On screen, Glenn Close may best be known for playing steely independent women, but she’s played her share of romantic leads, mothers (including Hamlet’s and Sunny von Bulow) and all manner of character roles (including a Vice President and a First Lady). But, excepting her cameo in Steven Spielberg’s Hook, she had never passed for a man on screen—until now. In the title character of Albert Nobbs, Close returns to a role she first essayed on stage in 1982: that of a female 19th Century Dubliner who chooses to live as a man. Close’s commitment to the film extends to co-producing, co-writing the script, and writing the lyrics to a song heard on the soundtrack. But her sixth Oscar nomination (after The World According to Garp, The Big Chill, The Natural, Fatal Attraction, and Dangerous Liaisons) came for embodying the pitiable hotel waiter Nobbs. I spoke to Close at San Francisco's Ritz-Carlton Hotel, when she hit town for the Mill Valley Film Festival and an early round of awards-season press.
Groucho: So would you say that Albert Nobbs was your first great role?
Glenn Close: Ooh. My first great role. Back in the day?
Groucho: Yeah, back in the day.
Glenn Close: I never thought of it that way. I had done, you know, five years of theater and done roles like Cordelia and all kinds of things and had done Garp and The Big Chill, and I think I had only done those two movies, I think, before I did this, yeah. So I might not have characterized it then, because I didn’t know what was to come, you know? You don’t, kind of, look at your whole career as some global thing; you're quite subjective about things. It was certainly one of the most challenging roles. I mean, for range, probably the most challenging role.
G: My experience watching the film, having seen so much of your work, I was struck by—there were so many new colors I was seeing in your expressions, you know. Things play across your face I’d never seen in any other role of yours. I don’t know if you have that perception when you look at it. Is that something you’re sort of aware of?
GC: I feel that, on film, I think the Albert that I envision is there, you know? And that the moments, you know—I think she’s there...I mean, it’s a whole different thing to kind of analyze moment to moment, but I’ve always loved this character and I’m happy now that I can—
G: It’s been filed—
G: On film. How’s your internal barometer? Do you rely on directors to give you that feedback that “Yes. I got what I wanted.” Or do you really know, when that moment’s—?
GC: Yeah, I think I know. I think I have a pretty strong instinct for that. I think what I love directors for is to maybe think of something to apply that might readjust something, but as far as feeling that I nailed it, I think I have a pretty good sense of that most of the time.
G: I was talking with [director] Rodrigo [Garcia] earlier, and I asked him, “What does Albert Nobbs see when he looks in the mirror?” And I wonder what your answer to that would be?
GC: Actually, I don’t think she looks in the mirror often. I don’t think she has any sense of vanity. I think she’s very meticulous as how she presents herself as a waiter, as a servant...it’s like being in the military. She’s always in the right uniform. Y'know. She pays great attention to that. I certainly don’t think she sees herself. I think if she looks at herself in the mirror, she’s very—she’s looking at whether her hair needs just a little bit more pomade or she’s gotten the soap off her face. I don’t think she spends a lot of time looking at herself.
G: Does she identify as a woman or does she identify as a man, do you think?
GC: I think she totally identifies as a woman.
G: Of course, it’s sort of ironic that through this, even as she is putting herself forward in this sexual disguise—at least in the part of her life we see in the film—
G: She’s prodded to finally kind of face her sexuality, which—she’s had this sort of isolationism and naiveté about that. Can you talk a little bit about what you understood was playing through her mind as she was in these new situations with, maybe, experiencing—
GC: Where do you think she’s challenged to face her sexuality?
G: Well I think, for example, when she meets the Janet McTeer character, I think maybe there are feelings stirred there that she possibly hasn’t felt before. That she doesn’t really know what to do with. Maybe. That’s my perception— (Laughs.)
G: From watching it.
GC: When she goes to her house?
G: And then maybe again, of course, when she’s talking with Mia Wasikowska and, you know, saying, “We could have a life together,” as well.
GC: Yeah, it’s interesting because I never thought of her as evolved to the point where she really understands what sexuality is. I think when she goes and sees Hubert and—first of all, she hears that Hubert has a very good set up with her wife, and that it was done for business reasons, really. I mean, that’s how it’s explained to her. And so people started talking, so in order to protect themselves, they had to get—so they could keep on living the way they did. And her first question, when she’s thinking about it is “Did she say her wife was a milliner?” She’s trying to figure out what was the business. You know? And when she goes to their house, I think she’s observing them. I think what really resonates at that point, more than even seeing people who seem to have a happy connection, is seeing those two chairs and the fireplace and the clock, which for her, immediately is safety. You know, safety and connection, and it becomes her dream, literally: the two chairs and the safety of that. And when she observes them, I think she senses something that she wants, but she doesn’t know what it is. I mean, ’cause later, when she thinks she can just move in with Hubert, she has no idea that that’s not how it works.
G: Right, and the implications of that.
GC: And I think she thinks of Mia [Wasikowska's character] as just the most attractive person to have in front of her shop, and whatever might have developed if they had, indeed, ended up together, I don’t know. You know? I really don’t know. Sometimes I think, “It wouldn’t have worked.” But I really don’t think, as we see her in this story, that she gets—even when she puts her arms around Helen. It’s the actual—what was going through my head was not “Oh, I’m now feeling sexually aroused,” but it’s, “Oh, this is what it feels like to do this.” You know? ’Cause she’s never done that before. So she’s not quite there yet, as far as her sexuality.
G: Yeah, I completely agree with what I’ve heard you say before in interviews and now, about—the character has such an appeal—it draws in audiences. You feel so much for the character. The character’s so emotionally resonant, and largely it’s because of that innocence, I think, isn’t it? This sense of discovery in everything—
G: There’s no cynicism at all.
GC: There’s something very compelling about that kind of character trying to negotiate through a highly complex world. You've got to get—and having a belief, you know, that they have no clue about how to achieve, but the belief is everything. And I think what’s also very important is that there’s no self-pity involved. That makes a very becoming, very, very sympathetic character.
G: I want to talk a little bit about your process of developing the character. It seems—correct me if I’m wrong—that your process is largely intuitive, and that you sort of give some almost abstract thought at first about "What can I use as, sort of, inspiration?" In this case, you saw the character as having a connection with the great clowns, and you sort of followed that thread. Of course, all of that seeps into your subconscious before you go out in front of the camera, but it remains there. Can you talk a little bit about that process and where you go from those inspirations, and then bringing it down to the nitty-gritty of the wig, the costume, the prosthetics.
GC: Mm-hm. Well I always did think of Albert as having a clown—I call them cosmic clowns. You know? They’re the ones that—the great mimes have it. Charlie Chaplin had it. The clown that was the first clown image of my childhood, the great Emmett Kelly, had it. It’s a sense of tragedy in comedy, which is basically the human comedy. You know? It envelops both. So I studied Charlie Chaplin, and I studied—you know, his pants are too long and his shoes are too big. His shoes are clown shoes. His pants could have been too short, and I actually experimented whether it was funnier for Nobbs to have a suit that’s too short than too long, but then I thought that that’s not logical because she’s a woman, and when she first got her suit, it would have been too big. So of course, the pants are long and baggy, and you know, she didn’t have the money to have it adjusted, and then she—it was too dangerous to. So that’s how she is. Her pants are too long. And we were very careful, you know, very cognizant of how—I really wanted the shoes to be as long as possible without looking like it was a real clown. So you don’t—you just see them once, but they’re big shoes! (Laughs.)
GC: And we had them weighted, you know, so that they were even heavier than they might have been. So you know, I was very, very meticulous about that. And then, of course, the whole process with the face and the makeup was quite, quite rigorous.
G: Is it part of the gig to constantly challenge people’s perceptions of you? Because I think—you know, when I think back over your career, I think the first things that come to mind are qualities of strength, and even aggressiveness, and intelligence and savvy. And in most of those respects, Albert Nobbs is the opposite. And of course you’ve played nurturing characters, and so on. So yeah, is that something that you have to keep reminding people: “Hey, I can do—”
G: “I can do a lot more than you think I can.” Or…?
GC: Well I think that’s probably a result of me just wanting to be challenged, and you know, me wanting to do things that will actually, kind of, push the envelope of my craft. And I think Albert Nobbs, I’ve always known that that—you know, the challenge of doing it on stage is one thing, but the challenge of doing her on film is huge because you get so close to the face, you know. And it’s just: how much do you show when? And how do you show that emotional looking up, and looking out, and all that? So it’s very challenging.
G: We put, as a society—so much of our self-worth is connected with gender, I think, and of course, our self-identity. We’re taught to see our self-worth in those terms. When you first see yourself—you get up in the Albert Nobbs get-up and you look in the mirror, is your first thought, “Yeah. Nailed it. This is great.” Or do you have a tinge of “I just lost some of my femininity, and, you know, we’re not supposed to do that.” You know, especially as a Hollywood actress, it’s something that you’re always being conscious of, I assume.
GC: I never thought that. I just thought—the surprise every morning of when that face was finally on: it was somebody that wasn't me. You know, I never thought of how masculine or feminine she was. I just thought, “This is the result of, you know, somebody—” It was very subjective. It was very subjective.
G: Yeah. Of course, she is an actress, too. Yeah? So she’s having much the same thought, I guess, when she looks in the mirror, right? Okay. I wanted to ask about Damages a little bit. Going—you completed the fourth season, right? Completed filming it?
G: Have you completed the fifth? No.
GC: No. We’re about to start at the end of the month.
G: Oh, okay. So you already know—you’ve seen scripts?
GC: I know the broad strokes of what I think the trial is gonna be. The big trial, but then we have—I know that as, you know, the end of last season, my son and I are going to court over the grandchild and that Ellen is the sole witness. (Laughs.) That’s pretty daunting.
G: It’s such a great character, I don’t know—you know, a lot of television shows, there seems to be a trend now, this talk of, well, could it launch into a film series, or could there be a film down the line? Is that something that would interest you or do you sort of feel like, “Well, this final season will be the ultimate, and then leave it alone”?
GC: I would think it should exist as we created it for the long-form drama, ’cause I think of that as an art form unto itself. And it will exist as box sets of all the different seasons. And actually, what our writers have done, and to have that great, you know, progression of story is, you know, a wonderful luxury as an actor. And I just kind of think that’s the way it should stay. But, y'know—
G: You never know, right. (Laughs.) Which film experience, for you, in your career was the best? The one that you didn’t want to leave the set at night and you couldn’t wait to get on the set in the morning?
GC: Wow. There have been great—I mean, I’ve had wonderful experiences. I have to say that this, you know, Nobbs—I’d come to the set in the morning and...you’d drive up, and you’d go around the corner and there’d be a big scaffolding for inside lighting. And there would be the catering trucks and all the different trailers. And every morning I'd say…
G: "Living the dream."
GC: “I can’t believe it.” You know? “I can’t believe it. This is all happening because I decided that I wouldn’t give up." That this was one thing that I wasn’t, you know, gonna throw in the towel about. And at night it was a whole different thing, because you were exhausted! (Laughs.) But it was so thrilling to work with that team of actors and that—and my wonderful friend, Patrizia von Brandenstein, and discovering and working with—he’s already been discovered—Michael McDonough, but God, fantastic camera. I mean, every aspect of this, the team was impeccable. And you know, that’s what you seek, and that’s why you feed yourself. And I think, I’ve said this before, but I really believe it, that we all had a great feast in making this little movie.
G: Yeah. Well, I think we have to leave it there, but it’s been wonderful to talk to you. Thank you.
GC: Thank you very much.