“Every day she surprises me,” Beatty told PEOPLE Thursday at the world premiere of his latest effort as actor, writer and director, Rules Don’t Apply, which opened the American Film Institute’s AFI Fest at the TCL Chinese Theatre in Hollywood. The movie marks Beatty’s first film in 15 years and the couple’s fourth film together since they met while making Bugsy and married soon after.
“Definitely he surprises me — absolutely,” Bening was quick to agree. “He does the unexpected thing.”
“That sounds kind of good!” chuckled Beatty.
One thing that doesn’t surprise him, though, is his wife’s acting prowess, which he says is on full display in the upcoming film 20th Century Women, which she headlines. “She’s great in it!”
Even as the couple enjoy keeping their union lively with a sense of the unexpected, for Rules Don’t Apply — in which he plays the iconic, enigmatic billionaire industrialist, inventor, aviator and Hollywood studio mogul Howard Hughes, while Bening plays a concerned mother chaperoning her aspiring actress daughter (Lily Collins) dreaming of a promised big break from Hughes – Beatty, 79, was eager to explore territory he felt he knew intimately: the Los Angeles he encountered when he first arrived to embark on his now legendary six-decade-long career as an actor and filmmaker.
“I came here in 1958, so I feel like I know what I’m talking about,” he explained, recalling the time in which he found early success on Broadway and television before his first major film breakthrough, Splendor In the Grass, in 1961. “There have been a lot of changes, but then there are a lot of things that haven’t changed: Hollywood and movies, what they mean to America — I think we shouldn’t take lightly.”
Beatty’s often expressed an attraction for portraying quirky, high-profile iconoclasts at crucial points in history — mobster and Las Vegas visionary Benjamin “Bugsy” Siegel in Bugsy, journalist and American socialist John Reed in Reds, bank robber Clyde Barrow in Bonnie & Clyde. Hughes fit the mold as well, and he admits the reclusive and eccentric billionaire has long fascinated him.
“In the back of my mind, I’ve always been very amused by Hughes,” said Beatty. “The complexities that arose in his dealings with people, and how much people really did like him, but found it impossible to deal with him. I thought it was a good basis for something that could be funny, and sometimes sad.”
“But I never met him,” noted Beatty — who’s encountered just about every other public figure he could hope to during his storied career — having come of age in Hollywood well after Hughes’ notorious retreat from the public eye, which he chronicles in the film. “I sometimes feel that I’ve met everybody who did. It lends itself to some pretty good comedic situations.”
The film’s leading lady, Collins, said that Beatty “loves to play … He’s like a little kid sometimes, and he gets really excited, and it’s nice to see someone who’s been around for so long get excited. He always says he’s so inspired by the young generation. Well, we’re totally inspired by him, so it’s really nice to see that joint relationship.”