Glenn Close first played Albert Nobbs on stage nearly 30 years ago. She speaks to Screen about how she ‘put skin in the game’ to bring the project to the screen as producer, financier and star.
If it is true the eyes are the window to the soul, then Albert Nobbs — the fictitious 19th-century Irishwoman played by Glenn Close in the film of the same name — has a pair of giant dormers embedded in her otherwise inscrutable features. From behind an extraordinary mask that kept her in the make-up chair for more than two hours each day, Close’s eyes reflect the loneliness of a woman who disguises herself as a man to find work as a hotel butler in poverty-ravaged Dublin. It is a performance that has put Close in line for a sixth Oscar nomination, after previous recognition for the likes of Fatal Attraction and Dangerous Liaisons.
It was 1982 when Close first appeared off-Broadway in the adaptation of Irish author George Moore’s short story The Singular Life Of Albert Nobbs. The experience sunk its claws in deep, and as Close played a vivid procession of now-famous characters — Alex Forrest in Fatal Attraction, the Marquise De Merteuil in Dangerous Liaisons and most recently her Emmy-winning role as steely litigator Patty Hewes in TV’s Damages, to name a few — the emotional gravity of Albert Nobbs stayed with her.
“I remember very well being impressed by how potent it was with the audience when we did it on stage,” Close says from New York one mid-November evening as she prepares to shoot a new episode of Damages. “People long to have an emotional connection — they want to be affected emotionally and taken on a journey… On stage it’s molecular, the energy starts disturbing the air. In film it’s really one pair of eyes to the next and you lead the audience through the story. So that’s very satisfying for people and I wanted to make that connection.”
Close admits she has not spent every waking moment of the past 29 years mulling over how to adapt the story for the big screen, but she kept an eye open for an opportunity. After one iteration with Hungarian director Istvan Szabo fell apart about 10 years ago, the actress — who adapted the screenplay with Booker Prize-winning novelist John Banville and Gabriella Prekop — enlisted Bonnie Curtis to produce alongside her. They worked for more than five years to get the project off the ground, eventually securing financing and the services of Colombian film-maker Rodrigo Garcia, son of novelist Gabriel Garcia Marquez, who had directed Close in Things You Can Tell Just By Looking At Her and Nine Lives. “He has a great understanding of women,” Close says with a burst of laughter, “and he isn’t intimidated by women.”
Albert Nobbs shot in Dublin from December 2010 to February 2011 and the result impressed Roadside Attractions and Liddell Entertainment sufficiently to acquire US rights last summer, prior to warmly received premieres at Telluride and Toronto. Audiences responded to the lively ensemble of Mia Wasikowska, Janet McTeer, Aaron Johnson, Pauline Collins and Brendan Gleeson, but it is the leading lady who delivers the most affecting performance.
“It is a very unusual character and a very challenging one to play because you’re walking a very fine line,” Close says. “It is hard in this day and age to play someone who’s been invisible for so long. Playing her nearly 30 years later and the fact that I’m nearly 30 years older now, plus the fact we were able to make this movie, adds poignancy to Albert. But it helps that she’s older because she’s been so buried. What’s tricky about it is that she doesn’t know about human intimacy and doesn’t understand what love is and she has everything to learn about what it is to be connected to another human being.”
Two characters in particular, McTeer’s physically imposing gender bender Hubert, with outsized confidence and generosity to match, and Wasikowska’s chirpy maid Helen, are the devices that might lure Nobbs from her cocoon — but Close notes that Nobbs’ mysterious, traumatic past prevents her from stepping out of her comfort zone for long. “I don’t think she has any inkling to explore. All her instincts are geared towards survival and I don’t think there has been anything in her life to warrant that exploration. She’s an isolated person and what good will it do her to explore?
“Albert is fine with the life she’s in. She’s safe unless she’s exposed but she doesn’t want that. She’s become a good butler and saves money to keep her out of the poorhouses. It’s very hard for us to imagine the reality of that world where women had no rights and just around the corner was abject poverty. We learned there was more poverty on the streets of Dublin than there is in Calcutta. Albert is more afraid of that than anything else, so she’s fine being invisible.”
Close recalls meeting make-up artist Matthew Mungle and Garcia about three years ago for a screen test for Nobbs’ face. “It was during that session that I saw it wasn’t me anymore. It never ceases to amaze me because it’s not like we used major prosthetics. He changed the tip of my nose and [filled] out my ears and I had bottom dental plumpers [a device that goes over the teeth] that filled out the lower part of my face. Other than that, I had whatever make-up was needed to fill it in.” She also credits her wig maker Martial Corneville, adding, “He can pull it off the way no-one can. He’s been a collaborator for almost 20 years.”
Close and fellow producers Curtis, Julie Lynn and Alan Moloney worked tirelessly to court financiers and put the project together. “It’s the same story that most independent films go through,” she says. “This was a hard sell because it’s a subtle story. The humour is incredibly subtle, so it depends on whom you can cast. It was a hard sell but I didn’t resent that and I thought we would get someone eventually.”
The producers secured the help of numerous parties and the budget finally came in at just under $8m. Backers included the Irish Film Board, sales agent WestEnd Films and a property developer from Texas named John Goff and his wife Cami, who had not invested in film before. “My husband and I put skin in the game,” Close says. “We had sold our Upper West Side apartment… and we had some money from that.
“I have always been a creative producer and I have produced for TV before but this is my first feature film,” Close says. “I love it — it’s like mixing a potion and I love that; getting the chemical energies of the team right. As far as the day-to-day went I had amazing producers, so I never had to worry about that.”
Close’s immediate future involves Damages and an adaptation of Thérese Raquin. The actress says she wants to adapt more screenplays but confides she does not plan to jump back into independent producing “anytime soon”.