JEFFREY BROWN: The story is an old one: in age, nearly 2,500 years; and in plot, a scorned wife who seeks revenge after her husband leaves her for another woman.
ANNETTE BENING, actress: He was everything to me, and now he’s the vilest man alive, my husband.
JEFFREY BROWN: But Euripides’ “Medea” takes revenge to a shocking extreme, killing her two children, and the role remains one of theater’s most challenging.
ANNETTE BENING: Forget you loved them. For one short day, forget, then weep.
JEFFREY BROWN: Appearing in a new production at UCLA Live in Los Angeles, Annette Bening says the key is connecting to shared human emotions.
ANNETTE BENING: I think most of us have felt a germ of what the great roles have. Most of us have. I think most of us have fallen in love. I think most of us have felt betrayed. Most of us have betrayed someone.
JEFFREY BROWN: The production came about when Bening met Croatian theater director Lenka Udovicki at a dinner party. The two women, both working moms, hit it off im
ANNETTE BENING: We started to talk, and then we just couldn’t stop talking, basically.
JEFFREY BROWN: But you weren’t talking about “Medea”? You were talking about doing something?
LENKA UDOVICKI, director: Well, we were talking about everything else, but…
ANNETTE BENING: But — our families, our children. I have four children; she has three children. I have one husband; she has one husband.
JEFFREY BROWN: That Annette Bening has a husband, Warren Beatty, is, of course, known to all. She’s a leading Hollywood celebrity and an acclaimed film actress…
ANNETTE BENING: You are seeing it.
JEFFREY BROWN: … first getting attention in early movies like “The Grifters,” later nominated for Academy Awards for performances in “American Beauty”…
ANNETTE BENING: Your father seems to think this kind of behavior is something to be proud of.
JEFFREY BROWN: … and “Being Julia.”
ANNETTE BENING: Perhaps we should punish you.
A beginning in theater
JEFFREY BROWN: But hard to believe now, she didn't act in a film until she was nearly 30. Her career and passion for acting began in the theater.
ANNETTE BENING: I saw a Shakespeare play when I was -- I guess I was in junior high. And I just fell in love with the theater, because for me it was a combination of big ideas and feeling.
JEFFREY BROWN: Big ideas and feeling?
ANNETTE BENING: And feelings. I mean, I love to read, and I love to read the classics, but that's different. That's a private experience. But when I went to the theater when I was a kid, I was just like, "Wow." I loved the voices of the actors, and I loved the sweat, and I loved the silliness, and I loved just that it was there right in the room.
JEFFREY BROWN: After college, Bening trained and then performed with the American Conservatory Theater in San Francisco, taking on classic roles, Shakespeare, Chekhov, Shaw, and much else.
ANNETTE BENING: That thing!
JEFFREY BROWN: When she appeared in her first film, "The Great Outdoors," in 1988, it took some adjusting to the big screen.
ANNETTE BENING: It's got ears!
I really felt like a stage actor pretending I was a movie actor for a long time.
JEFFREY BROWN: Really?
ANNETTE BENING: Yes, I did. I didn't understand it. I was afraid of seeing myself. I wasn't used to it. I was used to being where I never had to actually deal with looking at myself or what my face looked like when I felt a certain thing. You know how it is when you hear your voice on an answering machine and you think, "Oh, God"? Well, it's like that on camera. You look at yourself. "Oh, wow, that's" -- it's hard sometimes to...
JEFFREY BROWN: Still?
ANNETTE BENING: Oh, yeah.
I'll take none of your favors. They're tainted, foul. I spit on them.
JEFFREY BROWN: Of course, getting "Medea" right isn't easy, either. She's a woman of enormous, even magical, powers, suddenly feeling utterly powerless, in the same moment loving and hating her husband, Jason, played here by Scottish actor Angus Macfadyen.
ANGUS MACFADYEN: What but worse can come of this?
ANNETTE BENING: Go in your house. Get to your new bride. Don't waste your time out here.
JEFFREY BROWN: Udovicki's production uses 25 tons of sand and a high concrete wall to create a kind of timeless, placeless feel. Twelve women, UCLA students, serve as the Greek chorus, who try to convince Medea not to go through with her plan. (Editor's note: Please see end of transcript for a clarification.)
ANNETTE BENING: How else can Jason learn?
CHORUS: Such bitterness you'll taste.
JEFFREY BROWN: If you say "Medea" to most people, the one-liner would be, "The crazy woman who kills her kids," right?
ANNETTE BENING: Right, yes.
JEFFREY BROWN: So you have to find a way to make it more than that?
ANNETTE BENING: My hope, it's that there is a logic, it's a terrible logic, but there's a logic. And I think that, you know, I mean, those of us who stay within a boundary of what's "normal" don't really know what it's like for the people that cross over that boundary. But I think what Euripides understood, what I guess I feel, is that there is something that happens in those people that is emotionally true for them.
Returning to the stage
JEFFREY BROWN: You obviously don't have to do this anymore. I mean, you don't have to be on the stage.
ANNETTE BENING: No.
JEFFREY BROWN: So why are you doing it?
ANNETTE BENING: Well, part of it's just for me. Part of it, I want my children to see this, because it's how I started as an actor and it's very important to me that they see what I do.
I feel really lucky that I'm able to pursue the work that I love. I want my children to see that. I want them to have that for themselves, something that they love, that they do, that they pursue in their lives as a way of growing and learning.
And that's the thing about being an actor. You know, you're always learning. You always have something new to try to understand, to try to communicate that's larger than yourself.
Don't think ill of me.
JEFFREY BROWN: There's a line in the play -- I don't know if it stood out for you the way it stood out for me -- where you say...
ANNETTE BENING: In public, in private, it's hard to get it right.
JEFFREY BROWN: "In public, in private, it's hard to get it right."
ANNETTE BENING: Yes.
JEFFREY BROWN: It sounds like -- I mean, I thought, "Whoa, that's -- she must balance that. That's Euripides and that's Annette Bening."
ANNETTE BENING: That's all of us, isn't it? Those of us who are actors, of course, play that out more. So we're sort of the personification of that, which is why people project so many things onto actors.
But it's the same for everybody. Everybody has a public life, and they have their own private life. Everybody has their secrets. Everybody has their own private, you know, agonies as well as joys. And that's what great drama, whether it's the movies or the theater, that's what it shows. That's why we, you know, tried to bring a play like this to life.
JEFFREY BROWN: Annette Bening has two new films ready to come out. Her performance as "Medea" runs through October 18th.
Editor's note: Some of the12 women who serve as the Greek chorus are students at the California Institute of the Arts.