Glenn Close on the long, heartfelt journey of “Albert Nobbs” – AWARDS ALLEY

By Sean O’Connell Glenn Close first played the character of Albert Nobbs in an off-Broadway production in 1982. Ever since, she has been fighting to bring the sympathetically tragic character to the silver screen.

Finally, after years of obstacles and delays, casting collapses and budget cuts, “Albert Nobbs” is a reality. And Close couldn’t be happier.

I caught up with the film — about an Irishwoman (Close) in 19th-century Dublin who masquerades as a man so she can keep a job at a posh hotel — at the Toronto International Film Festival and found it to be a wonderful story of self-discovery, of finding love and loving oneself. Close allegedly read my piece prior to our scheduled interview and was pleased that I understood what she and director Rodrigo Garcia were aiming for with “Nobbs.” I know this only because the five-time Oscar nominee’s personal publicist pulled me aside to inform me that Close had shown my “Nobbs” reaction to friends and was excited to speak with me.

What follows is a spirited discussion about Albert’s long journey to the screen, the changes Close made to the character and her approach, and the reasons she thinks the film ultimately triumphs. What does it mean for you to have “Albert Nobbs” screening at the Toronto International Film Festival?

This whole journey has been so amazing to me, and since we finished, anything that has developed afterwards … I’m kind of floating above it, you know? You can’t predict. You just do what you think is good. And we had an amazing team of people. It was such a great experience making it, so you think, “OK, from now on, the rest is just the icing on the cake.” But I’m thrilled, I’m excited … there’s a certain part of me that’s like this [shakes hands nervously] to think that 2,000 people are going to see it tonight. It’s overwhelming. Does it feel like a bit of closure is coming to your time spent with this character?

Oh, absolutely. Absolutely. I think I’m a different person! [Laughs] I no longer carry Albert on my shoulders. But you’ll miss her, I’m sure.

I feel that we did her justice. The great feeling was that we made the film we wanted to make, and let the chips fall as they may. And it was a great experience, with an amazing group of actors. And that’s what you seek. You seek an experience as an artist where your soul and your heart is fed by it. That’s how we keep going. So we had a great feast with “Albert Nobbs.” We’re well fed. You first played Albert on stage decades ago. How has your thought process changed over the years in terms of approaching her as a character?

I think the essence of the character is probably them same. It’s me! I’ve aged 30 years. And that’s bound to make for a deeper impact. And also, on film, film is such a much more intimate medium than the stage. It was very difficult. There were some scenes where I didn’t know how much to show in my face. I was always going to Rodrigo, “Am I saying too much?” The first time she really looks somebody in the eye is after telling Hubert her story. That’s kind of her release. Before that … servants were not supposed to look people in the eye. She was an invisible person doing an invisible job. How common was this practice of pretending to be a different gender to maintain a job?

It was much more common than people expect. You can find many, many stories about people who had to do this. Some of them were rich women, and this was a way for them to get out of the house. Today, in Afghanistan, little girls are dressed as boys in order to get out of the house. It’s not an uncommon thing right now. In a repressive society, where women have no rights, it happens. I also think it’s interesting that in films where characters play a different gender, it’s often to deceive, to reach another end. But for Albert, she does it to survive.

Exactly. She’s not going, “Hey! Ho! Look at me!” in a deep and masculine voice. She’s not like putting on a mustache and a beard. She’s just disappeared into that disguise. She almost forgets how to be a woman. Speaking to that, on a surface level, when did you feel comfortable enough that the make up, the hair and the surface elements were convincing enough that you wouldn’t distract the audience with a woman playing a man?

Oh, well, the voice was challenging because I often concentrated in scenes about how much was showing on my face. So I did re-voice some of [the dialogue]. My voice was too high in some of the takes, and we had to lower it later. I was probably distracted by five other things. And that was very useful, to be able to do that. As for the look, when it became evident that we really were going to go for it, and that it might be a possible, I said [to my contacts] that I’ve got to convince myself that I can actually do this. I’m 20 years older. So I went out and I did a screen test. Rodrigo got a studio and I went and got Matthew Mungle, who went on to do our makeup on the film, and he [helped]. It wasn’t the final work that you see on screen. But I had to convince myself. I didn’t want it to be a movie where the audience thinks, “Oh, how do they not know? She’s a woman! Everybody in the hotel must be stupid!” I also felt that my face being highly recognizable would be a burden, and that really was a concern. But we did a screen test, and they did a couple of things to my face, and I looked up … and it wasn’t me. And I started crying. Because it was possible. Because we could do this. That’s fantastic. Rodrigo has done some impressive television work on films like “Six Feet Under,” “In Treatment” and “Big Love.”

He has a great sensitivity toward women. He likes women. He writes beautiful parts for women. And also, he comes from that tradition of magic realism, which initially the script had much more of her imagining what her bedroom would be like. So you saw hr arranging things. We just couldn’t afford all of that. But the scenes where we see her looking in on the broken down space and seeing her dream shop are wonderful.

Initially, in the script, when she imagined something, you’d see it appear. But the piece of equipment that we needed to do that was 80,000 Euros [laughs] and we had to say, “OK, we’ll do it without it!” [laughs] But this story has a real delicate touch because it’s funny and sad, and I just though Rodrigo came from this tradition. He just gets it.

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