Actors are supposed to be part chameleon as they move from role to role and nobody does that better than Janet McTeer.
The accomplished British actress has a Tony and Golden Globe under her belt as well as Academy Award nominations for her lead role in “Tumbleweeds” and as Hubert Page in “Albert Nobbs.”
But McTeer is also no stranger to television like “Damages” and last year’s “The White Queen,” so it’s no surprise we’re seeing her face more and more on the small screen playing interesting characters that line up nicely against those from her past.
McTeer sat down with me recently to talk her role alongside Maggie Gyllenhaal in “The Honorable Woman,” which premieres tonight on Sundance, as well as her part in the new CBS/Vince Gilligan drama “Battle Creek,” which stars Josh Duhamel and Dean Winters and the many gay and gender-bending roles she’s played throughout her career.
Talk to me about the psychology of Julia Walsh in ‘The Honorable Woman” and who this woman is to you.
Janet McTeer: She’s the head of the equivalent of the MI6 and she’s in a very powerful, very political position. She’s supposed to be apolitical obviously but it is a position that requires diplomacy and policy and it’s big politics. She is incredibly sharp and clear and intelligent. You have to be in order to do that job. But you realize as you go on that there is history with certain characters and with an intrigue with certain characters and that is explored as you go on. You also realize that she has vulnerabilities that you wouldn’t necessarily recognize with the pointy shoes and the witty one-liners at the beginning. It’s a very nicely-rounded character.
With Maggie's character, we get to see her at home and work. Do we get to do that with your character?
JM: No, no. I mean, in terms of the central home life it’s a story about Maggie’s character and then certain other characters are also at home with her, obviously. But no, my character and Stephen [Rea]’s characters, you see them a little bit outside of their work but as a little kind of sidebar story that leads into the main one of how messed up we all are.
Your character and Stephen’s seem to have a history that’s maybe a little prickly…
JM: I think so, a little prickly. Yeah, that would be a good observation. I have a lot of my stuff with Stephen Rea, who’s just delightful. He’s so much fun to act with. And we had fun playing opposite each other. Yeah, we have some lovely scenes together.
With the title “The Honorable Woman,” I know it could be about Maggie but it could also apply to a lot of other characters, like yours.
JM: It could be. It could be about not just that particular woman. It could be about all the women in it, that honor. What does honor mean? Who’s honorable? And if you’re honorable, are you really? What’s the definition of good?
Is there a thin line between kind of good and evil in the series?
JM: Yes, there is a very fine line. A very fine line.
Is that fun for you to play?
JM: Yes. I love it, I love it. It’s good fun. It’s great fun to play. Really good fun to get your head around.
Do you let characters go when a project ends, or do they kind of sit with you? Like, your "Albert Nobbs" character, for instance?
JM: No, they stay with you. Certain characters do, and some characters don’t. But then there are certain characters you really love as well, you know. Hubert Page was one, yeah, they stay.
From a viewer's perspective with "Albert Nobbs," you really disappeared into that role. I didn't even know at first that it was you!
JM: Yeah, it was really great, really good fun because a lot of what we do is, you’re playing. It is playing at make believe.
You realize you have a strong lesbian fan base from a lot of your gender bending roles, right?
They love you.
JM: Aw, that’s nice. Yeah, it’s good. I have played several gay women and the thing about Hubert Page, I always felt that Hubert was not somebody you could put your finger on. You couldn’t say that Hubert was a gay woman. You couldn’t say that he was a transsexual or a transgender or whatever. You couldn’t really say anything and that was the point. I wanted to create somebody who I didn’t feel was somebody you could label but that’s what it’s all about. And I guess it’s nice to play somebody who’s just an amazing person. And I don’t care what their breed, color, sexuality, whatever, you know?
One thing I noticed about this film, or this series, is the women in power are very feminine. Maggie's character, especially, has a sexual life. Is that important for you, when you're looking at a role like this? When you're in a powerful role, sometimes the personality gets all stripped away.
JM: They do. I think that’s great, that that seems to be coming round a little. Women are allowed to be powerful and still women. That’s nice. They’re not de-sexed. It’s good.
Do we see that in "Battle Creek" as well? I know you haven't done too much work on that yet.
JM: We might. I think we may very well.
Is it different for you, doing series work as opposed to film?
JM: Yeah, they’re clearly 100 percent, completely different. Doing a miniseries is like doing an extended film. It really isn’t any different from doing a film, really isn’t. The difference between doing miniseries and something like “Battle Creek” is that all 13 episodes haven’t been written by the time you start so you only know what you’re doing in episode one. And that is very, that’s a complete new thing.
Does it have you on fragile ground since you don’t know where you’re going or is that actually a good thing?
JM: I don’t know. I’ll tell you when I’ve finished episode two! It’s still kind of a work in progress but I do think as an actor, I think you’ve got to reinvent yourself every ten years. I think you’ve got to take on a new challenge. You’ve got to put your life in a different direction. I would be very bored if I was doing the exact same thing as I had been doing when I was 20. I’ve been doing this for nearly 30 years now. So, the idea of doing something that is completely in a new venue is great.
Any iconic plays or roles that you want to make sure you play in your life?
JM: I don’t know. There are so many great ones. Again, I tend to just think as moment to moment. I think what’s been a great joy for somebody like me is most of the parts that I could have played at the relevant age, I have done. There’s a couple I missed out but I’ve actually been so lucky. I played almost all of them. So, there’s a whole slew of ladies I haven’t played from my generation up. That’s to be explored.
"The Honorable Woman" airs Thursdays at 10pm on Sundance. "Battle Creek" will air in early 2015 on CBS.
The opinions expressed are solely those of the author and do not necessarily reflect the views of Comcast.
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