Oftentimes, high-quality work in smaller-budgeted films is less recognized come awards season than those films’ older brothers, the big-budget studio tentpoles. Case in point this year might be Albert Nobbs, both a period and foreign-produced film which manages to create a visceral world onto itself inside of an $8-million budget. This film is a triumph of costume and production design, cinematography, and direction, with its characters fully inhabiting 19th century Ireland. Not to be discounted among these crafts is the film’s makeup. In addition to the many period makeups on both men and women in the story, the production was tasked with believably altering the appearances of its two female leads to make them pass as men in a traditionally male working environment.
To execute these visages, star Glenn Close approached special makeup designer Matthew Mungle, already an Oscar winner for Bram Stoker’s Dracula and a nominee for Ghosts of Mississippi and Schindler’s List. “Glenn came to me about three-and-a-half years ago, in February of 2008,” he recalled. “She had the project and wanted to see if she could actually become Albert. I saw that she had a passion for it.”
With Close on the East Coast, the actress paid out-of-pocket for a face cast in New York. Mungle then did a makeup test, always the prerequisite for creating a unique makeup. He even did so for free at the time of the Writers’ strike that year. “It wasn’t anything like I thought it was,” Mungle said in his preparation for the test. “It was women living as men to lead a better life. Approaching it that way, I said that we should put a nose and earlobes on her to change her face shape slightly, and add dental plumper’s from inside to plump out her cheeks and lower jaw. I love subtle makeups, using subtle prosthetics like a nose working with the face from inside.”
Close cried at her own sight in the test makeup, but over two years passed before Mungle was contacted again. At first, producer Bonnie Curtis called him to say that they were shooting the film in Dublin and would find a London makeup artist, but a few months later, after meeting people in England, Close wanted Mungle back to do the film with her. By October of 2010, Mungle did a few modified tests on Close and co-star Janet McTeer, whose female character is also passing as a man in the film.
Finally, in December of 2010, Mungle flew to London to set the film up with makeup artist Lynn Johnston in Ireland. “She was the one I wanted to work on this show,” Mungle said of the nearly 20-year makeup veteran. “I showed her how to apply the appliances that I made for Glenn and Janet.”
As the titular star, for the 33-day shoot, Close worked in makeup for 31 of those days. McTeer’s character necessitated a full silicone nose and earlobes, dental plumpers, plus veneers for her upper teeth to make them slightly crooked. “She wanted her nose to be broken as if she had been in a previously bad relationship,” Mungle described. “We put very light brown contact lenses in and did a stipple makeup with age stipple on her cheeks to break up the texture of her face.”
For the final film, Close wore the dental plumpers, a nose tip with nostrils, and earlobes, a little larger than Mungle had originally designed. “When we were working with the ears in the October 2010 test, I suggested that we push her ears out slightly, so I made little plumpers to put behind her ears to push her ears out. She also wore upper and lower dental plumpers to push her cheeks out.” For both Close and McTeer’s characters, Martial Corneville created detailed wigs. “They were the best wigs I have ever seen in my 33 years in this industry,” Mungle said. “The transformation on both of them is pretty amazing.”
Mungle was in Dublin for a week-and-a-half setting up the film and only for a day and a half of filming before handing the film off to Johnston and the team in Ireland. “I knew when we started and we got into Dublin where they were shooting in a mansion that they made into the hotel, that it was going to be a great little film,” he noted. “Then, Aaron Johnson had joined the cast playing Joe, and Rodrigo Garcia, the director, said that his face was too pretty – we needed to rough him up a little bit. He asked what we could do, and I suggested a cauliflower ear, to mess his teeth up a little bit, and give him scars here and there. But I hadn’t brought any [equipment or materials] to make these things. So, I had the third makeup artist drive me around Dublin picking up the supplies I would need to sculpt the ear and make the pieces over a period of two days. We did the test and Rodrigo loved it. Then, I left the crew over there with all of my fabricated materials.”
Albert Nobbs will get a small release in the U.S. in December before going out wider on January 27. “Hopefully it will eventually get the audience,” Mungle said. Then, he reflected on his makeups in the film, notably Close. “As we all know, you can do the best makeup in the world, but it’s up to your actress to actually convey her emotions in that makeup. I am ecstatic with how Glenn looks on film.”