‘Being an older woman portraying sexuality? I literally never think about it’: Janet McTeer on Phaedra and avoiding fame
Janet McTeer lives in the woods of Maine. This is a fact. It’s also, in a way, a mantra – a “don’t look at me”-style shrug from a two-time Oscar nominee who has somehow managed to circumnavigate fame and industry chatter. Case in point: recently, a flurry of films and TV shows about women over the age of 50 have dominated the mainstream, from Good Luck to You, Leo Grande to Happy Valley; actors such as Jennifer Coolidge and Michelle Yeoh have won awards. It might seem like McTeer, 61, is part of the wave: the star of Albert Nobbs and The Menu is about to play Phaedra at the National Theatre, the story of an older woman undone by her own desire. Except... she is blissfully unaware of this so-called trend because she lives in the woods of Maine for a reason. “And one of those reasons is to avoid thinking about things like that,” she says, frankly, with a smile. “In terms of being an older woman portraying sexuality – it’s literally not something I ever think about.”
McTeer is sitting opposite me in one of the National’s many warren-like rooms, toting thick black spectacles and a wicker bag. She is a straight talker; my questions are answered with good grace. That she can be here today is because her stepson has now gone to university, making her “a very happy empty-nester”. (She left London 15 years ago after her husband, the poet Joseph Coleman, watched her in Mary Stuart on Broadway and “sensibly fell in love with me”.) Now she will play the title role in a new Simon Stone production of the Greek myth variously told by Euripides, Seneca and Racine: Phaedra, the wife of the king Theseus, who falls in love with Hippolytus – her stepson. I promise McTeer I’m not going to make any lame jokes about stepsons, but she says they’ve changed that bit anyway. “When Simon first asked me to do it, I remember saying, ‘Ohhh. Uggghh. Stepson. Weird’.”
That’s what Stone, the writer and director of the 2016 smash hit Yerma starring Billie Piper, does – makes old, weird stories feel naturalistic and contemporary. Perhaps it helps that he writes the script as rehearsals unfold. Scenes come out of discussions between the cast and the director, the actors “throw it around” and then he puts it on paper. The cast only got the final 10 pages the night before I talk to McTeer – the first public preview is six days away. But if anyone can make it work, it’s McTeer, who has often compared acting to “jazz”. Her major breakthrough came with a performance as Nora in A Doll’s House in 1997; it won her an Olivier and a Tony, and was described by Alan Rickman in his diaries as “one of the finest performances I have ever seen. Not a generalised moment, not a dishonest second.”
Two years later came her first Oscar nod for Sundance darling Tumbleweeds, where she played a single mother with a peripatetic lifestyle. Since then, McTeer has built an eclectic body of work, seemingly according to what suits her own life and own tastes. There have been more Tony nominations – for Friedrich Schiller’s Mary Stuart and Theresa Rebeck’s Bernhardt/Hamlet. A sprinkling of British dramas, from Sally Wainwright’s The Amazing Mrs Pritchard to a 2008 Sense and Sensibility. And more recent work with streamers, from Ozark and Jessica Jones to Netflix’s forthcoming fantasy Kaos. Her performance in Mark Mylod’s celebrity-chef horror comedy The Menu, as hifalutin food critic Lillian, was one of the best things about the film.
Critics often credit McTeer with “elevating” things. At 6ft 1in, she carries herself with regal poise, and has a disarming charm that takes you into her confidence. Her accent is transatlantic, sometimes slipping into a slight American twang, occasionally giving just a hint of the North East (she was born in Newcastle and went to school in York). Tall she may be, but her humour is impish. “I’m quite flippant, you can probably tell,” she says at one point. At the end of the interview, she finds pictures on her phone of a deleted scene from The Menu, where her character is waterboarded with split emulsion. “I’ve got a picture somewhere of me being waterboarded... it’s absolutely hysterical,” she tells me. In the lift on the way out, I ask about Phaedra’s running time. “It’s eight hours,” she deadpans. “No, it’s six hours. Seven and a half hours.”
Stone’s way of making theatre suits her down to the ground – McTeer likes theatre that feels “dangerous”, the kind where “you feel like the audience are a bit like, ‘Oh s***, is it going wrong? Is it going right? Oh my God. What is happening?’” But... she only got the full script last night! How the hell is she meant to learn it? “You just work really hard, which is why I look like a raccoon. And you eat cake. This play is basically fuelled by cake. Mostly led by me.” In the last week, she estimates she’s learnt 25 pages of dialogue.
McTeer describes Phaedra, a role also taken on by Helen Mirren and Diana Rigg, as “one of the most vilified anti-heroines ever”. In part, perhaps, because she makes an accusation of rape. McTeer sees that as her “only real power at the time” but it’s another sticky plot point that’s been exorcised – in a post-MeToo landscape, it just felt too distracting. Instead, the company looked for “a modern woman’s version of that”. The cast are working with an intimacy coordinator, a recent industry development McTeer thinks is “an incredible addition, particularly for young people”. (She jokes about recently filming sex scenes with Jeff Goldblum, telling the intimacy coordinator: “it goes like this when you’re as old as we are: tell me which bits of yourself that you hate, and I’ll cover them”.)
“For me, what’s great about Phaedra, as a great anti-heroine, is to watch somebody who’s not particularly likable, who behaves badly, who entertains the worst side of herself when she is hurt,” McTeer explains. The audience might feel sympathy, even if they don’t have empathy. “If I can play her right, I would like to play her as awfully and badly as she is, and I would also like to play her with as much true depth of pain and humility and acknowledgement of her own awfulness.” The reality of life is that “certainly if you’ve lived as long as I have, you’ve seen fantastic people, wonderful people, behave appallingly when they’ve been dreadfully hurt,” she says, with some gravity. “Divorces, all of those things, people behave appallingly – and you’re shocked.” Ignore what people who have been divorced say to each other for the first two years, she advises – “it comes out of agony”.
Stone recently told one interviewer that he wanted to explore “postmenopausal women who feel eradicated”, whose “sexuality has been deleted from the public eye”. McTeer agrees the menopause is misunderstood – “if men had it, it would be all over the newspaper” – but these are not experiences she recognises herself. “I’ll happily talk to any woman who’s on their way there or in the middle of it, because I’m postmenopausal. But I never ever felt the thing that I think a lot of women feel, which is, ‘My femininity’s gone. My youth has gone’. I just thought, thank God for that, now I don’t have to waste two days a month having a migraine and feeling lousy. And, you know, not going into my personal sex life,” she laughs, “but it’s never been an issue as far as I’m concerned!”
She hasn’t felt that sense of loss in her career either, of good parts slipping away as she’s got older, something she puts down to having “made pretty good choices” and having always played “interesting, strong characters”. In fact, her attitude to her work as a whole is quite refreshing. “If I don’t enjoy myself,” she wonders, “what’s the point?” This means looking after herself, avoiding hangovers, because – she says this in almost a whisper – “This is my life. And I’m playing Phaedra in a Simon Stone production with an incredible cast.” She adds a quick PS. “That doesn’t mean in the middle of rehearsals, we didn’t all go out and have several martinis. We did! But that won’t happen again, for me anyway.”
I don’t think I had the kind of confidence that Hollywood needed
Not many actors have been able to enjoy an acclaimed career and avoid celebrity in the way McTeer has. She says there are people around her who would like her to take more on, “but it’s just not something that sits comfortably with me”. The way she thinks of it is “if it ain’t broke, don’t fix it. I’ve done great stuff. And I’ve got a great family, and I’ve got great friends. I’m very happy, when I’ve got time off, doing what I like doing, privately. And then when I do this, I’m full on.”
That explains why she recoiled when she received her first Oscar nomination in 1999. Asked about how she felt about it at the time, she replied: “Disappointed and very unsure about my future.” Talk to her now and it makes perfect sense: McTeer, who cares about making work for the work’s sake, was the plucky underdog, and suddenly everyone was telling her what she was going to do and who she was going to be. “People go, ‘Oh you’ve been nominated for an Oscar, so therefore this, and you’re going to become this’. And I just thought, I’m just not that. I’m not that person, I’m not going to get those kinds of roles, I’m not pretty in that kind of way. So I’m going to be here waiting to get interesting best friend roles. Whereas if I go home, I can be at home, and be into the work I really love doing. And so I went home.” Reflecting on it now, she asks herself: “Was that a bad move? Maybe. I dunno. That’s how I felt at the time. I don’t think I had the kind of confidence that Hollywood needed.”
Just over a decade later, McTeer was Oscar-nominated again for Albert Nobbs, playing a woman who lives as a man in 19th century Ireland. Given current conversations about whether straight actors should take LGBT+ roles, McTeer doesn’t think she’d be offered the part were the film to be made today. “And I think that would be pretty great. On the other hand, selfishly, I loved playing it.” She believes that “until there is a balance, until everything is truly equal, of course it should swing more in one direction”. But she’d also like to think that “we could get to a point in 50 years’ time when I could still play that role because it’s evened out”.
After all, the transformation is part of the thrill for McTeer. She takes her time with costume fittings, and it was a revelation to her when she realised her height could be woven into each role. “Your character can be embarrassed about how tall she is, or thrilled by it – because every character looks like you.” As a child, she was small, until she grew six inches between the ages of 13 and 14, something so painful she had to wear bandages. At first, she hated being tall. She tells me a story about teenage Janet, who burst into tears upon discovering, heartbroken, that she was taller than the boy she fancied. Her mum was out, and her dad – who passed away earlier this year – didn’t know what to do. “So he gave me a whisky and ginger and said, ‘Lie down on the couch and wait for your mum to come home’.” She laughs, twinkling like a fairy light at the memory. “And I remember very clearly thinking, you apologise for this, or you stand up and you say f*** ’em’.” Janet McTeer, everybody: she lives in the woods of Maine.
‘Phaedra’ is at the National Theatre until 8 April