Glenn Close is used to fighting for her characters. From the “boiling bunnies” anger of “Fatal Attraction” woman-scorned Alex Forrest to the outspoken brashness of “Hillbilly Elegy” grandma Mamaw, the seven-time Oscar nominee has never backed down from ensuring her roles feel authentic. It’s a dedication that’s carried her through a nearly five-decade-long career, and one that she carefully applies to every film.
That was a critical skill on her latest, “Hillbilly Elegy,” where her ideas about everything from scripting to prosthetics helped shape a role that — as even its fiercest critics had to admit — she gave her all. With the Golden Globe-nominated turn marks her fourteenth acting nomination (she’s already won three, both for film and television work), Close again had some essential scripting notes to offer for the outspoken role of Mamaw, based on author J.D. Vance’s own indelible grandma, Bonnie Blanton.
“When I wrote the first draft that Glenn saw, she came back and said, ‘Well, her language was so colorful in the book, and it’s not really there in this script,’” screenwriter Vanessa Taylor told IndieWire last year. The feedback led Taylor to revise much of Mamaw’s lines in the script — a “deep dive,” she called it, based on Vance’s grandmother’s favorite sayings and unique spirit.
While Ron Howard directed “Hillbilly Elegy,” it’s hard to imagine anyone as the true shepherd of Close’s performance other than the actress herself. In the midst of a middling drama marred by histrionic developments and overwrought performances, the actress mines a thrilling alternative — one of the most memorable screen performances of the past year — and she stands a good chance of landing a supporting actress Oscar nomination as a result. (Funnily enough, an Oscar nomination would likely pit her against “The Father” co-star Olivia Colman, who beat out Close at the 2019 Oscars for Best Actress, ending Close’s wild awards run for her work in “The Wife,” which earned her one of those Golden Globes.)
Many actors consider the script as gospel; Close has felt comfortable making her own creative preferences known for decades. In 1997, she starred in the Wolfgang Petersen-directed thriller “Air Force One” as Vice President Kathryn Bennett, tasked with holding both the country and her administration together when President James Marshall (Harrison Ford), his family, and his staff are taken hostage on the eponymous presidential jet.
Even nearly three decades on, Close keenly remembers an original script note that just didn’t feel right. “They had written a point where she broke down,” Close said in a recent interview with IndieWire. “And I said, ‘I won’t do that, because I don’t think she would do that. I think she would be capable of being president.’ … She wasn’t going to break down. She could have taken over.”
Close hasn’t won every battle. The actress also recalled early talks to play Lady Jessica in David Lynch’s 1984 “Dune.” The film would have been a major step forward for the then-fledgling actress, but she couldn’t square what was on the page with her own take on the character.
“There was a scene where they were running away from something, and she fell down,” Close said. “And they all had to come back and drag her and carry her away from danger. I said, ‘I won’t play her.’ I don’t want to be the woman — and a lot of times they’re in high heels — who falls down and all the men have to come back and drag her away from danger.”
“Hillbilly Elegy” certainly helped her avoid that — these characters have likely never worn heels — but the role carried the risk of hyperbole, even if she was based on a real person. “If anything, Mamaw was much bigger than how I played her, but you don’t want to unbalance something,” Close said. “She was a provocateur. She loved to shock people. She would say terrible things, and then laugh. She could be fearsome too, seriously fearsome.”
While Close said she hadn’t asked the Blanton family about Mamaw’s earlier years and experiences, her interpretation was informed by her own observations of the character. “I came away thinking that maybe she had been sexually abused when she was young, because for her young daughter, she was like this fierce lioness,” she said. “She was incredibly protective.”
Like many people, Close was originally acquainted with Mamaw through Vance’s bestselling book, which the non-fiction-obsessed bibliophile read on her own long before the Ron Howard-directed film was announced. The 2016 book combines both memoir and sociological exploration of the “Appalachian values” that shaped Vance’s life. “I found it interesting because it’s not really a part of the country I’m very knowledgeable about, and it’s certainly a demographic that I think there are a lot of clichés about,” she said. “Cultural anthropology I find extremely interesting — why people become who they are, and their stories.”
When she heard Howard — who she had previously worked with on the snappy 1994 newspaper dramedy “The Paper” — was directing a narrative version for Netflix, Close advocated for herself. “I just wrote him a little note, which sometimes I’m wont to do. And lo and behold, he came back to me,” Close said. “I’ve done it my whole career. I was basically terrible at auditioning [in my early years], … and a number of times, I would write a note and say, ‘Please, can I have another chance?’ So I’ve had that mentality most of my career.”
In order to transform into Mamaw, Close brought in her own team, including prosthetic designer Matthew Mungle and her long-time wig-maker Martial Corneville, who had all previously worked together on the similarly demanding “Albert Nobbs.” And, like in that movie, Close was keen on transforming her appearance to a jarring degree.
“What I find now I feel that my face is very known to people,” she said. “As an actor, I do not want to be distracted by knowing that the audience is seeing my face, knowing that they need to be helped to suspend disbelief.” With Mamaw, she felt she got there once the physical transformation was complete. “That gives you a great freedom within that character,” she said. “That’s what the craft of acting is, to enable people to come out.”
While “Hillbilly Elegy” has been a hit with viewers and cracked the Netflix top 10 last fall, critics were not quite so kind. The film currently ranks at a 25 percent “Rotten” critics score on Rotten Tomatoes, while the audience ranking — not an exact science, but still telling — holds at a “Fresh” 85 percent. Close, still connected to her characters long after production has wrapped, does not read reviews.
“I can’t read reviews, because they’re so hurtful. I can’t,” she said. “I mean, I’m not immune to it. We put our hearts and souls into what we do, and we’re not impervious to criticism. I can’t have it in my life. It’s just so destructive.”
Still, some of the backlash has still trickled down to her. “I’ve heard that it was considered one of the worst movies this year, which I find kind of unbelievable,” she said. “I have to think that the politics and the crisis and the anxiety and grief and stress that this country has gone through for four years had a lot to do with how a certain group of people would look at this family. And I wonder whether there’s just as much prejudice and misunderstanding coming from that side, as from the other side.”
In any case, she’s already moving on. Close recently wrapped production on Benjamin Cleary’s Apple film “Swan Song,” working alongside Mahershala Ali. (She even transformed a bit for that film, making sure her somewhat “geeky” doctor character sported a special wig.)
And while she hasn’t seen the newest trailer for the Emma Stone-starring prequel “Cruella,” she’s excited to see what the actress has cooked up for this new spin on a role Close made iconic 25 years ago, when she played the doggy-mad fashionista in the 1996 live-action “101 Dalmatians.” Close has a producing credit on the new Disney production, though she said she has “nothing to do with the movie as it is,” and only received credit due to her involvement with an earlier incarnation from screenwriter Aline Brosh McKenna. “I always will love that character,” she said. “And maybe I can come back someday as her again, which I would love to do.”
Of all the roles Close would like to resurrect, however, the one that stands out the most to her draws from her stage work. Close scored her third Tony Award for playing reclusive movie star Norma Desmond in the 1994 Andrew Lloyd Webber musical based on Billy Wilder’s film, and reprised the character several times over, including the 2017 revival. She was in pre-production for a movie version in early 2020 when the pandemic struck.
The project remains in limbo, but Close hasn’t given up hope. “We’re inching towards it, we really are,” Close said. “I hope we can film it this year. It’s one of those things that I don’t know why it’s taken so long, except that…” She caught herself. The last Webber adaptation, “Cats,” didn’t exactly turn out as planned. “I mean, ‘Cats’ maybe didn’t help,” she said.
As usual, Close seemed keen on making the role work at all costs. “I think Norma Desmond is one of the great characters ever written for a woman,” she said. “She can be revisited, like a Shakespearian character, like Cruella. These characters warrant re-inspection.”
“Hillbilly Elegy” is now streaming on Netflix.