Almost three decades after she first played her onstage, Glenn Close has finally come to the screen with the strange and compelling character of Albert Nobbs, a woman in 19th Century Dublin who lives as a man to escape a traumatic past and hang onto her job as a waiter in precarious times.
The actress wore multiple hats, and not just Nobbs' bowler: She bought the rights to the material, produced the film, co-wrote the screenplay, played the title role and even wrote the lyrics for the end-credits song.
She also recruited Janet McTeer, a British stage and film actress who received an Oscar nomination for 1999's "Tumbleweeds," to play a crucial role.
Close, whose performance is a marvel of tightly-wound restraint and almost unbearable poignancy, is now a strong Best Actress candidate. Supporting Actress contender McTeer, meanwhile, steals more than a few scenes as a brassy hotel worker who befriends Nobbs and changes her ideas of what's possible.
Roadside Attractions is mounting an awards push in multiple categories for the Rodrigo Garcia film, which will get a limited run in December and open wider in January.
Note: This interview inevitably focuses on McTeer's performance in a way that might be considered a spoiler for those who have not seen the film and do not know her character or function in the story.
Did your conception of the character of Albert Nobbs change over the years? You first played the role onstage in …
GLENN CLOSE: '82. I think the core of Albert didn’t change. But I've matured since then. That, I'm sure, had a lot to do with how I played her now. And a movie like this, you can't mock fate. If it's going to be made, it's going to be made whenever it comes together. I lost opportunities maybe three times over those 29 years, but it finally took on a life of its own, and I can't imagine I ever could have gotten a better group of actors or a better crew.
Why'd you cast Janet?
CLOSE: She's one of the great actresses alive right now. I also thought her stature would be fantastic for Hubert – and even though she did "Tumbleweeds" and has an Oscar nomination, she's better known for stage than film. I thought it was important to have somebody who people would discover as Albert discovers her.
McTEER: So Glenn came to see me in a play on Broadway, and came backstage and asked if I'd have a look at it. I said sure, and then we met a week later. And we've loathed each other ever since. [laughs] That was probably a year and a half before it was actually made.
CLOSE: She stayed with it. Because the schedule changed as we were getting the money. We pushed it back until we had the money, and Janet hung with it.
McTEER: But we didn't really get all the money until …
CLOSE: We started shooting without all the financing. We made it independently, without a penny from Hollywood, and there were 60 different documents for the financing of this movie. And the final signing, I think, was on day five of the shoot. So we were jumping off the cliff. We all took on a degree of risk with our salaries, because we certainly couldn’t afford everybody's usual salary. And everybody who has a main role has a stake if we do well.
What were the particular challenges to playing women playing men?
McTEER: It was nerve wracking, wasn't it? This is a movie where if you don’t buy the premise you’ve lost your audience. In many Shakespearean plays, and in things like "Shakespeare in Love," it's a romantic comedy, and you don't have to totally believe that these people have actually passed as men.
Whereas in something like "Boys Don’t Cry," "Mona Lisa" and this, you have to absolutely believe that these other people would believe they were men. Because otherwise you've lost the premise, you’ve lost the foundation stone on which the rest of the story is built, and you make the rest of the characters look like idiots.
If you play men, in a way it's easier. You can have a voicebox, you can have false hair, mustaches, wigs, you can have all kinds of stuff. But when you're playing women playing men, you only really have yourself to work with, plus tiny little extras. So working on the voices, working on the stature …
CLOSE: It was tricky. Very tricky.
You were not only playing different accents from your own, but you were also playing people who are changing their own voices to make them seem more masculine.
McTEER: Exactly. You're playing somebody who's playing.
CLOSE: And I thought that for Albert, it's become such second nature to her that when she speaks its just down in that register. She's trained herself to talk that way, and if I speak a little bit higher, it's when I'm alone in my room, mumbling to myself.
She never really lets down her guard and relaxes, even when she's alone. She's always tightly controlled.
CLOSE: And yet she related to her little pile of money that's going to keep her from the poorhouse and the streets. That's her focus. And she's very proud of the fact that she's such a good butler. But beyond that, she's just existing. And her life is precarious like anyone else's.
There's that lovely and funny scene on the beach with the two of you …
McTEER: In drag?
Right. In women's clothes. And it feels as if Albert is the one who loosens a bit and allows herself to be a little feminine in public, but Hubert just never seems comfortable at all.
McTEER: She doesn’t want to be a girl. She's very happy being a guy. She is who she is. She knows that maybe Albert thinks she can now go back to being a girl. And Hubert thinks, well, let her go there. I don’t want to do it.
She doesn’t try to look like a girl, she doesn’t try to pretend she's a girl, she just does it for Albert. Hubert is herself. She's very happy with who she is, and she's not going to change even if she could.
Is Albert ever comfortable being herself?
CLOSE: She doesn’t know who she is. Honestly, she doesn't know who she is because she was never told her real name. And also, she is so deeply embedded in this survival guise that when she puts on the dress, I think the revelation at the end of the scene is that’s not who I am, either.
It would be more stressful and more impossible for her to become a woman than it would be for her to stay in the life she has. Hubert says, "You can be whoever you are." Which is a very kind thing to say, but she doesn't know how incapable of doing that Albert is. She had become this strange hybrid. And it doesn't have anything to do with sexuality, really.
Were there surreal moments walking on the set as men?
McTEER: I would often go on as myself, when I wasn’t working. And the first time I went on as myself, two people came up and asked me what I was doing and who I was.
CLOSE: And what about when Brendan came?
McTEER: Oh, yeah. Brendan Gleeson is a great friend, I've known him for a long time and we've worked together. And when he arrived on the set I was there in my costume. I just stood there and nodded, and he looked at me and went, "All right." And there was a split second where I could see him thinking, shit, I know I'm supposed to know who ya are. And then he clicked. But for that split second I had him.
CLOSE: I remember every morning it was really weird when I looked in the mirror. It's just not you. I felt that through the entire shoot. I never got used to seeing this other person looking back at me.
[laughs] But you do realize that when you're playing a man, you can look tired and horrible and you still look okay. As a woman, if you're tired, it's terrible. It was such a luxury not having to worry about that.