Glenn Close laughs when Patty Hewes is described as the complete opposite of Albert Nobbs.
“You could say that,” the six-time Oscar-nominated actress agrees.
Hewes is the ice-in-veins lawyer of “Damages,” a role for which Close has won two Emmys and two Golden Globes for best actress in a TV series. In her latest film (reviewed onE2
), she plays the title role in “Albert Nobbs,” a woman who passes as a man, employed as a meek male waiter and butler in 19th-century Ireland.
Close has already received raves for the role, and, as of Tuesday, another Oscar nomination. On Sunday at the Screen Actors Guild Awards, Close will be up for best actress trophies for both Patty and Albert.
“Albert Nobbs” is a project that has been close to the actress’s heart for quite some time. Thirty years, in fact.
“Thirty years sounds terrible, like I’m the worst producer in the world,” she says good-naturedly. “I didn’t think of making it into a movie 30 years ago, but it would be fair to say probably — I can’t put my finger on it — 10 to 15 years.”
It was 30 years ago when Close took on the role in a bare-bones off-Broadway play called “The Singular Life of Albert Nobbs,” adapted from the George Moore story of the same name. The actress actually did the 1982 stage production between the two movies that first brought her film audiences’ attention — “The World According to Garp” and “The Big Chill.”
Over her career, Close also has made her mark in “Dangerous Liaisons,” “Fatal Attraction,” “The Natural” and “Reversal of Fortune” and in the TV film “The Lion in Winter,” for which she won a SAG Award, and “Serving in Silence.” She also won a Tony for her portrayal of Norma Desmond in the musical “Sunset Boulevard.”
“I’ve had pretty positive experiences and very few negative ones,” she says of her career.
For “Albert Nobbs,” Close not only is a producer of the film directed by Rodrigo Garcia — who worked with her on “Things You Can Tell Just by Looking at Her” and “Nine Lives” — but also shares co-writing credit.
The action in the movie centers on an upscale Dublin hotel, where Albert has worked for 17 years. An orphan raised in a convent, she was gang-raped at a young age and took refuge — and employment — in posing as a man.
Never having lived as a woman, the servant is shaken when she is forced to share her room one night with Hubert, a “manly” housepainter who, it turns out, is also a woman living in disguise (played by Janet McTeer, nominated for best supporting actress for the Oscars and the SAG Awards).
Hubert has embraced the role, living as a married man with another woman. This revelation shakes up the timid waiter’s world.
“Her sexuality I think was very, very tricky because she has never had any intimate human contact,” says Close, who over the years collected stories of women who lived as men. “I think there are a lot more who did this than we ever will know.”
Close sees a uniqueness in the character “because she has been so invisible.” There is, indeed, a “Downton Abbey” aspect to “Albert Nobbs” in that the rich patrons of the hotel don’t really notice the people who are taking care of them. In one scene, Albert enters a room with a couple of aristocrats (Jonathan Rhys Meyers and John Light) in a compromising position; they pay no attention to her, and Albert never looks up at them.
“I think it’s very powerful for the audience to see the back room of somebody’s life and then see them in public working because it makes you realize how little we know about people,” Close says. “There is this whole story going on, and to them it’s just the waiter holding a tray of glasses.”
Close, who comes across much warmer than either Patty or Albert, studied a wide variety of sources to play Albert, including Charlie Chaplin’s sad tramp.
“I thought there were elements of the clown about her because she’s become used to wearing pants that are a little too long for her and shoes that are too big and heavy,” says Close, who notes that while Albert herself isn’t a comic figure, there are comic elements in the film. One such moment is when Albert and Hubert put on dresses for the first time in many years.
“I thought it would be so bizarre to see these women, who almost look like men in drag,” she says.
The writing experience was new to Close, but the actress says it was something she enjoyed.
“Of course, I was lucky I was not the one who put pen to blank page,” she says. “I took the script on after Gabriella Prekop and John Banville had had their passes at it. I did a lot of work on it, and loved every aspect of it, loved the production meetings, having to make changes because of budget considerations. I loved tweaking it after rehearsals, even things that we had to fix the day of shooting.”
With the blessing of Garcia and the other two producers, Close turned to people she knew in casting. She approached McTeer one night after a Broadway performance. Rhys Meyers and Light had worked with her on “The Lion in Winter,” and Pauline Collins had been with her in the movie “Paradise Road.”
The actress wouldn’t mind giving writing another shot but admits it’s “a question of just doing it.”
Right now, she is still shooting Season 5 of “Damages,” which after running the first three years on FX is now on DirecTV. The fifth season premieres this summer.
After spending so much time working on the character of Albert, Close says there wasn’t much chance that her Patty Hewes steeliness would bleed over. But she says it was a bit of a shock last February to find herself back in New York City doing costume fittings for “Damages” two days after wrapping up production of “Albert Nobbs” in Ireland.
This is the last year for “Damages” — McTeer, Ryan Phillippe, Jenna Elfman, Judd Hirsch and Victor Garber are among the guest stars — and Close says she is now “looking for projects that give me a chance to be spontaneous in my life.”
That means no more TV series and, despite the actress’s great love of the theater, probably not much stage work.
“Doing eight shows a week and not seeing your family for six nights a week is tough,” says the married Close, who has a 23-year-old daughter. “Much of the last 30-years-plus have been about going away for work so that I’m now fiercely protective of the time that I can have at home.”