TORONTO - If there's an amusing quality to Glenn Close's portrayal of an impoverished woman disguised as a man in the Victorian drama "Albert Nobbs," the Oscar-nominated star says there's a simple explanation.
Close took some of her biggest physical cues from Charlie Chaplin.
The silver screen veteran says part of her immersion into the oddly genderless persona of Nobbs — who loses all semblance of self after decades working as a meek hotel waiter — involved embracing the character's clueless sense of who she is.
"I studied Charlie Chaplin a lot because I thought that Albert has a clown-like quality to her," Close said when she brought the film to the Toronto International Film Festival last September.
"She has no knowledge of her body and her body is in the wrong clothes but they've become the right clothes. And so her pants are too long and the shoes were... long and almost clown-like."
Nobbs' black Derby, long black coat and high-collared white shirt (to disguise her lack of an Adam's apple) are all vintage pieces Close says she carefully picked during her decades-long efforts to bring the character to the big screen.
Close's remarkable transformation is further aided by delicate makeup effects from veteran artist and "CSI" guru Matthew Mungle — whom Close credits with achieving such finely tuned work she cried the first time she saw her made-up face, thinking, "'This will be possible.'"
For Close, "Albert Nobbs" has been a passion project stretching back nearly 30 years.
The "Damages" star says she was entranced by the gender-bending character when she starred in an off-Broadway adaptation of the short story "Albert Nobbs," by Irish author George Moore.
The year was 1982 and Close had yet to catapult to Hollywood's A-list with Oscar-nominated turns in "The World According to Garp" and "The Big Chill."
But she knew enough to believe the unusual tale of survival and repression in poverty-stricken Ireland would make a great film.
"I think there's a kind of a tradition of an innocent in a complex world (who) kind of puts a mirror in front of everybody," said Close, elegantly casual in skinny jeans, a navy blazer and flats for a day of interviews.
"What I also love about Albert is she has no self-pity, you know. She has total belief and no self pity. And that's an incredibly sympathetic kind of character."
Close is up for a best actress Oscar next month for her turn as the repressed Nobbs, while Mungle and his team are up for best makeup and co-star Janet McTeer is up for best supporting actress.
There's barely an aspect of "Albert Nobbs" that hasn't been directly shaped by the "Fatal Attraction" star. In addition to starring in the film, Close wrote, produced and co-wrote a song for the historical feature.
She also championed the idea while working on other film projects, scouted locations and personally wooed producers Bonnie Curtis and Julie Lynn (whom she met on her 2005 comic drama "The Chumbscrubber") and director Rodrigo Garcia (whom she recruited on 2005's "Nine Lives").
Close says she hopes audiences can relate to Nobbs' soul-crushing struggle to survive.
"For her it is an act of survival and that's why I think the story is really more about survival than it is about sexuality in a way," she says.
While Nobb's plight is an extreme one, she's surrounded by characters each wearing their own masks and struggling to break free of societal constraints — Jonathan Rhys Meyers' hard-partying viscount seems more interested in his male cohorts than his female companions, Brendan Gleeson's married doctor starts an illicit tryst with a co-worker while Mia Wasikowska's cheeky maid Helen is so desperate to escape her lot she takes up with a volatile handyman, played by Aaron Johnson.
Wasikowska, an Australian actress who landed her first U.S. role when Garcia cast her for "In Treatment," says she was impressed with Close's dedication to the project.
"She's a lot of fun and really lovely and just kind of makes you want to be better, and be a better actor when you're working opposite her," Wasikowska said during the festival.
"She definitely fights for what she wants and she just sort of owns the material."
In order to play the role, Close lowered her voice, mastered an accent and wore "a big heavy elastic band" to bind her chest.
She also investigated every nuance of Nobbs' tortured psyche to understand her sometimes painfully naive view of the world. She notes Nobbs was an illegitimate child raised by a woman paid to care for her and doesn't even know her real name.
Close added a dark backstory involving a vicious sexual assault that drives Nobbs deeper into a new identity at age 14.
Still, there's an inherent humour in the material, insists Close, circling back to Nobbs' clumsy attempts to find her place in the world.
"I've always thought it was funny, you know, that it has to be funny because it is," she says, adding that Nobbs' dream of better life is a universal one.
"I think there are a lot of people who feel isolated and powerless and hidden. And that's why I think a story like this has huge resonance because I think it's part of the human condition."
"Albert Nobbs" opens Friday.