I’m playing a parlour game with Glenn Close. We were discussing acting technique and I asked if she had a secret for making herself cry. She revealed that while shooting the 2016 British zombie-apocalypse horror The Girl with All the Gifts, she challenged co-star Gemma Arterton to a crying contest, “to see who could cry the most, the fastest. Gemma won.”
At which juncture, she introduced me to another acting game: “One of you thinks of a colour. Then you put an expression on your face, which is your idea of what that colour is. The other person has to guess the colour.”
All right, I think, you’re the six-time Oscar nominee, three-time Tony and Emmy Award winner… “You go first.” She centres herself facially, muttering, “OK, let’s see,” then assumes a serenely meaningful expression, which she holds as if freeze-framed.
I gaze at her, nervously, then I make my guess. Blue? Without breaking the spell, she shakes her head. Yellow? Another shake. Now I feel bad, as it can’t be Glenn Close’s acting that’s at fault – it must be my own failure. I give in; she tells me it was white. Gamely, she pulls another face. This time I get it: black. Her guffaw resounds around the high-ceilinged Palladian meeting room at Somerset House in London. She gives me a third expression. Purple. Yes! Two out of three! I’d assumed she’d be an ice queen; in fact, she’s closer to a Play School presenter.
Now 71, Close is Hollywood royalty – a theatrical dame in all but crusty honorific, and an Oscar winner in all but the detail of having had her name chiselled into the plinth of an actual statuette. (Her six nominations without a win is the most of any living actress.)
Born and raised in rural Connecticut, Close grew up communally after her parents joined Moral Re-Armament, a multifaith crusade that, with the benefit of hindsight, many now regard as a cult. A peripatetic, dictatorial childhood (when her father, a doctor, worked in Congo, the family moved to MRA’s HQ in Switzerland) drove her to self-expression through drama in her 20s. She also studied anthropology, and found her feet in open-air theatre.
It transpired that the movie camera loved Close as much in contemporary stories (The Big Chill, Jagged Edge, The Paper) as it did in middlebrow costume dramas (Albert Nobbs) and in Franco Zeffirelli’s Hamlet, giving her the leverage to take on curveballs like Mars Attacks!, 101 Dalmatians and, more recently, Guardians of the Galaxy.
She also ennobled early box-set TV by appearing in The Shield and all 59 episodes of legal saga Damages, while maintaining a garlanded stage career, starring in Sunset Boulevard and A Streetcar Named Desire.
Her latest film is The Wife, a Swedish-British-US co-production (in UK cinemas from Friday 28 September). Close plays Joan Castleman, the seemingly devoted spouse of Jonathan Pryce’s patriarchal literary giant Joe Castleman, as the couple’s fragile union is threatened at a Nobel Prize-giving in Stockholm.
For fans of Close’s detailed facial expressions, it’s a masterclass, with all the work going on behind her impassive eyes as Joan wrestles with the “loyal wife” archetype. I ask if the subtlety of the characterisation is what drew the woman who’s played larger-than-life characters Cruella De Vil and Norma Desmond to the part.
“Yes, I like the fact that she’s in the background. One of my favourite scenes is when they arrive for a reception at the hotel and he [Pryce] gives her his coat!” She squeals with glee. “There’s nothing more powerful in life than two eyes; the close-up makes the audience enter the film.”
The Wife is almost a theatrical piece, with lots of pairs of people talking in rooms. Was that an appeal? “The fights were very organic. Last time I saw it with an audience, I found the scenes at the Nobel dinner excruciating – I felt this thing in my chest. It was extraordinary to act. I felt that it was only Jonathan and I in that room. I knew what he was thinking.”
Unlike Joan, I say, you don’t strike me as someone who fades into the background. “I love fading into the background,” she announces. She’s dressed all in black, as if to make the point. “I’m not an extrovert. Most actors aren’t. If you’re an introvert, it’s easier to perform in front of 1,500 people than two people.”
Close draws no artistic distinction between working in different media. Having debuted on the silver screen in The World According to Garp, she then took on a TV movie, Something about Amelia, with Ted Danson. “It was a script about incest,” she recalls with mock horror. “My agent said, ‘It will ruin your movie career.’ ” It didn’t.
Close claims she has no regrets. But as an activist for greater understanding of mental health issues (her sister has bipolar disorder), she has re-evaluated her own portrayal of the mentally ill Alex Forrest in Fatal Attraction, the highest-grossing film of 1987, in which a woman scorned after a fling with a married man turns into the “bunny boiler” of legend.
“That did nothing but feed into the stigma,” she says now. “They made her into a psychopath. But people who suffer abuse can end up abusers. More interesting now would be the story from her point of view.”
Did you have reservations at the time? “I had a reservation about the bunny.”
Talking of abuse, do you feel that Hollywood is going through a reckoning in the #MeToo era? “Yes, and I welcome it. I think of it as a cultural revolution.” When I mention that US comic Bill Maher has said that all men are now on notice, she responds with another shriek: “You don’t want all of us to get angry at the same time!”
When a knock at the door signals our time is up, she shows a sense of humour as black as her choice of wardrobe: “Someone is coming with a straitjacket!”