When it comes to the estimable career of Glenn Close, there are myriad stunning scenes that come to mind: sobbing in the shower in “The Big Chill,” the bathroom brawl in “Fatal Attraction,” those final wordless moments in “Dangerous Liaisons” in which she smears the makeup off her face and leaks tears as the screen fades to black. Few actors are as bold and brave as the seven-time Oscar-nominated Close, this year’s recipient of Variety’s Creative Impact in Acting Award. Close will be honored on Feb. 26 as part of its virtual 10 Directors to Watch event with the Palm Springs Intl. Film Society.
“It’s been nearly 40 years since Glenn Close first began enchanting movie lovers with attention-grabbing performances in films such as ‘The World According to Garp’ and ‘The Big Chill,’” says Steven Gaydos, Variety Senior VP Global Content and Executive Editor. “It’s no exaggeration to say she’s been ranked as one of American film, television and stage’s greatest talents for the entire time since then.”
This awards cycle, Close again entrances audiences in Ron Howard’s “Hillbilly Elegy,” in which she plays Mamaw, a chain-smoking grandmother in a rural Ohio town whose daughter Bev (Amy Adams) slips deeper into drug addiction while J.D., her son and Mamaw’s grandson (played as a child by Owen Asztalos; as an adult by Gabriel Basso) struggles to forge a path for himself at Yale Law School. For her performance, Close has earned a Golden Globe nomination in the supporting actress category, her 15th nom (she’s won twice, one for “The Wife,” the other for “The Lion in Winter”).
“When I heard that Ron had obtained the rights to [J.D. Vance’s] book, I wrote him a little note and just said, ‘Think of me when you’re casting,’ never thinking in a million years that he would, because it’s not something that someone would automatically think of me for,” says Close from her home in Montana. “But he did. And I was thrilled. I was attracted to the character because I’ve never done anything like that before. [Mamaw] was totally new to me. She was such a departure.”
Aside from the obvious adjustments in the way of hair and make-up — “My first attempt at Mamaw, I curled my hair to make it look curly and frizzy,” says Close — spending time with the real-life characters in Vance’s memoir was key in terms of getting into character.
“Talking to them was the most valuable to me,” says Close. “We had pictures, we had some video clips, but to talk to them specifically about physicality, how she held her cigarette, what she wore — that was so important. And then in the fitting room it became about how big should the breasts be, how big should the stomach be. It was real artistry on everyone’s part.”
One of the prominent themes in “Hillbilly Elegy” is that of domestic abuse and multigenerational trauma, with Mamaw stepping in to raise J.D. when Bev becomes mired in her addiction.
“She was so clear on what that child needed, and that she felt she was the only one to do it,” says Close. “I think she knew from experience that without a certain kind of mentorship, without a true custodian, that that boy would just fall into the same patterns as his mother. It was a pivotal thing —changing the life of that boy.”
Close is “not a method” actor, relying instead on “imagination” when it comes to fleshing out her characters.
“It’s kind of an informed imagination,” she says. “With Mamaw, when you read that she is sometimes smoking two cigarettes at once, well, that’s all you had to hear to start to figure out how to play her.”
The characters in “Hillbilly Elegy” are far from perfect, each one of them faced with the proverbial emotional demons that accompany familial dysfunction, drug addiction and domestic violence. These people are damaged, broken. They’re not even necessarily people we like. But it’s in their flaws, in their shortcomings, from which we can collectively draw empathy and compassion, Close says.
“I think it’s tremendously important to tell stories about people we don’t understand,” she says. “That’s what art is great for — to enlighten. And we should not be afraid of that. And we should try not to be so prejudicial about it. They’re human beings. Once you take the individual out of a crowd, every single one of them has a story. I can never play a character if I judge that character. It’s not a fair way to do it. You have to find your common humanity and where you can love them. That’s a really huge need in our country right now.”