Glenn Close transforms once again in Hillbilly Elegy. But it's no caricature

"If anything, I pulled back a little bit."

You wouldn’t know it by looking at the frizzy dark hair or boxy Reebok sneakers, but Hillbilly Elegy’s Mamaw fits into Glenn Close’s comfort zone pretty neatly. The actress loves a good transformation — the black-and-white villainy of Cruella De Vil, the male-passing stoicism of Albert Nobbs, the fading grandeur of Norma Desmond. “I’ve played a number of characters that only reveal themselves when in full drag,” Close, 73, says. “It’s gratifying because you can really remove yourself. That’s all the work with the makeup. And I have to not be distracted by my own face — not [worry] that people will say, ‘Oh, there’s Glenn Close in a crazy wig.’”

This is not who’s here today, in any case. From her home in Montana on an early September morning, Close looks comfortably herself in a plaid blue shirt, with mountain scenery creeping into frame through the glass of a side door. She fumbles a bit with her Zoom, trying to switch it to full-screen — when asked if she’s become a video-chat pro these last few months, she asks with a laugh, “Does it seem like it?” — before settling in to talk about her next big movie role.

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Is there an actress alive more skilled — more eager — to remove any trace of themselves from their roles? Last year, Close came closer than ever in nearly 40 years of nominated work to winning her first Oscar, for her relatively naturalistic turn in The Wife; she was ultimately passed over for Olivia Colman’s outrageous The Favourite Queen Anne. So Close remains winless — more so than any other living performer, in fact. It feels only fitting that Elegy, maybe her greatest — certainly her least glamorous — movie makeover yet, could take her over the finish line.

Based on the best-selling memoir of the same name, Hillbilly Elegy (on Netflix Nov. 24) follows J.D. Vance (Owen Asztalos as a child; Gabriel Basso as an adult) as he comes of age in an impoverished Ohio town. Close’s scene-stealing grandmother (even when she’s silent, watch the way she walks) moves toward the story’s center once J.D.’s mom (Amy Adams) falls deeper into a drug-addiction spiral, leaving him in Mamaw’s care.

The actress, as the cliché goes, disappears into the vividly realized character, and not just because of the differences in appearance. But first, yes, that look. Before production began, director Ron Howard and Close enlisted her Albert Nobbs makeup artist, Matthew W. Mungle, to experiment with takes on the Appalachian matriarch; another Oscar-nominated Nobbs collaborator, Martial Corneville, is responsible for the distinctive hairstyle. Close remembers the cosmetic conversations: “How big should my fake breasts be? How heavy?” She tore through baggy T-shirts and oversize glasses.

While Mamaw died long before filming, those closest to her were alive and around set, armed with vivid anecdotes. “I found out that she sometimes had two cigarettes going at the same time, and she loved to provoke people,” Close says. “If anything, I pulled back a little bit, because I didn't want her to seem like a caricature. She was very much larger-than-life — everybody said that!” Close studied photographs and intensively practiced the (very) specific Appalachian accent. Speaking now, she has that rare ability both to convey the seriousness with which she takes these aesthetic choices, and revel in the playfulness of them. She beams when recounting an instance in which she wasn’t recognized by the crew; she could go on for hours about every detail of the real Mamaw’s wardrobe. “That was what she wore,” she says in sum, after offering a head-to-toe breakdown.

Credit: Lacey Terrell/Netflix

The end result is a testament to her talent, no doubt. But Close, looking back over decades of metamorphoses, doesn’t want all the credit: “I’ve been in this business for 45 years, but it still inspires and astonishes me to see that kind of beautiful, detailed work.” Costume designer Virginia Johnson (Patriots Day, Spenser Confidential), who hunted through thrift-stores and hired a graphic artist to design prints on Mamaw’s shirts, found Close unusually collaborative, as she tasked the star with going in most-unglamorous visual directions. “I loved establishing a new look with her, just going into her trailer and talking to her about why we were going to do the kitten T-shirt over an American flag T-shirt,” Johnson says. “Having to put on all of those layers and do the hair and the makeup for them — that is time-consuming and not everyone would want to do it, really lean into the whole process. But she is one to embrace it.”

And it is, for Close, work. She didn’t find Mamaw difficult to shake when she went home after shooting. Another job, another process, albeit one of the good ones — "fulfilling." Partly because this character creation went so much deeper than an outfit. “I've always felt that to play a character truthfully, you have to find a place where you can love them,” Close says. “You have to find a common humanity with them. Because otherwise, you're judging them and that will set them apart.” She admired Mamaw’s tenacity; she slips in a huge grin as she calls her a woman who “disturbs the molecules.”

Close keyed into Mamaw's fragility, too — perhaps the performance’s most lasting impression. Her bad hip, her struggling family. The character is resilient, no doubt, but wounded too. A full human being. Close remembers the day Mamaw’s real-life son visited production, on the day the cast filmed the emotional scene of J.D. leaving home for the military. Art, as it goes, had mirrored life. “He had to walk away because he was so moved by seeing me as Mamaw,” Close recalls. “He thought that it was her.” Crazy wig and all.

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