On a cold and dreary November afternoon, the cozy lobby of the Chateau Marmont calls to mind Dublin's once historic Morrison's Hotel, where Albert Nobbs, the title character in the new gender-bending drama starring Glenn Close, works as a waiter. Clad in black, Close and her costar Janet McTeer sit side by side in armchairs, digging into identical tuna salads and pots of English Breakfast tea — both equally exhilarated, if exhausted.
For Close, the film's Friday opening, a one-week theatrical run that precedes a wider January release, represents the culmination of a 30-year artistic odyssey, one that last week netted both actresses nominations for Golden Globe and SAG awards.
"I still can't quite believe that we did it," Close said, falling back into her chair.
"It's very unreal, isn't it?" McTeer observed.
Based on the short story by 19th century Irish writer George Moore, "Albert Nobbs" stars Close as a middle-aged sexual innocent who masquerades as a man to secure employment in poverty-stricken 1890s Ireland. Quiet and withdrawn, Albert has been leading a double life, taping down her breasts and dressing as a man for so long she's lost touch with who she once was. British actress McTeer plays Hubert Page, a lesbian secretly living in domestic bliss with the love of her life.
Despite the fact that both characters have suffered violence at the hands of men in their lives, Close says the film is not about gender politics but rather the universal quest for human connection.
"It's not a story about lesbianism," Close said. "For Albert, it's about survival; it's only about sexual identity in that she has none."
Added McTeer: "It's a film about choices, poverty and being on the receiving end of living in a man's world in a time when being a woman — they really got the short end of the lollipop."
Those themes of injustice and inequality helped make "Albert Nobbs" a passion project for Close, who first played the character in an Obie Award-winning off-Broadway production in 1982. She not only stars in the film — she also co-produced it and co-wrote the screenplay with Irish novelist John Banville and Gabriella Prekop. She even penned the lyrics for the movie's theme song, a melancholic Irish "lullaby" composed by Brian Byrne and sung by Sinead O'Connor. (The song received a Golden Globe nomination as well.)
"I just always felt that somehow, this weird little story was a good one. And I'm a sucker for what I think are good stories," Close said.
Still, Close struggled to find financing for the near $8-million production. Close invested "quite a bit" of her own money in the movie, and after tapping every possible financial resource in Hollywood, she took to out-of-the-box fundraising. On a lark, Close traveled to Dallas in 2010 with co-producer Bonnie Curtis for a small dinner with five wealthy Texas couples. During the evening, Close sang the "Sunset Boulevard" tune "With One Look" and "A Cockeyed Optimist" from "South Pacific." to a piano accompaniment. It worked.
"One of the couples decided to give us a million dollars," Close said.
Even after the money was in place and Rodrigo Garcia ("Nine Lives," HBO's "In Treatment") was hired to direct, "Albert Nobbs'" 34-day Dublin shoot was riddled with logistical problems. Chief among them: a vicious winter storm that had the actors clutching hot water bottles between takes and which resulted in Close's getting pneumonia during filming.
"It was nerve-racking to the bitter end," Garcia said. "There were many times where we thought, 'This movie is not gonna get made.' But I'd jumped on a bandwagon that was already fiercely committed — Glenn's bandwagon."
Garcia, who worked with Close twice previously on the films "Things You Can Tell Just By Looking at Her" and "Nine Lives," says her focused fervor was contagious and helped the production land actors like Pauline Collins and Jonathan Rhys Meyers for smaller roles. "Glenn's ability to summon people is amazing," Garcia said. "So many people wanted to do it, at any cost, just because it was Glenn's passionate dream."
McTeer, an acclaimed stage actress whose starring role in 1999's "Tumbleweeds" earned her an Oscar nomination, said taking on the role of Hubert was intimidating. Not because of Close's personal investment in the project, or because the part called for a somewhat shocking above-the-waist reveal, but because the character "was pretty pivotal," McTeer said. "If you didn't really believe, that everybody believed, that Hubert was a guy, then the story lost its credibility."
The gender transformation was that much more challenging for the actresses given the conscious decision to avoid disguises and heavy makeup when morphing them into wind-blistered men. Close, Garcia and special makeup effects designer Matthew W. Mungle didn't want the movie to have a "Tootsie" feel, nor did they rely on CGI effects to doctor Albert and Hubert's faces.
Aside from relatively minor accessories such as false nose tips, earlobe extensions and wigs, the actresses had to rely on their faces, alone, for transformation. That challenge — of portraying a woman who's portraying a man — was part of what drew Close to the project in the first place, and what compelled her to push on to bring the play to the big screen for three decades.
"On film, it's twice as challenging to do as on stage," Close said. "Onstage, it's all one wide shot. But in film, you go into somebody's soul. And the whole challenge of Albert is what do you show on your face? Because this is somebody who's used her face as a mask for 30 years. But as actresses, we seek to push ourselves creatively."
Close and McTeer became fast friends while filming, and they say that even with "Albert Nobbs" set to open in theaters, their on-screen collaboration is nowhere near finished. After production on the film wrapped, Close asked the writers on her TV series "Damages" to create a role for McTeer — she plays an attorney on the fifth and final season of the show.
"We're in each others' contracts now," McTeer said with a laugh.
"Until we're 95," Close added. "In our wheelchairs!"