Jeannette Walls’s popularly and critically acclaimed memoir The Glass Castle is the inspiration for the film of the same name (now in theaters!), and stars Brie Larson as the oldest version of Jeannette — a woman coming to terms with her unconventional upbringing by her artist mother Rose Mary (Naomi Watts) and alcoholic father Rex (Woody Harrelson).
The film is as heartbreaking as it is heartwarming, and here to discuss the complexities of her story — as well as the authenticity of the film and the effects it’s had on her feelings about her childhood — is Walls herself.
HelloGiggles: What were your early conversations with writer-director Destin Daniel Cretton and star Brie Larson like with regard to telling your story and keeping things authentic and true to life?
Jeannette Walls: Destin was the one who initiated that conversation. He sent me the most beautiful email about wanting to honor the story, the authenticity, and [wanting to] try to put it onscreen without, in any way, violating the characters. To capture the essence of it, without in any way exploiting them. He asked for constant input to make sure that he wasn’t crossing any line or going in any wrong direction. From the very beginning, he was so sensitive about getting it right, and did it with Brie.
She watched a lot of tapes of me and regularly asked me questions, but I don’t even think she needed to ask the questions. Brie is really smart. She just got it. A couple of times when we got together she was watching and I realized, she sees everything. She picked up these mannerisms that I have that I wasn’t even aware of, so she knows me better than I know myself.
HG: Did you have reservations about trusting other people to tell your story?
JW: Initially, I was a little concerned about it. Before they brought Destin on-board, I thought, “This could go in any direction. They could make a sitcom out of it. They could make my parents’ characters… Once I saw a previous film that Destin had made called Short Term 12, which is about our foster care system. It’s joyful, sad, painful, triumphant, and just all of these things. I realized, this man gets it. He understands how complicated life is and how complicated these people are, and he’s not out to make fun of anybody.
This is not my medium. I don’t make movies. I wasn’t that interested in doing a screenplay, and I was just so happy to turn it over to somebody who knew what the heck he was doing — and he was more than willing to turn to me when he felt that he didn’t know what he was doing…He would call or email me and say, “Are you comfortable with my doing this? I want to take this liberty.” There were a couple of scenes he fleshed out, but he always called and said, “I’m thinking of doing this. Did anything like this happen? Can we talk about this? Can we talk about this period? Can we talk about this character?” It was from these random conversations he’d seize on a phrase that I [said] and we’d kind of run with it, but it was always true to life.
HG: Were there many creative liberties taken? I read the book in college and from what I remember, it seemed pretty true to the story.
JW: It was pretty true to the story. That’s why I stopped worrying about him taking liberties because he would say, “Look, I don’t know how you feel about this, but this thing that happened in the southwest. I’m thinking of moving it to New York,” or something like that. Or, “I’m thinking of moving it to West Virginia.” It was so minor. It was just changing the setting because he felt that the sequence would [benefit from it]. He would say, “Look, if you don’t like that, if you’re not comfortable with that, I understand.”
I saw why he was doing what he was doing. It wasn’t too tart anything up. It was just because a sequence made more sense that way, but he was so aware of taking any liberties. He did not take many liberties, but the ones that he took he just wanted to make sure that I was okay with it. I don’t believe he was contractually obligated to do that, that we needed to discuss that sort of thing. He just wanted to get it right, and he’s such a decent guy. He didn’t want to take any liberties and make me feel uncomfortable, or I believe, more importantly, didn’t want to get away from the way things would’ve or could’ve happened.
He just wanted to honor the truth more than doing me a favor. Even though I think he was aware that. “Look, I don’t want to humiliate this woman, embarrass her with her own story.” I think it was more being true to life. He’s somebody who cares deeply about human beings. Even the ones who don’t fit into the categories that we like to put people into. He’s interested in the nuances and complexities of humanity. He didn’t portray them. I believe he kind of honored them.
He met my mother and immediately got her and liked her. My mom just adored him. She was like, “He’s just so sensitive.” For me, my mother’s a little bit of a litmus test because not everybody gets her, and a lot of people want to vilify her a little bit, which I understand. I get that because Mom does not fit in with most people’s definition of what a mom should be, but Destin just loved her and loved her artwork.
For example, while he was chatting with her she was showing off her artwork, and she opened up a shed and there were about 500 paintings there. He thought he hit a gold mine because he was planning to go out and commission an artist to imagine Mom’s art, or to get one or two pieces and expand on it. He’s like, “Can we use this artwork?” I think he realized then also, not just to use the artwork as an homage to my mother, but an homage to authenticity. He realized and agreed to it.
My mother’s very prolific, and he understood. He understood the healing power of her artwork. To see these hundreds and hundreds of paintings, he made it a big part of the movie. When he visited me in Virginia, he was just constantly on the lookout for, “Tell me about this. Tell me about this.” He was just absorbing information and inspirations. Mom had paint on her hand, and he photographed it to recreate it for the Naomi Watts character. That’s how an artist looks. They’ve got paint on them.
HG: I love that you liken this to Short Term 12 because I think it’s similar to The Glass Castle in that they’re both sort of simultaneously heartbreaking and heartwarming. Is that something that you would agree with? How did you interpret the film as a whole?
JW: Absolutely. You’re confused and almost conflicted because [the characters in Short Term 12 are] so good, but so damaged — and you’re rooting for them. Your heart breaks, but I found it ultimately triumphant that these kids who are looking after them were practically kids themselves. The brilliant way that Destin kind of unfolded it, and I thought he did kind of the same with The Glass Castle. You watch and you realize, “Huh. There’s more going on.” He gradually reveals these secrets to you in a way that I thought was brilliant. I think it was very much like Short Term 12.
HG: Now having seen the film, is there anything new that you’ve discovered about your childhood? Any new perspective that it gave you? Was it cathartic, or how did it make you feel?
JW: It was very cathartic. It was just really beautiful watching these talented actors. Their emotional intelligence just blew me away. They understood these characters so completely and so compassionately. Seeing them fearlessly and lovingly embrace these damaged people and being okay with it, it was another way of acceptance for me of my family. These people got it in such a deep and profound way. I talked to Woody a lot about his portrayal of Dad because I was slack jawed watching it. I was a mess. “Wow, this man who I loved so desperately, but who was so deeply damaged, Woody gets it.”
He gets it, and he embraced it. He captured the joy, but he also captured the neediness and the despair. I said, “How did you do that? How did you know all that?” He said he studied the tapes and studied the voice. We had conversations about Dad, but then he stopped. He said, “I didn’t want to imitate or mimic your father. I wanted to become him.” Honestly, that is what he did. It was stunning to me. It’s one thing to make somebody up, but they had to get inside somebody else’s head and inside somebody else’s body, and that’s what they did.
Watching Brie on the set, just take after take, each one was perfect. Each one she had energy, and each one depth and passion. I’m like, “Wow, I could never in a million years do that.” I like to fancy myself as a writer or somebody who understands personality, motivation, and psychology, and I work hard. I have never seen anything like these actors. It wasn’t just the actors. It was also the people behind the camera. The set designer went to incredible lengths to get it right. I was a little heartbroken that there were some wonderful parts of the set that the viewers never get to see….Destin said, “It doesn’t matter that the viewers never got to see it. The actors got to see it. They needed that reality around them,” and so it served that function. That’s how smart Destin is. That’s the way he thinks and he understands that.
There were some amazing scenes that they shot that he cut. At first, I was like, “Oh, Destin. How could you cut that? That was the best scene ever. In most movies, it would’ve been the best scene in the entire movie.” He explained to me why he cut it. I went, “Oh, you’re right. You’re absolutely right,” and so I just came to a conclusion that Destin is smarter than I am. He gets this medium, but he also gets storytelling in a way that was humbling. I just trusted him.
HG: You’ve been so complimentary about Brie. What do you think she captured so well about you?
JW: The way that I had tried to cut myself off. The way that I had tried to numb myself to not feel anything for my family so that I wouldn’t feel the pain. But when you numb yourself, you not only don’t feel the pain but you lose the love. You lose the good along with the bad, and she understood that. She understood the flintiness in trying to be strong when actually, you’re dying inside. And the hurt that you will not acknowledge to yourself because you’re afraid if you acknowledge the love, then the hurt’s going to come back. She just got that. It was with her eyes, and the fear, determination, unwillingness to trust. She nailed it, and then at the end kind of dissolving and realizing, “I do love you. You gave me many lovely gifts.” I was flabbergasted by her.
I honestly feel almost like…I don’t want to say she’s a friend, but I so trust her. Again, she’s this person who took my most inner, intimate feelings and never mangled, never manhandled, never betrayed them. Treated them with such honor and respect, but also accuracy. She didn’t insult me by trying to whitewash me. She didn’t try to play it cool. She was fearless about going into those dark areas, which is the way it should’ve been.
HG: What do you think of the performances by the actresses who played the younger versions of you? Chandler Head as the youngest Jeannette and Ella Anderson as the young Jeannette?
JW: Little Chandler Head. Oh, my gosh. Watching her, looking at her adoring father and howling, just so proud of her daddy and so joyful about this wacky life that they lead. Ella Anderson knocked my socks off. I could not believe that this — I guess she was 11 when they shot it — that this 11-year-old child could understand those emotions to that extent. Some of those scenes that she shot were really difficult. She’s looking at the father trying to detox as he’s begging her to give him alcohol. I lost it.
Seeing her in the pool, it was a fascinating experience because she’s clinging to the side and I just wanted to jump into the screen and protect her. It was funny because I felt about her a tenderness that I’ve never felt toward myself. That was surreal and kind of cathartic. This little girl who nobody was really protecting, but they were. You know? It was very complicated, conflicting, and extraordinarily beautiful.
Max Greenfield, what a tough role to play. I thought he nailed it. He was so funny, but even that performance, it was so nuanced. He was a good guy, but talk about your fish out of water. Like, “What am I doing here?” I thought it was beautiful. Naomi Watts. Oh, my gosh. She talked to my mother a number of times. She came to really understand and appreciate and love my mother, which I think is something that all of these actors did is they loved their characters. They were not oblivious to the flaws. I think they were probably more aware of the flaws of the characters that they were playing, but they were whole, three-dimensional, complicated, nuanced people.
I thank Destin for that because he just insisted. He gets these amazing performances out of adults and out of children too. He created this really safe space for these kids to just be real and be fearless. It was wonderful watching the kids on the set because they’d play and they’d dance, and they just felt safe. They loved this weird, wacky life — and this weird, wacky father. Someone would say, “I want to live here for the rest of my life. I love living here.” Even though the house was shabby and kind of run-down.
HG: You had this, at times, difficult upbringing, and you’ve gone on to accomplish so much. Is there a piece of advice that you would give to young girls who are in a tough spot like you were, advice to keep them going?
JW: Trust yourself. You’re stronger than you realize. Trust your story, and I honestly believe that those of us who have tough childhoods have an advantage over those who had no real challenges because life throws a bunch of curve balls, and those of us who faced a lot of difficulties as children, we’re tough. We know how to deal with life. We know how to fight. We know how to fall and we know how to get up. I believe, actually, that we’re the lucky ones. Just tough it out and life becomes so beautiful.