Close Encounter: Her Greatest Role Yet?
"She doesn't allow herself to be treated the way women are usually treated," says Glenn Close about Patty Hewes, the ferociously vindictive lawyer she has played on TV's Damages for the last four years. But she could just as easily be describing any number of iconic film, TV, and stage roles she's embodied in her more than 35-year career.
Complicated female characters have been Close's stock-in-trade since her first film role. In 1982's The World According to Garp, she played a World War II-era feminist who becomes a single mother more out of defiance than circumstance. In the ensuing decades there have been Fatal Attraction's Alex Forrest, Dangerous Liaisons' Marquise de Merteuil, Sunset Boulevard's Norma Desmond. Add to that abbreviated list Albert Nobbs, the title character of a film Close spent the last 15 years bringing to the screen. She also cowrote the script and wrote the lyrics to "Lay Your Head Down," a song that Sinéad O'Connor sings over the film's closing credits.
Nobbs is a complicated fellow. First off, she's not a fellow. Which makes it the kind of career-defining role that Oscar nominations are made of. The five-time nominee (who has earned three Tonys, three Emmys, and two Golden Globes — and recently was nominated for another Golden Globe, for Albert Nobbs, and two SAG Awards, for Nobbs and Damages) is rendered nearly unrecognizable as a woman in 19th-century Dublin who was orphaned as a child and sexually abused as a teenager. She dresses as a man in order to get higher-paying work, avoid sexual harassment, and become independent. And yet Close's transformation is miraculously free of showy, look-at-me flourishes. Instead, her performance is understated and nuanced, true to the soft-spoken character.
Nobbs doesn't easily fit into our modern notions of gender and sexuality. First of all, Close urges viewers not to call Nobbs a man. "I think of her as a she, for one thing," scolds Close. "I never think of her as a he. Talking to people who have seen the movie, they always say 'he' [because] that's what she looks like. I mean, that's what she hopes you would do."
Close doesn't consider Nobbs a lesbian or a transgender man. She sees her as, like Julie Andrews's character in Victor/Victoria, putting on a costume for a purpose, cross-dressing as an act of survival and economic necessity rather than out of an expression of attraction or gender identity.
"I don't think Albert thinks in those terms," says Close. "Albert is an innocent, and you bring your baggage to somebody like that. How you react to someone like Albert shows more about you than it does about her."
The Connecticut native, now 64, has had a career that moves seamlessly among the stage, film, and TV, playing roles high and low. And unlike many actresses of a certain age, she didn't have to debate whether to move to TV when she took the role on Damages; Close had already done plenty on the small screen, from the 1979 TV movie Too Far to Go to 1984's groundbreaking Something About Amelia, the 1995 Cammermeyer film, and many others. "I kept saying, 'Number 1, is the writing good? And number 2, the British do it!'"
She's proud of her years as Patty Hewes on Damages: "It's really good brain exercises and trying to figure out what the fuck is going on. But it's just fun."
But, oh, does she have her priorities straight. The best part? "Somebody does my shopping for me. I have it in my contract that I get the clothes." In Close's estimation, "Patty dresses very grown-up." And Close does not, or did not, until she got to keep Patty's power suits. Speaking on the phone from her New York apartment, Close reports that she's dressed in "a black J. Crew long-sleeve T-shirt and a black pair of workout pants. I live in the Village," she exclaims, "it doesn't matter what I wear."
Indeed, the actress has never strayed far from her New York theater roots, but she doesn't necessarily see returning to the Broadway stage after Damages ends. "I would love it," she says. "My first love is the stage, but I've sacrificed time with my family for 30 years." Close is married to David Evans Shaw, a retired venture capitalist; she has a daughter, Annie, 23, from a previous relationship. It's a huge problem for me to think about being in a show for a year and not seeing my husband [every night]."
Still, it's hard to imagine Close not finding a way — any way — to play more complicated, strong-willed women. In the meantime, there's one more season of Damages to put to bed. Season 5, debuting this year on DirecTV, promises to be a doozy, with Hewes and Ellen Parsons (Rose Byrne) finally battling each other in the courtroom, and Ryan Phillippe and McTeer among the season's major costars. Close won't reveal further details. "Janet's only just started, and I don't know if she's for me or against me yet," she jokes. Because you're either for Hewes or you're against her, says Close, no doubt smiling. "There's no in-between."