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The strangling question was only one part of Close’s extended research into the mentally unstable character of Alex Forrest in the film “Fatal Attraction,” she told a packed audience in McCosh 50 on Thursday.

The lecture, entitled “Are You Who We Think You Are?” focused on Close’s personal history and her intimate exploration of the psyches of her characters, including her starring roles in the film “101 Dalmatians,” the television show “Damages” and the Broadway musical “Sunset Boulevard.”

“I don’t know who you think I am, but I am not the characters I play,” Close said, referring to her talk’s title question.

Close explained that her acting abilities stemmed from an early love of nature fostered by her mother.

Her days of “seemingly endless summer, outside from dawn to dusk, covering every inch of property with games and imaginations” made acting very natural for her, Close said.

Her imaginative and cheerful childhood came to an abrupt halt, Close noted, when her parents “were seduced into a cult group.”

From age 7 until she was 22, Close said she felt pressured to belong to the Moral Re-Armament group and participate in their efforts “to save the world.”

At 22, Close “rebelled” against her parents by enrolling at the College of William & Mary. The moment she arrived, she did “what came naturally” and auditioned for Shakespeare’s “Twelfth Night,” winning one of the leading roles and launching a prominent acting career.

After graduating from college, Close began her professional career as an understudy for the Phoenix Theatre Company in New York. One night, director George Roy Hill sat in the audience searching for an actress to play the role of Jenny Field in his upcoming movie, the critically acclaimed “The World According to Garp.”

Close’s performance convinced Hill to cast her, though the role of Jenny intimidated Close at first, she said. “Jenny could have eaten me for breakfast,” Close explained.

The role, for which Close received an Oscar nomination, required that she wear makeup to make her look older to play Robin Williams’ mother. Because of this costume, Hollywood producers did not consider Close attractive, she said: When the time came to cast the role of Alex Forrest, Close added, she did not seem like a strong contender.

“[The director and producer] thought I was totally wrong [for the part],” Close said, noting that it was only recently, when she reconnected with the producer of the film, that she finally realized how hesitant they were initially to offer her the role.

Her agent fought for her, though, and after an uncomfortable audition with Michael Douglas, Close landed the role of Alex Forrest, which the American Film Institute later named the seventh-greatest movie villain.

“Actors should love their characters unconditionally,” Close explained. “Without love … you’re looking at them with a cruel objectivity, when to really inhabit them, you should be looking at the world with a truly subjective gaze.”

To really inhabit Alex, Close met with several psychiatrists to discuss her character’s behavior and psychology. The experts described Alex as a typical example of someone who has been subjected to incest as a child, Close said.

Close’s dedication to authenticity and her memorable roles were honored in January with the placement of her star on the Hollywood Walk of Fame.

“Now anyone who’s really pissed off at Patty Hewes [of “Damages”] or Alex Forrest can stomp on me,” Close said of the honor.

Close also discussed her family’s influence on her career, noting particularly that her grandmothers inspired her to follow her dream of becoming an actress.

Her maternal grandmother, who suffered from Parkinson’s disease, dreamt of becoming an actress, Close said, while her “tough” paternal grandmother dreamt of becoming a singer, she said. The knowledge of these unfulfilled passions had a lasting influence on Close’s pursuit of her ambitions, which were supported by her mother, Close explained.

“When I tell my mom I’m going to be on this national interview, she says, ‘Make sure you comb the back of your head, and please don’t talk about yourself,’ ” she said.

During the question-and-answer session, one student asked Close what advice she would offer aspiring actors.

“It’s really important to get a well-rounded education,” Close said. “Go to a great liberal arts school with a strong theater department.”

Jolee VanLeuven ’09 was inspired by Close’s talk. “She eloquently described her craft … and how she came to want to be an actress,” VanLeuven said. “In the process, [Close] gave us a really great picture of her childhood and which roles specifically influenced her.”

The talk was “academic in a very different sort of way,” Lady Adjepong ’09 said.

“It wasn’t very bookish at all, but it wasn’t Hollywood,” she explained. “It was a very different perspective, but it was very intelligent.”

The J. Edward Farnum ’90 lectures were established in 1939 “for the purpose of providing lectures from time to time by men of prominence not connected with the University.” Since its founding, the series has now been extended to include women.

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