Acting Like a Man

Photo: Richard Phibbs/Trunk Archive

Glenn Close has a number of very charming laughs, each impeccably keyed to its purpose in conversation. This is somewhat surprising, given the sorts of formidable characters she’s almost always cast as—Alex Forrest, the Marquise de Merteuil, Cruella de Vil, the infinitely calculating lawyer Patty Hewes. None is known for her giggly mirth or for putting people at ease. But from the moment Close pops through the doorway at Steiner Studios in the Brooklyn Navy Yard, where she is filming her final season as Hewes on the legal drama Damages, she’s very nearly impish. “Hold on!” she says jauntily. “I just have to get my wig off!” Close’s hair, while also blonde, is not nearly as authoritative as Patty’s, which went through a Hillary Clinton phase for a while.

It’s a couple of days before Christmas, and this morning the Times approvingly ­reviewed Albert Nobbs, a film she’s been trying to make for fifteen years (or perhaps longer—she was the lead in the stage version, in 1982), which probably helps explain her delighted mood. She stars in the film, as a literally buttoned-up late-nineteenth-century Dubliner who passes as a man to make a living as a hotel waiter, and she co-wrote it and produced it, too. It was out for a week in December to qualify for the Academy Awards, and it is being released more widely at the end of this month. She’s already up for a Golden Globe for best actress in a dramatic role, against, among others, her longtime accolades bête noire Meryl Streep, also in a wig and mannish makeup to play Margaret Thatcher. Close, who’s 64, has often joked that people have long confused them, except on Oscar Night. (Close has never won, though she’s been nominated five times, including twice when Streep was among the competition.)

In her dressing room, which looks out over the yard’s rusty cranes and lower Manhattan beyond, there are dog dishes and dog treats and a calendar called “Dogs in Love,” not to mention a scrapbook of lots of pictures of her and her two fluffy white terrier mixes, Bill and Jake, on-set. Next to that is an open script: True to form, it’s a confrontation between Patty and her protégée turned rival Ellen Parsons, played by Rose Byrne. “Shall we get down to it, then?” Ellen asks.

Well, yes. Always. Damages, which started on FX in 2007 and was canceled after three seasons but then picked up by DirecTV (Close recommends watching an entire season at once in a DVD “orgy”), is all about getting down to it. For all its elaborate and often deliberately misleading plotting, the thrill of watching the show is in Patty’s fantastic sangfroid, her willingness to do whatever is necessary: the monstrousness of her professional clarity, now passed on to Ellen. I tell her it’s hard not to admire Patty, morally compromised though much of her behavior is.

Close laughs affectionately. “You would be surprised by the number of people who say they know people like Patty,” she says. Does she? “No, I do not.”

She based her performance in part on some highly effective real-life litigators she met researching it, like Patricia Hynes (who represented former Lehman Brothers CEO Dick Fuld) and former U.S. Attorney Mary Jo White. One of White’s associates told her about the “humiliation and chauvinism” of law when she first started practicing it. “Having to swallow it and suck it up. I said to her at some point: ‘You must have a lot of anger in there somewhere.’ And she said, ‘Oh, yes.’ So you know that’s where Patty comes from. She comes from my generation where she had to fight through that. So for all her machinations, I really like Patty. You could say she’s acting like a man and getting censured for it.”

Part of the ease that Close feels in playing what seem like conniving characters is that she doesn’t see them as bad people (well, other than Cruella). “I think what I love about being an actress is that you have the opportunity to explore the behavior—the whys of a character. Why people behave a certain way. You just say why, why, why, why.”

So what is it with Close and Nobbs? Why did she pursue this for so long? She laughs quickly. “I think I always believed that there was something about that character which was universal,” she says. “I just sense that there are people isolated in the privacy of their rooms, going on Facebook. That’s not who they are. What we do to survive I find fascinating: When we all walk out the door, we put on a face. For Albert, the stakes are just much higher.

“I felt that it’s much more than just a story about this invisible person. It ultimately for me comes down to the fact that I think we need, in order to have maybe a successful life, to start with a place of safety where you can have some sort of connection to another human being.”

“I always felt that I was held together with Scotch tape and paper clips, and as an actor that’s good.”

Close, who lives in the West Village with her husband, investor David Shaw, comes from a profoundly Waspy Connecticut family. But any safety and connection she might’ve felt from all that history was undermined by her family’s decision to join a right-wing change-the-world movement called Moral Re-Armament when she was 7. Close stayed involved in it, even touring the world as part of its musical cavalcade, Up With People, until she went to college at 22. “It was a cult, where everyone was told to think alike, and that’s devastating,” she says. Her family was “sort of pulled apart.” Afterward, “I decided that I would not trust even my instincts. Because I didn’t know what they were. Every­thing had been dictated. It also gives you a huge sense of looking from the outside in, and I think that in many ways that has been very good as an actor, because you are somebody who is asked to go into a ­character … I always felt that I was held together with Scotch tape and paper clips, and as an actor that’s good.” She laughs lightly about this, conscious of its possible absurdity.

She’s looking forward to Damages winding up. “It’s bittersweet. Patty has been a great character.” But, she says, “I can’t imagine doing ­another series; you’re kind of held hostage” by the ever-changing schedule. The Damages creators “work by the seat of their pants.”

They haven’t been told how it’s ­going to end. “I’d rather die than lose,” says Close. “And I don’t want to lose to Rose. I’d rather throw myself off a building.” She laughs, sharply this time, like striking a glass.

Acting Like a Man