Albert Nobbs is nothing less than a groundbreaking vision about crossgender and lesbian consciousness in 1890s Ireland. It has received richly deserved Oscar nominations for Glenn Close for Best Actress (who also co-wrote the superb screenplay), Janet McTeer for Best Supporting Actress, and Best Makeup (Martial Corneville, Lynn Johnson, and Matthew W. Mungle).
Close plays the title character, a woman living as male butler in Dublin. His life is jolted when he meets another woman living as a male house painter, Mr. Hubert Page (McTeer). An early sleepover between the two is absolutely hilarious.
Janet McTeer won the Golden Globe for Best Actress in a Motion Picture – Comedy/Musical for Tumbleweeds in 1999, for which she was also nominated for the Best Actress Oscar. She has also made her mark in well written historical roles that inquire into sex and gender, such as the 1995 film, Carrington and the 1990 BBC miniseries, Portrait of a Marriage. She can also be currently seen in at the movies in The Woman in Black with Daniel Radcliffe.
I recently spoke with McTeer about her marvelous performance in Albert Nobbs and the problem of attaching ourselves to labels.
JT: What did you do to transform and get into the role of Mr. Page?
JM: From the inside out I wanted Hubert to be everything that Albert wasn’t. I wanted Hubert to be confident, happy, at peace, fulfilled, engaged in the world – not disengaged with the world. I wanted Hubert to be everything that Hubert wanted to be. And so from that standpoint I tried to create all of those things in a character.
Given that that’s where I wanted to end up, I thought, well how does a woman get from beeing a battered wife to that place? And I created for myself a sort of back story of how that happened, how Hubert the battered wife became Hubert the painter. He would be a very confident kind of guy. He would be a very cheeky kind’ve guy. I tried to base it on various alpha male types that one has seen around – that kind’ve broad-chested strong striking kind of character. And that’s sort of what I wanted him to be. I got very large boots, quite alot of padding, and obviously hair and makeup.
JT: And that’s the outside in part of it?
JT: I was impressed with how this film shows how economic duress plays out in gender identity. Joe (Aaron Johnson), the repairman in love with Helen (Mia Wasikowska), a maid, turns out to be a really shabby individual, but my sympathy stayed with him through much of the film because we see how viciously he was treated by an upper class man of in an early scene. How one handles one’s economic level can bring out the best or the worst.
JM: I think it’s very easy to look at the film and say some of that is about sexuality and some of that is about gender. But actually it’s just as much about poverty as it is about anything else and what poverty does. Pauline Collins’s character turns into this incredibly greedy person, mean person, because she’s terrified of being poor.
You also have Brendan Gleeson’s character who is incredibly kind and lovely. I think it’s sort of postmodern to make a film with such issues and to make a fair-minded stance that some people are just really nice people and some horrible. People are people. And to a certain extent that’s what Hubert is. Someone who crosses both genders and both sexualities and then says, you know what, if you’re a really good person, get on with your life. If you want to find somebody to love you, find somebody who deserves you because you’re a really nice person.
JT: I first saw you in Carrington which boldy challenged assumptions about sexuality, gender, and traditional relationship structures. And you also garnered acclaim as Vita Sackville-West in the acclaimed mini-series Portrait of a Marriage. That book was important to many people who were interested in sexual nonconformity. I wonder if we sometimes get too attached to definitions. Some will see Mr. Page and his lady as butch/femme. Some will see Vita Sackville-West as lesbian or bisexual. Do we get too caught up in labels?
JM: We totally do. One of the reasons I love the film so much is that it lives in a time before labels. I loathe labels. They put people in boxes. I think they’re hateful. To be able to allow everyone to be unique and everyone, slightly different, is a really lovely thing. I know labels serve a purpose in certain ways and in many ways that’s very positive. But as a definition of character I don’t think they really do much.
JT: You trained at RADA (Royal Academy of Dramatic Art). That would have given you a rich historical sense implicitly. That sense comes through your work. The 19th and early 20th century gave us many of the templates that we still use in looking at gender and sexuality. Actually from Mary Wollstonecraft at the end of the 18th century to Oscar Wilde in the 1890s and thereafter the Bloomsbury Group. What are some of your thoughts on that?
JM: I think bizarrely enough and I know this sounds weird, but I think the Industrial Revolution was the start of everything in many ways. It opened up the possibility of other worlds to everyone. The idea that you could travel somewhere. The idea that newspapers arrived quickly. You found out about the world more. All kinds of things. The world was a very possible place and within that, once you think of any kind of possibility, it opens up the question of other possibities. And that’s why I think personally that that whole time was so rich and wonderful. And I think it was infinitely more creative and rich and wonderful with more possibilities than now. There was so much undiscovered and now there’s so much that is discovered.
JT: Albert Nobbs is about that possibility.
JM: Yes. Absolutely. In Europe, in England and Ireland, there was the idea that the class system should break down. This meant that if you were brought up as a maid and your mum was a maid, you were going to be a maid. But if you were lucky you’d marry (upward). The idea that you could think anything beyond that was extraordinary: the idea that you could go to America. The idea that there was anything else other than your very small world of possibilities. And as soon as you start questioning that, you start questioning everything.
Currently screening at area theaters.