Warren Beatty makes his own ‘Rules’ in new movie

Four minutes into our interview, Warren Beatty is distracted by his buzzing phone.

“Oh!” he says, glancing at the caller ID as he retrieves the phone from his pocket.

“Hi!” he says, brightly, mouthing, “It’s Annette.”

He turns his attention to his phone conversation. “I just had the most hilarious interview with a man who is a huge fan of yours — he was a barrel of laughs. But now I’m in another interview, so can I call you back? I love you.”

“Annette,” as in Bening, his wife since 1992, is back in their Los Angeles home on this overcast and muggy late October afternoon in Atlanta.

“She’s being sensible,” Beatty says with a grin, his soft blue eyes and neatly combed silver hair spotlighting his swoon-worthy status even as he inches toward his 80th birthday.

The legendary actor is in town — the first time, he said, since Maynard Jackson was mayor — to chat about his new movie, “Rules Don’t Apply,” which opens today nationwide.

In his first feature role since 2001, Beatty plays eccentric billionaire entrepreneur Howard Hughes.

But this isn’t another Hughes biopic.

“Rules Don’t Apply,” which Beatty also wrote, produced and directed — he last helmed 1998’s prescient “Bulworth” — is set in 1958 Hollywood and centers on the romance between his driver, Frank (played by the soon-to-be young Han Solo Alden Ehrenreich), and a fledgling actress, Marla (the luminous Lily Collins, daughter of musician Phil).

The conflict? Hughes’ unbendable rule that prohibits any hanky-panky among his employees.

The idea for the movie, which was filmed nearly three years ago and boasts a marquee cast including Alec Baldwin, Matthew Broderick, Martin Sheen, Candice Bergen and Bening, has been percolating inside Beatty’s head for several decades.

Beatty’s glee in discussing the movie, both at an intimate screening and Q&A at Cinebistro and the next day in an upstairs conference room at SCADshow, is apparent.

“I’m very relaxed and I like to meet people. I like to be the center of attention, so to meet people and talk to them is enjoyable. I don’t need their vote,” he responded slowly and with a sideways smile when it’s mentioned that for someone who willingly ducked out of the spotlight for several years, he’s a generous interview subject (our 15 allotted minutes turned into more than 30, all of them punctuated by Beatty’s thoughtfulness and charm).

The 14-time Oscar nominee was joined at SCADshow by the personable Collins and Ehrenreich. Here are a few excerpts from those conversations.

Why Beatty wanted to portray Howard Hughes:

Beatty: “I was amused by Howard Hughes more than I was fascinated. I never met the guy, but I knew so many people who knew him well and everyone spoke very highly of him. It wasn’t like he was a bad guy. But to make him one of the three main characters in the piece, dealing with the subject of American sexual puritanism, I wanted to be able to have some fun with it because it has a lot of hilarious aspects to it. That puritanism has made us the laughing stock of France and other countries, and more and more we gradually realize some things. The world is getting smaller.”

About the title song, performed by Collins and written by Lorraine Feather, and its meaning in the film:

Beatty: “I thought it was important that (Collins’ Marla) be a songwriter and have that serious creative potential and be principled and have strength along with that beautiful … I don’t know how to describe it … what Lily has. Lorraine did a few things for ‘Dick Tracy’ with Stephen Sondheim. Her father was Leonard Feather, the great jazz critic, and her godmother is Billie Holiday. I felt strongly that it be a ballad that would be of that period.”

Collins: “I sang it live (in the film). It was terrifying, but also the best excuse to sing in a movie and experiment with it. (Marla’s) a songwriter, not a singer, so it was great for me because my first real experience doing it in a film, I could use all of my nerves. If my voice cracked, Marla’s cracked. It comes from such a pure, passionate place. I felt really attached to the lyrics.”

About casting his lead actors and rehearsals:

Beatty: “In retrospect, I remember the penny dropping with Alden and with Lily, and it was right away. It’s the first impression, I would say. I met Alden and saw what he did in (2009 movie) ‘Tetro.’ I saw him in a play in New York and then in L.A.”

Ehrenreich (spinning a plastic water bottle cap): “From the time I met (Beatty), it was five years until we made the movie. He saw me in my first film and I met him the summer it was about to be released and I was 19. I met him and we had a 4 ½- to 5-hour lunch. You can see how that happens (laughs). I’ve worked with a few people who have big careers like that and it’s atypical that they’re as generous. Anything I wanted to talk about, any people I wanted to ask stories about. … He came to a play in New York and we went to dinner with Annette and she was like, ‘Are you going to show him the script?’ She’s always trying to move it along!”

Collins: “It was an intense couple of months (of rehearsing and filming). Working with Warren was like working with someone you read about in history books. You’re working with the actor/director/writer/producer at the same time, in one human being, and you’re getting film school at the same time. What surprised me is as inspiring as he was to us, is as inspiring as we are to him.”

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