The screenplay is based on the short story by Irish writer George Moore, and follows the life of Albert, a woman living her life as a man in order to earn a living wage in 19th century Ireland. Close is phenomenal as the fastidious, hard-working hotel servant Albert, who gains a new perspective on life upon meeting the self-assured and very masculine Hubert (Janet McTeer). Emboldened by Hubert's ability to snag a wife for herself, Albert sets her sights on a wife of her own, in the form of her young colleague Helen (Mia Wasikowska).
We sat down with Close during the Toronto Film Festival to discuss the process of bringing this fascinating character to life on the big screen -- and how she was able to transform herself into a woman pretending to be a man.
What was it about this story that initially resonated with you so strongly? In the stage version, it was very austere, very minimalist. It was just pure story and very focused on the psychology of the characters. It packed a huge emotional wallop. In theater, when something like that happens, you don't forget it. It worked as a story, it was a challenging character and it really left something with the audience. As the years went by, I started thinking if we could figure out how to do it, it could make a really powerful movie. But a very hard story to sell! [Laughs] Because I walk in and they say "You as a man? I don't want to see you as a man!" It was a long road.
How is it liberating as an actress to let go of being pretty? I've played a lot of roles where I haven't had to be pretty, so it's not something I spend a lot of time on. [Laughs] I find having to be pretty all the time really trying! [Laughs] It just came with the territory of the character. It was really important to us that the characters in the movie didn't look like idiots for thinking that these two characters were men. Because it's not Victor Victoria, or even Yentl. I'd had [a photo] of a face of this Albanian woman. [In Albanian culture], they have something called sworn virgins, where if their family doesn't have a male heir they designate a woman to live as a man. It came from National Geographic, I've had this photo for years. Without putting on a fake mustache, everybody knew she was a woman, but just the life of a man does something to her face.
So when we started testing and devising the makeup that was the challenge: What has happened to these women that they can disappear into these disguises or personas and have people believe that they're men? I think there are two things working: they're doing the work of men, and, for Albert, she's in a profession where you're not supposed to look people in the eye in the first place, so that's good for her, but for Hubert, in Janet's magnificent performance, it's a whole different proposition. Her nose was made to be broken because she had been a battered wife. Both of us have small ears so our ears were made bigger. It was all very fine-tuning and very subtle. It's just extraordinary how much it changes your face, not doing that much. But it took a long time to get to that place.
Women Who've Transformed For Movie Roles (Interview Continues After Slideshow...)
Can you talk about what sort of preparation you did to become the character within the character? I read a lot about what was expected of servants in the 19th century. [Guests] didn't see you, you didn't see them. Like the scene with Johnny Rhys Meyers and me setting the table, I'm not even there as far as he's concerned. Albert was existing and she was working. She really doesn't have much of an inner life. I think if she thought about anything, it was probably just about the details of her job -- now I have to polish shoes, now I have to deliver this tray. And counting her money. She's done that for 30 years and she's fine with it because she doesn't want to be in the poorhouse. It's only when she meets Hubert is when she starts looking up and her life shifts.
You were able to get an amazing cast for this, including Mia Wasikowska. What was it like working with her? Absolutely wonderful. She was a last-minute addition because an actress fell out and it was really kind of serendipitous for us. [Director] Rodrigo [Garcia] said how about Mia? He had discovered her. He brought her from Australia to America to do In Treatment, and was just devoted to her. And she loves Rodrigo. She said she'd do it without even reading the script. And she was just marvelous. Mia really inhabited that character in a way that I thought was so wonderful. She's a gifted photographer, too. She always has her camera, and on days when she wasn't working she'd show up and be taking pictures.
What was your favorite part of the entire process of bringing this to life? Oh, I had a lot of wonderful moments. I loved being the writer. I loved the days where we had to do rewrites, being in my Albert costume at my computer. I loved solving problems in production meetings because we couldn't afford to rent certain rooms. I loved the editing process.
I guess the part that was the hardest was just finding the money. We started filming this before all of the things were signed, so it was a bit cheeky. And look at the actors I was with! They're consummate craftsmen. Mark Williams, who played Sean the drunk servant, he had been one of my bumbling henchmen in the two Dalmatians movies with Hugh Laurie, who's now House! I wrote that part for Sean, because I knew as small a part it was, he would make every moment count. And he's just brilliant. You get people whose talent you have huge respect for and just let them loose with the material.
Your voice is so iconic, but in this film it's so different. Not just the accent but also the masculinity. Was that difficult? That was tricky, because we had to do an accent and a certain way of moving. The hardest trick for me as Albert was how much to show on my face at any given time. And then to think of the voice. I worked on the voice with our dialect coach. I felt that Albert would initially have tried to lower her voice purposefully to try to melt in better, and then it just became kind of second nature.