MINNEAPOLIS — In 1982, Glenn Close experienced two events that changed her professional life. She made her film debut in George Roy Hill’s “The World According to Garp.” And she won an Obie for her off-Broadway performance as “Albert Nobbs.” The story is set in Victorian Dublin, the title character a woman passing as a man in order to work as a hotel waiter in the tough economy of 19th-century Ireland.
That lonely gender-bending character, drawn from a short story by Irish author George Moore, held Close’s imagination like no other. She spent the next three decades trying to secure funding for a film version of the play. Now “Albert Nobbs” is on the screen, with Close as Oscar-nominated star, co-producer, co-writer and lyricist for the movie’s theme song, the ethereal irish lullaby “Lay Your Head Down.”
Her dream project gathered up an armful of early award nominations. Close and co-star Janet McTeer received (but did not win) Golden Globe nominations as best lead and supporting actress, as well as Screen Actors Guild nominations in the same categories. Tuesday morning, both were nominated for Academy Awards — Close for best actress and McTeer for best supporting actress.
In a phone interview earlier this month, Close said the source of her fascination with the unorthodox character was “a golden combination of a simple story that packs a huge emotional wallop. It’s not often that you get to meet somebody like Albert Nobbs.”
Nor does an actor often find such a stimulating acting challenge. “I knew it would be the most difficult thing I’d ever pull off. It entails everything I learned in the years since I played her. I’m glad I learned my craft to this degree. I would not have been able to pull this off 30 years earlier.”
The role requires Close to hold our attention while her character strives for invisibility. Albert’s goal is to fade into the wallpaper at Morrison’s Hotel. It’s a successful charade. The upper-class patrons pay her no mind and her co-workers suspect nothing. “She’s been invisible for 30 years, so it’s not something she has to be conscious about,” Close said. “She’s as comfortable as she’ll ever be, being an invisible servant.”
In the 1995 TV movie “Serving in Silence,” Close won an Emmy for her performance as an Army officer discharged when she’s revealed to be gay. Though both characters led secret lives, Close sees Albert as a repressed “asexual” woman “living behind the disguise of a man. She’s not a lesbian. She doesn’t know what she is. She hasn’t had enough intimate human contact.”
Complications multiply when, after decades of living behind a mask, Albert decides that she/he should marry and settle down. Maintaining her secret, she formally courts a greedy chambermaid (Mia Wasikowska) who senses “a whiff of money” about the frugal waiter. Predictably, difficult consequences ensue.
While there are moments of pathos there’s also humor in Albert’s story, which Close sees “placed squarely in the human comedy.” She took inspiration for Albert’s look — bowler hat, suit too big, pants too long, feet turned out — from Charlie Chaplin.
The notion of masquerading in public or hiding in plain sight is what allows contemporary audiences to identify with Albert, Close said. “I think everybody puts on a face when they walk out the door every day,” repressing things they think will threaten their relationships of livelihood. “That’s how we exist, by hiding 99 percent of what’s going on.”
The idea is highlighted in a scene at a hotel costume ball, as the kindly house physician Dr. Holloran (Brendan Gleeson) inquires “Why aren’t you in fancy dress?” “I’m a waiter,” Albert answers. “I’m a doctor,” responds Holloran. “We’re both disguised as ourselves.”
The film’s decades-long gestation paid off in the production, which took scarcely a month, “What really helped, given the short shooting schedule, was that if anybody had a question, I knew what the answer was.”
In addition to her “Albert Nobbs” nods, the Screen Actors Guild also nominated Close for her TV role as ruthless lawyer Patty Hughes on the dark legal drama “Damages.” The DirecTV series begins its fifth and final season with five episodes that reunite Close with her “Nobbs” co-star McTeer.
“I’m looking forward to that. You’ll see Janet being gorgeous, actually. I think it’ll blow people’s minds to see us together if they’ve seen the movie,” wearing chic power suits instead of drab bonnets and bloomers. “There’s nothing more different from Albert than Patty Hughes. It’ll be a lot of fun.”