Glenn Close has long been perceived as an intimidating woman, which likely stems from a number of factors. Maybe it’s because of her unhinged work in the iconic role of Alex Forrest, the psychotically unstable mistress who will not be ignored, in the ’80s landmark Fatal Attraction. It could be due to her impossibly imperious turn as the scheming, vicious Marquise de Merteuil in Stephen Frears’ Dangerous Liaisons. The under-21 set likely grew up cowering from her scenery-chewing Cruella De Vil in the live-action 101 Dalmations. Not even the small screen has been safe from Close’s fire-breathing intensity, whether it be her hugely acclaimed work on The Shield, or her two-time Emmy-winning turn on Damages as Patty Hewes, the ferocious litigator who will stop at nothing — nothing — to win a case. So even though Close is currently promoting what is arguably the least threatening character she has ever played, this does not necessarily make her more comfortable to be around. At least not when she turns the tables during our interview and begins grilling me about my thoughts on her Oscar-nominated new film, Albert Nobbs.
But more on that later. For now, let’s talk more about Albert Nobbs, a film as near to Close’s heart as any she’s done. A labor of love nearly 30 years in the making, Close’s relationship with the material began in 1982, when she played Albert in an off-Broadway stage adaptation of George Moore’s short story of the same name. Her performance won her an Obie Award, and coincided with the release of her breakout film, The World According to Garp, which netted Close her first Oscar nomination (she is now a six-time nominee). With the film industry capital that comes from Oscar recognition, Close immediately began nurturing a film adaptation of Albert Nobbs as a passion project. But it wouldn’t be until Close met Rodrigo Garcia (the son of famed novelist Gabriel Garcia Marquez), who directed Close in the female-driven anthology films Things You Can Tell Just By Looking At Her (1999) and Nine Lives (2005), that she felt she’d found the right person to bring her passion to life. (About being given this responsibility, Garcia told me simply, “I didn’t want to fuck it up.”)
A uniquely whimsical drama that suggests Boys Don’t Cry crossed with Downton Abbey, the film tells the complex story of its title character (Close), a 19th-century Irish woman who has lived as a man for the last 30 years. She assumed the role of a man for protection — she was the victim of a horrific sexual assault in her teens — and so that she could find work as a servant. As the film begins, she has been working as a servant (and passing as a man) for a number of years at an upscale Dublin hotel catering to the very wealthy (one patron is played by Jonathan Rhys Meyers, if that tells you anything). Albert’s secretive world is turned upside down by the arrival of Hubert Page (played with Jane Lynch’s butchie swagger by Janet McTeer), another woman successfully passing as a man. Hubert inspires Albert to pursue her dream of opening her own tobacco shop, hopefully with the girlish maid Helen (Mia Wasikowska) as her partner. But when blue-collar brute Joe (a scorching-hot Aaron Johnson) begins romancing Helen and persuading her to string Albert along for their financial gain, Albert’s dreams are imperiled.
In addition to developing the film and playing the lead, Close is also the co-producer and co-writer; she even wrote the lyrics to its haunting original song, “Lay Your Head Down,” which is sung by Sinéad O’Connor (and was snubbed by the Oscars this week due to the wildly convoluted and misguided Best Original Song category rules which resulted in just two songs being nominated). And while it may have missed out on an Original Song nomination, it triumphed with two major nods that will bring the film some much-needed attention: Best Performance by an Actress in a Leading Role for Close, and Best Performance by an Actress in a Supporting Role for McTeer (who will reunite with Close on the upcoming fifth season of Damages). The film also earned a well-deserved nomination for Best Achievement in Makeup:
This all comes as sweet vindication for Close’s decades-long journey taking Albert from the stage to the screen. It makes perfect sense that she’d be curious, even hungry, to hear people’s reactions to it. Unfortunately, this is not something I’d thought about before sitting down with her for a one-on-one conversation at the Ritz Carlton when she was in the Bay Area to accept a lifetime achievement award from the Mill Valley Film Festival last fall. And when Close interrupted my very first question to quiz me on my opinion of her beloved film, I was simply not prepared. It had been several weeks since I’d screened it, and I hadn’t thought much about it since then. Another complication: I wasn’t actually that crazy about it at the time. And since I knew I couldn’t exactly out-act Glenn Close, I turned into this:
It seemed like an eternity passed between each question, and I frequently felt like I was interviewing for a position at Hewes and Associates on Damages, a sensation only heightened by the fact that Close was studying me wordlessly during my answers while wearing a pantsuit. I had to call on every bluff I learned in my five years as an English major to get through it, although even that didn’t prepare me for the moment she asked me about the ending and I couldn’t actually remember it. But it finally came to me, and eventually, seeming satisfied that I had absolutely nothing left to give, she allowed me to return to my line of questioning. But you know what? I loved every minute of it. She could have yelled at me for the entire fifteen minutes and I would have asked for more. It’s Glenn Close, you guys. It was an honor to even be there (I suspect the reason my answers are so nonsensical is because my brain was suddenly only capable of repeatedly shrieking THIS IS REALLY HAPPENING!).
So, here it is: my conversation with Glenn Close. I have transcribed my every stammer and mumble for your maximum amusement at my expense. You’re welcome. There are a few mild spoilers in her interview of me.
GLENN CLOSE INTERVIEWS ME
How has your understanding of the character of Albert cha–
What did you think of the film?
Oh! Uh, I thought that it was such a unique tone, sort of with the tragic structure but with, with the sort of lightness, uh… That really struck me as unique, and, and I’m a huge fan of Rodrigo’s films and so I was so excited going into it and, uh… You, of course, are fantastic, I thought the whole cast was excellent, Mia and Aaron, so…yeah…
What did you think of Janet?
Oh! I didn’t even know that was her!
I had no clue!
I didn’t even know that was her! I forgot she was even in it, and then I saw her name in the end credits and I was like, “Oh!”
That was a shock. I think that worked really well.
And your takeaway when you walked out?
What were you thinking about?
You know, I think that… [pause] I felt conflicted on how to feel about Albert and about what happens to Albert because her spirit is so buoyant through the adversities and, as a gay man, to watch a story about, you know, I know it didn’t exist within the realm of labels, but just with Albert, but still to see the story taking place in an earlier time and seeing the journey and the secrecy and the way that you play the sort of shame and horror whenever Mr. Page discovers Albert’s secret really pierced me, I thought that was a really powerful scene.
Great. And…the ending? With Hubert and…
The ending… I thought that… I thought that was… That was interesting. Hubert is, as Janet plays her, Hubert is such a sly character and I was curious to see what kind of connection Hubert and Helen could have…
What did you think her motives were? I mean, did you think she was hitting on Helen?
[faux-thoughtful sigh and stalling tongue-clicking] I didn’t… I didn’t so much think it was a hitting-on situation, I think I just thought that Mr. Page is very charming, and so I thought she has maybe a flirtatious rapport with ladies when she talks to them, so I guess that is, that is kind of how I thought of it, but also insofar as they were friends of Albert’s–
You didn’t feel that Hubert would take care of Helen?
That she’d be okay?
That she’d be safe?
I felt like that was certainly something that could happen… I guess I was wondering… It was very open-ended for me, what their connection was going to be, but I felt that it was going to be a positive…a positive thing…
Yeah! I didn’t think it was going to be, you know, any kind of repeat of…of what happened with Albert…
Right, right. Okay, good. [smiles] I’m just curious. [gestures toward my notepad]
Oh, okay. [clears throat]
I INTERVIEW GLENN CLOSE
I’m wondering how your understanding of the character has changed in the 30 years since you played her onstage. Had you come to think of Albert in different ways by the time you came to finally shoot the film?
I was 29 years older, so I had 29 years of learning my craft. I think that really made a difference, because I think this role is the most challenging I ever attempted. It called up all my training — makeup, costume, character, all that. As far as the essence of the character, I don’t think that changed that much. But for film, it’s a much more difficult proposition. When you know that there’s a closeup, and a closeup can look right into your soul, it becomes a challenge of how much to show at any given time. Albert lived for 30 years looking down and not daring to look people in the eye; and of course servants weren’t supposed to look people in the eye, but she had another layer of invisibility on top of that. It was a fascinating challenge.
This film touches upon the concept of true identity. Did you have any ideas about Albert’s true identity, even though she didn’t?
No I didn’t, because she didn’t know. Mrs. Nobbs had been paid not to let her know who she was because the family didn’t want her showing up on their doorstep. Somebody had deliberately kept her from knowing who she was. She even says, “She gave me a picture she said was my mother,” and she thinks it is, but again, you don’t know for sure. I think that, just kind of in my imagination — even the nanny dies, you have no money, you have no name, you have no family, and you’re brutally sexually assaulted… There’s something in you that stops. I think people have various ways of fighting against terrible trauma like that. People coming back from war with PTSD, it’s the same kind of thing. You deal with that trauma, and if you don’t actually deal with it, it still has a huge, huge influence on you. And I think it’s one of the reasons she stays so shut down.
Do you think that Albert was actually sexually attracted to Helen, or do you think it was more about finding a partner so she could form a family and experience that safety and stability?
I think that if Albert was ever going to learn about her sexuality, it was going to be sometime down the road. She never got to ask Hubert the most important question, which is: how did you do it? But she said, “I found a woman who had a business. I had a business. We started living together. It was a great situation: she had her work, I had my work. And then when people started talking, we got married.” So it just seemed like a business proposition, and I think because that is safety for Albert, that’s how she thinks of it: as a business proposition. But when she goes to Hubert and Cathleen’s house and walks into somebody’s living room for the first time, and she sees those two chairs and that fireplace and that clock, that starts to represent for her that safety and that connection, which she realizes is what she’s never had.
When did you feel certain that you’d found Albert’s speaking voice?
It was actually something that I sometimes needed to be reminded of, because there were so many other things to think about with the character. I told the dialect coach, “Let me know if my voice is getting higher,” just to remember to technically get it low. There was a certain depth of resonance that seemed right. And again, that was what she tried to do when she first started in this disguise. I wanted it to seem like something that was second nature to her, not something she had to think about that much.
There are elements of comedy in this film, and you’ve had success when you’ve done comedy in your career, whether in Robert Altman’s Cookie’s Fortune or your episode of Will & Grace, an enduring classic I was just quoting today.
Would you like to play more comedic roles? Especially since you’ve spent several years playing Patty Hewes, a role with so little comedy to it.
Oh, Patty. [laughs] Yeah. I think Patty is funny in spite of herself. We had a screening of our first episode when we opened the fourth season in July, and even that, you know, “Patty look” [Close narrows her eyes and fires a short, forceful glance in my direction, causing me to pee a little] would get a laugh. That was funny.
I could see that. [nervous laugh] Speaking of which, the fifth season of Damages will be airing soon. How has that been as an actor, getting to play the same character for so long?
It’s great! I mean, it really is great, because you have a real history, and you just think, Wow. Our writers are so wonderful that everything has this really interesting progression, and there’s certain things that you don’t have to work on or even think about, because they’re all there. We’ve experienced it together. We’re going into the fifth year, so I’m really looking forward to it. I think they’ve set up some really interesting things, and what they tell me about what the big trial is going to be sounds very interesting.
Finally, this is your third film with Rodrigo. Was there a moment early on that you realized you had such a strong collaborative connection with him?
For me it was a real adjustment, because on set, I’m very aware of the fact that the director is the director. You don’t undercut the director. If you question the director, you do it privately. That’s the protocol. On this, because we worked so fast, there were certain times on set where I had to say, “Excuse me!” And the first time I did it, I thought I was going to throw up. [laughs] Because I didn’t want to seem presumptuous! And then we just grew into this amazing collaboration. He was incredibly generous and incredibly inclusive; not threatened. There are not a lot of directors who could do that. He basically wanted to realize my vision of the movie, and that’s an incredibly gracious thing to do. He’s wonderful on set. Everyone falls in love with Rodrigo. Mia said “yes” before she even read the script because she loves him so much. So I was very, very blessed by the presence of Rodrigo.
I never wanted to direct. It’s too much. It would have been impossible. That would have been presumptuous. But to have a man who so bought into all the thought that I’d put into it, and having the patience to listen to it… I’ve always thought, certainly in my profession, you don’t take things for granted. There’s a lot that you have to earn. And if you have ideas, you have to earn the respect of the people around you as to whether they think those ideas are good as well. So even though I had this long history with this material and was the writer and the producer, I still felt that on the set — in that delicate organism that’s a working set — that there were still things that I had to earn my credibility in. But I did! [laughs] To be presumptuous.
Albert Nobbs opens in San Francisco on Friday, January 27.