Lisa Choldenko, left, directed Annette Bening in "The Kids Are All… (Mark Boster / Los Angeles…)
Except for one minor detail, director Lisa Cholodenko had all the ingredients she needed to make "The Kids Are All Right."
She had an intriguing premise about a non-status-quo nuclear family, headed by two gay women. A witty, emotionally insightful script, which she co-authored with Stuart Blumberg. And a very supportive professional ally and A-list talent in Julianne Moore, who'd already been cast as one of the moms, the kind, disarmingly ditzy Jules.
All the director needed was another superlative, big-name actress to play the other mom, Nic. Oh, by the way, she'd need to be a very attractive woman on the far side of 45. With the steeliness to make Nic convincing as the family's main bread-winner and chief disciplinarian. But not too harsh or unsympathetic. And absolutely credible to the audience in having good chemistry, erotic and otherwise, with Jules.
Simple right? Yeah, sure. About as simple as trying to raise two strong-willed teenagers in 21st century Los Angeles.
"The character of Nic had a very specific voice, and it had a kind of very sardonic, kind of comedic energy to it," Cholodenko said recently. "She was strong, she was a lot of things, she was a laundry list of things. But I knew that the actress that I pulled in had to be able to do great stuff with drama and great stuff with comedy."
From her "incredibly short" mental wish-list of actors, Cholodenko fastened on one name: Annette Bening.
"I kept recycling one specific scene from 'American Beauty' that riveted me," Cholodenko said, referring to Sam Mendes' 1999 drama about possibly the most dysfunctional clan outside of reality television.
"I think it's an iconic scene at this point," the director continued, "but when [Bening] has the meltdown at the house that she wants to try to sell, and she goes from being very self-possessed and determined to being a complete kind of vulnerable wreck. And I just thought, 'Wow, the alacrity therein to go into those extremes and to be so affecting at it, it's a total rarity.' "
Cholodenko didn't know Bening personally (neither at that point did Moore), but Bening had admired the director's previous films such as "Laurel Canyon," another unconventional and very L.A. family drama. What helped her decide to take the part, said Bening, a parent of four children herself, is that she took to the story intuitively. As an actor, Bening said, that freed her from the potential paralysis of over-analysis.
"I think the truth is that because I responded to the story and I had a kind of instinctive feeling for it, I didn't over-think it, I didn't over-think anything," she said. "And in a way for me that is a growth, OK, because I like to think and I love to research."
Three other roles were crucial in fulfilling Cholodenko and Blumberg's concept. To play Joni, the couple's ultra-mature, college-bound daughter, and Laser, their adolescent son bent on finding a father figure, the filmmakers chose the up-and-comers Mia Wasikowska and Josh Hutcherson. Mark Ruffalo rounded out the main cast as the self-centered but charming Paul, the anonymous sperm donor who fathered Joni and Zach, and whose sudden appearance in the family's life rocks its foundations.
But it's Bening's Nic who in many ways is the film's dramatic fulcrum, just as she is her family's emotional anchor — mostly for the better, though not without the usual quotient of occasional slammed doors and raised voices.
Bening said her preparation to play Nic began in the same place that every role does: the script.
"It's all in the story," she said, "so if the narrative is there, I don't care how much you have to offer. If the narrative isn't there, then there's only so much you can do as the actor, because you're just interpreting it. But if it's there, then you can just not worry about it. Especially if you're working with somebody like Julianne who knows how to just do it. She makes it look easy."
But before Bening accepted the role, she had one particular concern, Choldenko recalled.
"When we first met, she said, 'Look, I think this is really wonderful, and I think it's really important. And what I just want to make sure is you don't want to be sanctimonious, this isn't a PC kind of movie, this isn't a pandering kind of movie.' And I said, 'You know what? We're so on the same page.... Like, no melodrama, no earnestness. If any of this stuff that's really emotional comes out, it has to have some ironic edge to it somewhere that makes it go down easier.'"
Capturing that tone in a screenplay, however, is a delicate proposition, Bening said. "The reason that so many things don't have that kind of whimsicality to them, especially in movies or in any kind of artwork or writing, is because it's so damn hard to find that. It's much easier to do something earnestly. Much easier. The writing is easier, the acting is easier, you play the one thing."