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Interview: Glenn Close and Annie Starke on The Wife, Sacrifice, and Diversity

Mother and daughter discuss the sacrifices women make for men.

Glenn Close and Annie Starke
Photo: Sony Pictures Classics

Not long into my conversation with Glenn Close, the actress almost dreamily recalled how the the thrill of being nominated for her first Oscar was not unlike the moment she was cast in her first Broadway play. It was as if she was a character in a movie musical, giddily dancing on streets that have magically turned to gold. Meeting Close for the first time, I was immediately struck by how unmistakably driven she is by the desire to create.

That desire is one that’s shared by her character in director Björn Runge’s The Wife, an adaptation of Meg Wolitzer’s novel of the same name, only it’s a desire that’s been sadly suppressed. In the film, Close plays Joan, who in her youth—and in her naïveté—sacrificed everything for her husband, Joe (played by Johnathan Pryce), and his career. The film begins with the news that Joe, a famous author, has won the Nobel Prize for Literature, but after the couple journeys to Sweden to accept the award, their marriage unravels as the full extent of Joan’s contributions to Joe’s success is revealed.

Last year, after The Wife’s world premiere at the Toronto International Film Festival, I had the chance to sit down with Close and her daughter, Annie Starke, who plays Joan in the film’s flashbacks. Our conversation ranged from the sacrifices women make for the men in their lives to the challenges that actors, both young and old, must confront in a newly woke Hollywood.

The Wife is a film about sacrifice. And it’s the woman who has to sacrifice something for the man, for the sake of their family, not the other way around. What are your thoughts on that lack of an even playing field?

Glenn Close: I think for a man it’ll always be difficult to have a successful woman by his side. Especially if they’re in the same profession. But frankly, even if they aren’t and one is bringing more money home it may cause tension. I think it’s possible that the couple works it out, but it’s a special relationship. In a way, it’s been one of the problems through history that women haven’t been allowed to have their own careers, stand on their own two feet. But then, look at female leaders in Europe, like Margaret Thatcher. We don’t know much of her husband, but they must have had some sort of understanding. Or look at Hillary and Bill Clinton.

Annie Starke: Each time we talk about these issues, I think of Queen Elizabeth I, who dangled getting married, her entire life, giving up her power. In the times she lived, people only wanted to deal with a man. And she was smarter than that. Hopefully in a few generations we’ll be singing a different tune.

What have you sacrificed in order to be successful in your profession?

GC: You sacrifice a lot, every day. You sacrifice time with your child, relationships, vacations even. I realize that may sound funny, but it’s true. This job demands a lot. It can be painful at times too. But it’s the best job in the world at the same time. I would never change it for anything else.

Joan did something that required a lot of strength and character. I’m curious to know your thoughts on how she arrived at the decision that she made and the situation she finds herself in by the end of the film.

GC: Although I sympathized with Joan from day one, I feel that by the end of the film you start to think that she’s just as caught up in the whole mess as her husband, Joe. It all leads up to the Nobel Prize ceremony when everyone talks about her husband’s work and you just feel that it’s not right. After so many years she has no choice really and she can’t tolerate the situation anymore. I feel that she’s just as guilty as her husband, after all, and over the years it became a comfortable situation for her.

AS: It all becomes a delusion at some point. In the end, Joan realizes that her husband was so prolific, and that his work meant so much to so many people.

GC: At the same time, Joe at some point also says to one of his fellow colleagues that Joan doesn’t write. There’s this huge secrecy between the husband and the wife. I guess it’s like they say: If you tell yourself a lie enough times, you start to truly believe it. And so does he in that relationship.

Is Joan a victim of the times—of a society she was brought up in?

AS: I think she’s a victim of the times, but above all else, she’s a true introvert. All she wants to do is write, no matter if she gets recognized or not. And being an introvert meant that she had her reservations all the time.

GC: What she also had was an extroverted husband! [laughs]

AS: We should remember that Joan was from an upper-class family, went to a good college, where you could only be who you wanted to be until you got married. There was no expectation toward her, and she had simple things to do in life. But she wanted something else and decided to go for it.

GC: Because she had her own mind, she didn’t respect her husband as a writer. After so many years, Joan has finally come to a conclusion that she can make a choice—that it’s all up to her. She tells the ambitious journalist played by Christian Slater the whole truth and the final question remains, if she wants to carry on. And I think it’s not possible anymore.

Was there a point in the shooting process when you just wanted all the secrecy to be over? When you wanted Joan to tell everyone what she’s been keeping a secret for so many years?

GC: First of all, I always thought that it was Joan’s secret to tell, no one else’s. And, of course, I rooted for her, all the way! Having said that, when I first read the screenplay, I thought that all the women in the audience would at some point start screaming and yelling: “Tell him!” And when you think about it, all her life has been built on lies and manipulation. So, it might just be refreshing for her to come clean at last. But she’s just not that kind of a person, which makes her all the more complicated.

Your performances are subtle, because in many ways Joan is very introverted. This film is adapted from a book so there was probably very little room to change the material from what it was, but was there a moment when you thought, “Well, I have to be loud and have my own voice in this?”

AS: I can think of at least one instance. There’s a scene in the film when Joan asks her husband if he wanted her to “fix his writing.” We played with that scene a lot, along with the screenwriter and the director. We thought she should be angry, that she should be thinking, “How dare he!” Or just the opposite—that she’d realize that no one will ever read her books. But then again, that’s not who she is. That realization is heartbreaking—that it’s Joe who’s the brilliant one in the family, not her. Everything Joan does is out of love. Her offering to “fix it” isn’t really a sacrifice—to make a connection with your first question—but it’s the next best thing to “being read” to her.

GC: I think she also lies to herself, as women often do. This is a man who she loves. She doesn’t want him to leave her. She doesn’t even try to say to him, “You’re full of shit!” Instead, she says, “I love you.” That was my big question: “Why would she stay with him for so long, and why did she let the world believe the lies they’ve been telling?”

No success in that success story, is there?

GC: Not really, no.

Nowadays, it’s more common for actors to play themselves getting older, and digital makeup allows for that to happen. Young actors get scanned and they’re forever young. Older actors can turn back the time. Do you think it can be liberating for an actor to have that option?

GC: I did a movie called What Happened to Monday and they supposedly did that on my face as well, but to be honest it didn’t look much different to me! [laughs] But seriously, I’d much rather play the young version of myself because if it’s not the perfect casting it can be tricky. I just hope we’ll get to a point where it’s always the same actor. That would be best.

AS: Look at Andy Serkis. I absolutely adore and worship him! With each and every character he’s a whole different creature, but no matter what he does it’s always him in there, deep inside. I think it’s an expansion of what we can do. There’s one thing I don’t like about the technology though. Sometimes it happens that they scan the actor and then tell him to go home and then at the end they just get him tickets to see the finished film, because they just digitally created the performance. That is just depressing to know that you can have a very bad actor become someone like Laurence Olivier. [laughs]

Do you sometimes feel pressure, or hear producers say that you’re not old or young enough, beautiful, ugly enough to play a certain part?

GC: Happens all the time. You go through it all the time at auditions. And also, now, people are very, very aware of diversity, so you might be absolutely perfect for the part, and people might say you’re perfect, but we’re going to cast someone else because we have to have a certain [component] of diversity. And that’s something that young actors starting out also confront, and I think that’s a reality. I put myself in the shoes of a Hispanic or Asian actor who has so little opportunities, you can’t begrudge it, but it just makes the competition all the more difficult.

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