In the film, Bening plays Karen, a bitter nursing home worker who as a teenager gave her daughter up for adoption. Karen is a prickly and largely unappealing character, which both excited and challenged the actress. "I loved the fact that she was so wrong. I loved the fact she says the wrong things. She doesn't know how to handle herself," Bening says. "I relish that acting problem of not pushing people away."
Bening believes that creating a flawed character is an integral part of the storyteller's job -- no matter how unpleasant the task. "We're not just telling fairy tales," she notes. "I tried to bite the bullet and not ask for sympathy early on. If you met this woman you might not like her. There are people like that. And there are reasons people are like that."
While she first garnered attention on the stage, making a splash in the Broadway production of Coastal Disturbances, she's gained fame (and three Oscar nominations) for her work on the big screen. Ironically, however, the secret to Bening's successful Hollywood career can be found in the fact that she never wanted one. "I wanted to be a classical actress," she says." I went to a conservatory. I did repertory. I didn't picture myself as a movie actress. I didn't even do a movie until I was 30, and I am grateful for that because it gave me a chance to be an adult in the world and do work in the regional theater that very few people knew about, but which I loved."
Nonetheless, Bening can hardly be said to have abandoned the stage. In the past few years, she's headlined Los Angeles-based productions of The Female of the Species, Medea, The Cherry Orchard, and Hedda Gabler. And she admits she had some early trepidation about doing serious plays in Tinseltown. "I remember when I first did Ibsen here (at the Geffen Playhouse). I thought 'oh my god! All my movie friends are going to have to see this Ibsen play and they're going to want to kill themselves! Just like Hedda does!'" she says.
Bening is aware that her stage work may not garner the same attention as if she did it on Broadway, but she isn't letting that stop her. "Los Angeles is not a theater town," she notes. "But for those of us who are interested in pursuing it, it's incredibly important. It's not like doing a show in New York where there's that whole culture of it, but that doesn't mean it's any less fulfilling. I've had incredibly rich experiences here -- and challenging ones too."
Whether it's working on Broadway or in Hollywood, on stage or on screen, the result is what is ultimately important to Bening. "When I go to the movies or see a play or read a book, I want to be moved. I think that's what we're there for, to get that emotional spontaneous connection," she says. "And I want to get other people to have that moment where you're outside of yourself and wrapped up in something else. And maybe get entertained a little along the way."