Interview: Glenn Close on Albert Nobbs

Glenn Close in Albert Nobbs
Glenn Close in Albert Nobbs
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Glenn Close tells Bob Flynn how bringing the role of a 19th-century transgender Dubliner to the big screen finally fulfils a 30-year-old dream

GLENN Close knows what it takes to be a man. Years before her latest film role as Albert Nobbs, a woman living as a man in 1890s Dublin, the Fatal Attraction star took an impromptu cameo in Steven Spielberg’s Hook as a pirate; beard, chest hair, cutlass and all. No-one looked twice, apart from a script girl.

“I had visited the set of Hook because Robin Williams [who starred as Peter Pan] was a friend of mine, and took along my little girl, Annie, who was about three years old,” explains Close. “And when we got there Steven Spielberg said, do you want to be pirate? And I said sure. So I got a beard and costume, and the script girl came on to me. She thought I was man. In fact nobody guessed I was a woman for three days. I’m pretty proud of that.”

She bursts into a high, hooting giggle, reminiscent of Pretty Woman-era Julia Roberts – which, considering her hard-edged image, comes as something of a shock. A scarifying roll call of unnerving, menacing characters goes before her, after all; the scorned homicidal mistress in Fatal Attraction, the scheming Marquise de Merteuil, a hooded cobra in a powdered wig, in Dangerous Liaisons, and currently Patty Hewes, the driven, manipulative lawyer in TV’s Damages. I had prepared to encounter an ice-blonde Lady Macbeth, not a friendly woman with a ready smile sitting in a sumptuous hotel room overlooking the white curve of San Sebastian’s La Concha beach.

“I don’t have the face or body for romcoms,” Close stated recently. But at 65, she practically glows with health, her ash blonde hair and Nordic features much softer and rounded in person than on the cinema screen. Still, it’s hard to dispel the thought of a modern-day Bette Davis, sexy, classy, challenging and sometimes a little crazy.

Close is in town to receive the Spanish film festival’s lifetime achievement award and introduce the European premiere of Albert Nobbs, her long-nurtured passion project which she produced and co-wrote with Irish Booker Prizewinner John Banville. In a drama about gender, alienation and identity, Albert is a woman so marginalised by male-dominated Victorian society that she has lived most of her life pretending to be a man – a life of secrecy and loneliness.

“I’m fascinated by the complexities of gender, and how people perceive others,” says Close. “With Albert you have someone who was abused and abandoned as a child and disguised herself as a man for safety, and to get a job.”

Close first played Albert Nobbs on stage in a minimalist off-Broadway production at the start of her career in 1982.

“It was an adaptation of the short story,” she explains, referring to the 1927 tale by Irish writer George Moore, which appeared in a volume called Celibate Lives. “It was very different from the film, an austere work with mime, very pure.” Her performance brought her first acting award, an Obie, and she was haunted by the character from then on.

“I was deeply affected by it and it stayed with me,” she says. “The play had a strange emotional power which moved people, and I started to dream about making the story into a movie.”

It was a dream that took decades to realise. Soon after playing Albert Nobbs on stage, Close made her film debut, at 32, as the militant feminist mother of Robin Williams in The World According To Garp. It launched a prodigiously versatile career, ranging freely across film, television and theatre – including Broadway musicals such as Sunset Boulevard, in which she starred as the ultimate cracked actor, Norma Desmond.

But as her career flourished she became increasingly obsessed with bringing the story of the 19th-century transgender Dubliner to the big screen. After struggling to raise finance, Close ploughed her own money into the project, found backing from independent investors, and began shooting in Dublin in late 2010. The film was directed by Columbian filmmaker Rodrigo Garcia, the son of Gabriel Garcia Marquez. It had only taken 30 years.

“It’s almost surreal to be here today with the film because it took so long to bring to the screen,” she says. “But it’s the first feature film I’ve produced and I’m proud to say not a penny came from Hollywood.”

Close always had a hint of masculinity in her angular features but her transformation into Albert Nobbs is remarkable, aided by prosthetics designed – and painstakingly applied daily – by veteran make-up artist Matthew Mungle.

“I was 29 years older than when I first played the part and I had to prove to myself I could still do it,” says Close. “So I worked with Matthew Mungle, and he did a few basic changes to my face, and I looked in the mirror, and saw Albert. I thought, okay we can do this.”

But Albert Nobbs is a radical departure in many ways. Close submerges herself completely in ill-fitting men’s suits and high-starched collars, Albert’s shield against an oppressive world. With her shorn hair and her features stretched back under a bowler hat, Close cuts a painfully odd comedic figure reminscent of a forlorn Charlie Chaplin, whose films she studied for the part.

“Albert has chosen a life as a servant that makes her invisible,” says Close. “It’s about survival in the Victorian world, but it’s a universal story. What’s really important is this person’s search for safety and love. It’s an incredibly complex role, but to play a character like Albert is, for me, what this profession is all about. I find something very compelling in characters like that.”

Close is still best known for her visceral performance as Alex Forest, Michael Douglas’s spurned mistress turned homicidal maniac, in Fatal Attraction. The film made her an international star but raised feminist hackles, prodded male guilt and brought the term “bunny boiler” into common usage.

“The best souvenir I have from any film is the knife from Fatal Attraction,” she laughs. “I have it framed in my kitchen. It’s my way of saying, don’t mess with me.”

Part of the reason Close is so good at playing bad is that she never sees her characters as simply evil and invariably delves into their psychological make-up. “I always question why these characters are like that,” she says. “What I love about acting is that you have the opportunity to explore human behaviour. I mean I’m not like Alex or Patty Hewes (from Damages) at all, but I understand them. They are all complex, and fragile in their own way but none of them have been pure evil. I believe that you have to show other dimensions of a character to make them effective.”

In Albert Nobbs, Close surrounds her grey, buttoned-up Albert with a colourful ensemble cast, including Pauline Collins, Brendan Gleeson, Mia Wasikowska and Janet McTeer, who provides the revelatory high point of the film, and who recently reunited with Close in the fifth and final series of Damages.

Close is not sorry to say farewell to her long-running role as the hard-bitten lawyer Patty Hewes, a part specifically written for her – one of the first contemporary movie stars to cross the great divide from big to small screen.

“I had a great time and a part that was as good as any movie role,” says Close. “And for all her machinations, I really like Patty. But leaving after five years is very freeing, and I’ll have more time for my family.” Close lives in New York with her husband of six years, David Shaw, a biotechnology entrepreneur, and close to her 23-year-old college student daughter Annie. Married twice before, she had Annie with John Starke, a production manger she met on The World According To Garp. But the relationship foundered soon after, leaving her a single mother who once said she would never marry again.

“I used to think of men and women as two completely different species,” she smiles, “but things change, and now I have a wonderful husband and a beautiful daughter. I’ve been blessed.” In January, Close was nominated for a Best Actress Oscar – her first since Dangerous Liaisons in 1988 – for Albert Nobbs. She lost out once again to her old Oscar night rival, Meryl Streep, who took the honours for The Iron Lady. But if there had been an Academy award for perseverance, Close would have walked it.

“I do think it’s problematic for women to find good roles in Hollywood,” she says. “I’ve been very lucky, but if the roles dry up then maybe I’d create my own and produce the films myself.

“The whole point of being an actor for me is to tell stories,” she adds. “I think it very dangerous in this profession to chase things only for money or celebrity or fame. I think you have to stay very clear about your choices. There has to be some creative challenge. Ultimately, as an actor I want to connect an emotional experience. And stage or television or film have the power to do that, to keep on reminding us what it is to be human.”

With Albert Nobbs made and Damages finishing and with no movies on the horizon, she is considering writing another screenplay. “I’d like to try and write something again, this time from scratch. I have a wonderful story in mind. This time I hope it doesn’t take 30 years to get made.”

• Albert Nobbs is in cinemas now