Glenn Close tells Patricia Danaher about her Irish dream project Albert Nobbs – the film that just earned her an Oscar nomination for Best Actress.
When Glenn Close puts her mind to something, the fates seem to have a way of conspiring to make it a reality, even if in some cases it takes decades. Take her latest movie, Albert Nobbs, as an example. Based on a novella by late 19th century Irish writer George Moore, it is the story of a woman passing as a man in order to work and survive. After thirty years of donning the male costume, Albert, working as a butler in a Dublin hotel, is now trapped in a lonely prison of her own making.
The novella was first adapted for the stage in 1982 by French playwright Simone Benmussa. Glenn Close, then just starting out as an actress, played the eponymous Albert in that very first production; a performance for which she won an Obie.
Fast forward almost three decades, and she has co-written, produced, financed and starred in a big-screen adaptation of Albert Nobbs, filmed in Ireland with a largely Irish cast and crew.
In December, the movie garnered Golden Globe nominations for herself, for co-star Janet McTeer and for Best Song, sung by Sinead O’Connor. The Screen Actors Guild also nominated Ms. Close for her performance in this movie.
But despite all the awards buzz surrounding Albert Nobbs, it’s very quickly apparent that this is not what inspired Close to sell an apartment in New York and plough significant amounts of her own money into making this movie.
“I read it for the first time when I auditioned for the play in 1982 and I was absolutely taken with it,” she told me over an Irish breakfast in Beverly Hills. “In the story, George Moore calls her a ‘perhapser’ – perhaps she’s a woman, perhaps she’s a man. During the run of the show, I sensed the huge emotional wallop that this simple story provided, and people were very, very moved by it, and I started to sense it would make a wonderful movie. The essence of the character has grown with me since 30 years ago. I said, ‘I must play this character on the big screen before I die.’”
And so began a period of what is so euphemistically called development hell. While Close’s film career sky-rocketed with unforgettable and Oscar-nominated roles in movies such as Fatal Attraction, Dangerous Liaisons and Reversal of Fortune, she quietly bought the rights to Albert Nobbs before it entered the public domain and wrote her own adaptation of the story. Then she went the rounds of myriad production companies and financiers, most of whom didn’t quite get it or were nervous of putting such a sexually ambivalent creature on screen.
“It was really hard for people to imagine, and this transgender thing put people off,” she recalls. “I knew I just had to keep at it, despite how hard it was for people to get, I had to trust that I would find people with the vision and talent to put it together. In the end, I put a lot of my own money in and not one cent came from Hollywood. We sold an apartment we had in New York and I put that money into it. The money that came from the Irish Film Board was very, very important, and they gave us incredible support from Day One. They had known about this project since I went to them ten years ago.
“Everyone tells you ‘you’re crazy’ and ‘no one puts their own money into a movie,’ but I thought how could I, who believed in something so deeply, go to people and ask them to put their money into it, if I wasn’t prepared to put my own money in? It’s called ‘having skin in the game,’ and it meant a lot to people.”
She won’t say how much exactly she put into the movie, which is believed to have had a budget of around $10m, but she says that she and the Broadway producer Darryl Roth put up the bulk of the financing. And she was always adamant that the movie should be made in Ireland, where the story was born and based.
“There were times when we were looking at East Germany, Hungary, Montreal. But I always, always, always thought the only place to make this movie was Ireland, and I’m so happy we did.”
Although she is not especially familiar with Ireland – her first visit was in the 1980’s to see her friend Sinead Cusack in a production of Three Sisters at the Gate, she has long been friends with Jonathan Rhys Myers, who plays a charming cameo in Albert Nobbs.
“I fell in love with Johnny Rhys Myers when he played the King of France in The Lion in Winter,” recalls a beaming Close. “One of my favorite memories was singing ‘Somewhere Out There’ in a Hungarian karaoke bar with Johnny! We just wailed and it was so much fun. He’s the best and he has a heart of gold. I called him up out of the blue and said ‘I have this movie I’m making in Ireland, and I think it could be a lot of fun, and I’d love to have you in it’. Without hesitation he said, ‘Glenn, I’ll be there for you whenever you need me.’ I can only thank him by hoping he’ll be proud of the movie.”
Brendan Gleeson and Brenda Fricker also agreed to get involved, as did the three original gals from The Commitments, Maria Doyle Kennedy, Angeline Ball and Bronagh Gallagher.
In 2001, Close arrived in Ireland to scout locations for Albert Nobbs, and among the buildings she found was Cabinteely House in Dublin. Ten years later this became the Morrison Hotel where most of the story is set. Most of the exteriors were shot on Henrietta Street, in Dublin.
Alan Moloney was the Irish producer who pulled it all together at the Irish end, once the private finance had been secured.
“Glenn suggested the main location, after coming here ten years ago, and it was a wonderful choice. We also shot at Portmarnock beach, but most of it unfolds in Morrison’s,” said Moloney. “It really helps when Glenn Close is also your location scout!”
Irish novelist John Banville co-wrote the script with Close, and the movie was directed by Rodrigo Garcia, whose father is Gabriel Garcia Marquez. In addition to co-writing the script, playing the lead and producing Albert Nobbs, Close also wrote the lyrics for the closing song, “Lay Your Head Down,” which is sung by Sinead O’Connor and composed by Brian Byrne.
Already there is talk in Hollywood and elsewhere about Close getting nominated for an Oscar for her portrayal of Nobbs. Meryl Streep is another very likely contender, for her role as British Prime Minister Margaret Thatcher in Iron Lady, and the two have often come up against each other in the awards season.
“I’ve often been mistaken for Meryl Streep, but never on Oscar night,” Close says somewhat tartly. “I’ve never really been close to her. We did House of Spirits together and even though we started our careers kind of at the same time, I’m kind of a loner and I don’t necessarily keep connections going. I have huge respect for Meryl, but I can’t say she’s one of my close friends.”
Close has frequently played manipulative and scary characters on stage, screen and television. She is refreshing in not being worried – as so many are in Hollywood – about being “likeable.” She will probably never live down Cruella de Ville or Alex (the bunny boiler) in Fatal Attraction, but she’s from the old school in so many ways.
“Everyone comes up to me and tells me I terrify them,” she says shaking her head wryly. “I started my career relatively late in Hollywood terms. My first movie, The World According to Garp, I was 32. But I always choose parts subjectively. I’ve never said ‘this is going to make me a lot of money’ or ‘this is going to win me a lot of awards.’ It has to have some creative challenge. The message you get from Hollywood is not very attractive to me: it’s all about boyfriends and what people are wearing and their jewelery, and it doesn’t have much to do with the work they’re doing. I’m a terrible shopper and I find the whole red carpet thing really difficult. I’m actually quite proud to be on the Worst Dressed List.”
The steeliness in Close, which belies a very gentle, diminutive and softly spoken presence, no doubt comes from her upbringing in the Belgian Congo, where her father, a surgeon, was a strong and active member of Moral Rearmament.
“It was an amazing experience. I was there at times when there were mutinies going on. It was all pretty basic. My father was out there trying to get food and medicine to the refugees during all that fighting. Nobody knew where death was coming from.”
Close and her siblings were educated in Africa and Switzerland, before returning to live on the family estate in Greenwich, Connecticut.
She attended the College of William and Mary, majoring in theater, and spent several years touring with the international singing group Up With People, before finding her way to New York, where she had an extensive career in Broadway musicals before taking on Hollywood.
Close married her longtime boyfriend, David Shaw, in December 2010. She is the mother of a 23-year-old daughter, Annie Starke, from an earlier relationship. She is busy promoting Albert Nobbs and getting ready to film a new season of her successful television legal drama Damages, but says she really wants to go back to Ireland.
“It broke my heart that we were shooting when the whole country was closed down because of the snow. I didn’t have a chance to get in a car and go driving around because the roads were closed. I still have to treat myself to a big dose of Ireland, hopefully in the coming year.”
Watch a trailer for Albert Nobbs: