Role Recall: Glenn Close on feminism and 'Fatal Attraction,' 'beautiful genius' Robin Williams, and her Oscar-nominated 'The Wife'

Photos: Everett Collection
Photos: Everett Collection

It’s astonishing to think that Glenn Close didn’t start acting in movies until she was 35. Another astonishing fact: Close, who started as a stage performer, earned Academy Award nominations for her first three films: The World According to Garp (1982), The Big Chill (1983), and The Natural (1984). Today, she’s the only living actor with seven nominations never to win an Oscar — though that very likely could change on Feb. 24 as Close is considered the heavy favorite to win Best Actress for her latest film role in The Wife.

That last statistic hardly detracts from the fact that Close is considered a far-and-away great of her generation, turning out over 35 years of enveloping performances that range from tragic (Albert Nobbs) to cruel (101 Dalmatians), heroic (Air Force One) to unhinged (Fatal Attraction).

In our Role Recall interview, the 71-year-old Connecticut native recounted memories from various movies that took our collective breath away.

The World According to Garp (1982)

Close was asked to take part in a table read of the screenplay based on John Irving’s book after director George Roy Hill (The Sting) watched her in a Broadway play. A short while later she was offered her first film role, playing Jenny Fields, the feminist mother to Robin Williams’ eponymous lead.

“It was daunting. Stage is very different from film. Luckily I had George Roy Hill directing, and he had started in live television. He rehearsed that movie like a play. They rented a space up at Columbia University and put tape on the floor as you do in a play for the different sets and everything, and he asked that we memorize our lines, and we rehearsed it like a play.”

It was during those rehearsals that Close first met Williams, who was still best known as a standup comedian and Mork and Mindy sitcom star and was just beginning to branch out into film (and drama).

“I loved him immediately. He was in a wild phase of his life then [laughs]. Robin was a fascinating, beautiful genius. He was not always on. When he wasn’t on, as people think of him, doing his routines, he was very quiet. And you could almost say shy. Childlike. So I saw those two sides of him. He was a wonderful person to have on set… He kept everybody’s esprit de corps up because he’d just say the funniest things at the most perfect time. He was a great.”

Close was filming The Big Chill when she got word of her first Oscar nomination for Garp.

“I was in the cellar of the Tidalholm, the house where we were, and I remember someone telling me and I was like, ‘What?’ It was so far out of my realm of possibility.”

The Big Chill (1983)

Close and castmates Tom Berenger, Jeff Goldblum, William Hurt, Kevin Kline, Mary Kay Place, Meg Tilly and JoBeth Williams rehearsed this drama about college chums reuniting after a friend’s suicide for a month before the cameras began rolling. The bonding was “profound,” Close says, and has lasted until today. In fact the night before this interview, both Goldblum and Place attended the premiere of The Wife, while Williams had to bow out at the last minute.

“Once we got down to South Carolina, [director Lawrence Kasdan] asked that all of us be on the set whether we were working or not. But I had known Bill, I had dated Kevin, I’d seen JoBeth on stage, I didn’t know Mary Kay and I didn’t know Tom. And Jeff, I had seen Jeff in some revue that he did that was hilarious. We bonded for life.”

One of the most memorable sequences from the film involves the gang sporadically busting dance moves to The Temptations’ “Ain’t Too Proud to Beg” as they prepare dinner.

“It wasn’t choreographed, and I was so self-conscious. Mary Kay is a brilliant swing dancer. Kevin moves like a ballet dancer. And I couldn’t believe it was my butt that ended up [front and center], and somehow ended up looking like I knew what I was doing.”

Close’s Sarah Cooper appears to have it all together in the film’s early going, but comes apart during that devastating shower scene, where her naked vulnerability is on full display, literally and figuratively.

“By that time I felt very protected. And also that’s like an actor’s gold. Because it’s a private moment between the character and the audience. So I went back into the scene with the other characters with the audience knowing that I had just been sobbing, but no one else does. And it gives the character a lot of gravitas. I was very grateful for that scene.”

The Natural (1984)

Close cherishes the months she spent in the “gorgeous city” of Buffalo, N.Y., which stood in for New York City and Chicago in this beloved baseball drama about aging rookie Roy Hobbs (Robert Redford).

“I hung out with Richard Farnsworth and Wilford Brimley all summer. Went to the horse races with them, we were real buddies. Richard Farnsworth, beautiful Richard Farnsworth, was Gary Cooper’s stunt double. I think he was the first one who did that incredible stunt of jumping from horse to horse to horse in a six-horse stagecoach, that was Richard. He had good stories. That was a great experience. Wonderful extras in that movie.”

The actress was surrounded by such extras in an iconic moment where Hobbs spots her Iris Gaines in the crowd, and there’s almost an angelic glow to her — a shot aesthetic that Close says was very much by design.

“A lot of that movie was shot in the magic hour [the first or last hour of sunlight], with that great golden light. And Caleb Deschanel, who was our DP [director of photography], he waited until the sun was actually slanting into the stadium. And the hat that I was wearing was designed so that the sun could shine through the brim. And then he designed a lens so that I was very clear in the center while he subtly muted the extras around me. I got nominated for that and I think I owe it totally to Caleb.”

Fatal Attraction (1987)

Despite the fact that she already had three Oscar nominations under her belt, there was heavy resistance to casting her as the spurred (and increasingly unhinged) Alex Forrest, lover to Michael Douglas’s Dan Gallagher, in this classic thriller.

“I first met [producer] Stanley Jaffe in New York. It was a hot summer day and I was wearing this little summer dress and a hat [laughs]. I couldn’t be more unlike the character. But whatever we talked about was interesting enough. … It’s really funny because I didn’t know, thank God, until [ex-Paramount chief] Sherry Lansing told me years later how much they didn’t want me, how much they were sure that I was absolutely wrong. And my wonderful agent at the time, Fred Specktor, insisted that they see me and because I was building up a certain stature, they did. Sherry’s said that she was so embarrassed that they would have to reject me that she didn’t want to show up. But I was totally oblivious to all that [laughs].”

Still, Close never anticipated the film would leave such a mark on pop culture.

“It was a great experience working with [director] Adrian Lyne, and Michael, I think we thought we were making something really good. No one could predict that it would be part of our culture, and even put new words into the lexicon like “bunny boiler.” You can’t predict that. But it just came out at an opportune time where I think there was this anger boiling up between the sexes because of feminism, and it hadn’t really been expressed, and that was just plugging right into it.”

It was revealed in the recent biography of Sherry Lansing that Close staunchly resisted the film’s ending, which came from a reshoot after the studio determined that test audiences wanted to see Alex dead in the end. In the original ending, Alex was painted in a more tragic light.

“The original ending didn’t have the recording in it that the wife finds. It was a seamless film noir in that they had the fight, his fingerprints were on the knife, and she ends up with Madame Butterfly in the background, slitting her throat. That character would’ve killed herself before she would’ve killed someone else. So it was very, very, very difficult for me to have to wield a knife and become a psychopath. But I don’t think it would’ve been the big hit that it was without that [new] ending.”

Dangerous Liaisons (1988)

Close returned to work just seven weeks after giving birth to her daughter, Annie Starke (who actually plays a younger version of her in The Wife), for this Stephen Frears-directed period piece about aristocrats gone wild that co-starred Michelle Pfeiffer and John Malkovich.

“I joined halfway through. They filmed all of Michelle’s scenes. And there was one scene where we’re both in the same scene, which is when the castrato is singing, and that was my first scene and her last scene. … It was very challenging to come back. I had great boobs, though [laughs]. I had just weened Annie. It was fabulous. It’ll never happen again.

It took Close some time to get used to Malkovich’s deliciously slimey approach to the role of Vicomte de Valmont — and marked the only time the actress was sent home from work.

The first scene I had with Malkovich I thought to myself, what are you doing? I just don’t get it. I didn’t know. … So I asked Stephen if I could watch the footage that had been shot, little snippets of everything, so I watched that and I said, “OK, I see what he’s doing,” so I was able to jump in. But it was an adjustment. And it was the only time I had been sent home because I couldn’t remember my lines, in that scene where she’s talking about what created her, how she created herself. I was so tired from having a newborn, and working, that I couldn’t remember my line. And I remember Stephen said, ‘Just stop. Just go home and sleep.’ My eyes were so red.

101 Dalmatians (1996)

Close took on one of Disney’s all-time great villains Cruella De Vil in this John Hughes scripted live-action adaptation of the animated classic, and drew heavily on the ‘toon for her performance.

That was a great characterization. And she was basically a witch. She’s really in a great tradition of wicked stepmothers, or wicked witches. The thing that I did [laughs] was I felt she wasn’t mean enough. And I got permission to go back to the original and put in some of the dialogue, like, [in Cruella voice] “Chloroform them!” Or “Drown them!” Because the worse she was, the more effective she was. And in some cases, the funnier she was. So I went back a lot to the original and put in some of those words.”

Air Force One (1997)

Close was a last-minute casting decision in this Wolfgang Petersen-directed terrorism thriller. She played Vice President Kathryn Bennett to Harrison Ford’s President James Marshall. But unlike The Big Chill, this is not a film you’ll find her crying in.

“I always wondered if that character had originally been male, I don’t know. But it was so last-minute that I was wearing one of my own wigs. … They have in the script that she broke down and cried [recalling The Big Chill]. And I said, ‘No, I will not do that. I will not play a woman who is vice president who cries. Because I don’t think women do that.’ And also I wanted to play her as someone who would be capable of being the president.”

Albert Nobbs (2011)

Close earned her sixth nomination for playing the titular butler, a woman disguised as a man in late 19th century Ireland — a role she first played off-Broadway in 1982.

That story never left me. There came a time when I thought I wanted to make it into a film. It took me 14 years. I got the rights, and I wasn’t the first one to write the first treatment or the first script, but I took it back… I co-produced it. God, it was one of the best memories of my career, I’m very proud of that movie.”

While the conversation around transgender characters in Hollywood has shifted dramatically in the seven short years since Nobbs was released, Close says Nobbs is routinely mislabeled and would not be portrayed any differently today.

“A lot of people think she’s a lesbian, people think she’s transgender, she’s not. She’s a woman in disguise trying to survive. So I never thought of her as a man, I always thought of her as a woman. And it really is what people bring to it on their own. But I don’t think she knew what she was. She’d never been loved, never been touched, she’d certainly never made love. She’d been raped. So she was an innocent in disguise. It was about survival.”

The Wife (2018)

Close plays the long supportive spouse to a philandering author (Jonathan Pryce) whose Nobel Prize awarding in Stockholm spurs her to do some soul-searching.

“It was a wonderful process. To have a partner in Jonathan Pryce was thrilling, but also to discover for myself Björn Runge, who I think is in the tradition of Bergman… He really understands the process of acting, he really respects what actors do. And he created an amazing atmosphere of trust. In that we knew that whatever we ended up doing would be well filmed. He knew where to put the camera and he knew when to use a closeup and how to light a closeup and how to trust a closeup. For an actor that’s gold.”

The story starts off relatively quietly, but leads up to some explosive moments for Close — just the type of dramatic fireworks the actress’s fans yearn to see from her.

“That was hard. Those scenes are hard. Especially the last big fight through when he dies. It was challenging. Because I’d never seen anyone die of a heart attack. And there were some moments — like when he says ‘Do you love me?’ — that literally took my breath away.”

A version of this story was originally published on Sept. 14, 2018.

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