Before Jeannette Walls sat down in a Los Angeles screening room to watch The Glass Castle, the movie based on her memoir of the same name, producer Gil Netter gave her a warning: “Gil told me I wasn’t going to like it,” Walls tells me during an interview at Manhattan’s NoMad Hotel. “He said, ‘People never like movies about themselves. It’s just too weird to see your life on screen.’”
But Netter was wrong—and likely thrilled that he was. “I loved it! I was ecstatic. I knew they’d get it right because I’d been dealing with them so much during the process of making the film, and I knew they were smart, sensitive people,” Walls says of the team that brought her book to the screen—Netter, director Destin Daniel Cretton, and a cast that has Oscar nominees Woody Harrelson and Naomi Watts playing her parents, while Oscar winner Brie Larson plays Jeannette as an adult. (Walls still can’t quite believe that casting: “I mean, Brie Larson!”)
Like the memoir, the movie dramatizes how the author and her siblings—sisters Lori and Maureen and brother Brian—grew up dirt poor, spending much of their childhood and teen years living in a run-down shack without regular access to water or electricity in the coal-mining town of Welch, West Virginia. Their parents, Rex and Rose Mary Walls, were eccentric dreamers and wonderfully creative; the engineering-minded Rex, who died in 1994, had a vision of a glass castle he wanted to build for his family, and Rose Mary was a prolific painter. But they were incapable of providing any sense of normalcy or stability for their kids.
Resilient and hopeful, though oftentimes hungry, Walls knew even as a child that if she was going to have a better life one day, it would be up to her to make it happen. Eventually, she and her siblings left their parents and made their way to New York City—where Walls paid her own way through Barnard College, then became a New York City gossip columnist, chronicling the lives of the rich and famous for New York magazine, Esquire, and MSNBC.com. All the while, she kept her own past a secret out of shame until she finally wrote about it in her memoir.
More than a decade after that book was published, it’s finally a film.
Cretton wrote the screen adaptation of The Glass Castle with Andrew Lanham. “Destin was really smart about getting at the heart of the book. A couple of other screenwriters had taken a stab at it, and they were good screenplays, but Destin immediately said, ‘This is about the relationship between the daughter and the father,’ and he went into that, and I thought he cracked it right open,” Walls says.
She never considered writing the screenplay herself. “It is not my medium. It is so different,” she says. “It’s like playing chess—10 different games of chess all at once.”
What works in book form doesn’t always play well on screen, so those who read Walls’s memoir will notice some differences in the movie. “Destin wrote certain scenes that weren’t in the book, but it was always in conversation with me,” Walls says. “He also made my first husband more of a character, but these decisions were always informed by what actually happened. He made smart choices and took certain liberties, and I thought it was brilliantly done. I learned a lot about storytelling from him.”
Walls was impressed by the attention Larson paid to the smallest details while filming. During one set visit, Walls remembers listening to Larson ask Cretton whether a “Why?” or a “Why not?” would sound more pointed during a conversation. (Cretton has worked with Larson before, directing her in the critically acclaimed 2013 film Short Term 12.)
The actress also talked to Walls about her life, her feelings, and her physicality. “Brie asked me if I had any physical habits. Do you touch your hair when you have anxiety? She wanted specifics. She wanted mannerisms. I couldn’t think of any, but she picked some up anyway,” Walls says with a laugh. “There is a scene [at New York magazine] where she picks up her bag, and I thought, ‘That’s how I would do it!’ Little things like that. Even just the way she cocked her head—I thought, ‘Oh my God.’”
Ella Anderson, who plays Walls in pivotal scenes as a child, also put a lot of thought into her role. “I got to hand it to that kid. We were talking, and she said, ‘I have a dumb question. That scene where your dad threw you in the pool—did you trust him?’ I thought, ‘That’s not a dumb question. That’s what that scene is about. That’s what the book is about,’” Walls says. “She kind of blew me away.”
Walls surprised herself by getting emotional while watching the scene in which a teenage Walls leaves home. “I cried when I saw Woody Harrelson in character for the first time on the set. It was a very dramatic scene. It was Brie Larson—that would be me—coming down the stairs, and he asked her to stay. I love Woody Harrelson. He’s a fine actor. I thought he’d do fine in the role, but when I saw him in character, I gasped. I gasped kind of loudly. Luckily, I was far enough away that he didn’t hear me. I was shaking,” Walls says, lifting up her hands and showing me how badly they were trembling, “because he had the body language.”
“It was the same with Naomi Watts—playing my mom was not an easy role, and she worked very hard. She listened to tapes of my mother, and she sounded like my mom, and it was more than just the voice,” Walls says.
At the time we spoke, Walls’s actual mother—Rose Mary—had seen the trailer for The Glass Castle, but she hadn’t seen the whole movie. “I think I will get a screening copy. It might be a little weird for her,” Walls says. “The book was tough on her. But bless her heart—she said, ‘I don’t see it quite the way you did, but that’s the way you saw it.’ It’s crazy that she can see that.”
Revisiting her upbringing through the movie has gotten Walls thinking about her past again. “I had dreams last night about Welch, which I have not dreamt about in a long time,” she says. “But it was a very wise man who said, ‘Secrets are a little bit like vampires—they suck the life out of you. Once they’re exposed to light, they lose their power over you.’ And I have found that to be very true. So I kind of own the stories, and my past doesn’t haunt me the way it used to.”