There was never any way I could get all of the greatness of chatting with Glenn Close into a single 800-word article for the LA Times Envelope, though I did my best. For those who liked that chat and were left wanting more, here’s most of the rest of the transcript of our conversation. We spoke in the Library restaurant of The Public Theater in New York City on October 9, 2018. Her new film The Wife was already in theaters, and she was simultaneously performing in the Public’s Mother of the Maid. Both the play of Mother and the screenplay for The Wife were written by Jane Anderson.
Warning: Without being explicit, this interview gives away a key plot point in The Wife, and I recommend you see the film before reading it through.
Is your mindset different when you’re working a play than when you’re on a movie or TV set? How do you approach your preparation differently on a daily basis?
It’s very different. To compare this to Damages, for example, in Damages for our writing team we would frequently get correct – rewrites, new pages when you were in the makeup chair. So you’d get an acute short term memory. When you can assimilate it. With this you have to be more patient with your brain. You’ve heard the play, and it’s tricky language and it didn’t come easily.
They’re French peasants in the time of Joan d’Arc, but they sounded a bit Irish to me!
We say “Da” and “arse,” but that’s what Jane wanted. In America, unlike in England, we don’t have all these wonderful dialects that say “working class” without it being political. We made up our own Medieval-speak.
Preparation has to be different.
Yeah, I kind of observe my brain. I stand outside myself and I know now from all these years of experience that first of all it takes a long time to get to know a character; like getting to know a human being. And a lot for me is what I add on from my imagination from what’s written on the page. You have to give yourself time to learn the lines, syntax, language. For me, it’s repetition, repetition, repetition until the little neural pathways start opening like a canal.
How long does it take, usually?
It depends. I did A Delicate Balance a couple of years ago and that was notoriously hard to learn, that [Edward] Albee syntax. This, we had a good four weeks in the rehearsal room. I still can sometimes paraphrase things but I know it pretty much cold. And then you have to know it to that extent and then you can start moving around in it, really making it your own and developing the character in other ways than just the language.
What appealed to you about the character of the mother?
The challenge of playing a 15th Century peasant woman? [Laughs.] Haven’t done that one before!
Is there usually one thing, a line or something, that pulls you into a script?
Definitely the last scene with Joan in the jail. You read a scene like that and it’s so powerful and so simple, you think that would be good to play. And I just – Jane gave me the script while we were filming The Wife, or just after, and I don’t have to read it more than once to know that it intrigues me enough to say I’ll do it. And then they showed it to Oskar [Eustis, artistic director at The Public] – oh, we did a reading for Oskar, when was that, almost two years ago, and it was just a question of where I could fit it in. This was the time
Have you ever had stage fright on any level?
Yes; I don’t really feel it any more. When I started I adjusted my perception of the audience to be that they’re my collaborators. They’re part of the whole evening, part of the telling of the story. There would be no one to tell the story to without them. With that adjustment is instead of I’m afraid of you and I hope you don’t hate me to let’s see what we can create together.
Did you learn that somewhere or make it up for yourself?
It’s been my evolution in theater [laughs]. I’m just as fascinated with exploring a character as I am with sharing it with an audience. Last year I was finding things for Norma Desmond [in Sunset Boulevard], a great and intriguing character, and Isabelle [the Mother] is intriguing. You can keep exploring up until the last show. I did a play called Benefactors where I was downstage in a chair and this far from a curtain and the curtain went up and it was my first line and I remember a night when I hadn’t thought of the play all day long and I was like, “What’s my first line!” And then automatically it came.
About The Wife. What drew you to Joan?
I never played a character like Joan before, someone who chooses to be in the background. Joan is basically shy, but is complicit in this complex marriage, and that was really challenging to figure out – where I could really believe it and understand her to the point where I could play her fairly.
She’s not fully passive, but is she complicit? We never see her push back.
No, but to write at that level – she’s not been the greatest mom. And I think that’s one of the things where when she sees her son and how messed up he is she realizes it’s not just the father. And she got what she wanted, she got people to write, she got people to read it. So she was complicit. There’s a scene where the child wants her and she’s working. She’s chosen work over family for most of her career. It’s funny because [producer] Rodrigo Garcia is a great friend of mine and his dad was Gabriel Garcia Marquez. So I called him up and asked, “What was your dad’s working life like?”
First he said his dad never had an editor, which was like, “Wow.” Then he said when he was composing the new story that his concentration was so deep that they always had a family break for lunch and he would be sent up by his mother to get his dad and he’d have to [waves hand in front of face] to break that deep, deep concentration. That’s the mindset Joan would have gotten. I know from my life as a single parent, my wonderful daughter came up to me when she was three and she said, “I want you, I want all of you,” and I knew that meant even when you’re preoccupied, because I was producing at the time and I was working on parts and they know when you’re not fully there, even if you’re there. That probably happened a lot in that household.
But when we talk about Joan ignoring her children for the sake of writing, are we judging her?
Depends on who you are. Having been a working creative mom myself, it’s a very hard balance to maintain. You’re very lucky if you have someone to take care of the children, help take care of the child who has your same sensibilities and everything and I was very lucky in that. I think creative people have to create and when I think of my mom and I know my daughter when she’s been interviewed about this she thinks of her two grandmothers as women who were basically unfulfilled. My mom said in her late 80s, “I feel like I’ve accomplished nothing.” And she was extremely interesting. She never graduated from high school and married my dad instead, who was highly educated. She was always reading, three books at a time. What she needed was personal fulfillment, which has nothing to do with raising a child or being a wife – it has to do with feeding your own soul. How to balance that is one of the great balancing acts of life.
It’s also part of the conversation we’re having now about redefining gender roles and what people are supposed to do in service of the family. Does the husband not pick up the slack?
Not all husbands will.
It feels like a very quiet horror movie, in one way: her life’s work has been stolen from her. Did you feel that at all?
Yes, it’s a wonderful story, and so complex. When we’re shooting the scene where he’s dying and says, “Do you love me?” It was like yes, but no, but yes – it was such a complicated moment. I remember stopping and saying, “Does he have to say that?” Of course she loves him but how dare he ask that. And he says, “You’re such a good liar, how will I ever know?” That says more about him than it says about her because I think their compromise was that he didn’t have the talent and knew he didn’t have the talent and why would she want to be with him if he was untalented? I don’t think anything she could have said would have made him believe that he was loved. I think he felt inwardly that he was a failure. That’s the tragedy.
But that also can lead to narcissism. Because I think to make up for – to build the defenses against that belief that you’re not loved you try to make yourself worthy of all kinds of love and you achieve, achieve, achieve. And I think a lot of women prop that up by knowing there’s fragility underneath, so we will look to that, we don’t mind being treated like shit, you know. Yeah.
There’s another movie out now about Colette, who had to fight her husband to be accepted as a writer; and a few years ago we had Big Eyes, in which a painter’s work was presented by her husband as his own.
I know, I’m not a fan.
[She’s laughing uproariously] Just bad. If you’re going to steal, steal good.
Why do you think those stories resonate with us now? Why haven’t we heard them before?
Well, of course the Me Too movement and all that’s happening. Women are feeling enabled to speak out now. That’s important. There will be a backlash. People have said, “Have you reached the tipping point?” I’m not sure. I’d like to think we will not go back to what it was before but there are certain back rooms that I don’t know if women will ever be allowed into, and a lot of those back rooms are where decisions are made. Until women are allowed into those back rooms and are the real collaborators in making decisions about companies, well … we haven’t made it there yet. I do think men will always be uncomfortable with powerful women. It’s hard for them to deal with it, generally speaking. Generally speaking. And I think it’s just the difference in our sexes, in our species.
So it’s genetic?
I think it’s genetic. And that’s why it has to be a cultural evolution, which you force through laws and changes in attitude and behavior you can design a different way of behaving that becomes the cultural norm. But that’s going to take generations. I’m looking to my daughter’s generation and the kids in high school now. I think they see we’ve really messed up the world and I think they’re outraged about it. I hope they will prevail and change it.
The outrage is often in young people, who have no power and by the time you’re old enough to make decisions –
You’ve been whittled down. You’ve forgotten the childlike side of yourself that probably initially felt the outrage. We exist in the gray areas of life; we don’t exist in black and white. Even with the issues that come up with Me Too, it’s a gray area sometimes. It’s not totally clear. But I think if the attitude of giving women equality all the way down – that’s what we’re really talking about. I always think of [Queen] Elizabeth I who kept telling all the men around her she was getting married, and then they’d rub their hands and say, “Now we can control her.” She was too smart to do that, because she knew she’d give up so much power.
And in The Crown, Elizabeth II still has to massage her husband’s male ego.
Yeah, we’re beasts! We really are beasts, you know! As a species, we’re violent and we can be incredibly brutal. Civilization was formed around laws and basically keeping the more brutal side of us in check, but it’s still there. I don’t think that’s been bred out of us. And the only thing you can hope for is to have leaders who bring out the positive rather than the negative. But the potential – it’s always there.
When Joe wins the Nobel Prize, do you think Joan has any idea where things are going to lead once they get to Oslo? Have the wheels already started turning?
I think it starts when she hears he’s won the prize and hears what he says on the phone. And when they jump on the bed and he says, “I won the Nobel Prize!” and he’s gotten so into his delusion or whatever you want to call it that he’s lost perspective. I think it’s – I think it really evolves during the time they’re in Stockholm. In the book she says she knew she was going to leave him on the plane ride over, but they have a pretty good understanding. But for me, when we were shooting it and she’s sitting there at the Nobel Prize ceremony and you hear what is being said about the work and it really was her work, and she realizes, “I can’t do this anymore.” She realizes what her work has meant to the world. And it’s not necessarily about the acclaim. It’s recognition.
Is it stretching to see any parallels in the fact that you’re in The Mother of the Maid and The Wife? Does it indicate the kind of project that attracts you at the moment?
Well, they both have to do with Joans … I think that’s a very good parallel. I never thought of it before, but I loved the idea of a woman, one of my favorite scenes to shoot was standing there when we arrive holding his coat. Giving him his – that’s what she has relegated herself to, and she chafes under it, but it’s part of the deal. And as far as Isabelle Arc in what we’re doing – they’re very, very different. It’s like what do you do when you’re raising an unusual child. I mean, really unusual.
It’s nice that mom supports Joan.
Well, everyone was having visions back then. Something in the stinking air!
Do you ever project what you think might happen to your characters after the credits roll, either consciously or unconsciously?
Well, I’ve died in a lot of those. Whether I believe in the afterlife I’m not sure! I remember thinking about [Damages’] Patty Hewes, that last scene of her alone in the cab. She’d had a very sad life. Yeah. But I don’t think I spend a lot of time doing it. It’s nice to play a character that can elicit that kind of – make people wonder that they’re rich enough where they say I wonder what happened to her. You could write whole scripts about what happened to the next stage. I do know what happened to Isabelle Arc; she pleaded for her daughter to the Pope. A really remarkable woman. She reminded me a little of Eleanor of Aquitaine, who also lived to be 80. Isabelle must have gone through the famine, the Plague, the 100 Years War – my God was life brutal! And to still live until you’re 80 years old, that’s kind of phenomenonal. There’s a good life force in her. If you read the personal interviews for the retrial of Joan, so many people said she did things gladly. She gladly worked in the fields, gladly said her prayers. There must have been something – an aura about her that had vigor and positivity.
Not to get into religion, but do you believe Joan was touched by God – or it doesn’t matter?
When you read about her it’s phenomenonal. You honestly don’t know how she did it, this very sweet, very religious girl – what made her different from her contemporaries was her seriousness about her fate. But to go off and ride the destriers, those war horses and become a horsewoman in armor, she was schooled in it of course but – and also while she was commanding she had an innate sense of where to put the army during the siege. And she never felt cut off from her voices, which is different from Shaw and this version of the play. Some suggest she was schizophrenic, but there’s no definitive study of that. I understand why she’s so enduring. She represents the virgin aspect of that, too, which is so powerful. She was “inspected” at least twice, to ensure she was still a virgin. Can you imagine?
Do you ever “miss” a character, someone you’ve played a while – I guess I’m thinking of Patty Hewes, primarily. Or maybe one of the others?
Patty was great. I think the characters that have stayed with me the longest three – one was when I first left Sunset Boulevard and [daughter] Annie was 6. From playing that character eight times a week to making sandwiches for my daughter I literally felt Norma was sitting on the kitchen sink: Sandwiches! What is going on? And [Fatal Attraction‘s] Alex Forrest stayed with me, and Albert Nobbs stayed with me.
What do you still want to do that you’ve never done before? I see Janet McTeer – who you starred opposite in Albert Nobbs – is doing Bernhardt as Hamlet. Do you have such lofty acting ambitions?
I want to write another script. I want to do art. All my family are artists. My sister Jess, she’s also a writer but she also does wonderful pen and ink artists, and my brother is a machinist. We want to do a family art show up in Montana. It’s fun to think about. I’ve done a lot in very fine pen and ink; there’s also something I wanted to sculpt; two things I have in mind I want to do with stone. I have to get me a chisel.
Does acting have a different meaning for you now, in your 70s, than it did early in your life? How so?
Gosh, I feel so – and this sounds trite but it’s so true; I feel so blessed to have lasted this long in this profession which is incredibly hard. I think it’s the great exploration of the human condition individual by individual. And to be in the shoes of, think the thoughts of, people who are not like me has made me a much more tolerant person. I wasn’t wildly intolerant before but you have to maintain a non-judgmental outlook on whoever you’re asked to play, to play them correctly. And to do that you have to understand the whys of people’s behavior. It’s not like you always have to agree with their choices but you have to understand them. And in discovering the why you find the common humanity. It’s a privilege to do that.
Actors are basically storytellers; we get up on a little platform and tell a story. And stories have been used through the centuries because we need to connect. And with that connection can come revelation, can come comfort, certainly can connect you to other humans. What I love about the stage is every night you create a community in real time. Everyone is experiencing the same thing, but how you experience it is different from the person next to you. So I like live theater; who are we, what’s our problem. [Laughs] and how do we comfort and inspire each other.