In NYAD, the Oscar-nominated performer is unstoppable as the legendary open-water swimmer.
The Greek word “naiad” translates to “water nymph.” Like her name suggests, Diana Nyad believed she was destined for a life of greatness in the water. And as a record-setting marathon swimmer, it turned out she was. In 1974, Nyad became the first person to swim Lake Ontario from north to south. The following year, on October 6, 1975, she swam around Manhattan Island in seven hours and 57 minutes. She’d spent hours practicing in open water and traveling the globe for her sport, but shortly after one failed attempt at swimming from Cuba to Florida at age 28, her career came to an end — or so it seemed.
Thirty-six years later, at 64, Nyad became the first person ever to make that journey without the protection of a shark cage. Oscar-winning documentary filmmakers Elizabeth Chai Vasarhelyi and Jimmy Chin’s new film, NYAD, isn’t concerned with the swimmer’s earlier career so much as the impossible feat that she was able to achieve more than 30 years later. It begins with Nyad, played by four-time Oscar nominee Annette Bening, on the cusp of 60, getting some “steps in” during a run to Petco for doggie bags with her best friend Bonnie Stoll (Jodie Foster). Nyad has sun spots, bleach-blonde hair, and piercing blue eyes. She’s a journalist and motivational speaker, but she finds herself reliving her swimming achievements in every casual conversation. And she hasn’t quite lost the chip on her shoulder as a result of falling short in that ill-fated 110-mile swim from the coast of Havana to the shores of Key West. Then, after her 60th birthday, Nyad decides — almost clandestinely — to get into a pool, and discovers she’s still a natural.
Bening, who has starred in The Grifters, Bugsy, American Beauty, and The Kids Are All Right, among many other acclaimed features, first read Julia Cox’s script for the film during the pandemic and was all in. She began getting into Nyad’s headspace by reading her 2015 memoir, Find a Way, on which the movie is based, but it was the moment she jumped into her pool at home that she realized how daunting this project would be. Over the course of the story, Nyad attempts the dangerous Cuba-Florida swim four more times, succeeding only after run-ins with sharks, jellyfish, man o’ wars, and forceful currents. Bening would bring it to life onscreen by swimming for the camera, day after day, in a massive water tank in the Dominican Republic.
Growing up in San Diego, Bening was always comfortable around the water. But lap swimming — and marathon lap swimming, at that — was a different activity altogether. She quickly began working with Olympic swimmer Rada Owens to get into character, physically. “We started at the beginning,” Bening says. “I swam for her, and she immediately said, ‘Oh yeah. You can do this.’” They worked on proper stroke and kicking. Much to Bening’s surprise, freestyle wasn’t about madly kicking so much as it was about upper body strength.
“She worked for a year to get ready for this, and it shows,” the real Nyad says of Bening’s commitment to the role. “She became a swimmer. She is an inch taller than me and quite a bit slighter, but her shoulders have grown by, I’d say, a few inches as she’s been training. She embraced the role.” At one point on set, Nyad even swam side-by-side with Bening to help the actor match her exact strokes.
The process changed Bening’s own relationship to the sport. Over the course of making NYAD, the actor fell in love with swimming because, she says, “of how it affects your central nervous system and your brain.” It almost requires that an athlete tap into a meditative state. Through Bening’s captivating performance and Oscar-winning cinematographer Claudio Miranda’s artful lens, NYAD accurately depicts the sensory deprivation that swimmers experience in the water, something Nyad can describe all too well. “You’ve got fogged-over
goggles,” says the swimmer. “You’ve got tight caps over your ears. You don’t see much. You don’t hear anything, so you’ve got to keep yourself in the moment somehow.” Nyad says she was able to stay in the zone by counting to 1,000 — forward and backward — in many different languages. She also sang in her head, going through a mental playlist of 85 songs from the likes of Neil Young, Janis Joplin, and the Beatles, in a certain order.
The counting and the singing make their way into the film’s mesmerizing underwater scenes (as does one episode of hallucination where Diana witnesses the Taj Mahal in front of her). But Bening admits that she hasn’t yet achieved this level of focus in the pool herself. Instead, swimming quiets her mind, which has its own addictive appeal. “The mind stops chattering and criticizing and judging or thinking of the past or the future, planning or regretting,” the actor says. “You’re feeling the water and air around you. It becomes very focused in a relaxed way even though, of course, you’re expending a lot of energy at the same time. It’s a wonderful feeling.”
NYAD is a departure from Bening’s previous work in that she spent most of her time in a water tank, swimming. “I found that to be very liberating, as compared to standing on the ground and walking and talking and sitting and acting,” she says. “It was refreshing to be swimming and then going into moments from that.” Despite having body doubles on standby, Bening truly swam, sometimes for up to several hours a day. “When Annette swam that first stroke in the pool on camera, you could feel the excitement of the crew,” Vasarhelyi recalls.
Ironically, though, the beating heart of NYAD isn’t found in the water. Instead, it’s in the almost familial bond between Nyad and her best friend, Stoll, whom the swimmer met at the age of 30 just as her career had come to an end. In reality and in the film, Nyad convinces her friend Bonnie to coach her for the grueling Cuba-Florida swim and, reluctantly, her friend agrees. They collaborate on four daunting expeditions together, the final one culminating on the beach of Key West. The accomplishment, both Bening and Nyad note, couldn’t have been achieved without Bonnie.
Vasarhelyi and Chin found their Bonnie in two-time Academy Award winner Foster (Taxi Driver, The Silence of the Lambs), who Bening considered an “ideal partner” for this journey. Foster was equally delighted to work with Bening. “She has a single-focus quality that’s very true to Diana,” says Foster. “She’s not afraid to talk too much or show the sides of Diana that rub people the wrong way.” Bening’s physical transformation and her expressions in each close-up convey a portrait of an athlete intent on defying all expectations, one who won’t take no for an answer.
In the film, each time Nyad begins her swim from Cuba, she says, “Onward.” It’s a simple manifestation of what it means to never give up, of an openness to trying new things. At 65, with 34 years of acting under her belt, Bening, too, understands the process of renewal — of meeting new challenges head-on. “Maybe Diana’s story will make people think to themselves, I’ve been living my life this way, but I actually can do something else if I want to,” she says.
After all of those laps performed for the camera, Bening isn’t done with the sport. Just like the world-class athlete she portrays, she plans to keep swimming. Offers Nyad: “They call it a blue planet. There’s a lot of water to swim.”