Glenn Close on Albert Nobbs: I cried when I first saw myself as a man
In her new film Albert Nobbs, actress Glenn Close disguised herself as a man – and landed an Oscar nomination.
It has taken Glenn Close 30 years to fulfil her dream of turning the extraordinary story of Albert Nobbs into a film.
She first came across George Moore’s short story about a woman disguising herself as a man in order to work and survive in 19th-century Dublin when she played the character in a New York stage adaptation right at the start of her career.
After numerous setbacks and a torturous struggle to raise the £5 million budget, Albert Nobbs the movie is ready for release, and the actress who is the producer, star and co-writer of the project, is in a state of apprehension.
“I’m very nervous because it’s a story I’ve believed in for so long, but what if everybody hates it?” she asks, when we meet in Los Angeles. “It’s a big risk but the fact it has resonance and makes people think about issues that matter is incredibly gratifying.” The fascinating quality of the story that she has nurtured for so long is that Nobbs works as a male waiter in a hotel for so long she loses her true identity and becomes trapped in an emotional prison of her own making.
“People think it’s all about gender but I don’t think it is; it’s about how people survive and about how human beings need to feel safe. I think Albert is truly one of the great characters and the story, for all its basic simplicity, has a strange emotional power,” says Close, whose turn in the off-Broadway production in 1982 won her an Obie Award.
“I did the play when I’d only made one movie, and every night I felt the power of the story. There’s something deeply affecting about Albert’s life and she never stopped continuing to move me. It has always fascinated me how people perceive others and what the truth is, because I think everybody has secrets and it’s just the size and duration of the secret that varies.”
The 64-year-old five-time Oscar nominee and three-time Emmy award winner kept renewing the rights to the story until she decided she could go ahead with the film. She commissioned a screenplay from Hungarian Gaby Prekop, got the Irish author John Banville to polish it and added her own ideas, too. Then she hired the director Rodrigo García, (son of Colombian Nobel Prize-winning author Gabriel García Márquez), with whom she had worked twice before. The cast fell into place as old friends and people she had previously worked with answered her call: it includes Pauline Collins, Janet McTeer, Brendan Gleeson and Mia Wasikowska.
The most difficult problem, in fact, was finding funding: “I went into office after office after office speaking to executives, some of whom are long gone now, but I never gave up and I didn’t resent the fact that nobody wanted to give me their money,” says Close. “I sometimes thought it was amazing how little talent and track record mattered, not just with me but with an amazing cast, but I understood it was a very, very difficult movie to pitch.”
Eventually, after she and her husband, together with friends and a Texas investor, had all put up money, further financing came in. “It didn’t seem right that I was asking for other people’s money and wasn’t willing to put my own in, and that registered in the business world because they like people who are willing to put skin in the game as they say. But we didn’t get one cent from Hollywood,” she says.
Her persistence was rewarded when Albert Nobbs received stellar reviews on its American release, and netted Close an Oscar nomination for best actress – her first since Dangerous Liaisons 24 years ago. “Albert Nobbs tested my craft more than any other part that I’ve ever had to play, more so on film than on stage because on stage I didn’t wear any make-up and the audience created the illusion,” she says.
“When we were going to begin filming I questioned whether I was still right for it after all the time that had gone by but when I had a make-up test it was kind of an epiphany for me. I’d always felt that because my face is very well known it would have been a burden in this part but after I was made up I looked in the mirror and it wasn’t me any more. There was this strange creature and I started to cry. It was like – there she is.”
Albert Nobbs is Close’s first movie since the less-than-successful Evening five years ago and she admits it is becoming more difficult to find good scripts for actresses her age. She has, however, won both Emmy and Golden Globe awards for her portrayal of the icy, ruthless lawyer Patty Hewes in the television series Damages, which is now in its fifth year.
It is filmed in New York which allows her to be with her husband of five years, David Shaw, a biotechnology entrepreneur and near her 23-year-old college student daughter Annie.
She spends much of her free time helping people with mental illness; her sister suffers from bipolar disorder and her nephew is schizophrenic. Instead of just lending her name to a charity she devotes her energies to the cause, spending a lot of time at Fountain House, a New York community for people living with mental illness, and heading a national educational advertising campaign.
“I decided I really wanted to help focus on the stigma of mental illness and I wanted to see the face of people living with it in my own community,” she says. “We haven’t cracked it yet, because it’s a very challenging thing to get people to talk about and I’m interested in including as many people as possible because mental illness is something that touches millions of people.”
She currently has no more movies in the offing although having successfully brought Albert Nobbs to the screen she is considering a second self-initiated project.
“I have another story that I want to do and this time I want to start a script from scratch,” she says. “It’s a story from a battered old book from my grandfather’s library that my mother used to read to us on Sunday nights in front of the fire.
“It still has resonance with me and I think it’s a wonderful story, just like I felt about Albert Nobbs.”