In 1982, a 35-year-old Glenn Close, already an established New York actress, shot her first film – The World According to Garp – which went on to earn her a best supporting actress Oscar nomination. That year, she was also offered a part in a play called The Singular Life of Albert Nobbs, about a 19th-century woman who lived her life as a male waiter in a Dublin hotel. The unusual story was adapted by the late French playwright Simone Benmussa from a story by Irish writer George Moore.
The role excited her. The idea of reading for the part did not. Though one of the most acclaimed actresses of her generation (five Oscar nominations, three Tonys and three Emmys), Close has never enjoyed the audition process: “How do you go in for five minutes as a woman pretending to be a woman pretending to be a man? In mid-audition, I stopped the reading and said, ‘I’m boring myself so I must be boring you. I’m going home.’ ”
The producers were intrigued and begged her to come back. She called her friend, actor Kevin Kline, for help. He recommended she get in touch with a college friend, Harold Guskin, now an acting coach, and they began working together. She got the part, and went on to win an Obie award (for off-Broadway shows). She also became obsessed with the character.
“I was amazed how this very simple story devastated the audience every night. Albert was unusual, a naive character with no self-pity, and she became a mirror to other people. It throws it back on you, who you think you are and what you want in life.”
For years, between Broadway, television, and such hit films as Fatal Attraction and 101 Dalmatians, Close worked to bring the play to the screen. Finally, last winter, Albert Nobbs was shot in Dublin and Wicklow, Ireland, with a high-pedigree cast and crew. Close not only produces and stars, but co-wrote the script with Irish novelist and Man Booker-winner John Banville. Close’s co-stars include Janet McTeer, as another woman living in disguise as a man, rising star Mia Wasikowska and veteran Brendan Gleeson. For an early private screening in Dublin, she brought her old acting coach Guskin to watch.
Close still considers Albert Nobbs “the trickiest thing I’ve ever done. It’s a sad story, but she’s comic, in her unknowingness about her body, and the way she looks out, questioning, to the world. To get the combination of humour and sadness I looked at a lot of Chaplin.”
There’s a lovely scene in the film where Close and McTeer shed their male clothes and dress as women to take an ungainly walk on the beach.
“I couldn’t wait to play that scene,” Close says, “Every morning when I prepared as Albert I didn’t recognize myself right up to the last day of shooting. Then, to see that face in a bonnet! It just felt so shocking to put on a woman’s costume.”