Annette Bening, Playing 'The Female Of The Species' In Joanna Murray-Smith's latest play, the actress stars as a feminist icon who has written such literary gems as Madame Ovary. "It's a grown-up play with lots of ideas and lots of debate," Bening tells NPR.
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Annette Bening, Playing 'The Female Of The Species'

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Annette Bening, Playing 'The Female Of The Species'

Annette Bening, Playing 'The Female Of The Species'

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SCOTT SIMON, host:

This is WEEKEND EDITION from NPR News. I'm Scott Simon.

Joanna Murray-Smith's new play, "The Female of the Species," has opened at the Geffen Playhouse in Los Angeles. It won the Olivier Award in London's West End and might be a new species of theater: feminist farce.

The main character, Margot Mason, is an icon who wrote big famous books, including, "The Cerebral Vagina" and "Madame Ovary."

Hey, okay, it's in the play. I get to say it.

But she finds herself flummoxed as a deadline for a new book approaches. One of Margo Mason's former students bursts into her home with a gun that's almost as intimidating as her old teacher's wit. Molly, her former student, blames Margo Mason and her books for ruining her mother's life and therefore hers. So over the next 90 minutes doors pop open and close while ideas and one-liners joust across the stage.

"The Female of the Species" stars Merritt Wever, David Arquette, Julian Sands and Josh Stamberg. Playing Margo Mason - with great panache, according to all the critics - is Annette Bening who joins us from the studios of NPR West.

Thanks so much for being with us.

Ms. ANNETTE BENING (Actress): It's a pleasure. Thank you.

SIMON: And was this, I gather, inspired by something that really did happen with Germaine Greer?

Ms. BENING: Joanna Murray-Smith, who is an Australian playwright, had read an article and in fact she says she didnt even read the entire article. But she had heard something about an incident where Germaine Greer was apparently taken hostage. But she did very much create her own feminist icon in Margo Mason but it wad triggered by that incident.

SIMON: There are people who say you can't make jokes about this kind of thing, much less have a farce.

Ms. BENING: Yes, there are, and I think that was Joanna's whole point. One of the things she says is she believes that, you know, feminism has grown up now, so it's okay to make jokes. It's okay to have fun with it and still make the arguments, which she does. I mean the play is full of arguments.

It's full of people taking strong positions from all different sides. And certainly Margo Mason as a feminist writer has her say. And as much as we do send it up some, we also make the arguments in support of feminists and feminist ideas. So everybody gets their say and everybody gets their laughs.

SIMON: Now, this can be tricky stuff. There was a famous Ms. magazine cover that someone reminded me about when I mentioned youre doing this play, which I believe we haven't been able to find the exact cover. But it had a cartoon character, a woman on the cover that said, Do you know that the feminist movement has no sense of humor? But I mean this is volatile stuff.

As I dont have to tell you. I mean some of the reviews have been kind to you as an actor but not kind to the play.

Ms. BENING: Right. Well, I dont read the reviews while I'm still doing a play. I learned that many years ago. But yes, this is a play that should spur debate and I'm sure that some people might have problems with it, but I think most people dont. I think most people enjoy it and they enjoy the fact that we can make jokes about everybody on all sides of the issue. Men gets to come in and have their say, and they get made fun of too. So it's a grownup play with lots of ideas and lots of debate.

Years and years ago - its been a while - but I've done a couple of George Bernard Shaw plays and this reminds me of that. The ideas are thick and smart, and people are arguing, and people are taking very, very strong positions. And that is where comedy can sometimes come from.

SIMON: You began in the theater as a opposed to films, didnt you?

Ms. BENING: Right. My dream was to be a classical actress, so that's what I started doing. And that's why I always come back, because for me it very much feels like home. And there's a certain kind of craft that one has to tap into in order to get back up on the stage and make it all happen eight times a week.

(Soundbite of laughter)

SIMON: And that craft is, for those who are listening? For those aspiring actors who might be listening?

Ms. BENING: A part of it is quite athletic. In fact, I've been, to the degree that I can, watching and studying the athletes at the Olympics. I always find the mentality of the great athletes fascinating. And there's a certain athleticism to being on the stage that one has to kind of embrace, and that's what felt very natural to me.

And in fact, when I first started doing movies I felt very funny in front of the camera. It felt foreign to me to be sitting talking quietly in a room. Whereas being on stage was what I was kind of trained to do, so there's a certain physical aspect to it. Just being - keeping yourself in shape.

SIMON: We are talking with Annette Bening, who's appearing in Joanne Murray-Smith's new play, "The Female of the Species," at the Geffen Playhouse in Los Angeles.

We put out the word that we were going to be interviewing you today, and invited people to suggest some questions. May we run a few by, if you dont mind?

Ms. BENING: Oh, of course.

SIMON: J. Crepta(ph), I hope Im pronouncing that correctly, asks: Any truth to the urban legend that the revamped Columbia Pictures logo was modeled after her?

Ms. BENING: You know, I was once told by a technician that worked on it that it was and then I once said that and then someone who had worked on it was very upset by that and said, no, that it was not me. So Im not quite sure. I was told it wasnt that Ive been told it wasnt. So Im not sure, to be honest.

SIMON: When we asked for questions for you, I must tell you even among our fans, 75 percent of them were about the new biography about Warren Beatty.

Ms. BENING: Mm-hmm.

SIMON: Do you have anything to say about that?

Ms. BENING: Oh, gosh. Well, its unauthorized. I suppose thats the most, one of the most important things to say about it. So thats unfortunate, you know, unfortunate that the journalist chose to do what he did. I dont respect him for that, but you know, thats not news. My husband has been famous for a long time and he is used to it. So...

SIMON: Do you like going back and forth between movies and theater, I mean, different muscles exercised?

Ms. BENING: Yeah, I do. Its a great pleasure. With a play youre telling the whole story every day and with a film its kind of like a mosaic. I once heard it described like a mosaic and each day you do a tiny little tile. That is what filmmaking is. Its also much more of a visual medium and its the directors medium. And I love that about doing films. I love being there to serve that story, to serve that director, and I love the camera.

I love how the camera comes to you. And that - it took me a while took me a while to get there. But the stage is a different beast. Its something that requires a kind of mental agility. And of course, if theres a problem, theres no saying cut, lets do it again; youre out there. And theres nothing that concentrates the mind than what we call going up, meaning not knowing what youre supposed to be saying next.

(Soundbite of laughter)

Ms. BENING: And theres a great thrill in that and theres a great demand in that that I guess for some actors is just necessary for us to hone that craft and to try to make it fresh and alive and clear to oneself as well as to whoever happened to be there in the audience that night.

SIMON: Annette Bening, she is appearing in Joanna Murray-Smiths new play, The Female of the Species, which has opened at the Geffen Playhouse in Los Angeles. Ms. Bening, a pleasure to talk to you, thanks so much.

Ms. BENING: Thank you for having me, I really appreciate it.

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