12.20.11

Glenn Close Cross-Dresses

After making its world premiere at the Telluride Film Festival, Albert Nobbs, opening Dec. 21, features a jaw-dropping performance by Glenn Close as a woman passing for a male waiter in 19th-century Dublin that will surely garner her sixth Oscar nomination. The star opened up to Marlow Stern at Telluride about her 29-year passion project, feeling uncomfortable in her skin, and the time she was indoctrinated into a cult.

“I don’t always feel comfortable in my own skin,” says Glenn Close, sporting a polar fleece and jeans in the back room of a saloon in Telluride, Colorado. She pauses briefly, before unleashing a nervous chuckle. “I’ve always characterized myself as somebody who’s put together with Scotch Tape and paper clips.”

The celebrated actress is here at the Telluride Film Festival for the world premiere of Albert Nobbs, a film about an abused Irish woman who passes as the titular male waiter in order to combat rampant gender and class inequality in 19th-century Dublin. Nobbs is saving her money to open up a tobacco shop and, following a chance encounter with a happily married woman posing as a broad-shouldered painter (an excellent Janet McTeer), she begins fantasizing about settling down and marrying her hotel’s most fetching maid, played by Mia Wasikowska. In tackling the most demanding role of her career, Close delivers a restrained, heartbreaking performance that all but guarantees the five-time nominee will not be ignored come Oscar time.

Back in 1982, the same year she made her film debut in The World According to Garp, Close starred as the female-to-male waiter in Simone Benmussa’s off-Broadway adaptation of George Moore’s novella, Albert Nobbs, winning an Obie award for her performance. Since then, she’s developed an Alex Forrest-like obsession with bringing this tale to the big screen.

With script in hand, Close, who by then had assumed the additional duties of co-writer and producer, began scouting film locations around Ireland in 2001. After they couldn’t raise the necessary funds, Hungarian director Istvan Szabo exited the project and in stepped Rodrigo García, the Colombian filmmaker—and son of writer Gabriel García Márquez—who had worked with Close on his two feature films: Things You Can Tell Just By Looking At Her and Nine Lives. Stateside, García is best known as the executive producer of the psychoanalytical HBO series In Treatment. After the supporting cast was rounded out by Brendan Gleeson as the hotel’s drunken doctor, Aaron Johnson as Wasikowska’s manipulative lover, and Jonathan Rhys-Meyers as a sexually promiscuous viscount, filming finally commenced in 2009.

“To pull this movie off in 32 days on a budget of just $8 million is fucking amazing,” says Close. “It was hard for me every day when I’d arrive on our set to believe that this all existed because I decided to never give up on it.”

A strong foil to her iconic, lusty turns as the fiery femme fatale in Fatal Attaction and the Machiavellian schemer in Dangerous Liaisons, the character of Albert Nobbs not only required two hours in the makeup chair every day—changing the shape of her nose, increasing the size of her ears, inserting a “pumper” in her mouth, and strapping her into a chest-flattening vest—but also assuming the mindset of this muted, sexually and emotionally repressed woman.

“I don’t think she knows [if she’s gay],” says Close. “She has no knowledge of sexuality. She disappears for her own protection but she happens to disappear into a job where you’re expected to be invisible, so she’s an invisible person in an invisible job, and that makes her lose sight of herself.”

Close experienced a similar identity crisis when, at age 7, her parents were recruited into Moral Re-Armament (MRA), a Christian cult group headed by Rev. Frank Buchman that preached what it called “the Four Absolutes”: honesty, purity, unselfishness, and love.

“Any kind of group-mandated thing, for a child, is quite dire,” says Close. “It’s cult living where you’re told what to say and how to act.”

“That could’ve been part of [my connection to Nobbs] because to protect yourself you had to—” she pauses. “That’s very, very complex. Any kind of group-mandated thing, for a child, is quite dire. It’s cult living where you’re told what to say and how to act. It’s very sexually repressive and yet you’re supposed to be re-making the world, but you re-make the world in someone else’s eyes, so you give up your individuality.” She adds, “As a child, it’s catastrophic because that’s where you’re trying to figure out who you are. I think I still have elements of that.”

When she couldn’t take it anymore, Close left the cult at the age of 22, and enrolled in The College of William and Mary. Since her name "Glenn" is typically male, she says that her records were first kept with the dean of men on campus. And because of her cult upbringing, she initially experienced difficulties bonding with other students on campus.

“When I went to college, I was desperate and very disillusioned,” says Close. “I didn’t trust any of my instincts because I thought they’d all been foisted on me.”

Today, with five Oscar nominations, three Tony awards, three Emmys and two Golden Globes under her belt, the 64-year-old actress is a far cry from that insecure young girl. She’s thrived in an industry that isn’t very kind to women.

“I know how it works,” says Close. “Bridesmaids was great, but that’s the exception rather than the rule. You’re as valuable as the amount of money you make for somebody, and men make more money and get bigger payoffs than women.”

But for all Close’s brilliant performances and various accolades, she still hasn’t achieved her profession’s highest honor: an Academy Award. Her subtly brilliant turn in Albert Nobbs will surely garner her sixth Oscar nod, so what would a win mean for her?

“I think a lot of people think I have won [an Oscar],” says Close. “My husband rolls his eyes when I say this but it’s really the truth: I’ve never done anything thinking at the end of the line it would give me an award, because I think that’s deadly.” She pauses briefly, and adds, “What would be rewarding about this is it’s the most invested that I’ve ever been, and to be recognized would be amazing.”