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Glenn Close finds a common humanity with her larger-than-life Mamaw character

A portrait of actress Glenn Close
“It means a lot to still be in the room,” Glenn Close says of earning her eighth Oscar nomination, for her work in “Hillbilly Elegy.”
(Jay L. Clendenin / Los Angeles Times)

Glenn Close spends her days lately far removed from the glitz and glam of New York and Los Angeles. She left her longtime suburban farmhouse in New York in 2019 and moved to Bozeman, Mont., to be close to her three siblings.

“All of us are together now — for the first time in our lives,” the actress enthuses about her new locale, calling it “a really great community.” She maintains she’s not even the most famous person around “by a long shot,” citing such folks as Jeff Bridges, Tom Brokaw, singer John Mayer and “one of the world’s greatest mountain climbers” among those of note also living in the area. “A lot of loners,” she adds with a cheerful laugh that would recur throughout our chat.

After more than 45 years of acting, Close has received 15 Golden Globe nods (three wins), 14 Primetime Emmy nominations (three wins), a trio of Tony Award victories and iconic roles in such films as “The World According to Garp,” ”Fatal Attraction,” “Dangerous Liaisons” and “101 Dalmatians.” And this year finds her earning her eighth Oscar nomination, for her gutsy turn as Mamaw, the formidable, sharp-tongued matriarch of the Rust Belt-set family drama “Hillbilly Elegy,” for which she received a supporting actress nomination.

Although reviewers were not always kind to the film, which was directed by Ron Howard and adapted from the memoir by J.D. Vance, Close has earned her share of acclaim for her meticulously shaped, physically transformative performance. In a curious twist, the movie was also saddled with Razzie Award nominations for the year’s worst director, worst script and worst supporting actress (Close). What can you say?

If you’re Close, plenty. She proved a warm, thoughtful and open presence during a recent phone interview that spanned finding the heart of Mamaw, reading reviews and reprising Norma Desmond.

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After so many years of acting in such an astounding number and variety of roles, what makes you say yes to a part?

The writing. What’s on the page. That to me is where it begins and ends. I have to believe that there’s something different, something I can be creatively challenged by, that I’m not treading over psychological and emotional territory that I’ve explored before. But it’s also tremendously important who I’m working with, who you spend your day with. For me, I have less time ahead of me than I have behind me [laughs]. And time is becoming … well, I’m much more aware of it and how I’m using it.

You’ve undergone major physical transformations before in such films as “Albert Nobbs,” “101 Dalmatians” and “Guardians of the Galaxy,” so it’s not exactly new for you. Still, how did it feel to look so startlingly different to evoke Mamaw?

I’m at a point [as an actor] where I have to make sure I can leave myself behind in some way and, if it’s a character that you can literally have help with that, it is terrifically freeing. I’ve played characters where you’re not there until you’re in full drag and it’s the sum of the entire look that helps the audience suspend their disbelief.

Mamaw is a tricky role, because in many ways, it could be easy to fall into stereotype. She’s also uniquely heroic. What was your approach to playing her?

Well, I did not want her to be a caricature. I really spent a lot of time just trying to imagine myself in the shoes of somebody like Mamaw. If you can fill a character with scenes from your imagination that will actually affect behavior, I love that! And [also] to find where you have a common humanity with that character so that you’re not judging her — you’re just being true to who that person was.

If anything, I played her down. I mean, she was very much a larger-than-life character. It would have unbalanced the movie if I was the real Mamaw [laughs], so I was trying to find the essence of who she was.

The real Mamaw died in 2005, but you had family photos and videos to look at to observe her, yes?

We had a portrait of her that we worked with when we were establishing the “look.” And some of the videos I was interested in just to see what her energy was like. She was a fierce woman in a failing body, and she’d smoked her whole life. She was a chain smoker; sometimes she smoked two cigarettes at once! To hear her family talk about how she sat, how she held her cigarette … they were all just wonderful hints as to who somebody was. The family was incredibly generous in sharing their memories of Mamaw.

I don’t have to tell you that the film has had its share of supporters on the audience side and detractors on the critical side. Were you surprised by the response?

We’re in an incredibly polarized time in our body politic, and I think with [the film and] somebody like Mamaw, people have a visceral, kind of prejudiced reaction. I think that a lot of that criticism was a knee-jerk reaction to the demographic that we were portraying. The thing is, it’s telling a truthful story about these cycles of abuse and addiction and poverty that people have been battling with forever. It’s a very valid story.

Confession time: Do you read reviews?

I would be an absolute melted puddle on the floor if I read reviews, because as an actor, you’re just incredibly sensitive [to them] because you’ve put your heart and soul with a wonderful team into something. So I decided a long time ago not to read reviews just [laughs] for my own mental health!

This is your second time making a film with Ron Howard. What was that like, more than 25 years after working together on “The Paper”?

First of all, Ron knows the process and respects it: what actors go through to create a character. He also is incredibly prepared as a director, so he doesn’t waste time figuring things out on his feet.

With this particular piece, and with the wonderful support of Netflix, we had the time to be together and rehearse and read scenes and rework them and go down to Middleton, Ohio, and see the block where we were going to shoot on. I don’t think I could have done this character just arriving and getting into the costume and working on the set. He understood that, and I think everybody was deeply appreciative, and I think our performances were what they are because of that.

I think there’s also a real trust: Ron trusted me to come up with stuff that maybe he hadn’t thought of, and I trusted him to take care of us, to give us the creative space to understand that delicate balance between letting an actor find a scene or just telling them what to do, which sometimes is a relief [laughs]. But he’s a wonderful director.

You’ve been in so many movies that were great, communal in-theater experiences — I mean, think of the difference watching “Fatal Attraction” or “The Big Chill” with a packed audience versus on the couch in your den. Times have changed, but what’s your take on films (like Netflix’s “Hillbilly Elegy”) premiering on a streaming service instead of in theaters?

I think one of the things that COVID has taught us is how much we need connection — and not just connection to a screen but connection sitting next to another body. With an audience, whether it’s watching a stage show or being in a movie theater, you’re made into a community for that amount of time, and you experience something all together. It’s lovely to hear a whole theater laughing or a whole theater gasping or a whole theater screaming; it deepens the experience. I don’t think we will ever not need to experience movies as an audience.

OK, fan question: Will we ever see you reprise your stage role of Norma Desmond in the film version of the “Sunset Boulevard” musical?

[Big laugh] Oh, my gosh. Well, we’re all ready to go. It’s just the craziness of all the backlog out of COVID. We’re just waiting to get the final money together and to be given the final green light. I hope we’re shooting it later this summer.

What do you reflect on when you consider you’ve now had eight Oscar nominations?

You have to do work that you can be proud of — that’s the most you can ask of yourself. It means a lot to still be in the room.


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