Before Janet McTeer began performances as the coldly calculating Marquise de Merteuil in the current London revival of "Les Liaisons Dangereuses," she received a brief word of advice from "Albert Nobbs" costar Glenn Close, who played the marquise in the 1988 movie version, "Dangerous Liaisons."
"Bizarrely, she was in town during rehearsals. We had a giggle about how weird it was," McTeer recalled in a recent phone interview from London.
"Glenn is a friend. But like any good actress, she gave me room to explore the character. The only thing she said was, 'She's a survivor.'"
McTeer is starring with Dominic West in the new Donmar Warehouse production, directed by Josie Rourke, which will be shown in cinemas around the world starting Thursday. For West, who plays the Vicomte de Valmont, the timing of the production came down to the wire with the shooting of his Showtime drama series, "The Affair."
Speaking separately after a recent matinee performance, West said he had finished shooting the second season of "The Affair" in late October and was back in London for rehearsals in early November.
"I didn't have enough preparation as I'd like," he said. "Especially learning the lines. It's not ideal with a part this big. And it's so language-based.... It means I wasn't really ready on press night. But I am now and have been for a few weeks."
Playing 18th century French aristocrats who engage in games of sexual one-upmanship, the two actors don't spare words when describing the depravity of their characters.
"He's unquestionably cruel and unconscionably so," West said. "And he loves that. He's deliberately cruel and enjoys the sexual charge of cruelty."
At one point, Valmont deflowers a young woman at the request of the marquise to ruin an arranged marriage. Or, as West puts it: "He effectively rapes a 15-year-old girl. That's a difficult one to pull off and still have sympathy for him. One of the advantages of this production is that it's directed by a woman. I think that would have been different to do with a male director."
McTeer delivers one of the play's most famous lines, explaining why "cruelty," as opposed to "betrayal," is her favorite word: "I always think that has a nobler ring to it."
"If you judge a person by their actions, yes, she's cruel," said the two-time Oscar-nominated actress ("Albert Nobbs," "Tumbleweeds"). "I think she's a damaged person."
"Liaisons," written by Christopher Hampton from the epistolary novel by Pierre Choderlos de Laclos, was first performed 30 years ago in a Royal Shakespeare Company production starring Alan Rickman and Lindsay Duncan.
McTeer saw that production and said the death of Rickman this month was particularly painful.
"I've known Alan for a long time," she said. "He was always incredibly funny and delightful, and a great person of the theater and a great supporter of young people in particular.... It was completely bizarre doing this play after he died. There were a few difficult shows, let me tell you."
West never met Rickman, but he said that day "was very poignant. You feel an affinity for those who have done it before you."
The actor added that the 1988 movie, in which Close starred with John Malkovich, had made a big impression on him and that he avoided watching it in preparing for the new revival. "Every inflection of Malkovich, I remember," he said.
West described the escalating series of sexual dares between the marquise and Valmont, who are former lovers, as being male in nature: "It's competitive. They're going out into the world, [having sex], coming back and talking about it. It's quite masculine. Whenever I brought this up in rehearsals, the women in the room would roll their eyes."
But their sexual games soon turn into a war of the sexes with deadly consequences.
"I really approached it by asking, 'Why do people do what they do?'" McTeer said. "These two people start out having great fun and end up destroying each other. You don't kill the main person in your life for fun. You do it because the fun turned into something terrible. She destroys him in the end because she won't let him destroy her."
She added: "I think for want of a better phrase, both are sex addicts who can't get to intimacy."
For the actors, playing such nasty decadence can be exhilarating.
"What's great about the first half of the play is you're enjoying yourself," McTeer said.
"By the time you get to the end of the play, you're in a whole world of savagery. The fun is being able to do both things with the same actor. [Dominic] is a gentleman. Consequently, you can trust him. In the scenes that are very physical, you feel you can just go for it."