Column: Janet McTeer was never the ingenue. She didn’t need to be
The following contains spoilers from Season 3 of “Ozark.”
Janet McTeer is one of those actors you’re always happy to see listed in the cast of anything. The sight of her name means that no matter how good/bad/indifferent the rest of the movie, TV show or play turns out to be, the bits that feature her will be terrific, so there’s something to look forward to.
For the record:
4:11 PM, Mar. 28, 2020An earlier version of this story misidentified Helen Pierce’s boss.
McTeer has, of course, headlined many projects, particularly in theater; among other accolades, she won pretty much every award a person can win for her portrayal of Nora in “A Doll’s House,” which originated in London in 1996 before moving to Broadway the following year.
But I do not get to London (or even New York) theater very often, so I was not aware of her wide-ranging fabulousness until, as a baby TV critic, I reviewed “The Amazing Mrs. Pritchard,” an underwhelming PBS miniseries saved only by the artistic strength of its cast.
Hand to God, the first time I saw McTeer enter, as some highly formidable British politician or other, I thought, “Who is this woman?” I was shocked to find that the answer included “the star of ‘Tumbleweeds,’ " which I had absolutely believed starred an American actress. That’s how good the accent was.
Since then, I have continued to miss her on stage, in productions of “Mary Stuart,” “God of Carnage,” “Les Liasons Dangereuses” and “Bernhardt/Hamlet.” (Seriously, after COVID-19 is sorted, I need to get out more.) I thrilled to her performances in film — please watch “Albert Nobbs” if you haven’t already — but my main source sustenance has come from television. “Into the Storm,” “Five Days,” “Damages,” “The White Queen,” “Parade’s End,” “The Honorable Woman,” “Jessica Jones,” “Sorry for Your Loss” and, most recently, “Ozark,” which just dropped its third season on Netflix. If you still need a reason to rejoice over the border-blowing explosion of American television, the increased availability of Janet McTeer performances should pretty much do it.
Janet McTeer has spent the last three decades with one foot in the screen and the other on the stage.
“In England, everyone goes from stage to film to television and there’s no stigma at all,” she says. “When I got here, I realized that didn’t happen, at least not at first, but now it’s changed. It’s been said before, but now TV is filled with great writing. And that’s all I’ve ever cared about.”
This interview was, in fact, originally scheduled to take place over lunch in Los Angeles, but McTeer, like much of the rest of the country, is holed up at home — in her case, in Maine. She had been filming on set in Baltimore for the upcoming Showtime series “The President Is Missing” when concerns over the pandemic shut production down.
“I was actually a bit worried about making it home,” she says. “But some of the makeup ladies said, ‘Don’t worry, we’ll lend you a car if you can’t get out.’ I’m very lucky,” she adds. “We live in the woods, so we’re always a bit isolated and we’ve got a gym in the basement. So it’s OK, just strange.”
The third season of “Ozark” was finished long before the virus hit the U.S. All except, of course, the publicity, which McTeer is clearly happy to shore up via phone. Even now, she considers herself “a working actor,” and she loves the show, which she says has been one of her best working experiences.
More important, to audiences anyway, Helen Pierce, the tough-as-nails cartel attorney she plays, has a bigger role this season.
Jason Bateman, America’s sweetheart, is the star, an executive producer and the director of nearly half the episodes of “Ozark,” a series premiering in its 10-episode first-season entirety Friday on Netflix.
Although she went from guest to regular in the second season, she says, she was also appearing in “Sorry for Your Loss”; its cancellation freed her up a bit, to the benefit of “Ozark.”
Helen resumes her story line in the most dramatic way possible — being water-boarded at the behest of her always ruthless and increasingly paranoid crime-lord boss. And though she has done many things in her wide-ranging career, this is the first time McTeer has played a victim of torture.
“When they sent me the script, I laughed out loud,” she says. “Because it’s perfect. She’s the mean one, the super-controlling one, and now she’s being controlled.”
She did not laugh, however, when it was suggested that a stuntwoman had been involved in the scene.
“Someone said, ‘Well, you didn’t really do that,’ and I was really cross,” she adds. “Because I absolutely did.”
The towel that was put over her face had cling film on it, she explains, so she could turn her face away from it, and one of her hands was out of the camera line so if she needed a break, she could double tap to stop the action.
“So I had one hand to struggle and flail and another to let them know if I needed to stop. And that happened a few times because we shot for about three hours,” she says. “It wasn’t easy. I got very cold, for one thing. But the crew was very nice and supportive and kept bringing me tea.”
McTeer ranks “Ozark” as one of the best working experiences she’s had. She and star Laura Linney shared a house along with a makeup artist, she says, “and it was great. We’re all in our 50s, with kids and families, and so we were all in the same boat.”
She prefers doing television and stage precisely because of that camaraderie. “I feel like it leads to better acting,” she says. “At least for me. I mean, some people can just show up and turn on for a day or two and that’s great. But I’m a slow-burn actor, and I like to feel like I’m in a company.”
McTeer says she came to acting “relatively late, 16 or 17” and then only through a series of events that sound a bit like a play themselves.
In high school, the bus stop for both the boys’ and girls’ schools was outside the York Theatre Royal, and students would mingle in its café. When McTeer need a part-time job, it seemed only natural she would work in the café, where she met a bunch of actors who then let her in to see some of the plays. She didn’t think she could be an actor — “I’m 6 feet tall, and I’ve never been what you would call conventionally pretty” — until she attended a performance of “She Stoops to Conquer”: “The lights went down and this excitement just welled up and I thought, ‘If I don’t have a go at this, I will regret it.’”
When she told some of the actors she had become friends with at the Theatre Royal, they laughed. “They nicely told me where I should apply, but their attitude was, ‘You’re this little 16-year-old. You don’t just suddenly decide you’re going to be an actor.’”
She laughs, remembering.
“Two of them were Gary Oldman and Michael Simkins, and I’ve worked with them since.”
She was not ever, as she has said, an obvious choice for ingénue roles, and, in fact, she never played one. But that turned out to be less of a problem than she imagined. “I thought it would be harder than it was,” she says. “I didn’t get any of those tiny, pretty roles, but there are still tons of roles out there.”
For her, the best characters are the most extreme, or, at least, the most removed from her own self. “I love doing period because it transports me,” she says. “When I do modern, I like to do the same thing — like Helen, who is very different from me. In ‘The President Is Missing,’ I play the White House chief of staff, which is amazing.
“Ten days ago, I was walking around the Senate,” she adds. “I took a picture of Nancy Pelosi’s office. She wasn’t there, but it says ‘Nancy Pelosi’s office’ on the door, and it’s one of my favorite pictures.”
The characters she plays often seep into her actual life as she plays them. When she was in Washington, she says, she noticed she was wearing a jacket and really nice pants.
“Sometimes I’ll follow someone who walks the way I think a character should walk. With Helen, we talked a lot about compartmentalizing. ‘Ozark’ is about how people deal with their families: How do you deal with bringing this illegal thing into your family?”
And sometimes, she says, she just walks through the woods, talking the part through. “That’s what I’ll be doing now, I guess,” she says. “But I’m a worker. I work at it.”
When: Any time
Rating: TV-MA (may be unsuitable for children under the age of 17)
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