When Glenn Close picked up a Golden Globe for her performance in The Wife last week, her acceptance speech reduced some of the biggest players in Hollywood to tears. And for good reason. Close talked about not allowing yourself to be be subjugated by others, and how it’s not too late to acknowledge a long-held dream–relatable stuff for so many, and entirely on topic for her winning role.
As Joan Castleman, Close is the titular wife accompanying her celebrated novelist husband Joe (Jonathan Pryce) to Stockholm to accept his Nobel Prize for Literature–a story based on Meg Wolitzer’s 2003 book of the same name. Joan is by turns nurturing and then simmering with a deep rage at having lived a life that led to her husband collecting a prize she herself deserved.
Speaking via phone from her mountain home far from California, Close looks back on the making of the Björn Runge-directed film, and the emergence of a cultural climate that allowed it to be truly seen.
Congratulations on the Globe win. It felt in that moment almost like your character in The Wife getting the Nobel Prize she earned.
Oh, my God. I never thought of it in that way, but I suppose you could say that. That’s not a bad analogy.
Had you read the original Meg Wolitzer book? What was the process of getting involved?
I attached my name to the project five years before we actually gathered and got to film it. I thought it was intriguing. I met Meg Wolitzer for the first time backstage after she came to a performance of A Delicate Balance, which I was doing on Broadway with John Lithgow.
One of my co-stars had set up a little lending library, she was a voracious reader, and on the shelf of that lending library was The Wife and I think I read it then. At that time I didn’t hear about a movie version. That was later when my agent Franklin Latt and Kevin Huvane got the script, and even though I couldn’t answer all the questions about her, I was intrigued enough to say, “Yeah, yeah, I’ll put my name in that and see what happens.”
It was some years in the making. How has the nuance of this character changed for you during that time?
Oh my gosh. I think it was fourteen years ago. Now it’s been fifteen years from the book, and I think Jane Anderson wrote the screenplay not long after the book came out. We did it in the fall; it was end of the year 2016. The #MeToo movement hadn’t broken yet. It was only after we finished it, and before it made its world premiere at Toronto in 2017, that what happened in the world gave it such deeper nuance, I think.
From the minute he wakes her up at the beginning of the film, I wanted to kill him. And then when he died I wasn’t really sorry. That’s wrong isn’t it?
Oh, I have a little bit of a different take on him. I think it’s because of what it means to be an actress, but I’m always trying to figure out why people behave the way they do. And usually in that quest, I find I get great empathy for them. I feel that for him. It goes back to the scene where he says, “How can you love me if I’m a hack?” And then it moves on to where she says, “I know how to fix this. Do you want me to fix it?” And he lets her come in, and basically her talent takes over his life. And I think he never felt that he was worth loving because that’s the way he thinks. And the fact that the last question he asks her is, “Do you love me?” It really was so hard to answer that question, even in the scene. In fact, I think I stopped and said, “Do you have to ask me that right as you’re dying? That’s so unfair!” But his question is really, “Do I love myself?” Of course he didn’t. And so he was still saying “Do you love me?” and then, “You’re such a good liar.” I think he’s always beholden to her emotionally. And a lot of the behavior came out of that. It was a very difficult moment.
Joan made me think of my grandma always saying, “You’ll spend your whole life stitching a man’s testicles back on.” I thought, “This is what she meant.”
[Laughs] Oh my god, that’s incredible! It was just, we didn’t know anything different until the world started changing. There were times in my life when I was in college, I actually was married for the beginning of it. And that’s a whole other story we won’t go into, because he was a good guy. But I was making lunch for us, doing all the laundry, cooking the meals, working 18 hours, and saying to him, “You can do it! You can do it!” And then you say, “You know what? I can’t do this anymore.”
Did you draw on your own life then? The scene at the Nobel prize dinner where he thanks Joan and searing rage is just coming off your body without you even having to speak. It’s incredible.
Well, I work in my imagination, really. I grew up running rampant around the Connecticut countryside with our little gang, and we were pretending all the time. And I think to be an actress, it’s creating this character in your mind so you can think her thoughts. And I don’t substitute my life or anything else. I try to be so totally in the moment that I will think her thoughts, and that feeds the emotional apparatus.
So six Oscar nominations later, there’s been surprise expressed this season that you haven’t won an Oscar because I think it’s often assumed that you must have.
I’m very proud of all these interesting women that I’ve played. And, you know what? I have to say that if the impact of not getting an Oscar, if I allowed that to impact my work, I should have gotten into something else. And I think, for me, as an artist, and I consider my craft an art, and I’m proud to call it that, what feeds me is to be with a great group of creative people in the process of discovery and collaboration that it takes to pull a movie off, and to pull a character off. If I feel that I’ve fulfilled that, I don’t need any award for that. That, for me, and it sounds facile, but I really mean it, and I believe it in my bones. That’s what feeds me, to feel that we’ve done it; that we’ve created something that will connect with people. Because it’s so ironic that we’re in a world where we’re all supposed to be connected, and we feel more alienated, and we’re full of anxiety, and there are epidemics of suicide. What human beings need is connection, and that connection is two eyes looking into two eyes. And the further away we get from that, the more unconnected we feel. So, you can look at this movie as creating a connection because of those close-ups. You look into two eyes, and there’s a connection. And it’s thrilling to know that what you have done has connected with another heart, another soul. That’s what we all wish for.
Judging just by the rows of faces streaked with tears at the Globes, you’ve connected with an enormous amount of people, women especially. And seeing an older woman being sexual on screen was an important part of that.
There are not very many movies that have people of our age having sex. I loved it for that reason, and that was the first scene we shot. So Jonathan and I arrived on the set in our jammies. I think we both had the same thought: “We’re professionals. We’ve been in this for a long time. Let’s just get to it.” [Laughs]
How surreal was it seeing your daughter (Annie Starke) play the younger you?
She was in my arms as a nine-week-old baby during the making of Dangerous Liaisons, so she’s grown up on sets, and she’s been backstage. So, you don’t take for granted that they’ll do what you do, but I saw it in her. Even playing with her friends and pretending, I saw it. She’s always fought against it for all the obvious reasons. And I think it’s hard for a child of a famous person who wants to do the same thing as their famous parent. I think the world makes it harder for them. But she’s has this incredible resilience and I’m so proud of her. We realized in the very beginning that she lays down the foundation of that character. The audience has to believe that the young woman they see in the flashbacks could develop into the woman that they see in her maturity. I was not there when she worked, I didn’t want to be hovering around the monitor. But when I saw what she did, I was so proud. And the fact that, again, her face could hold a close-up. I’m very proud of her. She’s also a terrific human being.
You’ve done so much, and such a vast variety of things. Is there anything on your list that you’re still dreaming about?
I’m dreaming about making the movie version of the musical Sunset Boulevard, and I have great hope and belief that that will happen. Because that character is one of the great characters ever written for a woman, and I’ve done her now 30 years apart on stage, and to play Norma Desmond one more time…The fascination for me is how do you translate in a musical, a song which is basically an internal monologue, how do you do that seamlessly on film? I’m fascinated by the challenge of it. And I’m really believing, I’m willing it to happen. I think it will.