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‘I was terrified, to tell you the truth’: How Annette Bening became a swimmer for ‘Nyad’

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"I felt a tremendous affection and respect for her," Annette Bening says of the real-life Diana Nyad.
(Elizabeth Weinberg / For The Times)

For four-time Oscar nominee Annette Bening, playing women with big personalities is clearly a sweet spot (“The Grifters,” “American Beauty”), as evidenced by her latest turn as real-life long-distance swimmer Diana Nyad. But Jodie Foster, who plays best friend and coach Bonnie Stoll alongside Bening in “Nyad,” says it is just an act.

“She’s sort of a dual person,” Foster says. “She’s really good at portraying these intimidating, grandiose [characters], but she couldn’t be further from that. She’s super stoic, never complains. She’s a real San Diego girl.” She’s such a trouper that occasionally Foster had to intervene on Bening’s behalf. “She’d get in the water and then just not get out. After three, four, five hours, it gets cold and her way of warming up was doing more laps, which is crazy,” Foster says. “I was continually flagging down [assistant directors] and going, “What’s wrong with you? Enough already. Get her out of there.”

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Annette Bening stars as controversial marathon swimmer Diana Nyad in the first narrative feature from documentarians Elizabeth Chai Vasarhelyi and Jimmy Chin.

Oct. 20, 2023

On a recent morning, though, having just emerged from a dip, Bening described her pool workouts as a form of meditation. “I’ve always done some form of exercise to slow down my brain,” she said. “And I just got addicted to swimming.”

Was there any hesitation on your part about what might be required to play an endurance swimmer who wants to swim from Cuba to Florida?

It sounds odd, but I didn’t really think through the “Oh, I’m going to have to be swimming,” “I’m going to be in a bathing suit,” and blah, blah, blah. My response was, “I’m in.” I then had to go through the process of figuring out, “Oh, I’m in good shape. I’m a diver. I worked on a boat. I love the ocean. But I’m not a lap swimmer” — or I wasn’t then. So I had to face that — and I was terrified, to tell you the truth.

You trained intensively for almost a year. Were there parts of Diana’s swimming style that you wanted to get right?

What’s important is she breathes on every stroke — which not everybody does — and also she breathes on her left. The reason that matters is she’s looking up at Bonnie on the boat. But the bottom line is that it didn’t matter much if it looked like Diana’s stroke. What mattered was that it was consistent and I looked like a person who knows what they’re doing.

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Annette Bening as seen from underwater as she swims in "Nyad."
Annette Bening enjoyed the “Nyad” shoot so much, she quipped, that “from now on, every movie I’m in, I want to be in the water while I’m acting.”
(Liz Parkinson / Netflix)

Both on-screen and in real life, Diana Nyad is a brash, outspoken figure. What’s your take?

I felt a tremendous affection and respect for her. She’s super smart. Loves to talk. She’s a big personality. She was actually quite open with me. We had very intimate conversations. I certainly knew when talking to her and looking into her eyes, that there’s a lot there. There’s softness, complexity. There’s a lot of vulnerability, although I hate that word. Her early swimming was imbued with a lot of pain because her swim coach was abusing her sexually — as well as all the other girls on the team — but none of them knew that until later. And that person is still in the Swimming Hall of Fame, I might add. That’s a crime. She’s the last person who wants to talk about it. But it’s part of her story.

How did you and Jodie approach capturing that very specific Diana-Bonnie energy?

The four of us would get together and just hang out, have dinner, talk. The two of them are such characters. They’re intensely competitive and love to play games. And Jodie and I began to really see the dynamic between them and tried to get as much of that going as we could. It’s hard to dramatize friendship if it doesn’t have conflict. Since the swim is the center of the story and the relationship kind of swirls around it, it’s a great way to get at a female, deeply connected friendship. I love that the movie has that exploration.

Netflix’s new Diana Nyad biopic has revived longstanding questions about the veracity of the swimmer’s accomplishments. What is true and what is fiction?

Nov. 3, 2023

Talk about the 233-by-233 foot tank where most of your swimming took place.

I’d have liked to have been in the ocean more. But it’s famously known that movies on the water are just impossible. It’s hard logistically with the cameras, the equipment, the people and the direction of the sun. We did have one day when we got to take a boat out. That was a gas. It was me, [“Nyad” co-director] Jimmy [Chin], Pete [Zuccarini, the underwater photographer], a few crew and a stunt person. We knew of this spot where we could go throw some bread in the water and the fish would come and I could swim through the fish.

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Although there were two stunt doubles on set, you insisted they not be used. Why?

You’d be able to tell that the stroke wasn’t mine. You know when there’s a stunt double and you can tell? It’s like, “Of course that famous movie actor can’t jump off that rock, fall and roll down the steps. It has to be somebody else.” In this case I felt like if I could do it, I wanted to do it. So I’d make sure. I’d say, “You aren’t going to put anyone else in the water, right?”

Acting while swimming: Thoughts?

If I’m swimming, there’s a sort of vibrancy. You can listen. You can receive. It was such a gift to be in the water and have that zero-gravity lusciousness around me. Especially in those scenes where I’m struggling. Your physical body is so absorbed in being in the water. In fact, from now on, every movie I’m in, I want to be in the water while I’m acting.

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