Now that Glenn Close has been nominated for both SAG (Screen Actor's Guild) and Golden Globe best actress awards for her transformative portrayal of a turn-of-the-century woman living her life as a man in Albert Nobbs, her efforts to get the film made have been vindicated. The 64-year-old, who had first performed the character on stage 30 years ago, is not only the film's star but also the co-writer and co-producer, personally choosing many of the cast and crew.
Having appeared in Rodrigo García's first two features, Things You Can Tell Just by Looking at Her (2000) and Nine Lives (2005), she knew he was the right director for the film.
“The thing that so impressed me about Rodrigo is that he is a great screenwriter himself and a great writer for women,” says Close, who co-wrote the screenplay with Irish writer John Banville, who was suggested to her by her Dangerous Liaisons director Stephen Frears. “Yet with this film Rodrigo never once made me feel that I wasn't the writer. He never wrote anything for me, he never even suggested dialogue and I thought that was amazing. He really was remarkable in his generous collaboration.”
Colombian-born, Mexican-raised García, 52, who has lived in the US since 1987, has an astute sense of telling a larger story on a small human canvas. That he is the son of Nobel Prize-winning author Gabriel García Márquez and grew up watching his father collaborating and socialising with the likes of Carlos Fuentes and Luis Buñuel has meant that he injects touches of magic realism into his filmmaking. This has greatly impressed Close, yet she also points out how he has constantly been surrounded by women in his life, so appreciates a woman's point of view.
“I grew up in a functional family with happily married parents and I have a happy marriage of my own to a very strong woman,” García says, referring to Dawn Hudson (executive director of Independent Filmmaker Project/West) with whom he has two daughters.
“An idea never comes to me that involves killing a lion or invading Poland, those traditionally masculine pursuits. I love female characters because they tap into subjects that interest me, such as being trapped in familiar relationships, being tied by bonds that can't be broken, love affairs that are complicated but you can't walk away from. Often women end up giving up a part of themselves where they end up being the caretaker not only of the family, but of the relationship.”
With Albert Nobbs, García was intent on unveiling the person behind Close's rather remarkable façade. “The character of Albert had dug this hole for herself, where just in order to survive she had invented this other person who had taken over her life. I found the story to be very compelling, the conflict to be strong but most of all the character of Nobbs was very original. It is not someone that you have seen before. There is something very odd about the little man. He might even look a little feminine to you but not so feminine that you would say, 'Oh, that is not a man.' That is the peculiar person that he is.”
Originally, the film was to be directed by Hungarian István Szabó in the early 2000s but the financing had fallen apart. “Our script really went back to George Moore's original turn-of-the century story,” García explains. “The play was based on that short story but was more impressionistic. For the film, the story was developed with much more forward momentum.”
Like so many directors wanting to tell adult stories, García has worked extensively in television. He made his directing debut on an episode of The Sopranos, went on to direct episodes of Six Feet Under, Carnivàle, the pilots for Six Degrees and Big Love and he was show runner on In Treatment where he was credited for giving Mia Wasikowska her break. The Australian actress now plays Albert Nobbs' love interest, a maid who works at the Dublin hotel where he is the butler.
“When we first started doing the movie three years ago it was going to be Amanda Seyfried but when the financing finally came through, the dates didn't work for her. By then Mia was a little older so I was very happy that she agreed to do it.”
Previously, García had cast Melissa George in the pilot of In Treatment, “She was just terrific,” while Naomi Watts (who was introduced to him by Alejandro González Iñárritu) went to places she had never ventured before in his 2009 gem, Mother and Child.
“I enjoy Australian actresses,” García enthuses. “I have to say I think the Mexicans and the Australians mix very well. Australians have this naughty sense of humour and they don't take themselves too seriously. You certainly can't be Australian or Mexican and be too pretentious because it just doesn't fly.”
He easily connected with the Irish (cast members include Brendan Gleeson and Jonathan Rhys Meyers) in Dublin too. “Again, like the Mexicans, the Irish have a very self-deprecating sense of humour. We were shooting there just at the beginning of their economic downturn, so there was some sadness and some black humour about that. I hadn't spent much time in Ireland before, but I've been steeped in Irish literature and I had my own vision, my own imagination about Ireland and the Irish. I really enjoyed working there – although I have to say, the summer is kinder than the winter!”