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Glenn Close interview

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Post  eddie Fri Apr 06, 2012 11:00 pm

Glenn Close: 'People like Albert Nobbs deserve to have their stories told'

Glenn Close's new film about a cross-dressing butler has been 30 years in the making. Here she explains why the story of Albert Nobbs means so much to her

Catherine Shoard, Thursday 5 April 2012 20.00 BST

Glenn Close interview Glenn-Close-008
Glenn Close: 'The big pop films spell out everything.' Photograph: Carlo Allegri/AP

There is no crackle on the line to Glenn Close. No echo or delay. No hiss or interference. "Yes! I can hear you! I can hear you fine!" She sounds almost alarmingly near, sat in her flat on Central Park West, New York. Not boomy, exactly, but big on crisp diction (it was she they called to dub Andie MacDowell's duff twangs on Greystoke: The Legend of Tarzan, Lord of the Apes). "It's a little bit of a chilly day here, but all the blossoms are out, all the trees are blooming. It's raining there? Oh dear."

Albert Nobbs
Production year: 2011
Country: UK
Runtime: 113 mins
Directors: Rodrigo Garcia
Cast: Aaron Johnson, Aaron Johnson, Glenn Close, Jonathan Rhys-Meyers, Mia Wasikowska

Close is all about the good connection. On Lively Licks, the dog blog she co-authors with her terriers Jake and Bill (they share the byline), along with the celebrity Q&As, and the serious reads on Puppies Behind Bars, Close herself offers counsel to concerned mutt-lovers. "Betty Wigglesworth must continue to sleep with you, especially now that she is getting older," she advises one. To another: "The important thing to remember when cleaning up an accident is to use a cleaning product that removes all the odour."

Close opens up (there's candid snaps, shaggy stories) and she reaches out. "Thanks for asking," she tells a reader who inquires as to Jake and Bill's favourite toy (squeaky monkey). "Thanks for writing" is her sign-off to Barbara, whose moult woes might, she thinks, be alleviated by a "fantastic de-shedding tool" called the Furminator.

"People desperately need connection. There's a danger now of getting further and further away from two human eyes looking into two human eyes. The thing that I love is that we have evolved to be empathetic. We have these neurons called mirror neurons, which reflect what you see in other people's faces. But now people think communication is texting and tweeting. On TV, too, you see something horrific on the news and then you go to an ad and then to something else and it becomes this amorphous jangle."

She laughs abruptly, then continues. "It's an emotional disconnect. Movies are so powerful because you get this big screen with a closeup and you basically are being connected to another human being. It's as powerful as looking into a live human face. And that's something shared with no other artform."

Her new film flirts with withheld eye-contact. It teases the audience with a lead whose extreme self-effacement presents something of an empathy test. "The biggest challenge for me was: how much do you show in her face? Because she's so used to having nothing there."

Albert Nobbs is based on an 1895 novella by George Moore, via a 1982 stage production in which Close also starred. It's the story of a taciturn butler in a Dublin hotel who just happens to be – not really a spoiler, this – a woman. Albert's cover is blown when a flea invades her corset the one night she is forced to share digs with a strapping decorator, Hubert. But as luck would have it, Hubert, too, turns out to have a feminine secret – Janet McTeer's bosomy reveal, puffing proudly on a cig, has picked up something of a cult following.

Once content melting into the wallpaper and squirreling shillings beneath the floorboards, Albert is inspired to try to replicate Hubert's domestic setup, complete with seaside cottage and even a wife. Problem is, Albert is a naïf, an orphan who went into disguise at 14 partly to fend off further sexual assault, partly to find work. Her pursuit of Mia Wasikowska's perky housemaid (herself smitten with Aaron Johnson's boiler boy) looks unlikely to pan out as planned. Typical date chat: "I think you are the strangest man I ever met."

The film, too, is one of the weirdest in recent mainstream memory. Stick with it, and you will be moved, but it's far from an easy sell. "Dear Jesus, I don't know what makes people live such miserable lives," says Brendan Gleeson's alcoholic doctor near the end – dialogue that would serve well as a tagline. Tonally, too, it has a singular taste: half Upstairs Downstairs, half Boys Don't Cry, but funny with it; a sort of Downton Tootsie.

"I can see why people might find it frustrating. I've had critics say: 'Oh, it's so sad and Albert is so buttoned-up it's hard to feel for him.' Well, that's fine if that's the way people read it," Close says with a hint of bristle, "but I know there are people like that in the world; a lot of invisible, isolated people. And I think they deserve to have their stories told.

"Everybody isn't triumphant in their life. We should be aware of that; and know that as bad as your life may seem on any given day, someone else is struggling with something much more difficult. Of course in the entertainment world we love heroes and we love villains, we love a lot of action and we love a lot of sex, but I do think there is room for stories of people like Albert. It's about paying attention to somebody who is difficult at times to figure out. But attention should be paid."

Close has been here before, wrangling artistic purity and punters' desires. Twenty-five years ago she fought hard against a reshoot of Fatal Attraction's finale, in which her bunny-boiling book editor was throttled in the bath by ex-lover Michael Douglas, then shot in the heart by his wife. The scrapped version – Close slits her throat but frames Douglas for the crime – was more psychologically sound, but deemed a bit of a downer by test audiences.

"I learned through that process that catharsis is very important," she says. In Albert Nobbs – on which she also served as writer and producer – the generally tragic effect is leavened with a semi-sunny epilogue. By and large, though, she thinks people might benefit from a mosey up the hard road. "The big pop films spell out everything. People get lazy, I think And I think that's not necessarily a good thing."

There's an inevitable price to pay at the box office. For a triple Oscar-nominated picture (Close, McTeer, makeup), Albert Nobbs has not had audiences queueing round the block. You fear that might be tough for Close, whose involvement has been intense and personal, a dream of 29 years, ever since she played the part on stage (she even wrote the theme tune). But no: "Everybody said you're going to feel so down, you're going to feel post-partum depression, and I never felt that. I actually felt very fulfilled by the whole experience."

Perhaps Close, as an actor, is not much fuelled by conventional acceptance. Midway through her audition for the stage role in 1982, she broke off and said: "I'm boring myself so I must be boring you. I think I'm going to go home." She did; but the producers hauled her back the next day and gave her the part.

Glenn Close interview Albert-Nobbs-008
Glenn Close as Albert in Albert Nobbs. Photograph: Roadside/Everett/Rex Features

Maybe what they saw was an unusual abashment, which Close – for all her professional steel – seems to share with the character. It's telling that her big passion project is not one dripping with showreel moments. That sixth consecutive Oscar defeat may have stung more than she has let on, but there's no way such a subtle turn stood a chance against the showboat delivered by Meryl Streep in The Iron Lady.

Streep is the crucial counterpoint to Close's career. "I've often been mistaken for Meryl," she once said, "although never on Oscar night." They share the same angular blonde chops, the same generation (Close, at 65, is a couple of years the senior), the same theatre pedigree, the same east coast upbringing. There's even a slight slippage between their roles: Streep's lead in The Devil Wears Prada took cues from Close's fashionista Cruella De Vil, just as Close's ruthless lawyer on TV show Damages completes the circle with another tough boss. Yet Streep is somehow perceived as the more easily lovable star; once an uncomplicated pinup, now an aspirational dame. Close's appeal is slippier. "I don't have the face or body for romcoms," she said earlier this year – though her two breakthrough roles, in The World According to Garp and The Big Chill, were wholesome enough. Yet it was he double-bill of bitches in Fatal Attraction and Dangerous Liaisons that cemented the reputation. Even before Albert Nobbs, her best performances teetered towards drag, riffed on her strong jaw and ballsy gaze (her Damages character is called "a real hard-dick bitch" in the pilot). Yet even when they're panto, they're never quite camp. While Streep embraces the wink and the nudge, Close goes full-throttle on the integrity, with no space for spin.

Analysis is her way in: the first thing she did after landing the Fatal Attraction part was to send the script to two psychiatrists. Albert's problem, she thinks, is similar to her character's in that film: he hadn't processed being sexually abused as a child. Close likes identifying the trigger: "When I played Blanche Dubois on stage, I thought: this person has classic post-traumatic stress disorder from seeing her lover blow his head off in front of her."

Has she ever experienced equivalent stress? It's impossible to know. Close is warm enough on the phone, but she has never opened up about what are obliquely referred to as her "dark days", when she toured Vietnam military bases with Up With People, a Moral Re-Armament-supporting folk group, whose guitarist she married. They split after five years; Close enrolled at drama school, and has been a Democrat ever since.

Nonetheless, she does believe that trauma can make a person. "I've read about and met people who've had horrendous childhoods and they're the most enlightened people. They have a certain kind of soul. With Albert, she didn't want to be discovered and so she's not angry or confrontational, she's just shut a part of herself down. It wasn't like she had huge expectations for her life. I think what every human being seeks is safety and connection. Albert has this vision of two chairs and a warm comforting fire, and that is her dream. And what I learned to articulate about the story is that there isn't any such thing as small dreams. To someone like Albert, to have a sitting room with a store downstairs, that's as big as somebody saying: I want to be president of the United States."

She must ring off now, her own dream of three decades over. Waking life awaits.
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