Divine Discontent

Posted online: November 2016


By Roger Durling Photographs J.R. Mankoff Styled by Linda Medvene

 What ultimately attracted you to the character of Dorothea?

I’m 58, so I’m the same age as the young girl in the story would be. That’s how I was at the time, and so for me it resonated and told me things about my life and the context of my life in a way that I had never really understood.

Dorothea is so full of contradictions—she’s open and guarded at the same time. What was it like inhabiting her?


You’ve put your finger on the very thing that was so tricky, difficult, fascinating, and exhilarating about playing her. I guess this is true when you’re probing into something and you find you get far enough in where there are contradictions to things that absolutely deny the other. You’re getting to something true. The problem—of course the dramatic problem, the creative problem—is to get that across without being unclear. And that’s often always the knife’s edge because you don’t want to be too literal and you don’t want to be fuzzy. You want to be somewhere in the middle—like life is.

Mike Mills was very cognizant of that. I was very cognizant of that. And of course, Dorothea is based on his mom, so we talked a lot about her. I found myself endlessly asking him questions. That’s why so many characters in films can come across as not being multidimensional because it’s very tricky to get those kinds of layers. Movies come down to moment-to-moment interaction. I trusted him, and he was honest with me. It was that kind of day-to-day probing. In writing, and certainly in acting, you are constantly in a place where you’re slightly uncomfortable.

Can you elaborate on that notion of being uncomfortable as a performer?

First of all, it’s hard to describe, and number two, part of me is trying to protect what I do because I need to keep some of it private. When I go and speak to students I really get into the nitty-gritty of it all and what the process is like because when I was a student that was very valuable to me. But all I can tell you is that I don’t know anybody that is a performing artist who doesn’t have fear and insecurity. So you have to live with that feeling.

 I had a professor who said it’s okay to have those butterflies in your stomach as long as they fly in formation.

I knew an English actress—Fabia Drake, she was in her 80s—on my first movie, Valmont, and she was a real character. I was completely terrified, and I felt like a stage actress just doing a movie—I didn’t know what I was doing. I must have been talking to her about how nervous I was, and she said, “Darling, divine discontent. Divine discontent.” It is divine, and you need it. It may take you somewhere that is outside of what you’re imagining in the moment, but that’s where you need to go. You want to get to a place where you don’t know what you’re doing, you want to get to a place where it’s just coming out and you’re not monitoring it. But of course, the psyche is organized to protect the self. So the psyche doesn’t want to do that, the psyche says, “Wait, you know you’re Annette, you’re not this other person. Just pretend.”


You were raised in California in the 1970s. Did it help you understand Dorothea’s world—caught somewhat off-guard at a turning point in our history?

My parents are from the Midwest and I’m the youngest of four. We moved to San Diego when I was 7, so I think that was helpful to me. Dorothea is my parent’s generation, although she’s in a very different world than my parents inhabited. Nonetheless, it’s in the same ballpark, and I think that was of value.

I can remember having a conversation with my mom when I was a teenager and sort of discovering the feminist movement. That topic was hot and heavy at the time and we started to have an argument. I was talking about feminism in some sense, and she said, “Well I just want you to know if I were your age I would be exactly like you.” And I thought that was so interesting, having been raised in the Midwest, getting married in 1950, having four children pretty quickly all before she was 30. She was someone who very much embraced being a homemaker and doing everything and living that busy life. And of course, not all women were. So that’s kind of more where Dorothea landed for me.

How did it feel to shoot in Santa Barbara?

Oh, it was great! We had taken a trip up to see all the specific places that are referred to in the script. So when we were actually there, it was extraordinary, heavenly—such a beautiful place. We felt like we were in the real spot, so it was extremely helpful, and we were immersed.

You’re also ending the screen-shot-2016-11-07-at-11-41-34-amyear by starring in Rules Don’t Apply,  produced and directed by your husband, Warren Beatty. What was it like working with him again? 

I’ve been in movies with him but never been directed by him. It was exciting on so many levels, because I was so glad he was making the film. I didn’t know if he was going to end up actually doing it—he worked on it for so long, and so I loved it. He’s a very enthusiastic director. Loves actors. He makes you feel like you can do anything, and it was really a joy. Also, the days that I was working on the film, he was not acting, so it was easier for him. So, yeah, it was very, very special for us.

[WINTER 2017]

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