As Dianne Feinstein in The Report — which tracks the senator’s dynamic with staffer Daniel J. Jones (Adam Driver) while he investigates the CIA over the United States’ use of torture post-9/11 — Annette Bening drew on a well of personal history: She’s known Feinstein for more than 40 years.
The actress is generating Oscar buzz for her transformation. Back in September, when The Report screened at the Toronto International Film Festival, EW caught up with her over an afternoon to discuss how she found her Feinstein.
ENTERTAINMENT WEEKLY: You’ve known Dianne Feinstein for more than 40 years, which we’ll get into in a minute. But given that, I wanted to start by asking: What was your first reaction to the idea of playing her?
ANNETTE BENING: I thought the story was so important and well-told that I just sort of immediately responded to it. Like any good writing, it’s not an intellectual process. Although of course in this case there’s a lot of content. I was really flattered and I thought, “Wow, this is a really cool idea, what an important story to tell.” I didn’t know [director] Scott [Burns]. I just thought, “Yes, I’ll do it.”
So when did you first meet Feinstein? What was your initial conception?
It would have been in 1978. I was going to San Francisco State. She was on the board of supervisors and then became mayor. I had just moved there, and I was in class, and we were informed of the assassinations. She became mayor at that point. There’s a really interesting film about female senators that was made about 10 years ago — in fact a little bit more than that — and they asked me to narrate it, so I did. She’s interviewed in that film and she talks about what happened in City Hall. It’s an amazing story, and one I don’t think she’d ever really told before, which is a measure of her character.
She’s standing in City Hall and a gunshot was heard, so everyone’s mulling around trying to figure out what happened. Dan White, who was a supervisor, runs past her. She tries to pull his arm — like, “Dan, what’s wrong?” — and he just shrugged off her arm and went in. And he was sadly heading for Harvey Milk, who he had then killed. She went into the mayor’s office. There was a back area where he was. She describes finding him, she describes trying to lift his head. She inadvertently put her finger into the bullet hole. She was at the center of this cataclysmic event. Then she became mayor. She had a very difficult tenure, but she ended up being respected for how she handled everything. I was around for all of that. I became very aware of her. It’s still one of the most extraordinary things that’s happened in my lifetime.
I imagine that influenced the decision and approach to playing her.
I have this emotional connection to her because of this terrible tragedy that happened in San Francisco. I had just moved there, I was in my singing class, and the entire university was shut down because there had been this terrible shooting [in City Hall] — just because people were in shock. It was this terribly important moment in her life. And she also went to San Francisco State — she’s an alumni. I’d met her at political events like that. I had that from a personal standpoint. But it didn’t really bear on how I played her. I just really tried to adhere to the script. The narrative is so important — the events and the facts stand for themselves. The important thing was to try to serve that as best I could.
Your portrayal really feels like an embodiment of Feinstein’s spirit, and particularly in this film’s depiction, the virtues of moderation. Was that part of her character something you focused on?
That’s how she is. I felt that was the important thing, to try to adhere to that. That is part of the truth of the story. Sometimes it’s that kind of personality, if they stick to what they believe in and persevere. That eventually prevails. It’s not only the more colorful characters and the more verbose. She can be verbose, and she has her moments, but I think “measured” is a fair word. I felt I needed to respect that and try to stick with that.
In terms of the physical part, you really nail her look and even her mannerisms. Were you concerned about accuracy?
I just really wanted to avoid [impersonation]. I wanted to get enough of a sense of her, but the focus is really on the facts — the events and the facts of the story. We all tried to do that. We have a responsibility because we’re making a movie, we’re telling a story, we want to get people involved. My job was to try to tell a story about a woman who has incredible discipline in terms of the way that she presents herself. In all public meetings. And yet she has an inner core which has a lot of fire. She believes deeply in what she’s doing.
Obviously, there is a ton of footage of her to watch online, including some material recreated in the film.
I watched them. I wanted to capture an essence. Many of the characters that we see, we don’t know them that well. But people know her fairly well. I needed to get enough right where people accepted it, but then I didn’t want to impose anything else on it. I depended on Scott to just help me. I watched her a tremendous amount. That was also a pleasure, and a great resource. [Scott and I] didn’t talk in terms of specifics. I did talk to Dan Jones a lot. He’s a delightful human being as well as being quite a hero, actually. I would ask him: “When this happened and you came into her office and you asked her this, what went on?” I depended on him to help me with that as well. I’ve been around her enough to sense. She has a really good sense of humor and she definitely knows how to have fun. But she’s a very serious woman and she takes her job very seriously. She always has. She’s incredibly responsible and has always approached things with a lot of integrity.
And so she has this dynamic with Dan in the film that really reflects their different personalities and processes. How did you and Adam find that?
The push-and-pull that’s dramatized is kind of a healthy thing. In the way that our democracy works or doesn’t work, there’s one person who’s pushing, pushing, and somebody else is saying “play by the rules” and “don’t go too fast” and “make sure you get it right.” In a way they complemented each other, Dan Jones and Senator Feinstein. She was not quick to take on his agenda. She felt, “No, we have to be by the book, we have to make sure it’s facts, and then I can back it up.” As the chief of staff says, it’s her name on the report — not [his].
She gives this remarkable speech at the end of the film, when the report is finally released after she and Dan overcome so many obstacles and so much resistance. It’s really a rousing climax. How did you find your way into that, and capturing that tone?
It’s a beautiful speech. And [Senator John] McCain’s was, too. I don’t think it was easy for her to do what she did. She did have to defy some people in order to put out the summary. She had been warned that there might be consequences. I don’t think she’s someone who took any pleasure in it. There was no joy for her in uncovering these deeply unsavory facts and in finding out that the CIA had broken the law, basically. To discover all this. She took no pleasure in it, and I think we believe her. But she did feel a responsibility to do that. She’s always been incredibly supportive of the intelligence community — always. And she’s always taken a certain amount of heat from that in the left, from her own party. To a degree, the right thing happened. No one went to prison; no one except one person convicted of leaking somebody. Nobody involved in this torture program — let’s call it what it was — was ever held accountable. Now, that’s a tragedy. But many people in the CIA didn’t want to be involved. Asked to be transferred. Complained. But we don’t get to hear about them because it’s all so secret. Many people signed on. Of course everyone’s intentions, I think, were good — 9/11 just happened and the CIA felt tremendous pressure to bring these people to justice.
It sounds like there was a real moral imperative in telling this story, for all of you.
Scott thought a lot about that. We discussed it — how far to go in terms of demonstrating and showing people what had happened. He wanted to find that balance. I feel like he did, personally, and I’m really averse to any violence. We had to give a sense of what was actually going on in these so-called prisons that we were creating all over the world, where these people were flown into these prisons and tortured.
Before we wrap, I did want to ask you about the movie this is inevitably in conversation with, Zero Dark Thirty, which Feinstein came out strongly against, and which The Report goes so far as to mention. It’s part of the story. Do you have any thoughts there, on the legacy of that movie and how it pertains to this one?
They told the story in the way they thought was truthful at the time. I don’t know how they feel now. I certainly respect all of those filmmakers. I don’t know; it’ll be interesting to see how they feel. Obviously, they believed that what they were doing was right, they believed it was the truth. Feinstein was at a screening of the film, and she walked out. She walked out! That’s a pretty significant fact. It’s just a fact that that’s what she did.
The Report is now playing in select theaters.