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April 24, 2018 at 03:30 PM EDT

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Annette Bening first encountered the character Irina Arkadina when she was in her early 20s. As a master’s student at San Francisco’s American Conservatory Theater in the early 1980s, Bening starred in Anton Chekhov’s The Seagull, playing the narcissistic and aging actress who obsesses over her own stardom while belittling her son’s artistic aspirations. Now the 59-year-old star is returning to the role, this time playing Irina in Michael Mayer’s film version of the Russian tragicomedy.

“On the stage, of course, it’s alive, and that’s what’s so key about going to the theater and what can be so energizing about it,” Bening says. “But there’s something that a camera can do. It can sneak into moments that the stage just can’t.”

One of Chekhov’s earliest plays, The Seagull unfolds as Irina, a celebrated Moscow stage actress, travels to her brother’s lakeside estate with her much younger lover, the writer Trigorin (Corey Stoll). A twisty story of unrequited love and artistic jealousy plays out in the Russian countryside, as Irina’s son Konstantin (Billy Howle) stages an experimental play to try to win his mother’s approval and one-up the famous Trigorin. Starring in his play is the lovely Nina (Saoirse Ronan), whose youth, beauty, and admiration for Trigorin come as a major threat to Irina.

Although Irina can be vain, thoughtless, and manipulative, Bening imbues her with a winking charm. She also has a much kinder view of Irina than she did as a twentysomething student, especially as an actress and mother herself. “I suppose if anything, I just have more empathy,” the four-time Oscar nominee says. “I think one of the great things about getting older is that your scope of experience becomes so much wider. [Empathy] is the greatest spiritual gift.”

It’s that empathy that made her Mayer’s first and only choice for the role. Before casting a single other part or even hiring a screenwriter to adapt the play, the Tony-winning director (Spring Awakening) asked Bening to join the film. “Whenever you watch a performance of hers, she never panders, and she never tries to get the audience to like her or be on her side,” Mayer says. “She’s just playing a human being, who isn’t perfect and who maybe does some really terrible things sometimes. But she still has a kind of dignity and possesses a life force that is undeniable, so in spite of yourself, you end up rooting for the character.”

For Bening, she jumped at the chance to revisit one of her favorite roles—and bring Chekhov’s 122-year-old masterpiece to a wider audience. “I hope that this project and projects like it are a boon to people and help lift people up,” she says, “because I think what’s going on politically in the country for many of us—not for all of us, but for many of us—is very, very troubling. The classics like Chekhov can lift us up out of our present moment and remind us of what is timeless, and why artistic pursuits are valuable, and reassure us about something deeply good in human beings.”

The Seagull will hit theaters May 11.

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