Man up

Glenn Close’s Oscar-nominated role as a gender-bending Irish butler with a secret fuels the fascinating ‘Albert Nobbs’

Glen-Close

HIDDEN LIFE | Glenn Close received her sixth Oscar nomination — alongside nominated co-star Janet McTeer, opposite — playing a gay woman living as a man in turn-of-the-century Ireland in ‘Albert Nobbs.’

Twenty-four hours before The Golden Globes ceremony, where she was in the running for best actress in a drama for Albert Nobbs, Glenn Close is doing some last minute press from her Four Seasons hotel room in Los Angeles. While she ultimately didn’t take home a statuette the next night, Close’s performance is a bona fide winner — and represents “closure and joy” for a passion-project 30 years in the making.

Playing a woman who for decades has camouflaged herself as a man to work as a hotel butler and survive in 19th century Ireland, Close, who also produced and co-wrote the film (and its Globes-nominated, Sinead O’Connor-performed original song, “Lay Your Head Down”), turns in a vulnerable, kindly, enigmatic and multilayered performance — quite literally so, with subtle facial prosthetics to butch up her features. Nobbs also co-stars Janet McTeer as Hubert, a swaggering lesbian whom also poses as a man, and Mia Wasikowska as Helen, a beguiling maid to whom Albert takes a romantic shine.

Albert represents a polar opposite of the role that has come to define Close in recent years: Iron-fisted, manipulative lawyer Patty Hewes on the DirectTV series, Damages, which wraps its fifth and final season this year.

Via telephone — before she learned of her Oscar nomination earlier this week — Close discussed gender-bending, wrapping up Damages, and a whole bunch of queer stuff.

— Lawrence Ferber

Albert Nobbs is now playing at the Angelika Film Center Mockingbird Station.

Dallas Voice: You first played Albert Nobbs in a 1982 off-Broadway production of the play and have toiled for years to bring a film version to screen. Do awards matter to you, both for this performance specifically and in general?  Glenn Close: In what way? It sounds kind of disingenuous when I talk like this, but I honestly think that you’re almost a winner when you’re nominated and the whole craziness around who wins and doesn’t win I just can’t buy into. For the winner, yes, it’s wonderful, and it would be wonderful to win everything, particularly because this is the most I have been invested [in a film] and it was an incredible journey for me. But the journey itself had great closure and was challenging and satisfying in every way. So I don’t feel like awards would change that. Of course, I would love for a lot of people to see it. That’s where the nominations are very helpful.

ALBN-GClose-JMcTeerWere you a fan of movies about gender-bending characters, like Yentl and Victor Victoria, before Nobbs?  Yeah. I remember seeing Yentl onstage with Tovah Feldshuh [in the 1970s]. It blew me away. But those were different from Nobbs. What was really important to us was to make the characters in the movie not seem oblivious for thinking this character is a man. I wasn’t convinced that Julie Andrews was a man, and I don’t think necessarily that Barbra Streisand was the most convincing of men. It was very important for us to be authentic and find ways of subtly changing Janet’s and my faces so that would be believable to the people within the story.

Did you and Janet have some fun with it when you were in your male drag?  Yeah. Janet accosted Brendan Gleeson, whom she’d played opposite as Lady Churchill in the HBO series Into the Storm, and he didn’t have any idea who she was! I tell you, it would have been fun to get all duded-up and walk through Dublin. But I just didn’t have time to. I liked being Albert. I liked surprising myself every time I passed a mirror, and to be on the set looking like a guy is different from just acting.

The scene in which Janet’s character Hubert, whom Albert initially thinks is a biological man, catches her and realizes she’s a woman is so painful. Albert looks so scared. Was that a tough scene for you to act?  No. I just had to think of how dire it would be for Albert if she was discovered and thrown out. She thinks her life is over and wouldn’t have a job. I think one of the hardest scenes for me was when I asked Helen out for a walk for the first time, because I didn’t know what to do with my face. Albert is starting to look up more than she ever had, but it’s still not comfortable for her to look into people’s eyes. The tricky thing about the whole part was the dilemma of somebody who has been stoic and behind a mask all those years — how much does she show on her face as she starts to look up and out at the world again?

Did you consider adding a new character, a young woman pretending to be a teenage boy, so you could cast Justin Bieber in it? Think of the box office dollars that would reap!  [Laughing] Ah, Justin Bieber. He’d probably be very good at that. I don’t know if it would be convincing in a period movie in Victorian Dublin, but you never know!

While researching the time period in which Nobbs takes place, did you learn whether living as a male was typical for lesbians to do back then?  My research mainly turned up women who did this either to fight in wars, have a job or go on adventure. And then there are cases of people who married women, and the women found out later [their husbands] were women and not men. So I don’t know. It was a mixture, and whether they were lesbians are not, homosexuality was against the law. I’m not sure whether lesbianism was also against the law, but it was certainly considered aberrant and something to hide.

You famously played lesbian military vet Margarethe Cammermeyer in the 1995 TV movie, Serving in Silence. When ‘don’t ask, don’t tell’ was repealed, was it a big moment for you? And did you two talk about it?  Yes, it was, definitely. I was in touch with Grethe when that all happened and I would’ve loved to have gone to D.C. for that, but I just wasn’t able to. We talked about how proud we were that, back then, we did Serving in Silence and to think of the time that’s gone by since and the lives [military policy and DADT] affected in an unfortunate way. But thank God DADT doesn’t exist anymore. Not that everything’s going to change, but at least it has on the books. I think, ultimately, [gender and sexuality] shouldn’t matter. I’ve said this about our film. In some ways, gender should be irrelevant. It shouldn’t matter who someone is connected to and finds love and a life with. I hope [full federal equality] will come to be a reality for the LGBT world.

You’ve called Patty Hewes the role of your life. What can you tell us about this last season of Damages?  Oh, it’s a good, juicy season. Patty goes after a Wikileaks guy, like Julian Assange. She’s prosecuting him and Helen is defending him, so it’s pretty good.

Does the season come to a conclusive, all-tied-up end, or does it leave things open so there could be a Damages movie later down the line, a la 24?  I don’t know necessarily how our writers are going to end the season. We’ve had some general conversations about it, but knowing them I doubt it would all be in a tight and nice package with a bow.

If you were in a legal pickle, would you want Patty to represent you?  Absolutely! We couldn’t afford her, but I’d like her to represent me, yes.

You lost Oscars in the past to two other gay favorites, Cher and Jodie Foster. Are you hatin’ on them?  Funny, I didn’t think of that. I don’t hate them at all. Are you kidding me?

It would be great to see you three together in a project.  Oh, that would be wild. That would be good.

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•online exclusive

For a review of Albert Nobbs — and to read more about the Oscar nominations — visit DallasVoice.com

This article appeared in the Dallas Voice print edition January 27, 2012.

—  Kevin Thomas

The iron ladies of “The Iron Lady”

Out filmmaker Phyllida Lloyd directs Meryl Streep, who talks gay icon status — of both herself and Margaret Thatcher

Nothing can stand in the way of the almighty Meryl Streep — except on this particular afternoon. At a New York City hotel, in front of a room full of journalists from mainstream press, she braces herself for what could be the ultimate career challenge. The mission? Answer a “gay” question.

With mock surprise, Streep dramatically throws her arms up and whips back in her chair, pretending it’s something she — two-time Oscar winner, recent Kennedy Center honoree, the “devil” herself – isn’t sure she can pull off.

“OK,” she says, sarcastically, “Let me get ready. All right, go.”

And so we do, citing mentions of the fierce Margaret Thatcher, whom Streep doesn’t just play but becomes in The Iron Lady, as a gay icon. So, is she?

Streep deliberates, working out the answer in her head before she lets go of it.

“You know, I don’t know. I just recently found out that I am a gay icon. It’s flattering, of course,” she says, noting the all-male tribute “Streep Tease” in West Hollywood (of which she says, “I haven’t gotten the nerve to go”). “But I think (Margaret) stirs very strong feelings even today, 20 years after leaving power. And she remains divisive. The film will enter a landscape of a world where she continues to cause controversy. I can’t answer the question about whether she’s a gay icon. That’s a difficult one for me.”

Something Meryl Streep can’t do? The recent Golden Globe winner for best actress in a drama, for Iron Lady, is supposed to be this thespian superwoman who can effortlessly slip into character. She’s such a persona-transcendent pro that when she’s sitting right in front of you, you’re asking yourself: Is that really her? Heck, after being so outside herself, does Meryl Streep even know Meryl Streep?

Iron Lady, then, is a made-for-Meryl movie, from the prosthetics that afford an uncanny transformation into Britain’s first female prime minister to the heart that she finds among all that, well, iron.

“The biggest challenge for me was accomplishing the long lines of thought that she would launch into without taking a breath,” Streep recalls. “Even with all the drama school that I’ve had, I had a lot of trouble managing that. Just the galvanizing energy and the drive and the capacity to follow through with a conviction all the way through to the end of your breath until you can’t go any further,” she says, breathlessly in character, “and not to let anybody interrupt!”

“It was masterful the way she could manage these interviews.” She lets out a hearty laugh. “I’m taking notes on that.”

Thatcher was a strident figure of polarizing effect, a loved-and-hated political icon admired not necessarily for her ideas but for the way she was able to execute them — in the face of class and gender prejudice.

“The array of obstacles that stood before her in England at that time were enormous,” Streep notes, “and I think she did a service for our team [women] by getting there even though you might not agree with the politics. Anybody that stands up and is willing to be a leader, who is as prepared as she was and as smart as she was, is admirable on a certain level, because you really sacrifice a great deal. All of our public figures do.”

The film spans three days in Thatcher’s post prime, well into her 80s, after dementia wipes out her memories and she tries to capture whichever ones she has left. For as political-minded as she was, the film isn’t very political at all. And it wasn’t meant to be.

“All of us understood what we were wanting from this piece,” Streep says. “It was not going to be chronicling Margaret Thatcher’s political life; it would be a particular look back through her own eyes at selected memories – not in chronological order, but in a jumble of memory, regret, glory days. It would all be a part of a reckoning.”

The film is facing intense scrutiny for breezing past the political turmoil that Thatcher stirred and, instead, focusing on her personal life.

“We have come under criticism for portraying someone who is frail and in delicate health,” Streep admits. “Some people have said it’s shameful to portray this part of a life, but if you think that debility, delicacy and dementia are shameful, if you think that the ebbing end of life is something that should be shut away, if you think that people need to be defended from that, from those images,– then yes, it is a shameful thing. But I don’t think that. We are naturally interested in our leaders, and we tell stories about ourselves through the stories of important people.”

Out director Phyllida Lloyd elaborates: “We thought of the film as something of a King Lear for girls, a Shakespearean story — not a political story. So, in that sense, we spoke to a number of Margaret Thatcher’s closest associates, who described her story in Shakespearean and operatic terms. I’d worked in opera a lot and to me, this did have some of the elements of a tragic opera. The movie is a combination of the political world and pure imagination. It’s two very distinctive worlds.”

This isn’t the first time Streep and Lloyd have bridged two worlds. 2008’s Mamma Mia! united the actress’ singing and dancing, with Lloyd directing.

“I think it’s always easier the second time working together,” the filmmaker admits. “In fact, you should start with the second time.”

Looking at her, pretending to be offended, Streep laughs: “What do you mean?”

“I loved working with her… the first time,” the actress razzes. “We had shorthand (on Iron Lady), and we had to because we had $14 million to shoot a movie that takes place over the course of six decades. And that’s basically no money. That’s less than a tenth of what Hugo cost.”

She hands it to Lloyd for strongly conveying her vision prior to shooting, which allowed Streep a sense of security in knowing just how to find Thatcher’s mind, body and spirit.

“I’m playing a Margaret Thatcher no one has seen or really knows, and we can’t know. It’s an imagined journey that we were taking, so I felt a lot of freedom. I did,” Streep says. “I felt completely free, and that’s a testament to the director.”

But it wasn’t all Lloyd. Though she’s never met Margaret Thatcher, Streep wore the prime minister’s many hats, learning that the woman wasn’t a slacker and that her father saw Thatcher as the man of the house.

“He discovered, of his two daughters, one was uncommonly bright and uncommonly curious, and maybe this could be his boy,” she says. “That’s what I think. She fulfills a promise, and he infused in her the courage to get up and out. She had a lot of promise, and she wanted to live up to it.”

When did Streep realize the same for herself?

“I never really decided. I’m still ambivalent.” She laughs at the notion. “But no, being an actor lets me be a million different things, so I don’t have to decide.”

 — Chris Azzopardi

 

 

—  Rich Lopez