Hillbilly Elegy

Glenn Close, Amy Adams talk Oscars, wigs, and loving Hillbilly Elegy's wild Appalachian women

The pair give their first joint interview on transforming for Ron Howard's awards hopeful.

You've definitely seen Glenn Close cry before. Over a 45-year career, her tears have splashed onscreen everywhere from the lavish halls of pre-Revolution Parisian interiors in Dangerous Liaisons to the muted dressings of a Stockholm hotel room in the wake of a long-standing marriage's bitter end in The Wife. But today, on a moving mid-afternoon phone call, it's not treachery of the heart or emotional trauma that's cracking her voice, but rather the memory of Amy Adams being an icon in front of the camera.

"The thing I adored about working with Amy is that — and it's counterintuitive to an actor because we all want to be loved — but she risked not being liked in [her character's] anger, confusion, and addiction, and in the end, she created an incredibly moving character," she tells EW of her costar in Ron Howard's upcoming Oscar hopeful Hillbilly Elegy, her voice shaking as Adams listens in on the line, too. "In COVID, I cry at the drop of a hat. But, thinking of what Amy did in the film, it's overwhelming! In the context of the characters, she let it fly in the scene, and it was heaven."

The relationship at the center of Hillbilly Elegy, however, is a hellish tale with a gut-punching silver lining based on venture capitalist J.D. Vance's bumpy road to success, as outlined in his memoir of the same name. Adams portrays Bev, Vance's drug-addicted mother whose deep-seated maternal issues carry over from those of Mamaw (Close), an Appalachian matriarch who moved her family from the hollers of Kentucky to the once-booming industry haven of Middletown, Ohio, in pursuit of the American Dream. But what they found on the other side was fleeting moments of happiness punctuated by bitter — sometimes violent — clashes over parenting, responsibility, and duty, with sparks of familial heart (and confrontational hands) flying between Bev and Mamaw as they raised J.D. (Gabriel Basso) into an Ivy League grad.

On the surface, it might sound like another weepy tale of a young man overcoming working-class hardships, but in Howard and writer Vanessa Taylor's hands, it's a moving story about the mysterious (and sometimes unintentional) binds tied by tough love — all under the tear-inducing guidance of Close and Adams' lived-in performances.

"Ron had the reverence," Adams recalls. "He wanted to tell this story about people he recognizes. The script is human and dives so deeply into these familial relationships, and once I paid attention to the truth of this family, I wasn't as worried about it diving into stereotypes."

Hillbilly Elegy
Credit: Lacey Terrell/NETFLIX

Ahead, read EW's full conversation with Adams and Close on how they prepared for their deeply moving performances, feeding goats in rural Georgia, naming their wigs, and why discussing their long overdue Oscars is irrelevant to their trajectories as artists.

ENTERTAINMENT WEEKLY: Important issues first: During filming, Glenn, you posted an Instagram video of Amy, um, "cycling" food up a ramp to a goat? Full story, please!
GLENN CLOSE: We were in the middle of Georgia! We stopped at a place called Goats on the Roof. How can you not stop at a place called Goats on the Roof? They had… goats on the roof! They had this bicycle that Amy got on, and they fill these little cups with goat food and then you cycle the little cups up to the goats. It was hilarious!

Was it necessary to create that fun dynamic with each other to offset the weight of the script? Because your characters certainly don't have that in the film.
CLOSE: Not consciously!

AMY ADAMS: We were lucky that Ron allowed us rehearsal time, so we had time together with the entire cast. We walked through their stories and got to know the family dynamics.

Whether it was between takes or acting in the moment together, what is something the other person did that made your performance better?
TOGETHER: Everything!

CLOSE: The thing I adored about working with Amy is that, it's counterintuitive to an actor because we all want to be loved, but she risked not being liked in [Bev's] anger, confusion, and addiction, and in the end she created an incredibly moving character. [Close's voice cracks] In COVID, I cry at the drop of a hat. But thinking of what Amy did in the film, it's overwhelming! In the context of the characters, she let it fly in the scene, and it was heaven.

ADAMS: Aside from Glenn's amazing talent and skill, she has such a passion for the work and an amazing ethic. It's a joy to work with someone who has the history and skills that Glenn has, but who also brings so much passion, integrity, and joy. It's infectious, and it gave me the energy to dive into the character working with someone who's putting all of those qualities into the work. It elevated everybody around her.

Hillbilly Elegy
Credit: Lacey Terrell/NETFLIX

The element of transformation — not just emotionally, but physically — must've played into that. From costumes to wigs to the physicality with which you both play these parts, how closely did both of you work with the costume and makeup teams, and why was that so important to how you played these parts?
CLOSE: Mamaw was so apart from anything I've ever tried to do before. I needed to know that I wouldn't be distracted by the fact that people would see my face, as Glenn Close. I asked Ron if I could approach makeup artist Matthew W. Mungle and hairstylist Martial Corneville, who were my collaborators on Albert Nobbs. We did very subtle, beautiful things to make it so that, when I looked in the mirror, I didn't see myself anymore. Virginia Johnson, our costumer, was another invaluable collaborator. She did a lot of research. We had pictures of Mamaw, we met with her family about her mannerisms [and discovered] the Reeboks, the baggy jeans, the men's t-shirts — or her own version of the t-shirt — that was Mamaw. We spent a lot of time over how big the stomach would be, how big the breasts would be… Mamaw, in real life, was a much taller, bigger woman than I am, so to get that, it added to the atmosphere of the character. And the fact that she smoked constantly… when I walked on the set, I knew that we'd done our job because nobody knew who I was. They thought some strange woman had somehow wandered to the set with a cigarette hanging out of her mouth!

ADAMS: My friend literally said to me, "I don't know who she is or why they're allowing her to stay." Like, not joking. I was like, "Yeah, that's Glenn!" [Laughs]

Amy, how did you approach Bev's looks?
ADAMS: We were lucky to have a lot of reference pictures and resources from the family, like videos, and we stayed fairly true to Bev. A lot of the costuming was taken directly from photographs, and that's what's so amazing about Virginia is she translated the photos into what you see onscreen. To do something that's period but still in [her family's] memory, it's tricky to make it feel real. I wanted things to feel subtle, so there was some extra weight, some mild prosthetics that you wouldn't even notice. If I told you, you'd be like, "What?"

Like what?
ADAMS: I had a slight nose prosthetic. You can tell if you see her and I next to each other, but you can't tell while you're watching it…. I also loved that wig!

CLOSE: [Gasps] That wig!

ADAMS: It was so hot though! It was like 103 degrees while we were shooting.

You named the wig, right?
ADAMS: I did! It was Beaver. The Beave! I called her Beaver-ly. I name most of my wigs some version of my characters' names. "It's time to put the Beaver on."

CLOSE: I loved when you got out the hot curler and you'd do your bangs. I loved your bangs. Amy did her own bangs!

Did Glenn's wig have a name?
ADAMS: It was just Mamaw. The Mamaw.

CLOSE: But it was n. I think Eryn has, like, 36 Emmy nominations, and Patty had just won an Oscar!

I imagine part of that transformation was making sure this wasn't a caricature. Despite these clothes and wigs, how did you make sure this wasn't a caricature?
ADAMS: So much of it comes down to the script. Ron had the reverence. He wanted to tell this story about people he recognizes. The script is human and dives so deeply into these familial relationships, and once I paid attention to the truth of this family, I wasn't as worried about it diving into stereotypes.

CLOSE: The film is Ron's vision, and his generosity gave us the time to actually meet the family members. We went to Middletown, Ohio. We saw the family's block, we shot two blocks away from Mamaw's real house, so for me, we [might have a pre-existing] stereotype of accent and dwelling, but this broke all of those stereotypes for me, because it wasn't that at all.

What were your first meetings with the real family members like? What did you take away from those meetings that you worked into your performances?
ADAMS: The first time I met with them was a dinner and seeing the way they talked and acted with each other was helpful. There was a dynamic of being open and generous. We spoke to them individually, and they gave perspective on their story, where they were, and where they are now. That helped me see the complexities of the relationships and love that they have. With Glenn, it's a totally different thing, since Mamaw is so revered and she heard stories from everybody.

CLOSE: Talking with the real J.D. was crucial. I asked how she sat, how she held her cigarette, what her voice was like, what her house looked like — all of that, plus pictures and video that we got, gave me a sense of who she was. Also, on the street that we shot on, there was an extra that day who happened to be standing on the porch with me. He said, "I knew Mamaw when I was little. She was something. One time she discovered some boys in her house looking at her girls a certain way, and she chased them out of the house!" I don't know if it was with a knife or a shotgun, but [it was clear] this is someone who people had vivid and really fond memories of. No matter how fierce she could be, they sensed that, underneath, she was a damaged person herself, but she had this great energy about her in a non-compromising way.

One of my favorite parts of the performance is that joke about bicycles and Polish derrieres. Was that something she actually said or was that improvised?
CLOSE: [Laughs] Oh my God, no, I couldn't improvise like that! My favorite line is: "You're as dumb as a bag of hair!"

ADAMS: Mamaw is so classic!

CLOSE: If anything, we kind of toned her down.

Wait, this is toned down!?
CLOSE: Definitely! She tried to rile people up by saying outrageous things to them!

Something else that riles people up: People have wanted both of you to win your overdue Oscars for years. Is that frustrating working with that pressure? Does the importance or weight of the nomination change over time?
ADAMS: Honestly, it's the last thing on my mind right now. There's so much going on. I love what I do and I love my work. Each nomination has been at a different stage in my life. It's always been a wonderful acknowledgment, knowing how many performances there are in a year. I don't really get frustrated. Maybe the only thing I get frustrated at is answering this question!

CLOSE: [Cackles]

ADAMS: That's honest! [Laughs] I'm just grateful to be a working actor. It's been coming up on 20-something years in Hollywood, and I'm grateful that I'm offered wonderful roles and I get to work with Glenn. It's the last thing on my mind, especially as we speak today.

CLOSE: Ditto! I remember vividly when I was nominated for The World According to Garp, and it was so beyond me. I remember going to these parties — you know these parties, Amy, like a lunch for nominees — and everybody was so nervous about whether they were going to win or not. I didn't get it, and I still don't get it. In this sometimes cruelly competitive industry, the fact that you would get the part… I think a lot of times the nominations are all about the part. If you get the kind of parts that end up with Oscar talk around them, you just want to have a great part to flex your creative muscles. I honestly feel, and people always laugh at me, that the real honor is in the nomination. What happens after that, if you start putting too much energy into whether you win or not, you might as well do something else.... Amy and I have talked about this, but we [miss] these events. We want to sit at a table with all of our fellow nominees, just to have fun!

ADAMS: Yes! We should make it like a theme Oscars, like Toga Oscars! That'd be fun. 1980s-themed Oscars!

And Beaver-ly can come, too!
ADAMS: That would be my '80s prom look!

Hillbilly Elegy
Credit: Netflix

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