SAN FRANCISCO — Annette Bening is talking about her favorite part of the day.
“Reading in my bed this morning,” the three-time Oscar nominee says with a contented smile. “Alone, quiet, with my coffee.”
It’s got nothing to do with being away from her four kids and her husband, actor Warren Beatty. It’s more a calm-before-the-storm thing, the storm being another packed day on the press tour for her new movie, “The Kids Are All Right,” the reason she’s holding court at the Ritz-Carlton in San Francisco. The film opens in select theaters Friday, and nationwide on July 16.
The city’s familiar turf for the movie star. Bening, 52, graduated from San Francisco State and studied at and performed with the American Conservatory Theater, an experience, she says, that taught her to “listen to my gut.”
It must be working. Bening looks happy, relaxed, and radiates warmth. Granted, she is an actor. But she seems as authentic and approachable as her winning characters in movies such as “The American President.” Although she flows with each change in subject, an inner strength surfaces from time to time, suggesting that when she wants to be in control, she is.
Today’s easy: It’s her final interview and she can catch her breath. After one more photo session she’ll be free of the makeup artist who flits around her, making sure her lipstick’s right and her sleeve’s tucked in.
The illusion of perfection seems more important to the studio than to Bening, who appears confident in her looks — blue eyes, short hair, pretty — and comfortable in her own skin. When she smiles, which is most of the time, she lights up the room. She’s doing that now because someone just said, “Cool shoes,” about her shiny dark patent leather shoes with bright white laces which, she admits, she really likes.
She also really likes “The Kids Are All Right.” Bening describes the picture, which won the Teddy Award for Best Feature at the Berlin International Film Festival, as “a classic family story.”
It’s also a timely one, given the ongoing debate over gay marriage. Bening and Julianne Moore play a lesbian couple coping with family issues after their two teenagers track down their moms’ anonymous sperm donor (Mark Ruffalo) and try to bring him into the fold.
Working with Moore as a couple came easily, Bening says, “I think because the writing is so strong and detailed. And Lisa (director-screenwriter Lisa Cholodenko) is very accepting of what happens and does not try to manipulate.”
Also helpful, Bening says, is that Moore “doesn’t have any neuroses. She’s incredibly simple in the way she approaches day-to-day work. She’s very ready to work. It felt very right for me.”
Bening’s character is the more tightly wound of the two. Moore’s is a free-spirited landscape designer who’s a bit aimless. Bening’s is a physician who needs structure, and whose partner worries that she drinks too much. She’s also very protective of her children.
Director Cholodenko says Bening is a natural in the role.
“I knew she had this great ability to go between comedy and drama,” Cholodenko says. “I didn’t expect the kind of soulfulness she showed. ... With four kids, the whole thing of being a mama bear is pretty close to her heart. I think she wore that pretty easily.”
Previous interviews mention Bening’s reluctance to talk about her family. Yet, that’s what’s on almost everyone’s mind. So how does it feel to be the breadwinner in the family?
No laugh — but no frown, grunt or dismissal, either. Bening performs a mental sleight-of-hand and comes back with: “I do like to work, to get out there and do stuff. I’m lucky to be able to start and stop when I want to, especially with three teens (13, 15 and 18) and a 10-year-old. I’m grateful.”
Born in Topeka, Kan., the youngest of four, Bening mulls lessons she’s learned growing up that she would like to pass on to her children.
“I feel it (life) gets better as you get older,” Bening says. ” ... You benefit from experience. I like that about life.”
She says she also learns a lot from her kids, lessons along the lines of “how much I don’t know.”
Time’s running short so she agrees to free-associate: When an interviewer says a name or a word, she responds with the first thing that pops into her mind.
—Julianne Moore: “Incandescent.”
—Warren Beatty: “Bright.”
—Annette Bening: “Curious.”
— “The Kids Are All Right”: “The smartest movie ever made.”