Warren Beatty was last in front of a camera 15 years ago; 18 years have passed since he last directed a movie; and it’s been even longer since Beatty, 79, first flirted with the idea of making a movie that involved legendarily elusive and eccentric billionaire Howard Hughes.
Now, in an exclusive interview with Beatty, PEOPLE and Entertainment Weekly has learned that all three of those streaks will finally come to an end on Nov. 11, when Fox releases Rules Don’t Apply – an unconventional love story set in 1958 Hollywood which the Oscar-winner wrote, directed and produced. He will also appear in the film as Hughes himself.
“I’ve had the idea of making a movie about Howard Hughes in mind for a long time,” says Beatty. “We never met, but I sometimes feel like I knew everybody who knew Howard and I never lost my curiosity about him. It’s just that I don’t run around doing movies all the time.”
No kidding: Beatty is hardly a Hughes-like hermit in real life, but his long absence from the screen has left fans wondering when the 15-time Oscar nominee might return. He says there’s been a simple explanation for his epic hiatus: Beatty has been too busy enjoying parenthood at home with wife Annette Bening. “I have four children and any one of them is more interesting than any 12 movies I’ve done,” says Beatty. “I had my life before them and my life since them.” Now that he’s an empty-nester, it finally seemed like the right time to purge Hughes from his system and get it onto the page.
While there have been reports recently of Beatty’s previously-untitled Hughes project in the trades, it wasn’t until he spoke with PEOPLE and EW that the film’s title and release date were finally revealed – as well as the first exclusive images from the film and details of the plot.
Contrary to speculation, Beatty wants to make it clear that while he in fact plays the larger-than-life mogul in the film, Rules Don’t Apply is not a Hughes biopic (something that was already done in 2004 with Martin Scorsese‘s The Aviator with Leonardo DiCaprio in an Oscar-nominated turn as Hughes). Rather, Beatty’s film is a romance between two younger Tinseltown characters with Hughes looming ever-present in the background.
Lily Collins (The Mortal Instruments: City of Bones) stars as Marla Mabrey, a small-town beauty queen and devout Baptist who arrives in Hollywood in the late ’50s as an aspiring actress under contract to Hughes. At the airport, she meets her personal driver Frank Forbes (Hail, Caesar! breakout and the new Han Solo, Alden Ehrenreich). He’s new on the job and also comes from a religiously conservative background. Their instant attraction not only tests their moral beliefs, but also goes against Hughes’ cardinal rule: No employee is allowed to have an intimate relationship with a contract actress. Needless to say, the idiosyncratic Hughes is not a man used to being defied.
Although they never met in person, Beatty says his interest in Hughes goes back almost as far as his singular career – which includes such highlight-reel features as Bonnie and Clyde, McCabe & Mrs. Miller, The Parallax View, Shampoo, Heaven Can Wait, Reds and Bugsy.
“I had it in mind for a long time and then I didn’t,” he says. “It’s like asking how long did it take to do Reds or Bugsy or Bonnie and Clyde, all of which are about people who lived. Where is the story you want to tell about those people?”
Beatty adds that time has only helped him clarify the story he wanted to tell. “I have had the luxury of not having to rush to do these movies.”
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It wasn’t until just a few years ago that he finally cracked the subject, taking an approach that in some ways mirrored his own Hollywood origin story in the late ’50s as a religious young man from Virginia looking to make it as an actor in “the land of milk and honey.”
“This is a story about a young man and a young woman who come to Hollywood, both of whom are affected by American Protestant, American Puritan morality on the brink of the sexual revolution and the rise of feminism that was to take place in the early ’60s,” he says.
When pressed, Beatty says he would describe Rules Don’t Apply as a “dramedy.” But then he takes it back. “Maybe it’s a little bit more of a comedy. It has some good laughs in it.” Then again, how could it not with a supporting cast that includes Bening, Alec Baldwin, Haley Bennett, Candice Bergen, Matthew Broderick, Dabney Coleman, Steve Coogan, Taissa Farmiga, Ed Harris, Megan Hilty, Oliver Platt and Martin Sheen.
For her part, Collins admits she was shocked not only to snag the lead role in the film, but also by the mere fact Beatty even knew who she was. “I was doing press for The Mortal Instruments,” she recalls. “It was the day after the L.A. premiere and I got a call from my agent saying, ‘Warren Beatty wants you to call him. He has to see you.’ ” Collins continues, “He’s known to have meetings that last for nine hours.”
The actress was flattered by the summons. But she told Beatty the film’s start date conflicted with her contractual obligation to appear in a Mortal Instruments sequel. When that follow-up was scrapped, however, Collins called the director back and asked if he still wanted her. He did. At least, she thinks he did.
“There was no audition,” Collins, 27, says. “And I had to read the script in his library at his house and return it right away.” Beatty never came right out and told Collins that she had the part. She had to ask him. He assumed that she’d figured it out. Once on board, the actress and her costar, Ehrenreich, rehearsed the script like a play for months at Beatty’s house in L.A. “We didn’t just rehearse the scenes, we played board games, it was like summer camp – a really intense summer camp. By the time we got on set, it felt like we’d been doing it forever already.”
Collins says that working with Beatty was unlike any previous experience she’s had in her admittedly brief career. “He will ask questions, he wants your opinion,” she says. “He just wanted it to be the best picture it could be after all this time in the making. Movie making has changed and he was navigating waves he’s never had to navigate before. But when you’re as smart and creative as he is, it doesn’t matter how times have changed. Great storytelling hasn’t changed.”
As for Beatty, he doesn’t seem completely convinced all that change is necessarily for the better. “Working with digital, I would say some things are easier, some things are harder,” he says. When asked if, after nearly two decades removed from uttering the words “action” and “cut,” he felt rusty, Beatty laughs. “Well, I have been shaking off rust since 1960.”
Rules Don’t Apply arrives in theaters on Nov. 11.