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mental health

Actress Glenn Close (C) poses for a photograph with her sister Jessie Close and nephew Calen Pick at an international conference on eliminating mental health stigma in Ottawa.Dave Chan

Glenn Close made boiled bunny the adulterer's nightmare, the scene everyone remembers from the 1987 stalker flick Fatal Attraction. Her character, Alex Forrest, has become one of the most infamous villains (and stereotypes) in movie history: the deranged, slighted women who terrifies Michael Douglas before being choked and shot to death in the final bathtub scene. But these days, the award-winning Hollywood actress cites that character for another reason: as part of her ongoing campaign to combat stigma around mental illness.

This week, Ms. Close was in Ottawa, attending an international anti-stigma conference hosted by the Mental Health Commission of Canada. She started her own non-profit organization, BringChange2Mind, after her sister, Jessie Close, and nephew Calen Pick struggled with mental illness. Flanked by her family, she spoke to The Globe and Mail about the need for more public awareness of the issue, the portrayal of Alex Forrest (who in the original script was supposed to die at her own hand), and why she probably wouldn't take the role today.

Do you think the character did damage in terms of increasing stigma?

When I said yes to the script, she was self-destructive rather than psychopathic, so it was a big change for that character. It's a very difficult thing because it's very good for the storyline. Movies like that are still being made, where someone who is perceived as being mentally ill becomes frightening and destructive. It's very hard to portray mental illness in a way that is both entertaining and authentic.

You took the script to a couple psychiatrists at the time, and it didn't even come up that she might have a mental illness.

Don't you think that's amazing? Their assessment was that she had been [the victim of] incest at an early age, and that there were things about her father. But the fact that [mental illness] was never brought up, from my perspective, was pretty incredible.

As an advocate for reducing stigma, do you find that the Alex Forrest character is an effective device for raising the issue?

Absolutely. I mean she raised my own awareness. The light bulb didn't go off until I realized what those battles were and how they changed the ending [so that she was shot by the wife in the story] to make it more frightening. In order to remind the audience that she was initially more self-destructive than destructive, I did that [scene] gouging my leg with a knife.

Your movie Albert Nobbs [about a closeted gay woman living as a man in the 19th century] is, in essence, about stigma. Was that what drew you to that part?

A character like Albert Nobbs, who has to hide her secret, is very much like a person with mental illness, afraid to come forward. We live in a world where many hide a huge part of who they are in order to survive. That's why I had an enduring belief in the power of that story.

Where does the campaign go next?

To be united [in Ottawa] with top researchers from around the world who have been in the trenches, they just are such an amazing inspiration. Because my career has been in entertainment and media, that this might be one of the places where we could help translate the science into effective messaging. And it's a huge challenge.

As a celebrity, people might say, 'You have certain advantages, and that doesn't really reflect my situation.' How do you see your role in that respect?

I take exception to the idea that I am not an everyday person. The pain that a family goes through – the pain that an individual goes through – is the same no matter who you are. From a celebrity standpoint – and I really hate that word – I believe you have to have an authentic connection to this issue. Who cares what a celebrity thinks? I hope that people will care what I think because I am a member of a family who has struggled with mental illness.