Nyad director talks her new Netflix drama, the astonishing true story, and moving onto narrative features after Free Solo

Annette Bening in Nyad
(Image credit: Netflix)

After making the incredible Oscar-winning documentary Free Solo and the critically-acclaimed The Rescue, husband-and-wife filmmaking duo Elizabeth Chai Vasarhelyi and Jimmy Chin were searching for their next project. However, this time they wanted to helm a narrative feature, making their first foray into that world. And for that, the astonishing real-life story of Diana Nyad felt like the perfect fit.

If you are unfamiliar with the remarkable tale, Nyad is one of the most famous swimmers in the world, making a name for herself after completing the staggering 110-mile, 53-hour-long trek from Cuba to Florida unaided without a shark cage. Making that achievement even more impressive is the fact that she initially attempted it in 1978, only returning to the mission when she turned 60 in 2010 after a 30-year retirement. Nyad then finally succeeded with her fifth attempt at the age of 64 in 2013.

It’s a story that instantly drew in the directors, as Vasarhelyi told GamesRadar+ during a chat ahead of the film’s premiere at the BFI London Film Festival last month: “Jimmy and I are very attracted to stories about pushing the limits of human possibility and the characters that come with those endeavors. We were also really attracted to the fact that it featured two rich, complex female roles – we had been looking for a film which centred on a woman who took this kind of journey and Diana’s story is extraordinary. Everyone has moments where they go through a transition, figuring out if you are done yet. Diana woke up at 60 one day and thought whilst the world may think they are finished with her, she wasn’t with it.”

Complete dedication


(Image credit: Netflix)

Whilst the themes of this story were similar to ones the filmmakers had tackled before, with it being a narrative feature they of course had to approach it differently. Vasarhelyi admits it was a new challenge, but one she enjoyed taking on, emphasizing that the main difference – working with actors – was something she relished: “That’s the main difference, as in documentaries we don’t direct our subjects at all – we waited two years for Alex Honnold [the subject of Free Solo] to say ‘I love you’. We got very lucky with these incredible actors who made all the complex parts, such as the scenes in the water, fun as storytelling challenges. I remember Jodie [Foster] telling me, ‘I don’t need words to do that, I’ll just do it,’ and then suddenly seeing all these emotions and thoughts on her face. She was right!”

The always brilliant Foster portrays Bonnie Stoll, Nyad’s best friend and coach during this epic swim. In fact, Foster is so good in the role that meeting Stoll was a spooky experience for GamesRadar+, thanks to how perfectly the actor nailed her voice and the smallest of mannerisms – it’s spot on. Stoll, unsurprisingly, couldn’t be happier with the portrayal, also praising how easy it was to work with Foster: “I couldn’t ask for anything better, really. The first time we met, she came to my house and I’ve never sat for three hours straight anywhere before. I have ADD, so I have to move around a lot. I remember seeing the clock, shocked. She had me read something to get the voice and we just started hanging out a lot.”

We had these world class stunt doubles available, the best of the best, and they had nothing to do!

Stoll is also full of praise for Foster’s co-star Annette Bening, who takes on the titular role of Nyad. It’s quite the performance, which Stoll accurately describes as “fabulous”, capturing the swimmer’s fierce spirit and tenacity – this is a woman who refuses to give up no matter what is thrown at her. Bening herself is also very dedicated, with Vasarhelyi revealing that the actor only wanted to take on the role if she could do the tough swimming scenes herself: “She was very considered when thinking about taking on the job, she couldn’t do it unless she did the work. We had these world class stunt doubles available, the best of the best, who had all just come off Avatar 2, and they had nothing to do – they ended up playing bit parts in the movie. Annette was so faithful, she trained for a year, four to six hours a day in the water, and because of that we were able to be as ambitious as we could in terms of the experimental shots. For her, it was so important that her stroke was consistent throughout the movie. She’s still swimming today.”

Chosen family


(Image credit: Netflix)

The duo of Bening and Foster is pitched perfectly thanks to their easygoing, natural chemistry – it’s a surprise to learn that they didn’t really know each other before shooting the film, being only acquaintances before. Arguably one of the most rewarding aspects of the characters’ relationship is that despite the fact they are both gay, there is never a hint of romance (although the pair joke that they were for one brief moment lovers). That is still rare to see on screen today and so it was important to Vasarhelyi to really highlight how Stoll and Nyad are “family”. She explained: “It was crucial to focus on this idea of chosen family, which was something of importance to Jodie too. There is a generation of women out there who didn’t have any other option as the choices they made led them to being shunned by their own families. That’s very much Diana and Bonnie – in the story we are telling, that friendship between them pulls Diana through.”

There is a generation of women out there who didn’t have any other option as the choices they made led them to being shunned by their own families.

That wasn’t just the case in the movie though, as Stoll points out to us – the reality was very much the same in real life too. One of the toughest scenes in the film sees Nyad get pulled out of the sea after being stung by a jellyfish, dying for a few moments once on board the boat before getting revived by a medic. That really did happen, resulting in Stoll initially refusing to coach Nyad for another attempt, not wanting to see her friend in pain or maybe even dying again. It’s something that Stoll still thinks about often, telling us that was the toughest point of the journey for her: “I didn’t want to see that again and I couldn’t see that again. We went to see someone, a mediator who used to be the head of open water swimming, and I remember Diana telling me ‘Oh good they should talk you into it’. I was like, ‘That’s not what a mediator does, Diana’. We were there for a few hours and I asked at the end if the swim was at all possible – he told me it’s highly improbable but if anyone can do it it’s Diana.

“I saw her die and I didn’t want her to be the crazy cat lady with nine lives who keeps coming back – but I couldn’t do it. Then I thought, 'What if she makes it and I’m not there, I’d be so frustrated, but if she doesn’t make it and I’m not there, what if she could have made it if I was?’ She is family to me and Diana lives by the fact that humans will keep getting tested more and more, with nobody being able to tell you when it’s over.”

Really, that’s the message of the whole film, or, as Nyad says herself at the end: “We should never, ever give up and you’re never too old to chase your dream.”

Nyad is available to stream now on Netflix. Looking for something else to watch on the platform after, check out our recommendations of the best Netflix movies.

Emily Murray
Entertainment Editor

As Entertainment Editor at GamesRadar, I oversee all the online content for Total Film and SFX magazine. Previously I've worked for the BBC, Zavvi, UNILAD, Yahoo, Digital Spy and more.