Interview: Annette Bening and Jamie Bell Talk “Film Stars Don’t Die in Liverpool”

Annette Bening as Gloria Grahame and Jamie Bell as Peter Turner. Courtesy of Sony Pictures Classics.

Gloria Grahame is known as one of the iconic actresses of the Golden Era. She starred opposite Humphrey Bogart, Glenn Ford, James Stewart, Joan Crawford and Kirk Douglas. Her most memorable and important partner was Peter Turner – the man who helped her to stay alive in Liverpool because film stars should never die in Liverpool, right?

Based on Peter Turner’s memoir, the movie “Film Stars Don’t Die in Liverpool” is directed by Paul McGuigan. The film tells about Gloria Grahame’s relationship with Peter Turner – her lover – the man who cared about her more than she could expect. “Film Stars Don’t Die in Liverpool” is more than just about their union. Annette Bening and Jamie Bell deliver beautifully touching performance, which comes to prove that true love is blindsided when it comes to the big age gap between people.

During Toronto International Film Festival, it was an absolute pleasure for me to have a chance to sit down with Annette Bening and Jamie Bell to discuss the film more in-depth, to talk about the characters they impersonate – Gloria Grahame and Peter Turner, and finally to discuss the reasons why she had decided to hide her illness from her agent.

MOVIEMOVESME: I would like to ask you about your experience when you got to recreate the tender relationship between Peter Turner and Gloria Grahame on the screen. How did you prepare for your roles?

Jamie Bell: Peter’s book was a great source and material, which was really the blueprint and the map. It helped us to get into the minds and the bodies of our characters. We also could use Peter all the time as a source of information. We questioned him day and night, emailed him our questions constantly. He was very generous with his answers, and contributed his time, and had his big input. To me, observing him answering the questions was even more than the answers themselves. He was living their relationship over and over again. He’s a storyteller. As a writer, he wrote this book, and every time he would answer questions, he was back in his memories, he was back in it. I could see by the end of our sessions, how exhausted he was. Then, I knew that this relationship meant everything to him.

And I think, we all have that in some way. There is someone who comes into our lives, hopefully, at some point, changes our lives forever. Hopefully only in a good way. Sometimes, we eventually have to say goodbye to them. For me, that was the beauty and the simplicity of this film. Peter had met that person, and that person for him was Gloria Grahame.

Annette Bening: Yeah. I think for them – they were just in it. They didn’t think of themselves as being in an iconic relationship. I imagine this is really through Peter’s eyes, as Jamie says. And I believe that Gloria had never met anybody like him. We know something about her other relationships. She was married four times, and she was married to a couple of famous people, a couple of not famous people. They were certainly complicated people, and she had a lot of tempestuous divorces, custody battles, and all kinds of crazy stuff.

At the same time, we actually don’t know much about her. So I took it from Peter. And Peter adored her. I think the way he adored her was completely new to her. I think a lot of men had fallen in love with her, but not in the way that Peter had. He was a very special man. When you meet him, you completely understand that. And you say to yourself: “Oh, yeah, no wonder she fell in love with him. He’s a lovely man.”

So I think the nature of their relationship, the fact that there were all these other things around them -their age difference, and that she was an ex-movie star – and all of that was irrelevant to them.

MOVIEMOVESME: Mrs. Benning, were you able to relate to that? Could you imagine it going the other way?

Annette Bening: I think that’s the nature of the experience. We have ideas about what’s appropriate or what’s not appropriate for people to do when they fall in love – whether it’s with an older person, a younger person, a person of the same sex, a person of the opposite sex. We all have cultural ideas of what’s okay and what’s not okay. But for a lot of people, when they fall in love, it just happens. It is all about what’s going on between them. I think they had a very intense love affair.

MOVIEMOVESME: Yeah. What do you think what was it like for Peter to see you recreate this incredibly vivid period of his life?

Jamie Bell: I think he went through every feeling he could have. For him, he was basically living it all over again. I think at times, it’s probably really frustrating. And I’m sure at times he was wondering what had he done. He has talked about this a little bit recently. And then, there are other times, when he is grateful for it. And he’s so grateful that Gloria is getting a story that is told about her, and that people get to know her and revisit her, and that she isn’t forgotten. So I think it was really a cluster of many different feelings for him. But the greatest thing that he did for us – and the most gracious thing – was to step back and let us take control of this story and be the players in his own story. And he did that with such grace.

MOVIEMOVESME: You’re a movie star, and how do you feel about yourself as a movie star? Do you think things have changed? Do you feel like a movie star?

Annette Bening: Is it a bad thing? Is it a bad thing or a good thing? I don’t know. I try not to worry about it, I guess. I feel lucky that I get to do what I do. Because we all have within our memory when we were young adults and worried whether we’d even get a job or not. I can remember that. Would I be able to make a living? I also was only doing plays for quite a while. I think in the long run that was very valuable because, by the time I was doing movies, I was almost 30. I wasn’t a movie buff. I didn’t watch a lot of movies. So that was probably good.

I think in some ways it’s easier when you’re older and you become known then. You have life experiences that are similar to everybody else’s and that people don’t know who you are. There’s so much of my life, that I feel like the experience of being a film star has nothing to do with my day-to-day life. I kind of just go around and do my thing. I think it’s hard to experience from the outside. Do you know what I mean?

MOVIEMOVESME: There’s one particular scene in the film that really struck me. It is when Gloria Grahame was talking with her doctor. Then he says: “So your cancer is back. Why don’t you go and talk to your agent?” She answers: “What do you mean? How can I talk to my agent that I have cancer? I will lose my job. I won’t get cast if I tell them the truth.”
I wonder how much has Hollywood changed since then? Is that a real fear? Does every single person who is sick fear that they might lose their job? I am sure there are other actors as well who have lost their lives like Gloria Grahame…

Annette Bening: Yeah. I think that does happen to a lot of people. I am certainly becoming more aware of how many people hide their illness. I appreciate you mentioning that scene because, in some ways, you want to say to her: “Why didn’t you take the treatment?” But she was somebody who really didn’t have any money. She had to make a living. So there’s that. And I think she also was someone who naturally wanted to hide it from her children. I think she was afraid of frightening her children with her illness. But mostly, I think she didn’t want anybody to know it because it would’ve affected her work.

MOVIEMOVESME:  Yeah, because she probably would’ve  been unemployed, don’t you think, Mr. Bell?

Jamie Bell: There’s quite a bit about her dealing with her illness that is mentioned in the book. I don’t think actually much of it made it into the film. She was much further down the road with her illness that she was obviously letting on to Peter and the whole family. Which raises up a bunch of different questions.

If you’re the family, and you’re the head of the house, there’s a kind of responsibility to do something with this woman. We can’t just let her die upstairs. We have to help her in some way. Get her the medical attention that she needs. And that was kind of the conflict for Peter.

I think about this a lot whenever I watch the film. It was a difficult position to be in. You’re trying to respect wishes, but also forced with responsibility from the other side. It’s such a tricky area to be in. It’s such a difficult position to find oneself in. I think the way that she tried to medicate herself with some of the things – apricot kernels and bread, juice – I’m sure she read in a book because she was probably self-educating herself about it.

Annette Bening: She was really into Adele Davis.

Jamie Bell: Right. And she thought that would actually help her in some way, or slow it down, or make her feel better. I think she went it that level of denial during those final stages of her life. It is so devastating that she couldn’t be honest and confront it.


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