conquering Hollywood at 71 – and still sexy
Glenn Close is feeling fabulous and it’s no wonder. In an exclusive interview in New York, the Hollywood icon talks to Juliet Rieden about how her mum inspired the powerhouse performance tipped for her first Oscar, working with her daughter Annie and that, yes, you can still be sexy in your 70s!
“You don’t have to do anything – just lie there,” says Jonathan Pryce, his wiry grey beard rubbing against Glenn Close’s back and shoulder as she suppresses a throaty chuckle, eventually turns over and willingly submits to the requested “quickie” from her onscreen husband. “Just imagine I’m some young, inarticulate stud who’s found you naked, lying on the beach,” he continues as these two superb veteran film stars shatter taboos with an impeccably accurate and decidedly saucy portrayal of sex between consenting 70-somethings.
“That was the first scene we shot. It was great,” says Glenn, her eyes twinkling at the memory. “It was kind of wonderful because I’ve done them [sex scenes] before but this was different in a way, but still sexy. And what I like about it is that people are still sexy when they’re our age. It happens, even though our grandchildren will hate the thought of it. I hope it makes people who are of our age feel good.”
Glenn is a sex-scene maestro and says the secret is to just get stuck in. “I don’t think it’s hard. It would be if you were with somebody repulsive, but I haven’t been asked to do a sex scene with somebody who is repulsive,” she laughs. “You just have to go with it. You have to not be self-conscious and [with this one] I thought, I’ve done this long enough that to be nervous and skittish about it is silly.”
We are sitting in a rather trendy café, one of the Hollywood icon’s regular haunts in New York’s West Village. Other diners note our arrival with a knowing smile, but none are so gauche as to make a commotion. For me, however, this is definitely a pinch-me moment. The demonic bunny-boiling Alex Forrest, The Big Chill’s beneficent Sarah Cooper, the scheming Marquise in Dangerous Liaisons, deliciously wicked Cruella de Vil, ruthless legal eagle Patty Hewes, faded silent-film star Nora Desmond – so many ground-breaking performances and all from this giant of stage and screen who is now sitting next to me at her favoured corner table. Glenn has just ordered an Arnold Palmer – her favourite drink, a mix of iced tea and lemonade – a power juice and a kale, watermelon
radish (that’s a radish with delicate stripes of pink, the waiter tells us) and chicken salad. She’s wearing trim black Capri pants, a T-shirt and fitted jacket, barely a skerrick of make-up and her shock of snowy hair is elegantly elfin. Glenn certainly looks in her prime. “I feel the best I’ve ever felt in my life,” the 71-year-old tells me.
That conviction, I surmise, is not just the result of her obvious vitality but also thanks to The Wife, which industry insiders are tipping to be the movie that finally earns Glenn her long overdue Oscar. She’s been nominated for an Academy Award six times and somehow never made it to the podium. And if this were to be her golden statue role it will be doubly treasured, since her co-star in the movie, playing her character Joan Castleman’s younger self, is Annie Starke, Glenn’s 30-year-old daughter and only child. Annie’s father is John Starke, who Glenn is still friends with and first met when he was the producer on The World According to Garp. The pair then embarked on a four-year relationship from 1987, and Annie was born a year later.
“She made me so proud,” beams Glenn. “I think it’s really hard for children of famous people who want to do the same thing as their parents – but what made me so proud is she earned it.”
The casting was actually Glenn’s idea. Director Björn Runge had been struggling to find someone with the acting chops to complement his star. “Björn said, ‘I’m having a really hard time with this,’ and I thought: ‘Should I mention it or not?’ And then I did. I said, ‘You know, my daughter is an actress.’ He didn’t know that. So, then she met with him in California and they had a long meal together.”
Back in New York, Glenn was on tenterhooks. “I didn’t know if she would be right for it, I didn’t know whether she’d give a good audition. I think people think that somebody like me would put pressure on the director to hire my daughter. I did not do that, and I never would do that, never.”
Annie knocked it out of the park, and the combination of mother and daughter forging the same role on screen is electric. Although they were never on set together, Annie tells me, “It was a very collaborative process.”
Their character Joan is a hugely talented writer who sets aside her own ambitions to support those of her husband, and the film begins in 1992 with Joe and Joan Castleman bouncing like naughty kids on their bed in celebration when they hear that Joe has won the Nobel Prize for Literature. Annie’s portrayal of Joan is seen through flashbacks to the 1950s when, as a naive young student, she falls for her university professor, Joe. The two marry and Joan comes to the painful realisation that even though she is the true writer, as a woman she will never be valued and it is her husband’s career that must take precedence. What happens next, and then after that, is as shocking as it is gripping, and all portrayed with nuanced brilliance.
Annie’s scenes were actually shot first, so Glenn followed her daughter’s lead. No pressure! “I definitely had my mission laid out in front of me,” agrees Annie laughing.
“When Annie was shooting I got out of town, I didn’t want her to even pass me in the corridor,” says Glenn. “I said, ‘This is your thing and I’m out of here.’ I didn’t see her work until I saw rushes and I was so proud of her because she shows it on her face. She has a great face. You can see her thought process. I thought that was wonderful.”
The film is based on the best-selling novel by Meg Wolitzer and the character of Joan is complex and of her time. She seemingly sacrifices everything for her husband and yet in the context of her era, had no choice.
“One of my favourite scenes was where I was just in the background holding Joe’s coat and making sure his beard was okay [as he went out to
face the accolades]. I think women do that automatically and it became just how their relationship was. And yet there was something still there. My challenge was I didn’t want women in the audience to say, ‘Oh, why don’t you just leave him?’ and I think the complexity of the relationship does come out. It isn’t just black and white.”
For Glenn, the role was deeply personal, a reminder of her late mum, Bettine, who lived in the shadow of her famous surgeon husband, Glenn’s father, the self-obsessed and brilliant William Close. William played a key role in stemming a 1976 outbreak of Ebola in Zaire and was also the personal physician of the African nation’s then President, Mobutu Sese Seko.
“My mother got married when she was 18 and she never finished her secondary education. My father was highly educated,” explains Glenn. “I think in the world today she would feel empowered to say, ‘You know what, I want to go and take some courses, I’d like to do this for myself.’ But it never really crossed her mind. She had kids very early, 20, she was 22 when I was born, and she basically felt that her marriage vow meant that she was going to support my dad no matter what.
“I think she also was really, really in love with him. But she was very creative, she could have done a lot of different things but she was never nurtured, never mentored. The sad thing about that is that when it came to the end of her life, she said to me, ‘I feel like I’ve accomplished nothing.’ She didn’t stew around in it, but she did feel it.”
Glenn based much of her portrayal of Joan on her mum, who died aged 90 in 2015, six years after the death of her husband. Glenn and her two
“She made me so proud. It’s hard for children of famous people who want to do the same as their parents.”
sisters, Jessie and Tina, often felt their mother was trapped in her marriage and longed to free her. “We said,
‘If you want to leave him, it’s okay with us, if you think you’ll have a happier life.’ She said, ‘No, I’m not going to go against my marriage vows.’”
Looking back at the women in her family, Glenn says it’s a familiar story. “My grandmother would have been a wonderful actress; the other one would have been a wonderful singer. It’s not what you did!”
Annie says she too channelled Granny Close and also her father’s mother, Granny Starke. “My dad’s mum was a chemist way back then, which was incredibly rare for a woman in the 1940s. But she felt the effects of the glass ceiling very quickly in her career and she quit her job to become a mother, which she would always say she loved and never regretted. But you know, in our quiet conversations together I think there was always a question in her mind of what could have been. Joan is truly a nod to her and to my mum’s mum,” she muses. “She [Bettine] was one of the most intelligent human beings I have ever had the privilege of knowing and she never went to college. She was a person’s wife and we’ve always as a family wondered what she could have done if somebody had supported her or encouraged her in the world.
“In a huge way I think this character is literally an homage to my grandmothers.”
Joan’s son is played by Max Irons, the son of famous British actor
Jeremy Irons, who coincidentally Glenn starred with back in the 1990s in The House of the Spirits.
“I’ve known Max since he was four,” Glenn recalls. “Annie was four and Max was six when we did The House of the Spirits. I have the funniest pictures of them. Annie has grabbed on to Max’s arm and he has this little Lego jet, it’s so cute.”
In the movie Joan is quite neglectful of her son, burying herself in her writing. “She made some mistakes with him and I really can relate to that,” confesses Glenn, “because when Annie was three I was producing a lot, and even when I was preparing for a role, I was there but not there. And she came up to me one day and she said, ‘I want you, I want all of you!’ And I knew exactly what she meant. A child has to know that they’re worth your attention, and I think the danger is that a child feels that they’re not worth it, they’re not worth loving, they’re not worth your attention.”
I suspect Glenn is also thinking of her own childhood, which was painfully interrupted when her parents joined the religious group Moral Re-Armament [MRA]. Glenn was seven and she was controlled by the cult until she was 22. It’s a chapter she rarely discusses and yet you sense it is always with her.
Bettine and William were frequently absent from their children’s lives, engrossed in missionary work around the globe, leaving Tina, Jessie, Alexander and Glenn in the hands of the MRA. They gave their money to the organisation and the children were moved around to different locations, including spending two pivotal years in a vast renovated hotel called Mountain House in
In her youngest sister Jessie’s 2015 memoir Resilience: Two Sisters and a Story of Mental Illness, which includes chapters written by Glenn, she writes, “What I remember most about living in Caux is being isolated and lonely. I hardly saw my siblings.”
As a teen and adult, Jessie struggled with relationships, serious drug addiction and was frequently suicidal. It was only when she was finally diagnosed with bipolar disorder that she started to get the help she so desperately needed.
Glenn was oblivious to her sister’s illness when they were growing up. The cult, she says, left her without “the tools” to help her little sister.
But once she discovered Jessie’s pain, she threw her celebrity weight behind raising awareness for mental illness, co-founding the Bring Change to Mind charity with Jessie in 2010, as well as contributing to her memoir.
“When Jessie asked me for help, if she hadn’t said, ‘I need help, I can’t stop thinking about killing myself,’ if she had said, ‘I need help,’ I’d have said, ‘For what?’ I honestly had no clue,” Glenn tells me. “I always was her special custodian, I always felt that about Jessie, and yet that group [MRA] had me in such a place that I couldn’t say, ‘I’m sorry, I think I have to stay here with my sister.’ That is a moment of guilt for me.”
While they were attending the Zurich Film Festival, Glenn took her daughter Annie to Caux to see the Mountain House, where she and her siblings had lived with the cult. It was the first time she had returned to the mansion.
“I think it was just curiosity,” says Annie. “I hated it. You could feel it in the air, you could smell it. I could not wait to get out of there. It’s the most hideous place I’ve ever been to in my life and Mum felt the same.
She was remembering which window was hers; it was incredibly creepy and the fact of my dear family being in that horrible place is a thing that makes my voice quiver. What a disgusting place.”
Annie says her grandparents rarely discussed those years. “It was a very painful subject and it remains very painful,” she explains. “I think that both of my grandparents went to their graves with an enormous amount of guilt and regret. I am very sad and sorry that they felt that way but I understand why.”
Ten days after our interview, Glenn is hosting a very special event on her country property as she and Annie’s father, John Starke, watch their little girl marry her long-time partner
“They’ve been together for 11 years,” Glenn tells me. “They are very good together. I hope she’s learned from all my mistakes,” she jokes, referring to her own four marriages.
“It’s the house where she grew up so it really is special,” she says, her voice breaking with excitement. “It’s outside and we have two areas, one to go through these old apple trees and then round the back there’s a bigger field and I’ve planted wildflowers, so the whole field is full of wildflowers.”
Annie is thrilled and says it’s going to be “absolutely beautiful”.
“We both are nature women – we’re the happiest when we’re surrounded by beautiful landscapes and nature and our dogs in the outdoors,” she laughs.
Will the dogs be coming?
“Of course – my dog has a bow tie and everything,” she giggles.
Annie is due to arrive this evening, a few hours after our interview, and Glenn has her daughter’s wedding dress, which Annie bought in Los Angeles, laid out ready “on one of the guest beds at home. She’ll be very beautiful,” she sighs, brimming with pride.
The Wife is in cinemas from August 2. See Kate Rodger’s review on page 161.
“My grandmother would have been a wonderful actress; the other one a wonderful singer.”
CLOCKWISE FROM LEFT: Glenn wth sister Jessie in 2015, and in 1987; with mum Bettine and daughter Annie in 2000; Glenn and Annie are electric in The Wife; Glenn and Annie in 1999.
FROM TOP RIGHT: Glenn with co-star Michael Douglas in Fatal Attraction; as legal eagle Patty Hewes in Damages; alongside Jonathan Pryce in The Wife.