Glenn Close: 'It's been hard to get a script where I am the main character'
The actor talks about becoming an accidental activist, the real Hollywood and her plans for the future
Glenn Close: ‘I think that [men versus women] pent-up anger hadn’t been expressed, and ‘Fatal Attraction’ was like drilling down to that layer of anger between the sexes, and it just blew up.’ Photograph: Getty
Glenn Close and Sennia Nanua in the soon to be released ‘The Girl with All the Gifts’
Glenn Close is delighted to hear that I’m calling from Dublin. “Oh, say ‘hi’ to John Banville for me!” she says and, I’m not sure if she’s joking, so, I just go along with the brief conceit that John and I are besties, and I will indeed do so next time he and I cross paths.
Close and Banville worked together on the script of 2011’s Dublin-based film Alfred Nobbs, for which Close received her sixth Oscar nomination. “The script was very much mine and wonderful John Banville helped me ‘Irishize’ it,” she says. “I couldn’t come up with a line, ‘She’s a hoor for the drink’.” She repeats the phrase with relish.
Close is one of the stars of the new dystopian movie, The Girl with All the Gifts. Based on a novel by MR Carey, it is set in a Britain overrun with “hungries” (zombies by any other name).
It is more thoughtful than your average apocalyptic vision and stunningly shot. Playing alongside Paddy Considine and Gemma Arterton with the brilliant newcomer Sennia Nanua as the titular “Girl”, Close’s character Caldwell is a Macchiavellian doctor hell-bent on finding a way to halt the fall of the human race. She has that sort of steely, terrifying single-mindedness with which Close’s characters are so often imbued.
“I look at something and say ‘that will put me in a different kind of emotional territory than I’ve been in before, and that will be interesting’. You don’t want to kind of repeat yourself. I thought it was an interesting character because, like many of the characters that I’ve played, she can be perceived as the bad guy but she’s really not – she’s trying to save humanity.”
It was also just great fun, she says. She is adamant that money has never driven her. “I’ve never said ‘I won’t be paid less than X [fee]’. For me, the story and the people I will be spending my time with is the most important thing. I find it fulfilling to try to imagine myself into the skin of another person.”
The cast of The Girl with All the Gifts is led predominantly by women and passes the Bechdel test [whether a work of fiction features at least two women who talk to each other about something other than a man] in spades. “I think it’s wonderful to have a film with strong female leads.” Close says. She very much identifies as a feminist.
“The first thing I ever did politically was, after I had my child Annie, there was that big women’s march on Washington for choice, and because I’d just had this baby and you immediately care about everything about the world that they’re going to inherit, I went down there, kind of naively. I was put on the front row of the march with [leading feminist] Bella Abzug and I thought ‘Oh my God’ and then I remembered something that my father told me which was: an act of presence is very powerful – which is you’re just there, you’re present. So, then I kind of relaxed but it was trial by fire.”
Although most would consider Close a “serious actress”, following her performances in Dangerous Liasions, Albert Nobbs and The Big Chill, she has, of late, shown herself liable to turn up anywhere – The Simpsons, Mars Attacks!, and is formidable even in her lighter roles.
“She has these thousand-pound eyeballs that lend weight to anything,” says her Guardians of the Galaxy director James Gunn. Her five-year Emmy-winning run as ruthless lawyer Patty Hewes in television series Damages was the pinnacle of this.
Still, Close’s most iconic role was that of Alex Forrest in 1987’s Fatal Attraction, who becomes obsessed with a married man after a weekend affair. Alex may have boiled that bunny but she set Close free in terms of how she was perceived by directors and casting agents. “I thought it was an amazing role.” Prior to that, she had played the sexually-disinterested nurse Jenny in 1982’s The World According to Garp and then variations of that role “and then came Fatal Attraction where the big question was: ‘Can she be sexy?’ It would make me laugh because I said, ‘no one has asked me to be sexy!’.”
She did not anticipate some of the negative reactions to the film when it was released. “That was a surprise to me … feminists were saying I did a disservice to single working women. I wasn’t playing a generic single working woman, I was playing a very specific character.
“At that time, I guess there weren’t that many movies with single working women. It was a time when, and I think it’s why the film did so well, that kind of ‘men versus women’ dynamic in our body politic [had been building] for quite a while. I think that pent-up anger hadn’t been expressed, and that movie was like drilling down to that layer of anger between the sexes, and it just blew up...”
Close came to the Hollywood game later than most. After working as a stage actor, her first major film role was in The World According To Garp at 35. She played Robin William’s mother even though she was only four years older than him. She is pragmatic in her approach to the Hollywood machine, though concedes it is often a difficult place for women as they get older.
“Hollywood likes people who make money for them. It is getting more corporate, looking at the bottom line and banking on what already has worked … for me, it has been hard to get a film script where I’m the main character. I’ve been doing a lot of supporting roles which is fine. I don’t have an ego about that – but you just hope that something that you can really dig your teeth into will come along.” She agrees her male peers do not have the same problem.
In regards to her personal thoughts on getting older, she says the one thing that annoys her most is “I can’t seem to get rid of my stomach even though I jog for three miles a day. I decided, maybe two years ago, I just didn’t want to be touching up my grey roots all the time so I just quit.
“Now, I have a head of very white hair and I catch myself in the mirror and say, ‘oh my god, I look old’ – only because walking down the street some kid would say, look at that old lady.”
That said, she looks to other acting legends for inspiration. “One of the great thrills for me, truthfully, when I was doing Sunset Boulevard earlier this year in London. After a matinee, Judi Dench came in to my dressing room and I was able to thank her. All through my career when people would say ‘oh you can’t do television, it will ruin your career, you can’t do this and that’, I would say ‘Judi Dench does it – why can’t I do it?’ And not pretending she’s 30 years younger, for one thing.”
Close does not particularly enjoy the fame game. “Having to go on the red carpet to me is an absolute nightmare. I just feel like I’m not of that world. I don’t particularly like to spend a ton of time in dress fittings and then to have everyone judging as if you’re some sort of high-fashion model.”
So she is living on the East Coast, in her house in Westchester where she raised her only daughter – Annie Starke, who is now 28 and also an actor, a fact about which Close has mild reservations.
“I know how hard it is on your life. It’s a hard profession but she’s much wiser than I am – she just got engaged and we’re all just thrilled ... they’re a different generation they seem much more aware of sticking…”
She stops herself there. Talking to Close, you often feel on the brink of a confidence. Close divorced her third husband, David Shaw “amicably” in 2015. “They have a very wonderful relationship,” she continues. “They’ve worked out stuff...I was just thrilled for her.”
Close is known to be guarded about her childhood and won’t be drawn on any references to her parents in our conversation. When she was seven years old, her father, a surgeon, who had worked in the Congo during the first outbreak of Ebola, joined a cult-like movement called Moral Re-Armament and moved his wife and four children to the group’s headquarters in Switzerland. Close remained associated with the group until her early twenties and struggled to overcome her indoctrination. On forgiving her father, she has said: “I always thought, the way life works, the burden of forgiveness is on the child.”
Private though she is, she is happy to use her celebrity to raise awareness of matters close to her heart. She recently spoke about her depression and founded the organisation called Bring Change 2 Mind. “My first reaction was ‘I can’t talk about that, people will think I’m weird’ and then I thought ‘listen to yourself’.”
Her younger sister Jesse has written books about her own mental health issues, something that was not discussed when Close was growing up. “My sister and my nephew have been brave enough to talk about their bipolar disorder and schizophrenia and so you get out there and you just talk about it, because a lot of people are battling with the same thing.”
She describes her depression as “low grade” and something she has learned to manage after initially misdiagnosing herself as having ADD. “[The doctor] said ‘You’re depressed’ and I said, ‘I’m what?’ But I understand the feeling, it’s something you could easily be overwhelmed by. Stigma is the main reason people don’t get help.”
She’s returning to the UK soon for a film Crooked House based on an Agatha Christie novel. “One of the leads is Max Irons who I knew when he was, like, three…” But she also just bought a house in Montana near her family: “I was there for a month and the luxury of being near my siblings at this point in our lives was so fabulous. For me, it’s about family and then, hopefully, work,” she says, doubling back on herself.
She is hoping to resurrect her award-winning role as Norma Desmond on Broadway. Theatre is her true love – the “core of our craft is that visceral connection with a live audience ... so I’m not planning to slow down any time soon.”
Closes’s work ethic is down to the fact she is “an old Connecticut Yankee.” She talks about the famous New England stone walls that she says took more manpower to build than the pyramids. “That kind of stone is in my blood. You were taught to work hard and not boast about it ... and save your money,” she laughs.