Nyad c Liz Parkinson Netflix

Source: Liz Parkinson / Netflix


Annette Bening can still hardly believe she has been on the heightened emotional and physical journey playing the long-distance swimmer Diana Nyad. “I never in my wildest imagination ever imagined doing something like this. Especially in my 60s!” she says with a hearty laugh. “So that’s what was also very enticing about it.”

Bening, now 65, knew of Nyad as a sports broadcaster in the US but did not know the full story of her athletic achievements — the long-­distance swimmer stunned the world with her record-setting 53-hour, 110‑mile open-water swim from Havana, Cuba to Key West, Florida at age 64.

Producers Andrew Lazar at Mad Chance and Teddy Schwarzman at Black Bear had hired Jimmy Chin and Elizabeth Chai Vasarhelyi to direct the remarkable true-life story about Nyad, and the team immediately thought of Bening to bring the character to life. Now she has earned her fifth Academy Award nomination for the role, and her fourth so far for leading actress.

When Bening first read the script, written by Julia Cox (TV’s The Last Tycoon) adapted from Nyad’s memoir Find A Way, she remembers, “I was moved and I laughed, I was furious at her, but I loved her. I found her funny. I found her exasperating. I found the story just ultimately so inspiring because it’s so surprising. As a character she was outrageous and I knew I wanted to play her.

“The lengths she went to achieve what she did are phenomenal,” Bening continues. “This idea she had is completely out of the bounds of rationality, and that interested me — this question of how far are we willing to go to test ourselves or to know ourselves. At what point is that just too much? Diana challenges all those questions.”

Bening certainly questioned herself as she trained for a year in the pool, not just to get into the right shape to walk around in a swimsuit for most of the film but also to make sure she had the precise strokes and breathing patterns of a seasoned swimmer — even the same breathing to the left that Nyad had to do to see her coach Bonnie Stoll (played by Jodie Foster) on the boat.

Bening grew up in San Diego, Cali­fornia and had always been comfortable in the water — scuba diving and even working on a boat for a year — but wanted to show next-level swimming skills on screen. She trained with former Olympian Rada Owen so that by the time of the shoot, Bening could handle swimming up to six hours a day with a stroke that resembled Nyad’s.

“I was inspired by a certain amount of fear. I thought, ‘Well, I have to work on this stroke enough to look right,’” Bening recalls. “I was living on that knife edge of not knowing if I would get there. Would it work in the end or would we need to use stunt people? You just have to go on faith.”

In her 35-year big-screen career — which spans roles in films as wide-ranging as The Grifters, Bugsy, The American President, American Beauty, The Kids Are All Right and 20th Century Women — this was Bening’s first time playing a real-life person who was still alive.

Her meetings with Nyad before making the film were illuminating, the actress says. “I felt an enormous responsibility towards her because the more I got to know her, I just liked her. Quite frankly, I love her. Diana is one of the most complex, interesting people I’ve ever known. She’s got a lot of charisma and a lot of intelligence. When I got to know her, she really began to trust me, and I saw that softness underneath. I wanted to find the nuance, the softness as well as her bombastic side.”

Audiences have connected with the performance since the film premiered at Telluride — and it went on to play film festivals in Toronto, the Hamptons, Savannah and BFI London, plus at select cinemas before streaming on Netflix.

Key partners

The 'Nyad' team of director Elizabeth Chai Vasarhelyi, Annette Bening, Jodie Foster, Diana Nyad, coach Bonnie Stoll, actor Rhys Ifans and director Jimmy Chin

Source: Kimberley French / Netflix

The ‘Nyad’ team of director Elizabeth Chai Vasarhelyi, Annette Bening, Jodie Foster, Diana Nyad, coach Bonnie Stoll, actor Rhys Ifans and director Jimmy Chin

Chin and Vasarhelyi — the husband-and-wife directing duo best known for high-stakes documentaries Free Solo and The Rescue — make their fiction feature debut with Nyad. “Working with first-time [feature] directors is a pleasure,” says Bening. She calls the pair “enormously hardworking people”. The film shot mostly in the Dominican Republic, including at the Pinewood Studios water tank where Bening spent many hours.

Working with a duo, she says, “I certainly encouraged them to disagree with each other. I think sometimes they felt that they had to only be united — but of course in a creative situation, you want to allow a certain amount of chaos, just the right amount of chaos where you can try something different or have an idea that can only be accessed in that moment. It’s important to allow those creative conversations where people can have disagreements — it’s not arguments or malice, just working towards different solutions.

“There’s a certain amount of learning as you go,” she continues. “It’s not such a bad thing. I knew that Jodie and I could help, and I knew Jimmy and Chai were open to that. They were very open to our suggestions.”

The film is about more than just the open water, of course — it also explores the remarkable bond between Nyad and Stoll, Nyad’s longtime friend who became her coach for the Cuba-to-Florida swim. Bening was excited about her first job alongside Foster. “Jodie was a wonderful partner,” she says. “Not just wonderful playing Bonnie and her amazing acting but just as a human being as a friend… We did spend a lot of time together before we shot the movie. That was time alone, and also time we spent with Diana and Bonnie.”

The two actresses had taken different paths to where they are now — Foster was modelling and acting from the age of three and was Oscar-­nominated at the age of 14 for Martin Scorsese’s Taxi Driver. Bening started her career in theatre — in Colorado and California before making her Broadway debut in 1987. Her film debut came in 1988 with The Great Outdoors — and her breakthrough came in 1991, when she was Oscar-nominated as best supporting actress for The Grifters.

“It goes without saying but Jodie is so experienced in this world of movies, she grew up in it, so for her, day-to-day life is being in a movie,” says Bening. “I didn’t start in movies until I was almost 30. But Jodie has managed it all.”

The pair share a mindset now. “We’re both in a place in our lives when we have a certain perspective on the business, we have a certain perspective on the value of it. When it’s important and when it isn’t important. I feel like I’ve been so lucky. I’ve gotten to do so many interesting things and everything from here on, it’s icing on the cake. We both know life’s too short for certain anxieties and worries.”

Changing times

Bening is glad she is not a young actress trying to break into the business now, in the digital age of obsessive internet updates. “I feel for people just starting out, because of social media,” she says. “Everybody has a camera and there is just the pressure on people to look a certain way. I think it’s harder for women now.”

The film awards season is also different now. “When I was first nominated, there was no such thing as campaigning,” Bening says. “You just had the nominees’ luncheon. The first time I went to the Academy Awards, there were no cameras until the show started. When I was nominated for best supporting actress, all of us in that category got together in a little huddle and said, ‘Okay, let’s get together next week for lunch and whoever wins pays.’ And we did it!

“Whoopi Goldberg won [for Ghost] and she sent us all flowers and an invitation to dinner and she gave us each a chocolate Oscar. We had this wonderful dinner together and nobody ever heard about it. Today, that would be all over the internet! It’s normal and healthy to fight for a little bit more of our own privacy.”

Bening has already shot a new limited drama series for Peacock opposite Sam Neill and Alison Brie called Apples Never Fall, adapted from a book by Liane Moriarty (who also wrote Big Little Lies and Nine Perfect Strangers). Her next film role will be in Maggie Gyllenhaal’s Frankenstein-themed feature for Warner Bros.

Increasingly Bening wants to balance work with other things that are important to her — family (she has four adult children with her husband Warren Beatty), friends, walking her 12-year-old Newfoundland, swimming daily, and devoting time to causes such as the Entertainment Community Fund.

“I want to keep finding interesting roles that are challenging, and also valuing time off too,” she explains. “It’s important to recharge. But I love to keep working and doing work among fascinating people. Who can I learn from? Who do I get a kick out of doing a read-through with the first time? That feeling never gets old.”