“Albert Nobbs” is known as the Glenn Close Passion Project, the One Where She Plays a Man, but the film is a much more complicated construction. It’s the story of, yes, one Albert Nobbs (Close), a waiter who works in a 19th-century Dublin hotel. Albert is also a woman living a very circumspect life as a man until she meets Hubert Page (Janet McTeer), a day worker with a similar secret of his own. However, Hubert is much more comfortable with the shape of his life than Albert. A solidly good person with no real clue about who he or she is, Albert’s well-meaning pursuit of happiness leads to bittersweet tragedy.
Based on the 1895 short story by Irish novelist George Moore, Close originally portrayed Nobbs in 1982 off Broadway in “The Singular Life of Albert Nobbs,” adapted and directed by Simone Benmussa. indieWIRE spoke to writer/producer/screenwriter Close and her co-star McTeer at the Toronto International Film Festival about gender bending, the power of a particular Albanian woman and why “Albert Nobbs” deserves a nomination for best use of nudity.
Do you think Albert was a happy person?
GLENN CLOSE: Albert has no clue what happiness is. Albert is a survivor and I think she chose an invisible job. An invisible person chose an invisible job. In 19th-century Victorian times, the servants weren’t supposed to look anybody in the eye. They don’t see you, they don’t talk to you, you don’t talk to them. She’s surviving and she’s saving up her money so she won’t end up on the street or in the poorhouse. When she was 14 she saw that terrible world and it terrified her. When she looks at happiness, she doesn’t know what she’s seeing but she knows it’s something she wants.
JANET MCTEER: She’s cut herself off from herself. Hubert hasn’t. With Hubert, she sees someone who’s living this supposedly secret life that means you can’t have a life and she’s living it to the full.
GC: But I don’t think Hubert understands how clueless Albert is.
How much makeup and prosthetics were necessary to make this happen?
JM: Oh, my god.
GC: We had rigorous tests. I had to change the shape of my nose. All this was added… I have very small ears.
JM: When you have two actresses playing women who get away with it as men, you can’t put stubble on them; you can’t say they are men.
GC: We made (Hubert’s) nose look like it had been broken because she’d been a battered wife.
JM: And then lots of stuff to break up the texture of the skin. We were in there every morning two, 2 1/2 hours.
GC: For Albert, it was a question of what has happened to her face over these years? She has no vanity. Never looks at herself in the mirror. I have a picture of the woman from Albania…
The Albanian woman?
GC: Yes, it’s from a National Geographic article and there’s a cultural element in Albania that if a family doesn’t have a male heir, they designate a woman to represent them in the male community. This is a woman who had lived her life as a man and she was my paradigm. Her hairline, her eyebrows, the texture of her skin, her hands… she was the person that I was thinking of all these years.
[Makeup artist Matthew Mungle and I] flew out to California to do some (makeup) tests and at one point I looked up in the mirror and started crying because it wasn’t me anymore. I thought I’d have the burden of my very well-known face. And what he did alleviated that. And he didn’t do huge, weird things to our faces.
JM: No, no. Tiny, tiny, subtle… eyebrows, changing the shape.
GC: I would have never done it without Matthew.
The biggest laugh the film got was when your characters wore dresses. All of sudden you realize, that’s these women in drag.
GC: Yes, women looking like women looking like men. It’s very Shakespearean.
JM: When they’re dressed as women, they look more odd than women dressed as men.
Did you find any history for people who lived like this at that time?
JM: There were a lot of people who lived like this. One thing you have to remember in England that is different from over here is that sodomy, if you’re a guy, it’s illegal. You’d be kicked out of the country. There was nothing against lesbianism because Queen Victoria didn’t believe it existed.
It’s very interesting in the context of the drag king/drag queen culture and the flexibility with gender roles.
GC: What I think… ultimately, gender shouldn’t make a difference. And I think what is so moving about Hubert and (her wife) Kathleen is that you forget what you’re looking at. You’re just looking at two people who have a basic connection and they love each other. It doesn’t matter who they are. They have the grace to let Albert stay as “Mr. Nobbs.” They don’t say, “Ah,come on, we know you’re a woman.” They know it’s a delicate creature they’re dealing with and yet they’re so open and loving.
JM: I always thought that it was wonderful that it was made in a time before labels. Straight woman, straight couple, gay man, gay woman, cross-gender… they weren’t. There’s something slightly… boundary-less about it. It’s ultimately about people, in the end, becoming who they are, being themselves and what makes them comfortable. It’s a concept that we supposedly find much easier today.
GC: That scene where [Hubert] says, “Albert, you can be whoever you are.” That’s very prescient.
JM: She doesn’t say, You can get a boyfriend. You can get a girlfriend. She says, You’re kind. You work hard. She lists your qualities as a person. I’ve always thought it’s the qualities of a person that matter. Not their breed, their shape, their color, their sexual preference, age… It’s the qualities of their character. She says, you’re a fantastic person and you have a right to go find someone to spend your life with.
GC: There’s three things that I think every human being needs. One is they need to feel safe. They thrive on being connected. And if they’re lucky, they have work that will give them self worth. But I think safety and connection are vital.
I don’t think Hubert really wishes to be a man.
JM: Hubert is exactly who Hubert wants to be. He’s fine. He’s really happy. Sometimes I call him he, sometimes she… I think he thinks of himself as a him. I think he loves life. He’s got a great bounce. She loves laughing, she loves flirting, she’s incredibly happy.
I have to say that this film ranks right up there with the best use of nudity.
JM: Oh! (laughs)
It was a obviously a reveal as in, this is who I am, but at the same time, there was a pride. It wasn’t a shameful thing.
JM: I really wanted it for the postmodern… If you’re doing a moment that has great power or force, it’s very easy to take it seriously. And to me, that can often spoil a moment. Very often the most important things are said off the cuff. You’re taking the edge off. It could turn into a moment of high melodrama and Hubert is like, “Aw’right. Whatever.” And I thought it would make me laugh. Take the moment with a big bucket of salt.
Takes the piss out of the situation.