From director Paul McGuigan and based on the book by Peter Turner, Film Stars Don’t Die in Liverpool delves into the playful but passionate relationship between Turner (Jamie Bell) and Academy Award-winning actress Gloria Grahame (played magnificently by Annette Bening) in Liverpool in 1978. The affair between the eccentric femme fatale and her young lover quickly became a deep bond, leading Gloria to turn to Peter and his family for comfort at a time that will test the strength of that bond.
During this 1-on-1 phone interview with Collider, actress Annette Bening talked about just how long ago this film first came her way, why this story appealed to her, feeling nervous on every project she works on, why Gloria Grahame is such an interesting woman, and how easy it was to work and collaborate with co-star Jamie Bell. She also talked about what attracts her to a project and what gets her to say no, and working with writer/director Dan Fogelman on Life, Itself, opposite Oscar Isaac.
Collider: This project originally came your way quite awhile ago. How did this ultimately come about, for you?
ANNETTE BENING: Barbara Broccoli, who is one of the producers of the movie, are friends. We were having kids together, at the same time. We just met through mutual friends, and she and Peter Turner, who wrote the book the movie was based on, are friends. This was a very personal story to her, and she introduced me to the book, to Peter and to the story. We started talking about it, literally over 20 years ago. It wasn’t the right time, it wasn’t the right version, and I was too young, so it just didn’t happen. It wasn’t meant to happen, and it didn’t. But we have remained friends, all these years. She and Peter are very close, and this was always something that she really felt strongly about. She and another producer, named Colin Vaines, who also loved the story and it meant a great deal to him, as well, decided to put it together. They hired Matt Greenhalgh, who is from Manchester, to adapt it. There were so many great men on this movie, I have to say, and they all have these interesting partners. This movie about this love story had a particular nature because of all these great men who were working on it. So, a long time ago, I started getting interested.
What made Gloria Grahame someone you wanted to dig into, in this way?
BENING: Well, it’s Peter’s version of her, Peter’s love of her, and the connection that they had, that he was able to articulate. He didn’t know who she was when he met her. He had no idea. And of course, in those days, there was no way to know who anybody was. It wasn’t like you could Google someone and immediately figure out who they were. So, their connection is what really made it all so rich. She had a really complicated life. She’d had quite a successful life in Hollywood. She’d won the Academy Award, and she was a great femme fatale of the film noir period. And then, things got really tough for her. She had four marriage and four children, and a very complicated personal life. This chapter of her life was very unlike most of her life. At this point, she was trying to get work, anywhere that she could. She was doing TV and not very good movies, and then she got asked to do theater in England, in the provinces. That’s when she met Peter. As Peter describes it, they just had this incredible connection. She was really a vivacious woman. She was fun and she was tough. She’d had a lot of pain, but she was one of those survivors. I met other people who knew her and people said she was quite private, but on the other hand, she had a great sense of fun. This unexpectedly deep relationship grew between them, and then as the story tells, he and his family were there for her, at the end of her life, in a way that was absolutely remarkable.
Was it ever intimidating or nerve-wracking to be in a film for a producer who had been trying for so many years to get this made?
BENING: There’s always a nervousness factor when I work on anything, but not in relation to this producer because she’s quite remarkable. She’s just got the biggest heart and she’s incredibly well organized. She inherited the Bond franchise, and she produces those films, so she has evolved into this absolutely extraordinary woman. She’s just a fine human being, as well as being a great pro. I felt a great responsibility. All of us who were on this and who put ourselves into it felt a great responsibility to make this work and to make the things that we wanted to do happen, in a way that was real and believable and, at the same time, not sentimental. This all did happen, or most of it did. There are a few scenes in the movie that we made up. So, I did feel a great responsibility to her family, as well. Even though we did not contact her family and I wanted to respect their privacy completely, her son Tim, who’s in the film briefly at the end, saw it when we were in London and he liked it very much. That meant the world to me. That was really, really exciting. I wanted to just meet him and talk to him and ask him ten billion questions, but it wasn’t the time. I hope that another time, I can spend time with him and just ask him what their lives were like.
How did you find the experience of working on this dynamic with Jamie Bell?
BENING: Jamie made it very easy. We worked together very well. He’s a real pro. Paul McGuigan, the director, set a tone, when we were preparing the film. Before shooting, we were all together for a couple of weeks, so we had a chance to all really get to know each other. We discussed the script in detail. We had our writer there and we all worked together to get it to the best place it could possibly be. There was quite a bit of work done, during that period. A lot of people either don’t understand how important that is, or they just don’t have the time and money to make that happen. Incredible amounts of detail and changes, here and there, can be made to the screenplay, which can really bump something up. The work that we did, during that time, helped a lot and helped Jamie and I get to know each other. I think that was really a valuable part of it.
I’m sure much will get made about the fact that this is an older woman and a younger man because that’s not what we usually see in a relationship, but I love that we get to see an older woman who is confident and sexual and makes no apologies for that. What was that like to express, through this relationship?
BENING: I really like the way that you put that. I don’t think I could put it better than you did. I don’t know how old you are, but I think there are many, many more women than what maybe the average person might think who are just as interested as everything Gloria was interested in, at her age. There are people who are falling in love and falling out of love, having relationships, and having sex lives, like Gloria was. I think that that’s much more out there than a lot of people are familiar with, just ‘cause there aren’t a lot of stories about it. It was really a privilege. I feel that about working, anyway. I feel really lucky to be able to do what I do. I love it! But then, to play this woman that was also flawed was great. That’s what’s interesting. It’s about not playing people who are all strong, all good or all bad. We all have these sides of ourselves, and she was a really complicated person. Basically, it’s a love story, and they had this incredible connection.
I love how, even though the story is told from Peter’s perspective, their break-up is shot from both Peter and Gloria’s perspectives. Why do you think that’s so impactful for audiences?
BENING: So many people have talked to me about that section. It was in that preparatory period when we went through that. The book is so powerful because it’s from Peter’s point of view, so I didn’t know if going into Gloria’s point of view would work, or if that would shift things and not be accepted. But Paul McGuigan was like, “No, this is good. We need something here. We need something different that’s gonna shift.” He really knew that. That was so much his doing and his directorial choice that was really a great idea, so we did it that way. People connect to it, and it’s really gratifying to see that people like that and that it works.
At this point in your career and life, what gets you excited about a project and script, and what gets you to say, “This really just isn’t for me”?
BENING: It always begins with the writing. I’ve been around enough to know that, if there’s something in the writing, which is totally subjective, that’s not quite clear or doesn’t quite work, I know that I can’t make that work, no matter what I do. I can delineate a little bit, if there’s a problem in the story that hasn’t quite worked itself out yet. On the other hand, if the writing is basically there, then it’s just all about the people. Movies are definitely a director’s medium. You’re there to serve the director. They’re the ones that end up carving it together. This movie is a very good example ‘cause there’s a lot of stuff we shot that’s not in the movie. He continued to finesse it and work on it, for months and months and months. That’s all in the director’s hands. And then, of course, it’s all about the people you’re with. Sometimes it’s another actor or actress that’s gonna be in it, that makes it irresistible. That’s really a privilege. I love working really closely with the people that I like and admire, and we get to collaborate together. It’s always nerve-wracking. It’s not like it’s all great fun, and it’s exciting and fabulous. There’s a lot of uncertainty. That’s what you really depend on professionals. There’s a certain amount of planned uncertainty. You need uncertainty, so that there’s something surprising that happens when the camera is rolling. It’s all that stuff, mixed together.
Do you know what you’re going to do next, as an actress?
BENING: I don’t know if they’ve announced it. I’m doing a film next, in the summertime, but I don’t know if it’s been announced or not, so I should wait and see.
You’ve re-teamed with writer/director Dan Fogelman, who you did Danny Collins with, for Life, Itself.
BENING: Yeah! Oh, my god, that’s right! No one has asked me about that!
What was it like to work and collaborate with him again?
BENING: It was amazing! It was just me and Oscar Isaac. It’s hard to describe. That movie is definitely one of those where you don’t want to give anything away. In order for the movie to work, nobody can know what’s gonna happen. I did [Danny Collins] with Dan, a couple of years ago, with Al Pacino. I liked him very much, and out of nowhere, he popped in and said, “Hey, Annette, would you do this thing?” And I read it and said, “Yeah!” It was a kick and really a challenge. It was fascinating to work with Oscar. He’s just such a fine actor. I then saw him play Hamlet in New York at the Public Theater and he was amazing. He’s so great! That really was a fascinating job. I enjoyed it thoroughly.
Film Stars Don’t Die in Liverpool opens in New York City and Los Angeles on December 29th, and nationwide throughout January and February 2018.