‘It’s a complex story”: Glenn Close and Jonathan Pryce on set of ‘The Wife’

Is the dynamic between an onscreen couple about chemistry or acting ability? “You should be able to if you don’t have good chemistry,” Close says. “It’s nice to have, but I think I could probably make the audience believe I was in love with anyone.”

Glenn Close is sitting in the middle of a grand room surrounded by dozens of other actors, extras and members of a film crew, but hers feels like the only heart beating. She says nothing, yet her face and body language speak volumes. The simultaneous deconstruction and reconstruction of a character is taking place, a silent cyclone of emotion. Close has been nominated for six Academy Awards but has yet to win; another nomination is almost certainly forming in front of our eyes.

The Big Issue is on the set of The Wife, being shot in Scotland. Based on the bestselling book by Meg Wolizter, the story dissects the fraying marriage of celebrated writer Joe Castleman (played by Jonathan Pryce) and his wife Joan (Close), examining the roles people adopt for the benefit of others and themselves, and how a love that builds a relationship can also cause a couple to crumble.

Joe has just been awarded the Nobel Prize for Literature and the scene being filmed takes place during the post-awards dinner. The Castlemans are eating beside Swedish royalty in the gold-leafed Banqueting Hall of Glasgow’s ostentatious City Chambers – Glasgow standing in for Stockholm.

The accolade has brought into sharp focus the flaws in Joan and Jonathan’s relationship. As a younger woman, Joan had natural writing talent but through the decades she has become overshadowed and undermined by the success and ego of her charismatic but insecure husband. A lifetime of being reduced to being ‘The Wife’ has left Joan unsure of her self-worth and identity. It looks like Joan’s cool persona is about to crack.

“This is the moment the film is leading to,” Pryce says between takes. “It is the catalyst for everything going off in Joan’s mind, of how she’s mis-led her life.”

Is Joe a good husband?

“It depends what you think of as being a great husband… I work from within a character and generally, as people, we think we’re doing the right thing all the time. I don’t think he thinks he’s doing anything wrong.”

During lunch, Close’s attention turns to that of her beloved dog Pip, currently enjoying a tour of Glasgow. “He’s riding around with my driver,” she explains. “If he hears my voice he can get a little…” She emits a plaintive whimper.

Jonathan said he thinks Joe is quite a good husband. “Of course he would!” she laughs. “He had all those affairs…”

He failed to mention that.

“Funny.”

She continues: “It’s not all [Joe’s] fault. In the book, he’s a shithead from the very beginning and she’s the put-upon wife. I don’t think that’s terribly interesting. She’s very aware of the sacrifices she’s made and her anger to her husband is he’s forgotten the truth. And yet you wonder what his truth is… There are reasons for his behaviour. What his secret narrative is I’m not sure…”

Is it important for a character to have secrets? “Yeah. It is.” She laughs again. Whatever her secrets are, she’s not giving them away.

In front of the camera, Joe regales fellow diners with unfunny anecdotes that everyone pretends to find highly amusing as Joan sits, haunted by guilt, shame and embarrassment. Joe is called on stage to give a speech and the production breaks to change camera positions. Out of Close’s earshot, Pryce
re-evaluates (slightly) Joe’s motivations when reminded about his indiscretions.

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“Yes, he had affairs,” Pryce admits. “See, you’re forcing me to think about these things… I don’t need to demonstrate that he’s a bad husband, it’s for people to look at the behaviour and judge whether this is a good relationship or not.”

So what is his secret narrative?

“It’s not as black as white as that. I have the narrative that Joe has for the way he can get through his life: he thinks he is being supportive of his wife. His inadequacy causes him to seek approval in other relationships, it’s very much what is driving Joe.

“But you don’t always tell your fellow actors what your inner life is or what your motivations are – because that’s not like life – these secrets mirror life. You’re telling the same story but it’s motivated in different ways.”

Even though Close and Pryce both keep secrets from each other (divulging them to some extent to The Big Issue), it is clear they trust each other. But they have tellingly different views when the other isn’t around.

“If you trust someone you don’t need to talk about every moment,” Pryce says. “We’re the same age with the same relevant experience [so] there’s a lot you can take for granted. One good thing about getting old is you’ve experienced a lot of these emotions you’re portraying.”

Is the dynamic between an onscreen couple about chemistry or acting ability? “You should be able to if you don’t have good chemistry,” Close says. “It’s nice to have, but I think I could probably make the audience believe I was in love with anyone.”

This is the first time Close and Pryce have worked together, but each has been aware of the other’s careers and their defining roles for decades. Do other films and reputation influence a working relationship? “I don’t think so,” Pryce says. “When you’ve been around the block as many times as Glenn and I, you put those thoughts aside. I saw her as Norma Desmond [in Andrew Lloyd Webber’s musical adaptation of Sunset Boulevard] and I don’t think any of that carries over into The Wife.”

Is The Wife an exploration of who we are and whether we need others to become who we are really meant to be?

Curiously, Norma Desmond is looming in Close’s mind. While Joan Castleman has trouble dealing with being invisible to the wider world, Norma Desmond too can’t deal with losing her audience and has fake fan mail sent to her to continue the façade that it’s only the pictures that got small.

“She needs that to support the delusion,” Close says. “Norma, she sees herself as this great star. The public have left her, basically, though she doesn’t know it.”

Close is deep in thought. Is Norma Desmond with you? “She’s stalking me,” she says.

Another scene of The Wife links Pryce’s Joe with another role he has coming up in The Man Who Killed Don Quixote: “I am I plus my surroundings, and if I do not preserve the latter, I do not preserve myself.”

Is The Wife an exploration of who we are and whether we need others to become who we are really meant to be?

“I don’t want to condemn half the human race who don’t have a partner,” Pryce says, “but I’m still in a relationship with someone I’ve been with since I was 25. That’s had an enormous influence on both our lives and the way we’ve developed into old people.”

At the Nobel dinner, Joe takes to the stage and belatedly gives credit to Joan for the part she has played in his life: “Joan you are my muse, my love, my soul, and I share this honour with you.” This speech, instead of being a salve, compounds Joan’s regrets, the mistakes she has made. She is engulfed by inner rage, confusion and sorrow. The relationship already stretched to breaking point finally snaps. Joan storms out of the room, leaving a different woman than the one who arrived.

Back with The Big Issue she apologies if she is distant. It feels like she’s ebbing and flowing between her character and  herself.

“If I seem a little…” she pauses, “it’s because of the complex story.

 “In the end, it’s not just that he’s been taking her identity away from her, she has let that happen,” Close decides. “I can really understand the compulsion right now to say… I don’t know if I can do it any more because I don’t know who I am. Who am I?”

The Wife is out now in cinemas