Friday 23 August 2019

'My childhood gave me a kind of PTSD' - Glenn Close

Glenn Close talks about feminism, the fallout of her traumatic upbringing and her latest film, which has been tipped to land her a seventh Oscar nomination

Glenn Close. Photo: Griffin Lipson
Glenn Close. Photo: Griffin Lipson
Close encounters: the actress with Jonathan Pryce in The Wife

Robbie Collin

Glenn Close has just been crucified, and it sounds like it went rather well. A few days before we meet - I wish I could say three - the actress recorded her big show-stopping scene for a new musical in which her character, the protagonist's Scottish mother, nails herself to a cross.

"It's largely autobiographical," Close laughs - though this particular sequence, to be clear, is more of an allegorical deal. "Once my hands are both up there, John (Cameron Mitchell)'s character asks to be hugged, and I explain that I can't, because I've crucified myself." Her only concern, at this point, is that her Glaswegian accent won't stand up to scrutiny: "I didn't really have time to perfect it," she frowns.

Anthem, which will be released next year as a serial podcast, is the 71-year-old actress's first such credit in a career that has spanned the stage and screens of all sizes.

In the cinema, she has been the bunny-boiling Alex Forrest in Fatal Attraction and the Dalmatian-skinning Cruella de Vil; on television, Patty Hewes in the legal drama Damages; on Broadway and in the West End, Norma Desmond in Andrew Lloyd Webber's Sunset Boulevard.

Close was moving between mediums before it was cool. When she began Damages in 2007, actress Holly Hunter rang to ask how life was in the then-dawning age of prestige television. "And I told her it's fabulous. And then she did one, too."

Her latest film is The Wife: no auto-crucifixion here, but much self-mutilation and sacrilege of a subtler type. Adapted from Meg Wolitzer's 2003 novel, it is a dark and devious character study in which Close plays Joan Castleman, the supportive spouse of the grey-maned literary lion Joe Castleman (Welsh actor Jonathan Pryce), who has been summoned to Stockholm to receive a long-anticipated Nobel Prize. Tagging along as his plus-one, Joan reflects with dismay, and then wrath, on a life spent in her husband's shadow - and in their hotel room, grievances are aired, secrets exhumed.

Set in the 1990s, with flashbacks to Joan's student days, it plays as a sly riposte to the so-called "Great man theory" of history. Close describes it as "part-period piece, part-love story, part-Bergmanesque drama - so much so the latter that it could have been called Scenes from a Marriage. I think it's good that it's hard to characterise. Kind of like life, right?"

Close talks calmly and precisely, shooting bolts of eye contact to make phrases like that last one stick. I'm struck as we talk that you couldn't design a more ruthlessly effective face for cinema: while making a point about the importance of close-ups ("they're where the emotional connections are... the reason you go out thinking, 'I've felt something'"), she fixes me with a look that makes me feel like I'm out on a ledge.

Cinemagoers experienced the same en masse in Fatal Attraction, the 1987 erotic thriller that cemented her star status. The film is a product of its time, but holds up amazingly well - not least because Close's terrific lead turn as the obsessive but vulnerable mistress of Michael Douglas's philandering lawyer taps into something more ageless than the perms and leather wrap coats.

"I always felt that Fatal Attraction came out at a time where there was all this resentment brewing between the sexes because of feminism," she says. "And that movie poked a hole in the blister, and it just erupted." She still can't abide the slasher-movie finale that sees the scarlet woman vanquished by the loyal wife: the original, more haunting ending was replaced when test audiences bayed for a showdown.

Close's performance in Fatal Attraction led to her fourth of six Oscar nominations to date. And as soon as The Wife screened at last year's Toronto Film Festival, the talk began again: could this be the role that finally clinches it? With a politician's tact, she says she is "thrilled" by the speculation, particularly as she sees the part as "one of the trickiest I've had to play. Because I had to come up with an answer to a big question: why hasn't she left him? I was so sure that all the women in the audience would jump up and yell 'Just leave him!' So I had to answer that question for myself."

Doing so involved some searching conversations with her 30-year-old daughter Annie Starke, who plays the young Joan in flashback. "She had to establish who Joan is: my job was to follow her," Close says. "She's a millennial, as they say, and they were all born after feminism. I thought the character would be hard for her generation to understand. But she got it."

In preparing, the two talked about Close's own mother, the socialite Bettine Moore, who died aged 90 in 2015, "and totally deferred to my father our whole lives. She was a woman of great potential who, at the end of her life, tragically said, 'I feel like I've accomplished nothing'."

Close's father, William, served for 16 years as the personal physician of Mobutu Sese Seko, the dictatorial president of Zaire. "My dad was brilliant, but it was all about him," says Close. She and her siblings advised their mother to file for divorce. "But she said, 'No, I made a vow' - they got married in 1944, you know, so it was a different world. But it was painful to watch. So I'd seen this story in my own family. My father [...] always put himself in a position where the people he took care of worshipped him."

When making The Wife, that was what impressed her about Pryce's grasp of the husband role: "I don't know if brave is the right word, but it takes a really accomplished actor to pull off something like that. Because Joe is ultimately a kind of self-loathing, tragic figure, not just a narcissistic asshole. But it's so true to life. And they're both complicit."

She says the production initially searched for a male co-star in the US, "but we couldn't find an American actor who'd be in a movie called The Wife." Their first day on set together involved shooting the film's bracingly frank opening sex scene, which, Close recalls with a hoot, "didn't take terribly long" to perfect. "We didn't talk about it," she says. "You don't have to talk about it, right? We're the same age, we've been acting about the same time, 40-something years. So we thought, 'Okay, we'll just do it.' I don't think it was quite over in one take, but it was fun."

Off-screen, Close has been married three times; she divorced her third husband in 2015. The first, whom she wed at 21 and split with two years later, was a guitarist she met while singing with Up with People, the musical branch of Moral Re-Armament, the right-wing religious cult. Her family immersed themselves when Close was seven, leaving Connecticut for the group's base in Switzerland. She only extracted herself in her early 20s, when she went to college.

She has never spoken in detail about it, but plans to do so in a memoir, a contract for which she signed years ago, and "which I will write when I can stop working for long enough to clear the decks and really dig in. Because I think that whole dynamic is fascinating."

She visited a childhood trauma specialist "not too long ago - even at my age, which is kind of astounding. But it establishes these trigger points that affect you for the rest of your life. I think anybody who has gone through any kind of experience like that doesn't want to be affected by it, because it is a kind of PTSD. I think it really is interesting how deep it runs."

Close's fascination with brave faces and buried selves rings out clear in The Wife, just as it did in 2011's Albert Nobbs - which, like her new film, required 14 years of prodding and persuasion on her part to make. Early in her career, she starred in a stage adaptation of the original George Moore short story, about a woman living as a male butler in 19th-century Dublin. The character never left her, so she secured the rights in the early 1990s, and reprised the role almost three decades later. John Banville co-wrote the screenplay for the Irish-British production, which was largely filmed in Dublin.

Writing in 1927, Moore described Nobbs as a "perhapser" - this being decades before terms such as transgender and genderqueer entered the lexicon. Close accepts that were she playing the role today, discussions would be had about her suitability that would have crossed very few minds seven years ago - particularly in light of the backlash against Scarlett Johansson's recent decision, which was subsequently reversed, to play a transgender man in the forthcoming crime biopic Rub & Tug.

Close recalls playing an American Indian on stage many years ago, and being picketed by ethnic rights groups. "It was agonising," she says. "We closed because it was so wrong. So [...] I've been in that situation." She feels the line is less clear-cut in the Johansson case, adding that when it comes to sex and gender, all else being equal, "anyone should be able to play anything. You can't limit a craft or an art like that.

"But that's easy for me to say, because I'm in the demographic that mostly gets cast. And to be cast you need training, and to get training you need to be cast." She smiles, looks right at me, and my toes instinctively curl back over the imaginary ledge. "It's a fucking hard profession all the way around."

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