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Warren Beatty talks about playing Howard Hughes, and being Warren Beatty

Warren Beatty
Warren Beatty(Frederick M. Brown/Getty Images)

Warren Beatty has had a career like no other.

His first feature film, “Splendor in the Grass” (1961), directed by Elia Kazan, made him a star. “Bonnie and Clyde” (1967), the first film he produced, helped revolutionize Hollywood. “Reds” (1981) won him a best director Oscar. In 2000, the Academy gave him the Irving Thalberg award, its lifetime-achievement honor for producers.

At 79, Beatty is rolling out “Rules Don’t Apply,” which he directed, co-produced, co-wrote, and stars in. His first film in 15 years, it opens Wednesday. He plays Howard Hughes, although the focus is on Marla (Lily Collins) and Frank (Alden Ehrenreich), who fall in love while working for the reclusive tycoon in Los Angeles in the early ’60s.

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Beatty’s no-other-ness extends beyond the screen. He’s Shirley Mac-Laine’s younger brother and has been influential in Democratic politics since 1972. Perhaps John F. Kennedy recognized a kindred spirit. Beatty was JFK’s choice to play him in “PT 109” (1963).

Then there’s the matter of Beatty’s romantic life. To list his lovers would take longer than listing his filmography. Woody Allen once joked “If there is reincarnation, I’d like to come back as Warren Beatty’s fingertips.” Beatty’s paramours have included Leslie Caron, Brigitte Bardot, Joan Collins, Natalie Wood, Cher (pre-Sonny), Julie Christie, Diane Keaton (post-Woody), Isabelle Adjani, Madonna, and Annette Bening.

He and Bening have been married since 1992. The couple have four children.

Interviewed by telephone from Los Angeles last month, the famously press-shy Beatty spoke with animation and at length about “Rules Don’t Apply,” Howard Hughes, and himself.

Will Beatty write his memoirs? “Nobody else will!” Why the wariness of interviews? “My level of narcissism is such that I’m too aware of being contradictory.” Waiting until his mid-50s to marry? “I would say I was not so much afraid of marriage as divorce.”

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Scheduled to last 20 minutes, the interview went twice as long.

Q. Would you have wanted to meet Howard Hughes?

A. Ohhhhh yes. But I like to say that I feel that I’ve met every person that Howard Hughes ever met.

Q. Did you seek them out or —

A. It just happened that way. Interestingly, all those people I met spoke very highly of him. They always felt Howard was a very kind man. I always wanted to include him in a movie. I remember in 1964, I’m staying at the Beverly Hills Hotel and all these people are outside. So I called the desk and told them I was being spied on. “Mr. Beatty, if you could keep this in confidence? Those people aren’t from the tabloids. They’re with Howard Hughes.” “Are you telling me I’m in the next suite from Howard Hughes!” “We don’t know. He has seven suites and five bungalows.” Well, that’s grounds for a good farce, a French farce, you know?

Now the movie is not in any sense a biopic. It’s very much more a look at the often-comical consequences, and sometimes sad consequences, of what we would have to call American sexual puritanism. So the movie is about a strict Baptist girl from Virginia who comes to work for Howard Hughes at the same time a strict Methodist boy from Fresno comes there to seek success.

Q. Marla is from Front Royal, Va. That’s about 90 minutes from Arlington, where you grew up. She’d be about your age in real life. Was there any kind of identification there?

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A. It’s interesting that you know it’s a 90-minute drive. That’s exactly right.

Q. I had looked it up.

A. Front Royal is actually where my father’s family is from, in Warren Country, Va.

Q. The movie is much more about Marla and Frank than Hughes. Did it feel strange to be playing more of a supporting character?

A. Well, I felt that I might be a little old to play Frank [laughs]. I believe very much in what I would call the blink: that the unconscious is very much more intelligent than the conscious. When I met Lily — a very beautiful, very intelligent, very strong woman — and also Alden (have you seen “Hail Caesar”? and he’s going to be the next Han Solo) — I believed in the blink. Within seconds of meeting each one I believed they’d cause me to believe the moral conflict that exists in the movie. They have a level of integrity that is symmetrical with their comedic sense and looks. I’m fond of saying character is plot, but you have to add that casting is character. So I got lucky with them.

I’ve had a lot of luck [in my career]. I got lucky with Kazan. He was a great filmmaker, a great teacher. Before that, I got lucky with Stella Adler. She was a brilliant teacher. I had no intention of becoming an actor. I did have an intention of writing and directing. She rather quickly advised me to act. And I did.

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Q. With some success.

A. [Laughs] Well, there are all kinds of ways of defining success, but yes.

Q. It’s been almost 15 years since your last movie. How difficult was it to put together this project?

A. An idea hits you, and you run with it. Like all of the movies that I’ve been responsible for, they’ve taken quite a long time of birthing. Because I’ve been lucky: I never had to go and do it. It happens when it happens. So when people say I’ve been working on this movie for a long time, I didn’t know it [laughs]. Finally, I saw it was time to do it.

Q. Do you wish you’d made more movies?

A. No, I don’t. Because it would have meant I wasn’t doing what I was doing when I made a movie. I think movies are a part of my life. My personal friendships, my relationships with people, my travels, my participation in politics: I think are all as valuable as the movies I’ve made. I think that I’ve probably made more of my own movies than similar movie actors. You know, I’ve been tempted to go in and take a high-paying acting gig a number of times. But I haven’t done it very often. And I feel if I had I would not have made the movies I was responsible for.

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If you quote this, please make it funny — I’ve often compared making a movie you really care about to vomiting. I don’t like to vomit. I almost never vomit. I hate to vomit. But there is a point where you get at certain times where you think you’ll just feel a lot better if you throw up. There’s something that I dread about the mobilization required to make a movie and make it well.

Q. Knowing what you know now, if you were starting out today —

A. [Interrupting] The answer to that question has to be “I don’t know” — unless the answer is “How much time do you have [to listen]?”


Interview was edited and
condensed.
Mark Feeney can be reached at mfeeney@globe.com.