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August 17, 2023
Credits San Diego Mesa College for teaching her that theatre is a very close-knot experience
Annette Bening was photographed Aug. 4 at the Entertainment Community Fund’s Hollywood Arts Collective in L.A., which includes 151 affordable housing units for artists in the Cicely Tyson Residential Building. Bening wearing Lafayette blazer. Proenza Schouler blouse. Lafayette 148 deniM. Aquatalia shoes. Photographed By Austin Hargrave
Originally broadcast and published by The Hollywood Reporter on August 16, 2023
Los Angeles, CA - - It wasn’t the Oscars, but close. On Sept. 25, 2021, the Academy of Motion Pictures Arts and Sciences christened its $484 million Renzo Piano-designed movie museum with a starry gala. That night, Annette Bening, Tom Hanks and Bob Iger received Pillar Awards, recognizing their efforts leading the capital campaign to complete the long-gestating project. The scene represented a moment of true unity for Hollywood and the city of Los Angeles that, at long last, had a new landmark to brag about.
Less than two years later, that communal pride has given way to deep fractures across an industry at a standstill amid the SAG-AFTRA and WGA strikes. As the battle rages, Bening is back in the lights with a new mission.
In June, the actress, 65, assumed the post of chair of the board of the Entertainment Community Fund (ECF), formerly known as the Actors Fund, which she has supported since 2008. A month later, SAG-AFTRA went on strike, leading Bening to depart the Australia set of the limited series Apples Never Fall. She made the trek back to L.A., where she wasted no time hitting the picket lines and using her platform to illuminate the mission of ECF, which since May 2 has distributed more than $4 million to 2,000 film and TV workers film via its work stoppage fund. In the same time frame, the organization has rallied more than $7 million from 8,400 donors, among them Bening, Steven Spielberg and Kate Capshaw, Katie McGrath and J.J. Abrams Family Foundation, Stacey Abrams, Greg Berlanti, Vince Gilligan, Seth MacFarlane, Michelle Pfeiffer and David E. Kelley, Daniel Radcliffe and Shonda Rhimes, among others.
The group is now distributing $400,000 to $500,000 in financial aid a week, up from $75,000 a week at the start of 2023, in response to the urgent need for living expenses like rent, medical care and groceries. (ECF is not alone: IATSE and the Teamsters organized a July 28 food drive that saw 1,000 vehicles line up for food boxes, while the SAG-AFTRA Foundation recently raised $15 million from a slew of A-listers to support its union members.)
The Actors Fund was founded in 1882 as a safety net for performing arts professionals, and it long has adapted to the needs of the community, whether through the creation of Broadway Cares/Equity Fights AIDS in 1988 or a one-night benefit concert of Dreamgirls in the wake of 9/11. “What we do is so meaningful and special and done with such integrity and humility,” says the actress.
The same can be said of Bening, who took over from long-serving ECF chairman Brian Stokes Mitchell (“Stokes” to those who know him), a friend and onetime dance-class partner when they attended the same high school in San Diego. Beloved for her contributions to the craft — evidenced by four Academy Award nominations, two Tony nominations and two wins apiece at the SAG Awards and Golden Globes — she’s equally appreciated behind the scenes as a powerful motivator in driving eyeballs, funds and force to philanthropic causes. “She has gravitas,” offers Academy CEO Bill Kramer. “She does her research and studies the facts,” explains Stokes Mitchell. And ECF president and CEO Joseph Benincasa praises her as “always incredibly gracious.”
Bening displays all those qualities during an hourlong conversation on a Friday afternoon in August at ECF’s new Hollywood Arts Collective complex, which includes a community arts center and affordable housing. “Isn’t this wonderful?” she says, beaming as she explores an empty unit used for our interview. “This building is 80 percent occupied, and it will soon be filled with artists — that’s so cool.”
Because of the actors strike, Bening can’t talk about her next major role, playing swimmer Diana Nyad in the biopic Nyad. So the subject stays on service work, something that brings joy to Bening, who will be the first to say that celebrity is not her default setting. “I will always have a certain ambivalence about being a public person,” explains Bening, who has been married to Warren Beatty since 1992. “I think it’s healthy to have mixed feelings about it.”
Bening, also a longtime supporter of Planned Parenthood and breast cancer research, opens up about how being an empty nester influenced her decision to take over as chair, the urgency behind her decision in speaking out on trans rights since her son, 31-year-old Stephen Ira, came out as transgender in his teens, and what she wants her legacy to become.
Nothing like jumping into the fire at a time of crisis. What have these past few weeks been like since you took over as chair of ECF?
I’m trying to help as much as I can, mainly by making people aware of all that we do, first by letting them know about the work stoppage fund. The Actors Fund had been around for 140 years, and there was a fundraising base that came from that, but we were constantly having to explain that we weren’t just for actors — we’re for everyone in show business. Before the pandemic, we had already decided that we were going to change our name, then the pandemic hit, and we went from being sort of known to being very well known because we were able to act as a fundraising hub. A lot of places came to us — we got millions from the Academy, we got money from the Writers Guild, from showrunners and, of course, from individuals — because it was a [COVID-19 emergency relief] fund that was available to people who were out of work. The Entertainment Community Fund got very good at doing everything online [entertainmentcommunity.org], and they still have a streamlined process. We ended up giving out more than $30 million [from March 2020 to April of this year] to people all over the country, and because of that, our profile and mandate ended up changing. We got a lot bigger very quickly because there are so many needs. If you’re someone in the performing arts, you can go online and figure out pretty quickly if you qualify for emergency financial assistance.
What’s your focus at the moment?
Mostly just getting the word out. What I have experienced is that once people really hear about what’s going on or they take the time to come and see what we’re doing, which a number of people are now scheduled to do, they want to help. They really do, they’re just generous. Seth MacFarlane gave us $1 million for our work stoppage fund. That’s just incredible. With the strikes and all the reporting that is going on about our business, the Entertainment Community Fund is being cited more and more because we do have emergency financial assistance, but we also have a whole host of other things that we do, including mental health counseling, crisis counseling, rehabilitation, health care services — which is such a massive issue. Our insurance is tied to our work, so when you’re in a union, you have to make a certain amount of money to get the benefits, and if you don’t, you’re kicked off. That is happening to people as we speak. During the pandemic, we hired eight more people full-time to be available to help people get insurance and stay insured during times like this.
Are you getting deft at asking people for money?
I really haven’t gotten that good at it. No. No. I mean, not really. I don’t directly put anybody on the spot. I just help get the word out. I write letters and put my name on things, and I certainly invite people. For instance, if you’ve been interested in helping us, I might send a letter and say thank you and invite you to come over to the Hollywood Arts Collective for a tour. I’ll do that. But I try not to put people on the spot. (Laughs.) I know that I don’t like that, so I don’t think it’s fair. I shine a spotlight. That’s my deal.
What are some programs that ECF runs beyond raising funds in times of crisis?
We have a program for dancers that Bebe Neuwirth created that’s for people who transitioned out of being dancers into doing other things. How many people know that we have a career-transition program? What if you’re a struggling artist and you would like a steady paycheck, but you don’t know what to do? They help with that.
What did you learn by watching Brian Stokes Mitchell as chair? Why did you say yes to succeeding him?
When I watched Stokes, it was very natural for him. He would say, “I do this because it feels good.” In a funny way, it’s as simple as that. You want to help just the same as you want to help the people in your own family. It’s the feeling that we take care of our own. We want there to be a place for people in our business to go when they’re in trouble. [In terms of succeeding him,] I had to think about it because of concerns with my own family and responsibilities, travel and all of that. But it became a very natural transition after talking to [Joe Benincasa] and Stokes because we are a much more nationwide organization than we were for a long time — so having somebody who is also on the West Coast made a lot of sense.
When did you unlock your view of the entertainment business as a family?
I’ve always loved the theater, from the time I was in high school to community college. At San Diego Mesa College, which was literally $1 per [course] unit, there was a theater program run by these two guys [Milton “Woody” Woodruff and Arthur Noll]. I was lucky to just stumble in there. In the two-year program, you had to learn how to do everything from props and costumes to building sets. I got to run the lights for one show. Everyone did it together. It was a very close-knit experience. Eventually, many years later — I was almost 30 when I started doing movies — I learned it was the same thing everywhere. You were literally in close contact.
Let’s go back to the decision to say yes after weighing concerns about your family. Can you talk about how your family factored into the decision?
Every time I do anything, any major commitment, I’m thinking about that. My kids are grown, so that helped. My youngest left the house, well, I guess it’s been almost five years now.
She went to Juilliard?
She did. And I immediately went and did a show in New York the minute she was in school. (Laughs.)
Back to ECF. What are some ways that you get the word out about its work?
Every picket line I’ve been on, I try to make a speech and say, “Hey, guys, there’s something called ECF, and we are here for you.” Invariably, somebody comes up and says, “That was me.” They tell me how, at one point, they had to go to the Actors Fund or now the ECF and get help.
Was that ever you?
I came up in the regional theater.
You were rolling in the dough?
(Laughs.) No. [But] I was able to support myself, pay my rent, do my thing. I’m very grateful to nonprofit regional theater, which is a whole other story, oh my God. A number of those are now closing. The pandemic first decimated live theater, and many of them never recovered. We need to get public money in there to help, and a lot of work needs to be done.
I read that the fund is distributing $400,000-500,000 per week because of the dual strikes, up from $75,000 per week at the start of 2023. That’s a massive jump. How critical is the forecast in the next couple of months if the strike continues?
It’s dire. It’s dire for the whole business, not to mention the nuts and bolts, the spine of the business, who really hold it up and do all of the work. People are going to lose their houses.
How did you get involved with supporting the Academy Museum?
It was through the board of the Academy. When I got on the board, I just barely knew what a board was. (Laughs.) I mean, seriously, I got this letter asking me whether I wanted to come to a nominating meeting for the board of governors for the Academy. I felt kind of guilty because I didn’t know what it was. But I thought, well, OK, I guess I can go. I went, and there were maybe 10 people in the room who were there to nominate. It’s much more high-profile now, but this group of people from the actors branch, they started nominating people, and I was nominated.
Do you remember who nominated you?
I don’t remember. It might’ve been Tom Hanks. I remember that Tom was there, because he said, “No, it’s really great and you can serve this really cool thing.” This was in 2008, and I found myself attending these meetings. It came up that [the Academy] owned a piece of property in Hollywood, and there was a group saying that we really should have a museum, that it was obscene that Los Angeles did not have a movie museum.
You stayed on throughout the project as it encountered widely reported delays and budget issues. You could have bailed. Why was it important to you to see it through?
For all the reasons that everyone else was interested: How could we not have a world-class film museum in Los Angeles and a place for people to go where they can really understand and appreciate the beauty and history of this art form? That’s it. That’s the reason. Once the whole concept became closer to being realized, the more interested everyone else became and the more interested they were in wanting to help. We wanted it to be a warm place that people wanted to come to. It has such a presence; there’s a beautiful courtyard where people can hang out, and there’s a restaurant and coffee shop, and there are all the things you want when you go to a museum. The theater is stunning, and there’s a sense of history about our business.
The Academy Museum represented a moment of unity for the town as so many contributed to get it over the finish line. It’s hard to think about an event like the museum gala happening now with creative talent and actors sitting side by side with executives at studio tables. Could everyone be in a room today?
Oh, sure. Yeah. This will all eventually get solved, and we will move forward. The questions on the table are fundamental but not insurmountable. Part of it is the explosion of the tech world, and those folks who haven’t been in show business before are now in show business. But we’re not making a watch. We are human beings. It’s a seasonal business and it’s a tough business to make a living in. That’s why the Entertainment Community Fund was founded, because we don’t work consistently. We get work, and then we’re out of work. We get another gig until that gig is over. How do you manage that as a person in this kind of system? That’s why, from my point of view, health care is such a fundamental issue. The fact that we live in a for-profit health care system, to me, is just grotesque.
A number of A-list actors donated to the SAG-AFTRA Foundation. I hate to use the word “competition” when it comes to charity, but there is a lot of jockeying for resources. Do you see Meryl Streep’s name on that list of donors and call to say, “Meryl, you should come over to ECF”?
Yeah, “Can you come on over here, Meryl?” Well, the thing is, I don’t know a lot about their foundation in terms of how they figure out how to give people money, but the reason that ECF has become a hub was because of the online efficiency and the [swiftness] of applying to receive the money. That’s the crux of the matter: How quickly can you be assessed as being eligible and how quickly can we get the money to you? The Entertainment Community Fund got really good at that. Maybe they have an equally efficient mechanism, I don’t know. It’s all good. It’s all going to the same end.
Like everyone, I was home during the pandemic, and I shifted to covering many virtual events. I remember seeing you pop up on several, first for the Point Foundation and later the Human Rights Campaign’s Unite for Equality Live!, speaking out on LGBTQ rights. This seemed new for you and feels like it was a thoughtful decision. Can you share a bit about why you decided to do that?
For me, the real transition has happened as the right wing in the country has become more and more mobilized on misinforming people about the LGBTQ community. They have been vilifying our community and creating problems that do not exist and creating and sowing hate and fear as a way of rallying their base. That’s obviously not new, and it’s happened in the campaigns of the past, especially against gay people. But now it’s transphobia, and it’s just rampant. They’re doing it at a time when there are more and more trans people who are living openly and who are our teachers, our writers and our doctors. One of my most favorite doctors is a trans woman. What I would wish is for every person to have someone who is trans in their family because once somebody you love is trans, then you get it. I have a trans son, and he is such an inspiration to me. Certainly, what’s happening in the political world with trans people is so concerning and so dire. It’s only going to get worse as we go into the election cycle. I was just at a wonderful event that the ACLU sponsored about bodily autonomy. It was about issues around abortion rights and trans rights. We were all there to talk about both, and it was awesome. We all want to be able to make the decisions about our bodies without the government interfering. Isn’t that a basic human right?
Transphobia has made its way into government and led to an attack on rights and access to medical care. How do you process what is happening?
It is heartbreaking to me, the coldness and lack of compassion that so many people have, and they are trying to stir up all this fear in people about trans kids and parents, and they are trying to legislate that. This should not be scary to anybody else. This is a private, legitimate, complex, deep, spiritual, physical, psychological experience that has to be respected and honored.
Your son Stephen is a writer and expresses himself so eloquently. What have you learned from him? And what has the education been like for the family?
To love your child so much is the greatest way to learn about what trans people are all about. I get to say this because I’m the mother: My son is incredibly brilliant. I mean, I have four amazing children, and I love all my kids. Stephen has always been a highly literary person. I just read his latest poem that was just published; wow, it is so extraordinary. I’m so proud of him, and yes, he was in The Paris Review! (Laughs.) I am incredibly proud of him, and he has carved his own way. He’s someone I do admire, and I’ve learned a lot from when he first came out. I was very ignorant about what that meant to be a trans kid. I, like every other parent, want to protect my kids and make sure they’re OK, and I had a lot of learning to do. I didn’t always know what to do, and I didn’t always make the right choices because of my own ignorance, but we got through it.
Who did you turn to?
Professionals. The other thing that’s weird about our life is that we are public people. We wanted to protect our son, and at the same time, we wanted to get the best help that we could. And we did. We really figured it out.
Being public people, I can imagine that you received offers to share your story or do a People cover. But that’s not the path you took.
This is the most I’ve ever talked about it because I’m a private person and my son is private. He has a right to talk about his own life.
Annette Bening Photographed By Austin Hargrave
Will you continue to use your voice in the way that you have because of the threats that exist?
Yes, and we all have a responsibility to protect and defend the rights of trans folks in our world. They’re precious parts of our community. My parents are Republicans, and I was raised in a Republican household. My mother, who is now 94, was one of the first people to say, “I used to have a beautiful granddaughter. Now I have a handsome grandson.” It’s that simple.
Where did that desire to step up, be of service and give back come from?
I think most of us have it. I’m lucky that I have the opportunity to do it. Again, maybe it’s because of having grown up in the nonprofit regional theater system — there was always a donor base of people that we were trying to raise money from. But I think it’s quite natural for most people to want to be involved with causes and help out wherever you can. In our business, there’s so much that we can do by shining a light on something, by bringing attention to things like arts education. Music, dance, theater, opera, movies, TV, this is where we go for joy, and it’s where we go for truth, and it’s where we go to be told the darkest secrets, the secrets that we didn’t even know were there. It’s the part of life that makes it worth living.
When you were honored by the Museum of the Moving Image, Warren Beatty said he didn’t know a more honorable person. Who is that for you? Who is the guiding light in your life?
Stokes is one for sure. Ian McKellen jumps to mind. What Sir Ian McKellen has done, coming out and all the work he’s done for gay rights, has been phenomenal. There are more that I will think of later and wish that I had mentioned.
You can always email me. Last question: What do you want your legacy to be?
Oh my God. That’s the first time I’ve ever been asked that. (Laughs.) I don’t think I’m prepared to answer; it’s too important of a question. But I will say what certainly matters to me is that I did my craft and I tried to give back.
Interview edited for length and clarity.This story first appeared in the Aug. 16 issue of The Hollywood Reporter magazine.
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