Glenn Close Returns to Stage, Reveals Remarkable Childhood in Cult
Back on Broadway in Edward Albee's 'A Delicate Balance,' the three-time Tony winner opens up her larger-than-life father, William Taliaferro Close, a doctor who spent years in the Congo, battling Ebola and serving as Congolese leader Mobutu Sese Seko's personal physician; his decision to join religious group/cult the Moral Re-Armament; and why she holds no resentment: "Forgiveness is probably the most revolutionary concept there is right now in our world"
This story first appeared in the Oct. 24 issue of The Hollywood Reporter magazine.
Glenn Close scans the images on her smartphone, lost in memories.
There's a photo of her 26-year-old daughter, actress Annie Starke, with a beloved rescued Labrador (Close is fond of dogs and has blogged about them for the site FetchDog); multiple shots of one of her three homes, in Maine ("David's house," she calls it, referring to her husband, business and social entrepreneur David Shaw); pictures of Shaw beaming in Telluride, Colo., during a break from a 1,000-mile motorbike ride; and tons and tons of snapshots of flowers, spilling across gardens and sidewalks, over driveways and walls, filling every inch of Close's domain.
"I love peonies," she says. "I'm not a gardener, so I try to keep it as simple as possible with perennials so there's not a phalanx of gardeners going through the house."
I sit back in the corner of the subterranean Manhattan restaurant where we've been skating across an interview for the better part of an hour on this late September evening and try to figure her out. She's gracious and well-mannered but oh-so-hard to read — the type of book you ponder in your study rather than at the beach, E.L. Doctorow rather than EL James.
With her no-nonsense black blouse and short-cropped hair, Close, 67, is refined and reserved, without a trace of the flamboyant characters she has played in movies like Fatal Attraction and the FX series Damages. She makes effortless chitchat — about her garden; the books she's been reading (Peter Matthiessen's The Snow Leopard, Edward O. Wilson's The Social Conquest of Earth); her concern for the environment ("I'm a lover of nature, and if my daughter ever has a child, that world is going to be so deeply different"); and her grandchildren on Shaw's side, one of whom interrupts us via Skype, eliciting an exquisite gurgle of delight.
"She's like royalty," says actor John Lithgow, who appeared with Close in 1982's The World According to Garp and now is her co-star in the upcoming Broadway production of Edward Albee's A Delicate Balance, which begins previews Oct. 20 at New York City's Golden Theatre. "There's something very regal to her, distinguished. She has a native blue-bloodedness. It seems to come from good breeding. There's a patrician elegance about her."
The play brings Lithgow and Close together for the first time onstage in a much-anticipated 18-week run that will push each to the limit in one of the most intellectually and emotionally daunting works of the repertoire. Albee's 1966 drama of domestic disintegration centers on a suburban, upper-class couple, Agnes and Tobias (Close and Lithgow), and follows them across one night and day as they deal with the intrusion of family and friends as well as their own troubled past.
Close has trouble believing it has been 20 years since her last theatrical production, when she won her third Tony, for playing silent screen star Norma Desmond in Sunset Boulevard.
See more Glenn Close's Career in Pictures
"[Producer] Scott Rudin sent me piles of scripts — Noel Coward, everything," she says. "He thought rather than a 'star' vehicle, it would be best to come back in a really challenging ensemble. I liked that idea. We honed it down to A Delicate Balance because it's everything we wanted: an incredibly challenging play, where you have to have a seamless ensemble to pull it off. And it's about language. It's challenging and risky."
All this discussion of her role is polite and proper and very much what one might expect of an actress as poised and polished as Close. But hints of another, more complex woman begin to seep through.
They're there when she admits to being "kind of a recluse" who immerses herself in books, rarely watches television, and notes, "I wouldn't say I'm naturally social."
They're there when she talks about her sister Jessie, who grew up with mental health issues and plunged into a series of disastrous marriages before being diagnosed as bipolar in her 50s, which Jessie will discuss in a forthcoming memoir, Resilience: Two Sisters and a Story of Mental Illness (Grand Central Publishing).
They're there when she discusses the years she has spent in therapy herself. "I've had it over the years," she says. "And there's still somebody I talk to if I need to. It's very helpful."
And, most extraordinarily, they're there when she tells me about her larger-than-life father, William Taliaferro Close, who spent years in Congo, at one point as Congolese leader Mobutu Sese Seko's personal physician, and who swept his daughter and family into a right-wing religious cult that gobbled up their lives.
The cult's impact was so great, says Close, that for years "I wouldn't trust any of my instincts because [my beliefs] had all been dictated to me."
Close was 7 years old when her dad, a Harvard-educated doctor from a long line of New England blue bloods, joined the religious group known as the Moral Re-Armament.
Founded during the late 1930s, the MRA held firmly to what it called "the four absolutes": honesty, purity, unselfishness and love. But these benevolent principles masked the all-consuming, all-controlling traits of any other cult — this particular one led by Rev. Frank Buchman, a violently anti-intellectual and possibly homophobic evangelical fundamentalist from Pennsylvania, who argued that only those with special guidance from God were without sin, and that they had a duty to change others. What began as an anti-war movement gradually turned into a possessive and exclusionary force.
It is unclear how many adherents the MRA had, though about 30,000 people gathered to hear Buchman speak at the Hollywood Bowl in the late 1930s, and the group was widely discussed in the press during and after World War II. Its post-war conferences were attended by several high-level diplomats and politicians — despite allegations that Buchman had been a Hitler supporter — and its cultlike nature appears to have emerged only slowly.
"I haven't made a study of groups like these," says Close, "but in order to have something like this coalesce, you have to have a leader. You have to have a leader who has some sort of ability to bring people together, and that's interesting to me because my memory of the man who founded it was this wizened old man with little glasses and a hooked nose, in a wheelchair."
When her family joined the cult, Close was removed from everything she held most dear — above all, life in the ivy-covered, stone cottage on her grandfather's Connecticut estate, where she ran wild over the rugged land with her Shetland pony, Brownie. While Dr. Close went to Congo as a surgeon, she lived with her brother and two sisters at the group's headquarters in Caux, Switzerland.
"They had a big hotel, a very glamorous, exclusive hotel called Mountain House, which I think is in one of Fitzgerald's novels," she recalls. "[They] made it into one of their world headquarters, and we stayed there for two years. When the mutiny broke out [Congolese soldiers rebelled in 1960, shortly after the country declared independence from Belgium], we didn't see our father for a whole year."
During the family's time in the MRA, "You basically weren't allowed to do anything, or you were made to feel guilty about any unnatural desire," she says. "If you talk to anybody who was in a group that basically dictates how you're supposed to live and what you're supposed to say and how you're supposed to feel, from the time you're 7 till the time you're 22, it has a profound impact on you. It's something you have to [consciously overcome] because all of your trigger points are [wrong]."
While Close was ensconced in Mountain House, her father was trying to bring modern health care to the Congo. "He went to the Congo, the former Belgian Congo, when he was 36 and stayed for 16 years," says his daughter, who rarely visited.
Dr. Close was a natural leader whose skills proved vital in combating Congo's first major Ebola epidemic in 1976. The virus had its first known outbreak in a small village on the Ebola River; panic ensued as the disease spread, especially following the deaths of a dozen staff members at the local hospital. While Mobutu, a dictator who fleeced his country of billions, fled the Congo, Dr. Close, who had been a mentor to the health minister, persuaded the Congolese air force to fly supplies to the village at the heart of the epidemic and also to provide helicopters so that medics could reach the hundreds of other villages in the area, leading to a massive quarantine, which helped contain the epidemic, though nearly 300 people died.
Read more A Delicate Balance: Theater Review
During his years in Congo, he grew in stature and influence and even adopted a Congolese son, Glenn's brother Tambu Kisoki, who today lives in Sacramento, Calif. (Close's other siblings, Jessie, Tina and Alexander, reside in Montana and Wyoming, not too far from their 90-year-old mother, Bettine.)
But Dr. Close increasingly became disillusioned with Mobutu, as the former military officer who had seized power in a military coup in 1965 succumbed to corruption. The actress remembers meeting him during one of her three long visits to the country.
"He was very charming early on — he was remarkable — and then he got corrupt," she says. "My dad always felt it was when Mobutu's mother died that he really gave in to all the forces around him. There was no one to hold him to his conscience. My dad — who had renovated the huge hospitals, started the maternity hospital and the hospital ship on the Congo River — stood up to a lot. But it came to a point where he thought it was dangerous to step in."
The elder Close returned to the U.S. in 1977 and resettled in Big Piney, Wyo., choosing the least populated county in the least populated state, where he remained as a country doctor until his death in 2009. In time, he moved away from the MRA, as did his daughter, who had left Switzerland and returned to America at age 15 to study at the elite Connecticut boarding school Choate Rosemary Hall.
It took her many years to reach the point where she could break free of the MRA, which began to founder in the 1970s and changed its name in 2001 to Initiatives of Change. For a while, she performed with an MRA offshoot, Up With People, an ultra-clean-cut singing group that was discreet about its links to the MRA and was almost omnipresent in the 1960s. She severed her ties in 1970. "Many things led me to leave," she says. "I had no toolbox to leave, but I did it."
She won't go into detail about how she left. "I'm not going to go into all of that," she says. "You can't in an interview."
At 22, Close enrolled at the College of William & Mary. But her youthful experiences haunted her. "I would have dreams because I didn't go to any psychiatrist or anything," she says. "I had these dreams, and they started with betrayal, a sense of betrayal, and then they developed into me being able to look at these people and say, 'You're wrong. You're wrong.' And then the final incarnation of those dreams was my being able to calmly get up and walk away. And then I didn't have them anymore."
The MRA never tried to lure her back. "They knew that was it," she says. "I had nothing to do with them from that point. And I wouldn't have anything to do with them."
Suddenly, she seems to regret having said so much. She levels her blue-green eyes on me, vulnerable and almost apologetic, and there's a warmth to her I haven't felt till now.
"I'm very gullible," she says.
I ask what she means.
She doesn't fully explain.
It has been five years since William Close died at age 84 and 45 years since his daughter left the MRA, years that have seen her go from being an admired stage actress to an Oscar nominee for her first screen role as Robin Williams' mother in Garp and on through such films as Fatal Attraction, Dangerous Liaisons, Reversal of Fortune and Albert Nobbs.
She has had victories and defeats, fallow times and fertile — she didn't appear in a film until she was 35 and still smarts at alterations made to the ending of Fatal. "Changing [Alex Forrest] into a psychopath was never fair to her," she says. "But they were right in giving the audience what they wanted."
She has gone through two divorces and other significant romantic relationships; has had a daughter (with producer John Starke); and remains especially connected to her mother, "a remarkable woman. My mom would have made a great pioneer woman. She has an inner strength and this inquisitive mind: She's reading at least three books at once."
Close has come to terms with her sister's mental health issues. "We were ignorant or had no vocabulary for mental illness," she says, "so she was 'the irresponsible one,' the wild one: 'Pull up your socks, find a job.' " The two are tight, and were also tight growing up, at least "as much as one could be in the circumstance."
Professionally, the actress has added producing and writing to her résumé and would like to direct, too: She still plans to helm an adaptation of Friedrich Schiller's Mary Stuart, in which she would star opposite Meryl Streep.
She has lost some beloved friends, including Williams, though she cherishes the ones she has, including her best friend, actress Mary Beth Hurt. She remembers hearing about Williams' death while on the phone with designer Ann Roth. "It was the kind of friendship that, whenever we saw each other, it was just complete love," she says. "I didn't know he had Parkinson's. But I knew he had issues with depression and substance abuse. Very sad."
Amazingly, her career is still in the ascendant thanks to the afterglow of Damages and the buzz surrounding Balance. She regrets that Albee, 86, has not been at rehearsals, reportedly because he is somewhat frail. Will he come? "I hope so. It would be lovely."
She is developing a follow-up to her two 101 Dalmatians movies and says, "There's a movie I'd like to write and direct, way down the road." She has been back on movie screens with Guardians of the Galaxy, playing the leader of the Nova Corps charged with keeping the peace, and would like to appear in a sequel. "I'm contracted to it. It had a wonderful sense of humor."
She seems to enjoy the huge range of work she's tackled and says she loves acting as much as ever — the more difficult the material, the better.
And it's hard to get more difficult than Balance, whose language is the verbal equivalent of a Rubik's cube, and whose intense emotions spill out at unexpected times. Memorizing the lines alone has taken Close months — "I still have lines to learn and things to figure out," she says — and yet she almost glows with delight at the prospect.
"I'm compelled to do what I do," she says. "Just like my father was."
Looking back, she wishes she had known him better. "He was never taught how to express himself emotionally or was never around anyone who let him know that was OK," she reflects. "As children, you don't love naturally. You have a natural sense of survival, but love has to be taught."
In her 40s, she decided to write to him, putting everything she felt in a letter, "and I wrote him everything, everything I felt about our relationship, and it was extremely honest."
If ever she felt anger toward her father for plunging her into the MRA and for any harm that did to her, the anger is long gone.
"I always thought, the way life works, the burden of forgiveness is on the child," she says. "That's the way it goes. Forgiveness is probably the most revolutionary concept there is right now in our world. Because without forgiveness, you just perpetuate what has been before. You [have to] say, 'It's going to stop with me.' "