Wisdom Watch
11:11 am
Thu May 17, 2012

Glenn Close: Mental Illness Shouldn't Be Old News

Originally published on Thu May 17, 2012 3:33 pm

U.S. audiences know her from the Oscar-nominated films Fatal Attraction, Air Force One and Albert Nobbs, and the Emmy-winning TV series Damages. But when Glenn Close is not wowing viewers onstage or onscreen, she devotes her time to raising awareness of mental health issues.

She's the co-founder of Bring Change 2 Mind, a nonprofit that aims to confront the stigma and discrimination associated with mental illness. Close's activism was inspired by her younger sister, Jessie, who was diagnosed with bipolar disorder in her late 40s. Jessie's son, Calen, lives with schizoaffective disorder. He received his diagnosis before his mother received hers, Close tells Tell Me More host Michel Martin.

"When Calen got sick, none of us had dealt with anything like that before. And in our ignorance, you know, there probably were a lot of signs that he was certainly in danger of getting ill. Jessie, when I look back when she was very little, there were certainly signs of her behavior ... when she tried to kill herself when she was 16, then she tried again. And again, there was nothing that was translated in our family as dire as that is," says Close.

Close says there's been a lot of depression in her family, and other generations dealt with suicides.

When asked how her new organization aims to help, Close says she feels like she's jumping off a very high cliff, but she has people who are helping her grow wings in the landscape of mental illness.

"I'm fascinated by the challenge of actually changing people's behavior as far as mental illness is concerned — to change the discrimination and the prejudice and the stigma," says Close.

She certainly considered how associating herself with this issue would affect her career. She first consulted Jessie: "She without hesitation said 'yes,' that she would consent to be outed, if you will, in a national campaign — and so did her son." The family will speak at the 5th International Stigma Conference in June in Ottawa, Canada.

"As an actress, I know the great power of language and of words, and if you repeat something that scares you, often enough, it will lose its power over you. So for me, that's very much the first step," says Close.

Playing A Mentally Ill Woman

Ironically, one of the first roles that made Close famous was the part of Alex Forrest in the 1987 film Fatal Attraction. Forrest, a mentally ill single woman, has an affair with a married man played by Michael Douglas, and then pursues him in an extreme and frightening way.

Close says she did a lot of research to try to understand her character's behavior. She also gave the script to two psychiatrists to see if such behavior was possible, and if so, why — but Close says at that time, the physicians didn't know what could cause it. Filmmakers theorized that Forrest was an incest victim at a very early age.

But given what researchers have discovered about mental illness since then, Close says it would be very difficult to play Forrest today. "I think it in many ways represents the kind of way my profession has perpetrated stigma and misunderstanding, by making people with mental illness usually dangerous or violent and scary."

Making Headway

When it comes to having productive conversations about mental illness, Close says she thinks progress is being made, but perhaps not quickly enough.

She recalls meeting one expert who thought people should ask the mentally ill what bothers them in society, and what they need. And if it's the law that needs changing, says Close, then that's what the nation should do. She says she is not interested in just goodwill — she wants change.

"Mental illness never should be old news," she says.

Copyright 2012 National Public Radio. To see more, visit http://www.npr.org/.

Transcript

MICHEL MARTIN, HOST:

I'm Michel Martin, and this is TELL ME MORE, from NPR News. Coming up, it's been almost a year since a devastating tornado hit Joplin, Missouri on Joplin High School's graduation day. This year, the school welcomes a special commencement speaker: President Obama. We'll check in with the principal of Joplin High School in just a few minutes.

But first, to our Wisdom Watch conversation. That's the part of the program where we speak with those who've made a difference through their work.

Today, we have with us one of our country's biggest names in theater, film and television: Glenn Close. She went from the New York stage to big roles and Oscar-nominated films, including "Fatal Attraction" and "Albert Nobbs." She's also known for her lead in the hit TV series, "Damages," where she plays the brilliant-but-cutthroat lawyer, Patty Hughes.

Here's Patty talking to a young attorney.

(SOUNDBITE OF TV SHOW, "DAMAGES")

GLENN CLOSE: (as Patty Hughes) You are in this office to wait for instructions. You don't have license to think. You have jeopardized the only serious lead we still have. How could you be so stupid?

MARTIN: The new season of "Damages" is premiering this July, but when Glenn Close is not wowing audiences, she's devoting her time to a very important cause: mental illness. She's the cofounder of Bring Change to Mind. That's a nonprofit that aims to confront the stigma and discrimination associated with mental illness. And Glenn Close joins us now.

Welcome. Thank you so much for speaking with us.

CLOSE: Thank you. It's great to be here.

MARTIN: Now, I'm hoping we can talk a little bit about your acting work, but before we do, I did want to talk about your advocacy in this area. A few years ago, you cofounded the mental health organization, Bring Change to Mind. And as I understand it, you were motivated to do so because of your younger sister, Jessie. Could you just tell us a little bit more about her?

CLOSE: Yeah. My sister Jess, she lives with bipolar disorder, and her son, Calen, lives with schizoaffective disorder. And we really were a family that had absolutely no vocabulary for mental illness, so Jessie wasn't diagnosed until she was in her late 40s. Actually, her son was diagnosed before she was.

MARTIN: And what affect did this have on the family?

CLOSE: When Calen got sick, none of us had dealt with anything like that before. And in our ignorance, you know, there probably were a lot of signs that he was certainly in danger of getting ill. Jessie - when I look back, when she was very little, there were certainly signs of her behavior that led - when she tried to kill herself when she was 16, and then she tried again.

And, again, there was nothing that was translated in our family, as dire as that is. We were kind of spread out at the time. And I think my parents said, well, she's just, you know - a cry for help, in a way, or she just has to kind of pull up her socks and get back to work, and all that kind of thing. And it sounds almost hard-hearted when you talk about it now, but we were so clueless.

MARTIN: What do you hope that your organization will do to make things better?

CLOSE: I feel like I'm jumping off a very high cliff, and I have extraordinary people around me to learn from and to help me grow my wings in this whole landscape of mental illness. I still am very much learning.

I'm fascinated by the challenge of actually changing people's behavior as far as mental illness is concerned, to change the discrimination and the prejudice and the stigma.

MARTIN: I wanted to ask you about that. How - you know, obviously, this is very personal, because this is within your family. But as a public figure, I'm wondering about the process you go through in deciding that you want to disclose something that is connected to you, whether it's about you or someone close to you, and whether you want to associate your name with it - particularly in the realm of mental illness. And I'm thinking about, like, the great actress Catherine Zeta Jones disclosed recently that she suffers from bipolar disorder. And I saw an interview where she was asked, you know, why did you decide to come out with this? And she said, well, because I was going to be outed. So she decided she was going to disclose first.

But you have to wonder whether there will be impacts on her career and so forth, just because this is the world we're in. So I wanted to ask, for yourself, when you're thinking about that process as a person who's well-known, do you mind? Was there any concern that might be a backlash? People might worry about whether you are reliable or - you know what I'm saying? Or whether they even want to be associated with something that is frightening for a lot of people?

CLOSE: I certainly did think about that. The first call I made was to my sister because, ultimately, she's the one - you know, because I wanted to have an authentic connection and that connection is through my family. It's not just my sister. There's always been a lot of depression in my family. There's been other suicides in my family. So - in other generations.

And I knew that it would be - I could not do this without her at my side, because it's about family and it's about those in families who don't have mental illness and those that do. You know, you need both those factors.

And she's my hero. The word is thrown around a lot, but she, without hesitation, said yes, that she would consent to be outed, if you will, in a national campaign, and so did her son. I never like to speak about it unless I have a family member with me. We're speaking at the International Stigma Conference up in Ottawa on June 4th.

There have been certain times in my life where I've been confronted with a challenge, and my question to myself is always: What's the alternative? Not to do it because you're afraid? And you don't want to be in that position, and I'm not afraid.

As an actress, I know the great power of language and of words. And if you repeat something that scares you often enough, it will lose its power over you. And so, for me, that's very much the first step.

MARTIN: If you're just joining us, you're listening to TELL ME MORE, from NPR News. We're having a Wisdom Watch conversation with six-time Oscar nominee Glenn Close. We are talking about her advocacy on behalf of mental health. She has close family members who suffer with mental illness and are surviving with mental health, and she's talking about that and has cofounded an organization that hopes to curtail the stigma around these issues.

Do you find it ironic, though, that one of the first films that kind of brought you to national attention, you know, a huge hit, was "Fatal Attraction," where you played a woman who is assumed, I think, to have a mental illness? Of course, you played Alex Forrest.

CLOSE: It's highly ironic. Yeah.

MARTIN: And for people who don't remember - I don't know, the three people who don't. She has an affair with a married man played by Michael Douglas and then she pursues him in a way that becomes very scary. I'll just play that short clip.

(SOUNDBITE OF MOVIE, "FATAL ATTRACTION")

MICHAEL DOUGLAS: (as Dan Gallagher) This has got to stop.

CLOSE: (as Alex Forrest) Dan, if you'd agreed to see me, I wouldn't have called you.

DOUGLAS: (as Dan Gallagher) Do you get it? It's over. There is nothing between us.

CLOSE: (as Alex Forrest) You mean, you've had your fun. Now, you just want a quiet life?

DOUGLAS: (as Dan Gallagher) Why are you doing this?

CLOSE: (as Alex Forrest) Doing what?

DOUGLAS: (as Dan Gallagher) You need help.

CLOSE: (as Alex Forrest) Don't tell me what I need.

DOUGLAS: (as Dan Gallagher) You need a shrink.

CLOSE: (as Alex Forrest) Why are you so hostile? I'm not your enemy.

DOUGLAS: (as Dan Gallager) Yeah? Then why are you trying to hurt me?

CLOSE: (as Alex Forrest) I'm not trying to hurt you, Dan. I love you.

DOUGLAS: (as Dan Gallagher) You what?

CLOSE: (as Alex Forrest) I love you.

MARTIN: So we were talking about the irony there. I don't know. When you think about that now, what do you think?

CLOSE: The extraordinary thing that I think about is that I did a lot of research for the - to try to understand the behavior of Alex Forrest. And I gave the script to two different psychiatrists and said, is this behavior possible, and if it is, what would cause it? And neither of them came up with any mental disorder. And that was - when was that made?

MARTIN: 1987.

CLOSE: Yeah, yeah. And now, that's the first thing you would think of. Since then, leaders in the field of certain illnesses have told me that it is a kind of behavior, but it's just amazing to me that the psychiatrists didn't bring it up. So what we constructed for the character had nothing to do with a mental disorder.

MARTIN: Well, what do you think about that now? I mean, it's - because, on the one hand, such a powerful figure - I mean, it's almost an iconic role. Do you agree? I mean, it's - but it's always been a tough one for a lot of people. On the one hand, she's such a strong character. It's such a great role for you. On the other hand, a lot of people are, you know, always kind of disturbed by the powerful woman, and there must be something wrong with her. You know, that kind of thing. You know what I mean?

CLOSE: There definitely is.

MARTIN: Yeah?

CLOSE: There definitely is. And some people say that - and I have to be careful here, because I don't want to offend anybody, but it is an extreme example - and I underline extreme - extreme example of, potentially, a borderline personality person. She was out of control.

MARTIN: But you're saying that - but you're saying, back then, people didn't even think about the idea that there was a mental illness at work here. That's interesting.

CLOSE: No. Well, it was interesting because I think what we came up with was that she had been incested at a very, very early age, probably pre-memory. And that can lead to all the symptoms, and that probably can be a trigger for a mental disorder later in life. That made me really empathize and love that character. But all her behaviors, all so kind of textbook for that - you know, for that happening. And, usually, she would have killed herself. They're very, very self-destructive, absolutely no self-worth whatsoever.

MARTIN: One can never go back, but I do wonder if you knew then what we know now and if the cultural conversations around mental illness were what they are now, whether you would have played her differently?

CLOSE: You know, when they decided to change the ending and to have her, you know, become basically a psychopath and try to kill the wife, I thought it was betraying that character. I mean, it was an amazing journey for me, because the audience desperately wanted catharsis. They wanted the bad seed killed off. They wanted my blood, basically, and they were given it.

But I tried - kind of pathetically - to remind them that she was self-destructive, which - you know, the gouging my leg with the knife in that scene. I mean, you know, but it's a very, very powerful image to have somebody come after somebody else with a knife. So that's what she became.

MARTIN: Yeah.

CLOSE: I honestly don't think that that's who she was. It was brilliant for the story and it gave the audience a sense of catharsis in that order could, hopefully, now be restored, which is kind of the classic thing that the shedding of blood does from Shakespeare - I mean, from the Greeks through Shakespeare, through everything.

So - yeah. It was a huge learning experience for me. It would be very difficult for me to play that part now, because I think it, in many ways, represents the kind of way my profession has perpetrated stigma and misunderstanding by making people with mental illness usually dangerous or violent and scary.

MARTIN: Do you feel that we're getting somewhere when it comes to these conversations and having useful conversations about this?

CLOSE: I think we are making progress. I think we could make much better progress. I met with a man, Norman Sartorius, who's kind of - he's considered one of the greats in that whole field of mental illness. His take on it is so fascinating because he thinks we have to ask, you know, people with mental illness: What do you need? What bothers you, and what do you need?

And, if it's the changing of a law, then that's what we need to go for. It kind of makes sense, you know, that you have to go directly to the people, and I think many, many people do. I'm not interested in just good will. I want change.

MARTIN: Can we talk about you a little bit, for the time we have left?

CLOSE: If you insist.

(SOUNDBITE OF LAUGHTER)

MARTIN: If you don't mind.

CLOSE: If you don't mind.

MARTIN: I do insist, yes. Just looking over your body of work in preparation for this conversation, I'm just continually struck by, you know, just the range of people you've played, the kinds of - you're the queen of all media, as it were.

You know, you've done all these things, and just - I think many people will remember that your most recent Oscar nomination was for your 2011 film, "Albert Nobbs," where you play Albert, who's actually a woman pretending to be a man so that she can work and earn a good living. And the film is set in 19th-century Ireland. I just want to play a short clip from the film. This is where Albert's identity is actually revealed. I hope I'm not ruining it for people, but here it is.

CLOSE: That's all right.

(SOUNDBITE OF MOVIE, "ALBERT NOBBS")

CLOSE: (as Albert Nobbs) I beg you. You won't tell on me, Mr. Page. Stop a poor woman from making a living. It would be the end of me. I don't want to finish up in the poor house.

UNIDENTIFIED MAN: Doctor...

CLOSE: (as Albert Nobbs) No, no.

UNIDENTIFIED MAN: ...get her off the floor.

UNIDENTIFIED WOMAN: Get out, he said.

MARTIN: Talk a little bit about this, if you would, and why you were drawn to this story. You originally played this role on Broadway, and then worked very hard to get the story to the big screen and three Oscar nominations. Not bad. Why were you so drawn to this?

CLOSE: As interesting it is a question about gender, for me, it was more about survival in a time where women had absolutely no rights. And this was a woman with no name, no money and the only way that she'd been able to work was to disguise herself as a man and be a waiter.

And I think there are stories like this all over the world. Thousands of people are pretending to be something different than they are in order to survive. And I think there are people that fall between the cracks, and I think those stories should be told.

I love characters that have a dream and no self-pity. And, for Albert, the dream of her little tobacco shop was as big as somebody wanting to be president of the United States. You know, there's no such thing as the little dreams. People have important dreams. Everybody has a story.

MARTIN: How have you managed to keep it so fresh all these years? You've been at it for a long time, and you find that many actors, no matter their gender, find themselves being steered in one direction or another. And you've managed to have such a range over the years. How is that?

CLOSE: I don't like to repeat myself. I don't like to feel redundant. And if you've dug way down into a character and a certain part of the human landscape, you've done some pretty profound work. And I - you know, to do a character that would be like one that you've played, it would be boring for me, and it also would - it is very un-motivational for me.

The great thing, the luxurious thing about being an actor is that you are a student of human behavior and of the human heart. It makes for a fascinating journey, and I don't want to repeat it, because there are so many stories.

MARTIN: As I mentioned, we call this the Wisdom Watch, where we like to ask people if they have any wisdom to share. I hope you'll share some with us. I know. Right?

CLOSE: Always have a dog.

(SOUNDBITE OF LAUGHTER)

CLOSE: Dogs help.

(SOUNDBITE OF LAUGHTER)

MARTIN: OK. Is that it? You...

CLOSE: That's it. I would not presume to be the - wisdom is a very frightening word. Talk about frightening words. No. Somebody like Norman Sartorius, he has wisdom. Me, I still feel I'm learning. But you know what? I've always had a dog.

MARTIN: Well, thank you. Thank you for talking with us. I hope you'll come back and talk again about this. This is important. It's important.

CLOSE: Well, thank you for that, because I think we're in a day and age where old news - you know, but mental illness never should be old news.

MARTIN: Glenn Close is an Oscar-nominated actress and mental health advocate, and she was kind enough to join us from a bureau in New York.

Glenn Close, thanks so much for speaking with us.

CLOSE: Thank you. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright National Public Radio.