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Toronto: ‘Nyad’ Director Elizabeth Chai Vasarhelyi Talks Directing Annette Bening, Jodie Foster at Sea

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If you’re wondering whether long-distance swimmer Diana Nyad liked Nyad – where the titular character played by Annette Bening fulfills her dream of finishing the Cuba-to-Florida swim at age 64 – a good judge would be her real-life coach, Bonnie Stoll, played by Jodie Foster in the Netflix drama.

“Well, it has her name on it, so she loves it!” Stoll told the Princess of Wales Theatre at the Toronto Film Festival on Thursday night during a post-screening Q&A. Stoll stood in for Nyad, who was a no-show at the international premiere at TIFF after Telluride due to her membership in SAG-AFTRA, as were Bening and Foster due to their own Hollywood strike restrictions.

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But the marathon swimming drama does little to dissuade its viewers that the true-life Nyad is 100 percent self-centered and driven or, as Foster’s Stoll tells her best friend in the film, she has “a superiority complex.”

The movie dramatizes Nyad who, in 2013, became the first person to swim the 110-mile distance from Cuba to Florida without the aid of a shark cage. It was her fifth attempt, and she completed a 53-hour swim through the dangerous open ocean that included overcoming sharks and poisonous jellyfish.

Elizabeth Chai Vasarhelyi was without co-director Jimmy Chin in Toronto to present her narrative debut, where she heaped praise for Bening and Foster’s performances. “These actors have access to these emotions and craft and having that as tools for us to tell this story was incredibly helpful,” she recalled.

Stoll told the TIFF audience she spent much time with Foster but never offered advice about playing her role. “I never said a word about anything, until after I saw the movie. And from the first time I saw it, I was watching myself up there,” she recounted.

Vasarhelyi talked about making her and Chin’s first narrative film after winning an Academy Award for their 2018 documentary Free Solo about rock climber Alex Honnold. She also opened up about diving into dangerous waters for Nyad, with cameras rolling in a giant tank in the Dominican Republic.

“It was tough. We shot for 41 days, started shooting in a tank and I’ve never directed actors before, and I’m given a bullhorn and told to yell at Jodie Foster and Annette Bening across the water. To their credit, they were gracious,” Vasarhelyi remembered.

Nyad is produced by Andrew Lazar and Teddy Schwarzman and was developed by Mad Chance and Black Bear Pictures. The feature will hit theaters on Oct. 20 before launching on Netflix on Nov. 3.

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