Actress Annette Bening revisits alma mater and treats theatre and cinema students to inspiring talk


Annette Bening sits in a dressing room in the Creative Arts Building Friday, Oct. 10, 2014.

While a crowd of eager students stood in the halls awaiting her presence, actress Annette Bening slowly toured the rooms of her alma mater’s theatre department, reminiscing about directors she worked with, the old lights in a dressing room and the very stage on which she last performed 34 years ago.

Bening’s impromptu visit to SF State Friday did not garner publicity and was only intended as a special event for theatre and cinema students to attend. Bening, who happened to be in the area, offered to speak to students at her former university, according to Todd Roehrman, associate dean of research and performances for the college of liberal and creative arts.

In a private interview given before her talk in Little Theatre, Bening expressed how emotional the visit was when she walked the hallways and noticed how certain rooms and items stayed the same.

Actress Annette Benning laughs during an interview in the Little Theater in the Creative Arts Building Friday, Oct. 10, 2014. Frank Ladra / Xpress
Actress Annette Bening laughs during her talk to the students in Little Theatre in the Creative Arts Building Friday, Oct. 10, 2014. Frank Ladra / Xpress

“I remember eating, living, breathing this building,” Bening said.

The Academy Award-nominated actress, known for her roles in “The American President,” “Bugsy” and “The Kids Are All Right,” remembers her time at SF State, from which she graduated in 1980, as being a stressful balance of attending classes, working and acting in plays. She is grateful, however, for making it through and said she knows students are still doing the same and encourages them to keep with their passion.

Bening continues to be a strong advocate for the arts and public education, and doesn’t want anyone to feel discouraged from pursuing what they love. In her interview, Bening explained her journey from the University to the acclaim she’s achieved from acting. Following graduation, Bening took a small role in a t.v. movie and later became an equity actress at San Francisco’s American Conservatory Theatre, where she met her mentor, Bill Ball, a director and the founder of ACT.

Bening said she was still new to acting on screen since she had performed on stage most of her life and had to adjust when she began taking more film roles.

“I was a stage actor pretending to be a film actor,” Bening said, later adding that though her heart remains with theatre, she’s enjoyed acting on screen as well. “The stage is my home, but I love them both now.”

Bening expressed this sentiment to students and others during her talk in the theatre where she was met with roars of applause that filled the room when she first walked onto the stage and greeted the crowd. One of the excited fans, Wendy Amorose, who works in the theatre’s costume shop, was just as thrilled for this day and, before the talk, asked for Bening to autograph a poster she brought.

During her talk to students, Bening answered questions provided by Laura Wyath, an acting professor in the theatre arts department, and spoke about topics ranging from the creative process and past acting roles to her biggest mentors and family life.

Bening discussed how she handles doubt in her acting, prompted by a student’s question, and said that being unsure of one’s abilities is inevitable.

“Doubt is something you can’t get rid of and don’t ever try,” she said, adding, “I’m trying to encourage you, not discourage you.”

Bening also talked about her process when she first receives a script, saying that actors only get one innocent read to interpret and convey that role to themselves and viewers. She later spoke about the “secret” to auditions, which is simply to take a big breath and keep movement flowing through the body by practicing stretches or yoga.

Annette Bening sits in a dressing room in the Creative Arts Building Friday, Oct. 10, 2014. Frank Ladra / Xpress.
Annette Bening sits in a dressing room during an interview in the Creative Arts Building Friday, Oct. 10, 2014. Frank Ladra / Xpress.

The most recurring topic, however, was Bening’s greatest mentors in the business and their somewhat wacky methods of teaching. She discussed her admiration for directors she worked with while at SF State, as well as ones, such as Ball, who she encountered at ACT, and chuckled when she noticed that the descriptions of her mentors shared a similarity.

“Most of the teachers, I’m realizing, are all a little crazy,” Bening joked, however saying that they were her biggest sources of guidance in theatre work.

Bening, who has four children in their teens and above, also touched on the topic of taking time off from acting when she was pregnant. She told the audience that sometime in their lives they might have to take breaks from theatre and other aspects of life, and that those times do not mean the fire has gone out on their passion.

Bening’s talk proved successful and the inspiration beaming from students was ever-present as they applauded for her every chance they had. Rebecca Hodges, a theatre performance major, was one of these students and said she only found out about Bening’s appearance from an email her professors sent out telling students not to miss the event.

“(Her talk) was very inspirational,” Hodges said. “It was a great treat to have her here.”

Bening remained in the halls following her talk to speak with faculty, but will later return back to her home in Los Angeles. The students will most likely never forget the day they saw a famous actress at their own university. They will, however, have Bening’s advice to tell to those, parents especially, who are against pursuing a career in theatre and creative fields altogether:

“You tell them, ‘I understand you have your best interest for me at heart, but I’m going toward this path,’” she said. “‘I don’t know where it’s going to take me, but it’s what I love and what I want to do.’”