Glenn Close: ‘I spent a lot of years not being my full self’
The Fatal Attraction star in changes in Hollywood and how her new film could see her finally bring home an Oscar
Glenn Close: “You start out and it’s just one rejection after another. You have to be really tough. You have to believe.” Photograph: Tony Cenicola/NYT
Here’s a crazy thought. Glenn Close has never won an Oscar. Never. She has been nominated three times for best supporting actress (The World According to Garp, The Big Chill, The Natural) and three times for best actress (Fatal Attraction, Dangerous Liaisons, Albert Nobbs), she has a Bafta, a Sag Award, a star on the Hollywood Walk of Fame, and a cluster of Emmys and Tonys. But, decades into her screen career, she has yet to take home an Academy Award. That may be about to change.
In The Wife, Close plays Joan Castleman, the long-suffering partner of a celebrated author, played by Jonathan Pryce. As he prepares to receive the Nobel Prize in Literature, she encounters a gossipy literary biographer played by Christian Slater. He has an idea that Joan has suppressed her own writing ambitions in the service of her egotistical husband.
“When we were doing screenings of this in LA so many people said: ‘Oh my God, this is like the kind of film we used to make’”, says Close. “It is closer to something like a Mike Nichols film from the 1970s or Five Easy Pieces than the films we are making today. But it’s an independent film. And my definition of an independent film is a film that almost doesn’t get made.”
I spent a lot of years not being my full self, because I thought it would intimidate the person I was with. I didn’t want to outshine them. You hold yourself back, you know?
It’s a film with a good deal of “Oscar buzz”, too, and, as everybody noted at the Toronto premiere last year, it’s a very #MeToo movie. It has been a long time coming, in every sense.
“Meg Wolitzer’s book was written 14 years ago. Jane Anderson wrote the screenplay 14 years ago. It’s a movie called The Wife, starring a woman, with a woman trying to produce it, so it took 14 years to make,” says Close. “But, at this moment, it represents the times we live in more and more. I think there are currently a lot of things in development in Hollywood with women attached. They’re seeking out women. Of course, they’re doing it to be politically correct, but whatever it takes.”
It’s hard to picture Close sublimating herself as her character does, but she assures me it has happened: “I spent a lot of years – certainly at the beginning of my adult relationships – not being my full self, because I thought it would intimidate the person I was with. I didn’t want to outshine them. You hold yourself back, you know?”
She relates a story about the second film she made. Something About Amelia, a TV movie about sexual abuse, received eight Emmy nominations back in 1984, but it was an uphill battle for filmmaker Randa Haines, who went on to direct Children of a Lesser God in 1986.
“She was given such a hard time by the crew,” Close recalls. “I’ve never forgotten it. This was in ’82. It was not a common things to have a woman director. She was in new territory and a lot of people had difficulty taking direction from her. They didn’t like it. Camera crews are very macho. That’s why something like A Handmaid’s Tale is so incredible and important.”
Sitting down in Somerset House, one of London’s grander buildings, Close cuts a queenly presence, although she has a warm laugh and sunny features. Recalling Albert Nobbs, the Irish drama she spent 15 years adapting for the screen, she positively guffaws over her co-writer John Banville’s contributions.
“I called Stephen Frears and said I need someone to make this Irish,” she says. “So he said John Banville. And I don’t know that he’s the greatest living writer. We had such a good time. So he did a version. I didn’t know any Irish idioms. And I said: how do you say my father was a terrible drunk?”
She goes full brogue: “Me dad was a great whore for the drink.’ I loved that!”
Close often describes herself as shy, and she has always been reticent about her strange childhood. She was born in Greenwich, Connecticut, to a socialite mother and a prominent surgeon who operated a clinic in the Belgian Congo. When she was seven, her parents enrolled the family in religious group called the Moral Re-Armament, which Close has described as cult-like. Through her teens, she sang with the MRA-affiliated group Up with People, until she left to study theatre and anthropology at the College of William & Mary.
Annie was seven weeks old when I was shooting Dangerous Liaisons. Every time they’d say action, she’d cry. So she’s been on set and backstage her entire life
During her senior year she was backstage with a paintbrush when Katharine Hepburn appeared on a small TV screen. It changed everything.
“I wasn’t thinking: Oh, I’m going to be an anthropologist. I was already majored in theatre. It was the only time that Katharine Hepburn had been interviewed on television on The Dick Cavett Show. I had always admired her because she seemed to know who she was. In a profession where that’s uncommon. I listened to her and was rapt. The penny dropped. And I thought if you want to do this, just do it. The next morning I went straight to my mentor at the department and asked him if would nominate me for the national theatre auditions. It just happened that it was the last day the letter could be postmarked for that year. And I got to those auditions and I got to the finals and I got my first job in New York.”
Years later, Close would receive a letter from Hepburn: “I’m glad I persuaded you when you were a mere child to join this terrible profession.”
It’s not always so terrible. Close’s daughter, Annie Starke, has followed in her mother’s footsteps and can be seen in The Wife, playing the younger version of Close’s character.
“The business is not always kind to the kids of famous people,” says Close. “They have it twice as hard. They have to prove themselves. But it was her decision. She was seven weeks old when I was shooting Dangerous Liaisons. Every time they’d say action, she’d cry. So she’s been on set and backstage her entire life. And she has been surrounded by the most remarkable group of very giving and talented people. Who wouldn’t want to continue with that mix in your life? I loved that she’s in the movie. She had three screen tests. I’m very proud that she won the part.”
Close spent most of the 1970s in theatre until she was discovered by Butch Cassidy and the Sundance Kid director George Roy Hill, who brought her out to Hollywood to play Robin Williams’s mother in The World According to Garp.
“I think it really helped that I had learned my craft in theatre, so in that respect I think it was good to be older when I started in film. But whatever age you do this at, it’s a profession that demands incredible resilience. You start out and it’s just one rejection after another. You have to be really tough. You have to believe.”
Aged 71, Close can look back over an extraordinarily versatile screen career. She can be imperious (Guardians of the Galaxy, Mars Attacks!), comic (101 Dalmations) and mumsy (The Simpsons, The World According to Garp), but her best-loved roles are the mean girls of Dangerous Liaisons and Fatal Attraction.
Not that she thinks of them as mean girls.
“I went to two different psychiatrists for Fatal Attraction,” she says. “I didn’t want to be a generic bad person. People don’t exist in black and white. They’re grey. I wanted to know the why of her behaviour and in those discussions we came up with the idea that she had been incested repeatedly by her father over a number of years. That had left her traumatised and profoundly damaged and she had never been helped. I loved her. I put an equal amount of thought into The Wife because I needed to know why she didn’t leave him. It was only by asking that question over and over that I started to really understand her. But emotional sleuthing is what makes the work interesting.”
She talks about Daniel Day-Lewis’s retirement. She can’t ever see herself wanting out.
“But I completely understand his thinking,” she says. “I luxuriate in doing mundane things. I love not having to worry about my work schedule about having to dress up when you don’t really feel like it.”
Given the chatter around The Wife, we suspect dressing up will be mandatory over the coming months.
The Wife opens on Friday, September 28th