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Close to Her Material

Glenn Close opens the door of her hotel suite to greet me. "Hello, I'm Glenn," she says cheerfully, extending her hand to shake mine. She's understatedly dressed in jeans and a blouse. Beside the pleasant surprise of her soft, casual demeanor, I think to myself, "Glenn answers her own door?" as I enter the room to see her publicist and what appears to be her assistant, both of whom are helping Close during a day off from shooting an independent film in Los Angeles. Close is eager to talk about one of her recent projects, Showtime's remake of The Lion in Winter, in which Close consummately takes the crown previously worn by Katharine Hepburn in the lead role of the devious, dicey, and devastated Eleanor of Aquitaine. The film premiered last week to critically positive reviews of her and co-star Patrick Stewart's strong performances in the TV movie, a project Close refers to as her "idea of heaven."

Despite the diverse divas that Close has convincingly played—from the Marquise de Merteuil in Dangerous Liaisons to Norma Desmond on Broadway to the wickedly delightful Cruella de Vil—the real Close comes across as down to earth, humble, and genuinely gracious. Perhaps that is because she spent the first nine years of her acting career in theatre before getting cast at the age of 35 to play Robin Williams' mother in the 1982 film The World According to Garp, a role for which she was recognized with her first of five Academy Award nominations and which led to her subsequent success in The Big Chill, The Natural, Jagged Edge, and, Fatal Attraction.

"I think to start in theatre, which is all about dealing with rejection and you don't have limos or somebody dressing you—well, you do if you have quick changes—but it's a whole discipline, learning your craft, that I think when you go to [work in] the movies you're not as seduced by all of the trimmings of fame, as you might be if that's all that you knew," Close tells Back Stage West. "And I have a wonderful family. I think my parents gave me a great sense of values. So I did have a lot of balance. I mean, I had real ups and downs, but I think I had lived life enough to not go through that absolutely insane time that a lot of my [famous] friends did."

According to Close, she never succumbed to the seductions of the Hollywood lifestyle and has never lived on the West Coast. "I wouldn't know what to do here," she claims of the idea of living in L.A. "There's a certain echelon of star in this city, and I wouldn't know how to design that kind of life for myself. I wouldn't know where to begin. So I'm just continuing [to live] 20 minutes from where I grew up."

Close was born and raised in Greenwich, Conn., where she says she enjoyed her childhood. "I grew up on a wonderful piece of property in Connecticut, and my sister, Tina, was the leader of our gang—Lily and Dougie Wagner, Tina, and I—and we just pretended all summer on the shore, didn't watch that much television, played with puppets. So I had a very, very active imagination—a life in my imagination. And then I was raised on both the classic Disney cartoons and Old Yeller, Outlaw, Sounder, and, again, it piqued my imagination. [Acting] was something that I had wanted to do from a very early age."

However, it was not until she attended the College of William & Mary that Close became an actor. "For four years I started doing what I had always wanted to do—theatre," she says. "I majored in theatre and minored in anthropology, and I was lucky when I was there that there was a triumvirate of theatre professors who were amazing. I consider my mentor to be a man called Howard Scammon, who is no longer with us. I think he sensed my seriousness. He had been educated at Northwestern with Charlton Heston and Patricia Neal—they were in his class—and he was a great teacher and mentor." Scammon stayed in touch with Close after she graduated and continued to offer her feedback on her work once she became a professional. She continues, "When I went to New York he followed me there and would critique what I did very honestly. I looked forward to it, and he kept at me and kept that nurturing feeling toward me from when I a student."

Close's first job out of school was at the New Phoenix Repertory Company, where she was hired as an understudy for the female leads of the three plays that were in rep at the time. "The first play [Congrieve's Love for Love] starred Mary Ure. The director fired her and put me in the lead, but then after that play ended its run I went back up to my little garret dressing room and finished out the season as an understudy bit player. It opened many doors, but it also was sobering. Then I felt that I had to go back and learn and improve myself."

While Close enjoyed her years spent honing her craft onstage, she tells BSW that she wishes she could have begun her film career earlier. "I wanted to do [movies since] I was a kid, and life just took me in a different direction, but I'm lucky to have finally been able to do what I think I'm here in this world to do, you know? I would have liked to have started younger; you just have more of an array of parts." And although Close continues, at age 57, to get offered plenty of work, she finds, like many notable actresses of her generation, that great roles are few and hard to come by now. "I think there's a limited amount of roles, I really do," she laments. "Certainly roles like Eleanor of Aquitaine don't come your way [often]. This is a rare script. It's incredibly witty and dramatic and emotional and interesting."

Her time spent shooting The Lion in Winter reminded Close why she loves being an actor. "Here I am, in my mid-50s, and the last day of shooting I was in full medieval armor on a white horse in the beautiful Slovakian countryside, blue sky, snow on the ground, a medieval castle in the distance, and that's supposed to be work? It was unbelievable. You get experiences like that. You get exposed to the most incredibly creative people."

She was particularly impressed with the actors who played her three sons in the movie: Andrew Howard, John Light, and Rafe Spall. "I think the younger generations I've been working with lately—they're probably scared shitless to work with me, in the first place [laughs], so they're probably on their best behavior—but the actors who played my sons in this were all remarkable and very, very professional. All of them came from the stage. I'm doing this little independent movie now [The Chumscrubber] with a lot of young American actors [including Rory Culkin] and [Billy Elliot's] Jamie Bell, who is British, and they're all very professional. I think the material that I'm attracted to attracts like minds, you know? I personally feel life is too short to work with people who aren't there for the right reasons or who aren't professional. I'm just not interested."

Life is also too short for Close to compromise on the material she's working with. "This summer I'm doing two very tiny roles in two independent movies. One is with [director] Rodrigo García, who I adore. I did his first movie [Things You Can Tell Just by Looking at Her], and I just want to kind of stick with him. Another is [The Chumscrubber] with a first-time director [Arie Posin]. It was a really good script, and I got seduced by the writing. You kind of say, 'Oh, no! It's good. I'm going to have to leave home.' They're both very small roles in an ensemble company." The Chumscrubber also features Allison Janney, Carrie-Anne Moss, Ralph Fiennes, John Heard, William Fitchner, Rita Wilson, and Neal McDonough.

Close has also never shied from working in television, even when there was a stigma attached to the medium. "I can't remember if it was right after Garp or The Big Chill, but my agent was saying, 'You've got to keep doing movies,' and I was handed a script about incest called Something About Amelia, and it was for television, and I was told, 'You don't do television. It's going to ruin your movie career,' but I thought it was a great piece of writing. I've always thought, 'Go where the writing is. It doesn't really matter. You'll have an audience if it's good stuff.' So that's basically how I've chosen things, and I've tried not to just [do film]. If it's for TV, great."

While the rest of the entertainment industry has caught up to Close when it comes to embracing television as a valid artistic medium, at the time Close took a big risk, and it paid off. Her performance in that movie earned her the first of eight Emmy nominations (two of which were for producing). Most recently, she was honored with a 2002 Emmy nom for her guest-starring role on Will & Grace. Her single Emmy win was for her lead performance in the 1995 TV movie Serving Silence: The Margarethe Cammermeyer Story, which she also produced.

Close marvels at how much more good television is being made nowadays. "When I think about, when I produced and starred in the first Sarah, Plain and Tall [in 1991], Hallmark Hall of Fame was really the top venue for really quality movies, and now just think, with the advent and the blossoming of cable—Showtime, HBO, all of those—it's a totally different landscape then it was back then."

As Close continues, taking a risk has also always been a part of her strategy. "I have a rule in movies that I'll risk one element," she says. "I won't risk on the writing, well possibly. I have to think it has to be good, but I have made some choices there that ended up not as good as I thought they were going to be. But basically, it starts with the writing, and then it's either an actor that I will risk on or a director that I risk on, but not both actor and director. Or if you have an actor you know and a director you don't know, you want to have a DP that you know can take care of you. So one out of three I'll risk."

As for her approach to her performances, Close explains that she doesn't have a formula. Each role has its own needs and challenges. "With every character, I feel like I'm coming as a blank page, as a clean slate, and, yes, I've learned technique and I've learned to have patience with myself. It's like getting to know another human being, but there's always a time when—some of them more than others—you don't know where that key is, what will open it up for you. In movies you come into a company, and if it's a good piece of writing, you're asked to really trust people in order to go where you have to go together. The best experiences I have are with people that trust; it's not always spoken but it's there, and it gives you great freedom."

No matter the character, Close tries to find what she shares in common with that person. "I think I do need to find a place where I have a common humanity with them, where I can understand what causes their behavior, and then, usually, I end up having good empathy for the character. None of the characters I play I think are villains. I mean, Cruella, yeah, because she's [based on] a cartoon. But all of the others, when you look into what caused their behavior, you can't judge them. In good writing, it all comes out in the wash. You have to totally commit."

Close shares that the most challenging role she's played to date was her last stage performance in the National Theatre's limited 2002 run of A Streetcar Named Desire, in which she took on Blanche DuBois under Trevor Nunn's direction. "I wasn't physically right for it," she says. "I'm older than how people perceive for that part. She comes from a sensibility that I was not raised in—the whole Southern sensibility—it's a consciousness, it's just different from somebody who grew up in Connecticut. So it was a huge challenge, and I despaired at times thinking it was going to be a disaster, but it turned out to be one of the best experiences of my career. The production and the overall impact of what we did every night was just unbelievable. It was great to be a part of that."

Her last major stage commitment was nine years ago when she starred in Sunset Boulevard on Broadway, also with Trevor Nunn. As she tells BSW, she found it too difficult to be away for so long from her daughter, who was 6 years old at the time, "I haven't gone back because you don't see your child six nights a week. It's too hard as a single parent," she says. "I'm scheduled to do with Trevor Nunn the first big revival of A Little Night Music on Broadway. It will be the spring of [my daughter] Annie's senior year, which will be in 2006. I'm really looking forward to it. Trevor and I have a great track record, and it's a masterpiece."

In the meantime, Close can next be seen this month in The Stepford Wives with Nicole Kidman and Christopher Walken. After she completes these two indie films this summer, she'd like to devote some time to herself. "I want to be very, very picky [about my work]. I feel I've been working so hard for so long that I want to have real quality of life, and I don't mean fancy cars and clothes. I mean time to read the books I want to read and to be with the people I want to be with and to do trips that I've wanted to take, and kind of refill myself in that way, and then, hopefully, periodically be able to do work that I can be proud of." BSW

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