the hardest scene for you to shoot?
Definitely the Shakespeare scene in the theater. We’re doing a scene from Romeo and Juliet. I adore Jamie, I really got on with him. So much, for me, was being able to depend on Jamie, because we had to shoot that on day four or five. I was very concerned. I wanted to get that right. I didn’t want it to be sentimental, and I knew how sick she was in that scene, and I knew I had to find this kind of balance and be strong enough to do it. She had to be strong enough to do it even though she was very sick. The funnest scene was definitely the dancing.
You’re a great dancer. Do you like it? What kind of music do you like to dance to?
Thank you! I love to dance. I listen to some disco, but also the Pointer Sisters and the Supremes, I love the Supremes. I had that double-sided Best of the Supremes album playing on my record player in my room as a teenager endlessly. I’m the first person at a wedding to get up and dance. My husband isn’t, so I always have to dance with different people.
Ugh, oh no!
You know how some people — men — won’t dance. It’s so annoying.
Gloria is a very curious creature for Peter, a little unknowable. Do you think of yourself as being mysterious?
No, although once somebody said that about me in a magazine article, and I thought, “Oh, that sounds so cool.” No, because I don’t feel that way at all. I have a certain amount of privacy that I like to keep, but I don’t feel like that’s a huge struggle for me. In my work I try to hold nothing back. I want to be as absolutely open as I can, because that’s my job. My privacy personally is just because I love my family, I love my kids, and I’ve always wanted to allow them to have as much privacy as they can have.
Do you think now you’re more confident as an actor than you were in the past?
That’s so sweet. I love that question. I don’t know if it’s like this in your business, but with different projects you learn something new. In my business it’s absolutely the case. It’s like you go into another little universe each time, because it’s a different group of people, the subject matter is different, the time you’re working in, the themes you’re working on. It’s always a little microcosm of a world that you’re entering into.
When I started films, I had already worked in the theater a lot. I was almost 30. It took me a long time to feel comfortable working in movies. I felt kind of like I was a stage actress pretending I was a movie actress. Now I don’t feel that way. I really relish it. I went to acting school — like community college, state college, conservatory — and I needed to do all of that. But it takes a long time to forget everything that you’ve learned. I think it’s a kind of creative-process principle, whatever creative process it is: You have to learn to draw before you can become an abstract painter, so in my work, it takes a long time to be able to feel free, you know? Because you are constrained. You’re not actually free. The camera’s in a certain place, there are hundreds of people around you waiting for you to do your take. There’s all kinds of things that conspire to make it not spontaneous in the moment, so to find a way to surprise your scene partner, for them to surprise you, for something to just happen and to not worry about that — because that takes freedom — because there’s something in the psyche that says, “If you don’t know what you’re gonna do you could be embarrassed, you could do something really phony, you could do something …” But to just say, “I don’t care. I’m just gonna see what happens in this scene.”
I love that.
Not only in terms of joyousness and extraversion, but the opposite as well, if you’re trying to do something that’s very quiet and very internal, and perhaps on the darker side or the sadder side, same thing — can you find a freedom in that, where you don’t even know quite what you might do? That is what learning is for me.
One last question: A while ago Warren Beatty told Vanity Fair that he loves California Pizza Kitchen. Tell me everything about that. Do you go together?
[Laughs.] Sure, we have. And we order in from California Pizza Kitchen, for sure, but we also go there with our kids. We used to go more than we have of late. We have one in our neighborhood. Yeah, we love California Pizza Kitchen.
This interview has been edited and condensed.