Although the waiters and chambermaids who staff a 19th century Dublin hotel in "Albert Nobbs" don't have the slightest inkling that one of their co-workers is not as he seems, there's no mistaking Glenn Close as the titular butler, a woman who's spent decades passing as a man.
The woman who sits for a midafternoon latte and goat cheese salad at New York's Jane Hotel isn't dressed in men's clothes, nor has her face been prosthetically altered. But she's still not quite Glenn Close, at least not as we've come to know her in her three decades on-screen. Her face is softer, more open, her manner more casual. Listen closely, you can even hear her drop a "g" or two. Considering how much of her career has been spent playing imperious, steely grande dames (like the Marquise de Merteuil, Cruella de Vil, the vindictive Alex Forrest in "Fatal Attraction" and the merciless litigator Patty Hewes on TV's "Damages"), it's almost a shock to see her with her claws retracted.
"There are things you have as an actor that you have no control over," says Janet McTeer, who costars as a cross-dressing handyman in "Albert Nobbs" and recently wrapped a role on "Damages' " final season. "She's very commanding," she says of Close. "She has a lot of presence, and she's very strong, as am I, so we get those kind of roles. But opposite qualities are just as present. They're just not as noisy."
The existence of "Albert Nobbs" the film owes more to quiet persistence than imposing demands. Close first played the part, based on a 19th century story by Irish writer George Moore, in a 1982 off-Broadway production nestled between her work in "The World According to Garp" and "The Big Chill." It was 15 years later that she first thought of bringing the story to the screen, and nearly as long again before the cameras started rolling.
"I'm a sucker for what I think is a good story, and also a character that I found incredibly challenging," Close says. "It really brings into play everything I've learned as an actor. The stage adaptation was very austere, with a very Minimalist set, and you're in wide shot the whole time. But a movie comes right into your soul."
There's no question that Close's soul is in "Albert Nobbs." In addition to starring in and producing the film (the latter task involved, among other things, wooing potential investors with a private concert), Close wrote the screenplay as well, sharing credit with Gabriella Prekop, who Close says "first put pen to paper," and novelist John Banville, who infused the dialogue with Irish vernacular. "I could never come up with something like, 'He's a great whore for the drink,' " she says with a smile.
Close spent years reworking the script and seeking financing, to the point where she thought her window to play the part might have closed. She recalls the moment in preproduction when makeup, hair, latex and facial expressions finally aligned to create a character who stood on her own. "I thought I'd have the burden of my face," she says. "But when we did the tests, I looked up and it really wasn't me. I started crying. I thought maybe too much time had gone by and I couldn't pull it off. That was quite a moment." Director Rodrigo Garcia recalls how, a few days before principal photography commenced, "there was suddenly this peculiar little man standing next to me. I knew it was Glenn, but every now and then, I'd almost forget."
Close's long history with the project left her with a definite sense of how certain moments should play; when invisible threads failed to pull a curtain aside with the requisite grace of a breeze, she had scaffolding built to hold a fan outside the window. "You have to be a fighter," she says, "not necessarily combative, but you can't give up. Maybe the key is not to question too much, to just do what your instincts tell you, because there's some place that's coming from. I did have strong instincts about this film. I guess it was a vision."
But Close also yielded to her collaborators' ideas when the occasion arose. "I didn't feel proprietary about it. I'm not sure why. Maybe because for me it's not just about the script, or the characters -- it's literally about what an entire team of people can create together. Everybody should feel ownership for the whole project and feel empowered to fight for whatever they should fight for." Garcia said Close was "as open a writer as I've worked with. She clued into what made the story of its time but also of any time, which is the parts of yourself that you have to give up or disguise just to fit in."
"Actors in general often feel like the odd one out growing up," McTeer says. "I think Glenn really related in that way to this character. She has such a compassion for outsiders and people who don't quite fit in. I think she's drawn to that."
Close was raised as an outsider, not entirely by choice. Her parents, whom she calls "black sheep," were born to wealth but shunned their families' old-guard values. "They never socialized at all. They quit all the country clubs, and they wanted to do something for the world." That "something" involved joining Moral Re-Armament, an insular, quasi-religious order sometimes referred to as a cult.
"That's a huge can of worms," Close says, showing just a flicker of Patty Hewes' indomitable chill. "It's almost ridiculous to open it up in an interview." But a few minutes later, she returns to the subject. "I think anybody who went through what I went through as a child -- anybody who's in any kind of group where you're quite repressed, you do feel, like I did feel, that you're on the outside looking in, and I think in many ways that is Albert. She's on the outside in that she can't tell the truth about who she is.
"What's attractive to me about a character like Albert is her naivete. Her innocence makes her powerful in a way. It's like holding up a mirror to someone else. If someone's unknowing, it's how other people treat them. People still think of themselves as invisible and powerless, and the important thing is just to survive. Are you going to kill yourself? That dilemma is still incredibly relevant. I think that's why people are finding it so intriguing, because whatever baggage you bring to it, it says something."