Casting the lead role of Julia was a particularly delicate operation as Julia's the main focus of the film and the actress playing the part needed to be smart, beautiful, and display the right combination of strength and vulnerability. Producer Robert Lantos says, "We had the usual discussions about cast while we were working on the script -- who is going to play this hugely demanding and deliciously juicy starring role?" In Academy Award-nominee Annette Bening, Lantos and director István Szabó found an actress who could handle all facets of the lead character and would be believable as a stage actress from the 1930s.
INTERVIEW WITH ANNETTE BENING ('Julia'):
Are the performances that Julia gives in the film different from those you would do onstage?
Yes. I think she was, in Somerset Maugham's mind, she was an actress, a popular actress. I remember now in the book he talks about how she started. She would do Ibsen so she was a serious actress. But she wouldn't do she never did Shakespeare. She had been a regional theatre actress - that's actually mentioned in the screenplay - so she started in a little theater company. So when I was playing it, I didn't really think of it in different terms. I mean, she was a good actress. She was a great star, she was a diva, she was like the queen of the London stage, so I figured she had to have been a good actress.
It's not a story about a would-be actress. She was really a great actress, but she has lost her way at the beginning. So this is a woman who's done eight shows a week since she was a young woman and [without any] problems. You know, eight shows a week, that's her thing. It's like an athlete running a race, she knows how it goes. But she's at a point in her life where she's stopping and thinking and reassessing, because it's not coming easily any more.
Does playing a role like this help you relinquish the sort of vanity that comes with being an actress, in terms of maturing?
I don't see myself as having to compete with younger actresses. I don't feel that. I think that being able to play a role where I can take off a mask, in a way, because it's a movie about masks in a way. I remember hearing someone say this once and I wish I knew who it was - it's a contemporary actor, I can't remember who said it - that good acting is more about taking off a mask than putting one on. In our movie, certainly that's true. With the camera so close, you can see right down into your soul. So being able to do that, in a way, is terrifying. And in another way, truly liberating. It's great. And I like that about it.
I don't see myself as competing with other actresses. I went through a time when I was in New York, and I was going to lots of auditions and trying to get parts, and even then, you're not really competing with the other actresses. You aren't. There is a competition going on but it's not like something you can win in that way. You're all sort of in it together, and I think that it's no more so than a lot of other kinds of jobs.
Can you talk about working with Michael Gambon and the critiques his character does of your character?
He is such a character, he's a great man. He's a great, great man. He's been knighted. He's such a hoot. I met him when I did Open Range, because he played the villain in Open Range. He's a lot of fun. He's a great character and he just works like crazy. [He] goes from movie to movie. I think he was making three movies at the time that we were making Being Julia.
He's the kind of guy you just want to go and sit in the corner and talk to. He's got a million stories. He used to be a gun maker for the Queen. He was a guy that didn't really become famous. He was well-known in the theatre in England, but he wasn't really a famous person until Singing Detective. From my point of view, someone who when they've had enough of adult life where they weren't famous, there's a different kind of persona there because they didn't have to deal with being famous when they were very, very young. So he's just a guy very comfortable with himself. He loves people. He loves to have a drink. He loves to go out and have a good meal. And he's very hard-working. I just love what he does in the movie. He's so present. And perfect for the part, so that was really lucky, that we got him to do that.