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.