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Writ large in every medium

Times Staff Writer

Glenn CLOSE is walking down a tattered sidewalk near the Coliseum in South Los Angeles on a January day heading for her trailer in a Ralphs grocery store parking lot. She is on a break filming her first episode of the FX network’s gritty police drama “The Shield,” in which she plays precinct captain Monica Rawling.

A few days later, Close would be dressed to the nines at the Golden Globe Awards in Beverly Hills, where her portrayal of Eleanor of Aquitaine in Showtime’s “The Lion in Winter” won her the Hollywood Foreign Press Assn.'s trophy as best actress in a TV miniseries or movie.

At 57, Close echoes the long-running lament of actresses of a certain age -- even ones with Oscars on their mantles and a body of work crammed with significant performances -- that good roles “are terrifically hard to come by.”

That said, she ponders how to square that with her new TV role and featured roles in three movies that recently premiered at the Sundance Film Festival, America’s showcase of independent movies.

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“I was lucky,” she said, breaking into a smile as she settles into her trailer. “That scope, certainly for a woman my age, is rare. It’s ironic because I feel that I am probably at the top of my game right now.”

Her Sundance trifecta: Chris Terrio’s “Heights,” Rodrigo Garcia’s “Nine Lives” and Arie Posin’s “The Chumscrubber.”

“All of them were really interesting writing and, because of that, they attracted a wonderful group of actors and there you have it,” she said.

The range of roles that Close has performed on film, in television and on the stage is considerable.

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A history lesson: When she broke into Hollywood, Close was basically known for her strong-willed mother or wife roles in films such as “The World According to Garp,” “The Big Chill” and “The Natural,” for which she received Oscar nominations as best supporting actress. Then she turned her rather wholesome image on its ear, first as the sexy, psychotic “other woman,” Alex Forrest, in “Fatal Attraction” and then as manipulative Parisian socialite Marquise de Merteuil in “Dangerous Liaisons.”

Her role in “Fatal Attraction” not only made her a star but had such a memorable impact on moviegoers that years later the American Film Institute voted Forrest the seventh greatest screen villain of all time.

Close said she was afraid that after the film “crazy people would come out of the woodwork and prey on me, but it didn’t happen. Still, when I walk into an elevator and men realize who I am, you still get the look. You still get somebody saying under his breath, ‘You scared the [expletive] out of me.’ ” Close breaks into laughter. “If they’re brave enough to say it.

“But if anything, [‘Fatal Attraction’] opened up everything for me. Before that, I played Jenny Fields, who was this austere, asexual New Englander, and then I’d play the mother in ‘The Big Chill,’ and then I’d play the mother who is kind of a virgin figure in ‘The Natural.’ Everyone in Hollywood was wondering if I could be sexual, but I had never been asked to be sexual.... Hollywood loves to see a woman either end up in the gutter or dead,” she adds, breaking into a laugh.

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Sherry Lansing, the departing Paramount Pictures studio chief who produced “Fatal Attraction” along with Stanley Jaffe, said they hadn’t thought of casting Close until she came in to read for the part.

“She wasn’t, quite honestly, what any of us had in mind,” Lansing recalled. “We were thinking of a completely different image.

“We got a call from her agent who said, ‘Glenn would like to come in and read for the part.’ ” Since the actress was coming off one of her Oscar nominations, Lansing wasn’t sure how Close would react to auditioning, but the agent made it clear that Close was willing.

Lansing said director Adrian Lyne and actor Michael Douglas read with Close while “Stanley and I were in another room. Maybe five minutes later, Adrian comes out and says, ‘I think you should come in here.’

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“We sat in a corner, not in anybody’s eye-line, and in 15 minutes we knew it was the single best thing we’d ever seen and she got the part.”

On stage and screens

Close has kept active on stage as well. She received rave reviews for her portrayal as silent screen star Norma Desmond in the Andrew Lloyd Webber musical “Sunset Boulevard,” re-creating the role Gloria Swanson made famous in the 1950 film classic.

Aside from her dramatic work, Close has also ventured into comedy from time to time with varying results, like the “flight attendant friendly” Claire Wellington she played in the flawed remake of “The Stepford Wives” starring Nicole Kidman and Matthew Broderick, or as Cruella DeVil in Disney’s live-action children’s comedy “101 Dalmatians.”

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“I think in some ways those movies might have hurt me because I think I might be perceived by the directors as somebody who does that kind of stuff rather than the kind of stuff like ‘The Lion in Winter,’ ” Close said.

So why make them? she is asked. “Well, I don’t know,” she replies. “I can’t imagine doing it again.” Pausing a moment, she adds: " ... If I could get together a third Cruella movie, I think that might be fun to do because that is a great signature film kids want to go see.”

It was while making “The Stepford Wives” that Close began filming one of her Sundance movies, “Heights.”

“ ‘The Stepford Wives’ was actually overlapping with ‘Heights’ at the end,” she said, “so one day I would have a blond wig and the other day I’d have a very dark, brunet wig. Luckily, they were very different. It was really wonderfully surreal because one was a highly independent, very low-financed movie and the other was a Nicole Kidman Hollywood thing.”

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In “Heights,” produced by James Ivory and Ismail Merchant, Close plays Diana Lee, a grande dame of the New York stage who discovers that her husband has been cheating on her, while her daughter, a professional photographer played by Elizabeth Banks, is plunged into an identity crisis with the arrival of an old flame and a job offer. The story is set in New York City.

“I play an actress who has done a movie and is doing [a] play on Broadway and I have a daughter, so I certainly didn’t have to do any research for that,” Close said, noting that her 16-year-old daughter, Annie, is attending high school in New York while Close films “The Shield” on the West Coast.

"[The film] tells how these people’s lives intersect during one day,” Close explained. “I just thought it was a well-written script. And then when I met Chris, I really, really liked him. I saw a little short that he made. I didn’t understand it. It was almost like a tone poem kind of thing. But I thought he had a really good eye. And I met him and he’ll be my friend for life.”

In “The Chumscrubber,” Close costars with Ralph Fiennes, Carrie-Anne Moss, Rita Wilson and Jamie Bell in a suburban drama that centers on a teenager who finds the hanging body of his friend but doesn’t tell any of the adults partying in the patio outside, figuring they just wouldn’t care.

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Her third Sundance film is Garcia’s “Nine Lives,” in which the writer-director follows nine women at emotional crossroads in their lives. The cast includes Amy Brenneman, Holly Hunter, Sissy Spacek and Robin Penn Wright, to name just a few of the principal actors.

“The kind of fun thing [Garcia] imposed upon himself was that each story is one uninterrupted take,” Close said. She said her scene lasted something like 12 to 14 minutes. “I was in a cemetery visiting a grave with my daughter,” she noted. “I have not seen the movie, so I am very curious.”

Unlike some actresses who achieve fame on the big screen, Close has never been reluctant to do TV. For instance, she produced and starred in the 1991 hit “Hallmark Hall of Fame” presentation “Sarah, Plain and Tall” for CBS.

“I’ve always, since the beginning of my career, really not cared whether it was television or film,” Close said. “There has been a great snobbery in our industry between movies and television and I think now, with the advent of the good work that is being done on cable, that’s changing.... Television, in my mind, is the most powerful element in our culture as far as how it impacts us on a daily basis.”

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Close said the producers of “The Shield” flew to New York to pitch her on joining the cast. It didn’t take long to win her over.

“They wanted to have authentic storytelling,” she said. “It wasn’t like reality TV. It wasn’t some totally plot-driven, totally formulaic type of show. This show is totally character-driven, and it’s a great workout for an actor because you don’t have a lot of time to sit in your camper. For me, it’s great because I get so bored on movie sets.”

Still, she noted, the role of a precinct captain “does not come natural for me.”

“It’s been very difficult for me because, literally, you have no screen test and no rehearsal and you’re thrown in with this amazing company that’s been together for four years,” she said. “Luckily, my character is also coming into a new situation so all my kind of missteps, hopefully, will be swallowed.”

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