It’s not even September, and already there’s Oscar chatter about Glenn Close’s riveting performance in The Wife. Adapted by writer Jane Anderson (Olive Kitteridge) from Meg Wolitzer’s 2003 novel and directed by Swedish filmmaker Bjorn Runge, the film centres on the relationship between Joe Castleman (Jonathan Pryce), a famous — and famously philandering — novelist, and his supportive yet equally secretive spouse, Joan, a thwarted writer played by Close in a performance the Guardian called “unreadably brilliant.”
Could this be the year for the 71-year-old Close, a six-time Oscar nominee who has never taken home the Academy’s top acting prize? Close won’t allow herself to get caught up in the buzz: “I’m a Yankee,” the Connecticut-born actress says. “I don’t believe anything’s going to happen until it happens.”
The movie opens just as Joe is about to receive the news that he has been awarded the Nobel Prize in literature. It follows the Castlemans to Stockholm, accompanied by their adult son (Max Irons), a writer struggling to emerge from his father’s long shadow, and Joe’s unauthorised biographer (Christian Slater), a literary sleuth who’s hoping to dig up dirt on his elusive subject. Before it’s all over, long-buried skeletons will be exhumed and cliches overturned.
Close, who divides her time between a country home in Westchester County, New York, a small pied-terre in the West Village and a house in Bozeman, Montana, near three of her four siblings, was in town recently with Runge to discuss The Wife’s complex and provocative themes.
In a time of the #MeToo movement and increasing awareness of gender inequity in Hollywood, how does this film speak to the current cultural moment?
Close: This may be a little off topic, but one of my favourite lines in the film is when Joe, in prepping for his Nobel acceptance speech, says to me, ‘I have to thank you. Otherwise they’ll think I’m a narcissistic a-hole.’ And I say, ‘But you are.’ I love that line. That speaks to the moment. More to the point, I do think this whole movie is really risky. My daughter [Annie Starke], who’s 30, represents a generation of women who grew up after the feminist movement. The whole idea — that women should be equal — surrounded them, the idea that women shouldn’t have to fight for that power. So Joan is a woman who stays with an abusive man. I was afraid that every young woman watching the movie is going to say, ‘Just leave him.’ That was my fear. That they would not be able to understand the mentality, or the culture, out of which Joan’s behaviour was coming. That was what Bjorn and I worked on the most. I had to understand that mentality for myself, to act her.
The question of why women stay with their abusers — whether the abuse is physical or psychological — is not just a generational problem.
Close: Right. The thing that was key for me, in light of the #MeToo movement, is that, at the end of the movie, Joan does get her courage up. Her anger has finally reached the point where she’s just beginning to awaken as a full person. Before that, she’s complicit. But I’ve been there myself. I’ve been in relationships where you’re in the position of wanting to buck the other person up, at your own expense, to keep him with you. It’s a trade-off.
Speaking of power and powerlessness, I understand that Glenn had final say-so on hiring the director for this film. Can you tell me how that worked?
Runge: Yes, I got the script from one of the producers, Meta Louise Foldager, that I had been working with in Copenhagen. I read it, and I said, ‘This is absolutely wonderful.’ And then the producer said, ‘We want you to do this. Now it’s just up to Glenn Close to say yes or no to you.’
Isn’t that kind of power unusual for a woman in Hollywood?
Close: I don’t know. In the independent film world, I don’t think it’s that unusual, because a lot of times, they’ll hang a whole film on an actor, and they hope that other people will come because they want to work with them. I do a lot of independent films. My definition of an independent film is a film that almost doesn’t get made. This screenplay had been floating around for more than 14 years. So our meeting was important. We met around the corner from my little Village apartment, at Cafe Cluny. We just talked.
Runge: Yeah, we talked.
Did you say something special to convince her?
Runge: I was very surprised, because in addition to talking about the script, we were just talking about life, about theatre and film. Suddenly, I remember Glenn was just looking at me. And now I understand, looking back, that this was the moment. There was a beat — and not only a beat, but like this hairpin silence — and suddenly she said, ‘I want you to direct this film.’ From there, we started our collaboration.
Close: It was just a blink reaction, almost instinctual. It was mostly the way you talked about it, and the chemistry.
The nature of collaboration — and complicity — is another of the film’s themes. Does the suspension of this year’s Nobel Prize for literature, after accusations of sexual misconduct, add unintended subtext to The Wife?
Runge: In Sweden, we have a name for a special type of man: the ‘Culture Man.’ He is often a man of great power who attracts people and who uses that power. In the Swedish Academy right now, they are having a great crisis, because this year, they won’t give out any award for literature — the first time since World War Two.
Close: It adds a very timely quality to the film.
Runge: This crisis of power within the group has to do with access, with #MeToo, with the power between people . . .
Close: Sexual power.
Runge: And the culture of silence. It adds so many extra ingredients to our story, it’s almost Shakespearean. Joe Castleman, who tries to come on to the pretty young photographer, is a classic Culture Man.
When Joe is asked to critique the plot of his son’s first short story, he offers a harsh assessment that contains an implicit critique of the film’s plot: ‘The blowhard husband, the stoic wife with the repressed rage — I don’t buy it. It’s a cliche.’ And yet while that capsule description neatly sums up The Wife, the film scrupulously avoids those very cliches. As an actor, and as a director, doesn’t this make things so much harder?
Close: Yes. The scene where Joe is having a heart attack was one of the hardest things, because Joe asks me, ‘Do you love me?’ right after I’ve just told him, ‘I’m going to leave you.’ I remember I stopped and turned to Bjorn and said, ‘Does he have to say that?’
Runge: And then, after she says yes, Joe says, ‘You’re such a good liar. How will I ever know?’
Close: They’ve been lying to each other their whole lives.
Joan is also lying through her teeth in her big scene with Christian Slater, where his character is trying to weasel information out of her about Joe. Watching the two of you play cat-and-mouse, I couldn’t help thinking of this line from a review of your performance in the FX series Damages: ‘There is no actor alive or dead as scary as a smiling Glenn Close.’
Close: [Laughing] I love that scene, because it was all a mind game.
You once said that you’ve always felt like an outsider looking in. What did you mean?
I’m an introvert. I read the book Quiet: The Power of Introverts in a World That Can’t Stop Talking. I don’t naturally gravitate toward social situations. I don’t spend a lot of time thinking about where I stand on the Hollywood ladder. Maybe it’s because I’ve never spent time there. I’ve always been someone who spends a lot of time in their head. Acting, for me, is thought.
The Wife releases in the UAE on September 27.