AN UPSTREAM SWIM
Diana Nyad was called to the water at a young age, graduating to open-water swimming in her early 20s. With incredible swims circling Manhattan in 1975 and other feats, Nyad became a cultural touchstone for ambition and determination, defying expectations and norms that had been set for women in sports. Around this time, she set her sights on the ultimate swim — Havana, Cuba to Key West, Florida — and began what would become a 30-year journey.
Four-time Oscar nominee Annette Bening was well aware of Nyad’s powerful personal story when NYAD came her way. In the script, adapted by first-time feature screenwriter Julia Cox from the athlete’s memoir Find a Way, Bening discovered a role she felt compelled to play. “I’m an NPR junkie, and she used to do essays on NPR,” Bening says. “I remember very well hearing that distinctive voice and that distinctive point of view that she had. I thought it was such a powerful story and just so completely unlike anything I had ever read. It was one of those immediate [responses], ‘Yes. Okay, I’ve gotta do this. I've gotta try to do this.’”
In NYAD, directed by Oscar-winning documentary filmmakers Elizabeth Chai Vasarhelyi and Jimmy Chin, Bening plays the sports journalist, motivational speaker, and writer as she returns to the world of competitive long-distance swimming in her 60s, after decades away from the sport. Having failed in an attempt to swim the 110 miles from Cuba to Florida at the age of 28 in 1978, she finds herself back in the water in 2010, training to complete the journey at a time in her life when most people are ready to retire.
To prepare for the role, Bening hit the pool, swimming laps on her own before training with competitive swimmer and coach Rada Owen, who swam in the 2000 Olympics in Sydney, Australia. Her rigorous training allowed the performer to understand the appeal of the sport and enabled her to connect with her character’s innermost feelings and motivations.
Bening found that long-distance swimming can be a meditative act; despite the intense physical exertion, there is a peaceful quiet under the water. “For me, it gets addicting because of that state where the mind stops chattering and criticizing and judging or thinking or regretting,” Bening explains. “Suddenly it’s just quiet, and you’re just in the water, moving, feeling the feel of the water, the feel of the air around you.”
As NYAD dramatizes the series of events leading up to the 2013 Cuba-to-Florida swim, a key figure who emerges is Nyad’s coach, Bonnie Stoll, played in the film by Academy Award winner Jodie Foster. Stoll met Nyad in the 1980s when she was on the competitive racquetball circuit. Stoll had settled into a life as a personal trainer when Nyad started dipping her toes back into long-distance swimming, and their close bond made her an ideal coach for the no-nonsense former athlete’s next chapter. “There’s something about her calm, salt-of-the-earth quality,” says Foster of Stoll. “She’s the kind of person you’d want to be in a storm with.”
Stoll proved to be just the kind of partner Nyad needed for this feat, as she knew when to push her, when to reign her in, when to be a steady emotional center. On set, Foster and Bening brought this dynamic to life. In one moment, they were pushing each other’s limits; in others, they shared moments of profound connection and understanding. Although the pair had never acted together before, they shared a deep mutual admiration. “Annette is amazing,” says Foster. “She is my hero.”
Although Vasarhelyi and Chin make their narrative filmmaking debut with NYAD, the gifted directors have considerable experience telling the rousing true-life stories of exceptional athletes through their earlier documentary work. In Free Solo, they chronicled rock climber Alex Honnold’s summit of the famed El Capitan’s vertical rock face in Yosemite National Park. In The Rescue, they followed the heroic cave divers who saved the lives of 12 Thai boys and their soccer coach who had become trapped inside a flooded cave. In one of their earliest projects, Meru, they told the story of three elite Himalayan mountain climbers attempting to conquer Mount Meru. Vasarhelyi and Chin connected to Nyad’s story as a way to further examine the power of human potential and purpose. “Documentary or scripted, it’s the stories about universal truths that transcend the characters themselves that move us,” Chin explains. “I think that we’ve really been digging into it because that is ultimately what we hope to examine: these universal truths of struggle, of life, of trauma, of how you overcome.”
In their documentary work, the filmmakers, who are married, would spend years following their subjects in the hopes of uncovering emotional truths or capturing a perfect moment that distills their cinematic mission. “It’s interesting because we’re often asked, ‘What’s the difference between fiction and nonfiction?’ and I have to say, it still comes down to the authenticity,” Vasarhelyi says. “It’s those moments when a character moves you and then allows you to transcend your circumstances and imagine yourself in the lives of others.”
With NYAD, the duo was overjoyed to collaborate with two generational talents. “Here we are working with the best actors possible. Annette can bring up emotion without even speaking. It’s incredibly empowering,” says Vasarhelyi. “Jodie and Annette have truly embodied these characters,” adds Chin.
Joining the directors in bringing this once-in-a-lifetime story to the screen is an award-winning below-the-line ensemble, including composer Alexandre Desplat (The Shape of Water, The Grand Budapest Hotel), cinematographer Claudio Miranda (Life of Pi, Top Gun: Maverick), and editor Christopher Tellefsen (Moneyball, Capote). “It’s been extraordinary putting all of these incredibly talented people together,” says Chin.
It is fitting that NYAD is directed with such emotion by Chin and Vasarhelyi, who are both filmmaking and life partners. As much as the film is about Nyad’s personal quest to achieve, it also showcases the power of pure friendship and collaboration, and what’s possible when you are emboldened by the ones you love. It explores the ins and outs of Nyad’s training and her attempts at the milestone, but it also examines how Stoll’s coaching helped her reach her goal. “It was about how to honor the achievement while allowing audiences enough access to Diana as a character that they could start to see the world through her eyes and root for her, and that really came in the form of Bonnie,” says Vasarhelyi of her approach to the story. As Bening points out, “Even though it is, of course, about Diana and her epic, unbelievable swim that she did at 64 years old, it’s really about the bond between these two women.”
For the star, NYAD highlights the limitless possibilities of human potential. “We realize we have these kind of cages we’ve built for ourselves in our brains about what we can do and what we can’t do,” says Bening. “We get so used to that that we sort of even forget that they’re there, but they are. What do we give ourselves permission to do in our lives?”
All content featured in this piece was captured in accordance with guild guidelines.