Zurich: Glenn Close on Patty Hewes, Alex Forrest, Albert Nobbs and Cruella de Vil

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Glenn Close

The veteran actress, in Zurich to receive the festival's Golden Icon award, spoke about 25 years of playing strong, complicated women.

“I always knew I wanted to be an actress, I never thought I'd be a movie star,” says Glenn Close, reflecting on a career, now a quarter-century old, that has seen her create some of the most iconic, and controversial, female figures in cinema.

Close is attending the Zurich International Film Festival, which is honoring the Fatal Attraction and Damages star with its Golden Icon award for lifetime achievement. She's also in the Swiss city to present her latest movie, The Wife. In the feature, from director Bjorn Runge, Close plays the partner of an acclaimed novelist (played by Jonathan Pryce) who begins to question her life with him. The actress will next been seen in Sea Oak, a pilot drama for Amazon Prime based on a short story by writer George Saunders.

In a long-ranging discussion at the Zurich fest, Close spoke to Wendy Mitchell of the British Film Council about her start in theater, her “terrifying transition” to film and the key roles that have shaped her career. “I like characters who have no self-pity," she says. "Characters people can feel empathy for. Not sympathy, but empathy.”

On getting her first film role with 1982's The World According to Garp
“The director George Roy Hill had seen me in a musical called Barnum, and I went to audition for him, and it was a terrible audition. The casting people had told all the agents they were looking for a "young Katharine Hepburn," so I went in there all [switches to husky Hepburn voice] “Well, hello...” I remember when I first saw the sets and realizing that they existed because of my character and I remember thinking, "Oh, God, I better be good. They spent money!" Initially it was very difficult to make the transition to film — the hardest thing for me was where to put my energy. In theater, you are taught to project, to project your emotion, project your voice to the back row. In film, you can just be natural. It took me time to adjust, to learn that thought is very powerful.”

On Creating Alex Forrest for 1987's Fatal Attraction and Changing the Film's Ending
“I took the script to a psychiatrist. I was fascinated by the part but I thought: Would somebody really boil a bunny? I thought that's really over the top. But the answer came back: 'Yes, that can happen.' But then the next thing was the question: What could have caused that behavior? Through much discussion and analysis, the result was she was incested a very early age, at the age of the little girl in the movie, by her father.

"There is the strange thing about her father in the movie: She says he's alive, then he's dead, then there's an article about him. There are strange vibes about this father. But that could be also a trigger that could eventually be a diagnosable mental disorder. Mostly from my research, for those people it is incredibly hard to have a fulfilling relationship. You are made a sex object way before you even know what that means. The scene where she spies on the family when [Michael Douglas' character] is giving the daughter the rabbit. Alex goes and throws up in the hedge. What triggered that? What did her father force her to do that might have made her sick?

"That was the character that was in my heart and my soul, and the original ending was that she killed herself. Which I think is the correct psychology for a character like that. But then, it's a famous story, it tested very badly. The audience got upset, they didn't think she was punished enough, so they came back and said we have to reshoot it. She has to be killed, and the only one who could really kill her is the wife. It was a very difficult thing for me, I felt I was betraying that character. I understand now why they did it. I think it made the movie a hit. It's something you see in the Greeks, in Shakespeare: Catharsis comes from the shedding of blood. She brought disorder and chaos and fear to this family, so you shed her blood in order for restoration to be possible. For me, it was a huge lesson in what an audience might need to recover. But it meant that I had to die.”

On Meeting John Malkovich on 1988's Dangerous Liaisons
“Kevin Spacey and I had been cast to replace the two English actors — Alan Rickman and Lindsay Duncan — who had done the play on Broadway. They asked that I meet John [Malkovich]. I remember sitting across from him and thinking: 'Could I find him sexually attractive?' I thought, 'Yeah, I have a great imagination. I can make anyone sexy in my mind.' The first day of shooting with John, I had no clue what he was doing. I didn't get it. And I went to the director Stephen Frears and asked could I see what he had shot, could I see the footage. And he showed me a lot of the footage, and then I got it. But he is certainly an original. And I love him dearly.”

On Channeling the Cartoon Cruella de Vil for 101 Dalmatians (1996)
"The funny thing about Cruella was that the worse she got, the meaner she was, the funnier she got. When they first approached me, I said she should be a combination of Noel Coward and the Marquis de Sade. The original story was fantastic. She's the devil and she lives in a house where all the walls are black and there are roaring fires in all the fireplaces because she loves heat. Hence she loves fur. Of course the original feature cartoon was brilliant and I used that a lot. At one point I asked the producer, John Hughes, if we could just lift some of the lines from the cartoon and use them for the movie. And we did. And boy, was she mean."

On Playing Patty Hughes on TV's Damages (2007-2012)
“The writers pitched me this story. They hadn't written anything, but they'd done all this research and they were basing it on a male lawyer, and I said that's interesting because as soon as you make it a female, everything changes. But they came back with that first episode, which just blew my head off. I remember I gave the script to Ann Roth, who is a great friend of mine, a wonderful costume designer who is also really a producer. And she said: 'You'd be crazy if you didn't do this.' It meant signing my life away for a possible six years. We did it for five. But the writing was superb. The incredible thing about what they did was you knew Patty hated bullies, you had kind of an idea that she had problems with her father. And it wasn't until the last episode, five years in, they wrote this amazing scene where she confronts her dying father and she has not forgiven him. And you find out how abused she had been, both her and her mother. It really made me love that character and realize she had been the one who had been damaged that whole time.”

On Adapting Albert Nobbs (2011) for the Screen
“I played that role very early on in my career [on stage]. I never forgot the story. And it took 14 years to get that on film. I'm proud of it. It was kind of amazing process. I called my friend, who is a great special effects artist, and Rodrigo Garcia, who directed it, and I did a test because I wanted to see if I could convince myself that I could be this character, Albert Nobbs. Matthew W. Mungle, who was nominated for an Oscar for the work he did on Albert Nobbs, did something quite subtle but quite amazing. I always thought my face would be my burden. That people would know my face and wouldn't believe the character because they knew my face. And he was doing his work and at one point I looked up and it wasn't me. And I started to weep because I could do this. That there was someone I hadn't see before.”

On Working With Jonathan Pryce on The Wife
“I was thrilled to work with Jonathan Pryce. I just happened to see him do Shylock in The Merchant of Venice weeks before we started and it was revelatory. He was magnificent. He is a great actor and I was very grateful for the fact that he supported me in a movie called The Wife. Frankly, I couldn't find an American actor who would do that.”

On Her Character Aunt Bernie in Amazon Prime's Sea Oak
"It's a character like I've never played before. Tricky. Aunt Bernie is a little old lady. She works at a Dollar Store, in a Rust Belt town in upstate New York, and they do not have a lot of money. She has a nephew and two nieces, and they all have babies and they have all moved in with her. My character is very meek, she just wants everything okay. The girls go to the mall and they come back and she's dead in the rocking chair and the house has been trashed. So they have the funeral and three days later the police call and say someone has robbed her grave. They go back home and she's sitting in the rocking chair. She comes back to have everything that she did not have in life. She tells one of the girls: 'You're going to cook! And you're going to get a job!' And she wants sex! I have never seen a woman like that having sex with a FedEx man. Amazon is putting it up on [Nov. 10], so we'll see what happens. It will be a lot of fun. And hopefully make a lot of women feel really good.