Britain’s Big-Time Sensation

The 6’1” Janet McTeer is a force of nature in HBO’s Into the Storm. She spoke with Rachel Syme about her height, aging in the theater, and female solidarity.

When Janet McTeer steps onto the red carpet of the Tony Awards next week, looking stunning—and she will—be reassured by this: It was hell to find the dress. It’s not that designers weren’t clamoring to clothe the Best Actress nominee (and 1997 winner), who earned the nod this year for her role as the sullied yet proud Mary Queen of Scots in the Broadway drama Mary Stuart. It’s that McTeer stands at 6’1’’, making her physical presence as formidable—and hard to contain—as her acting talent.

“I describe myself as Michael Phelps with tits,” she jokes, tucking into a plate of sautéed leeks at a Midtown brasserie. “I like vintage stuff, but at this height, finding dresses that are long enough means you have to get them specially made. And also, when you’re working as hard as I do, it gets to the point where the last thing I want to think about is what to wear. By end of the week, we’re almost completely dead; I’m working about 100 hours, eight shows a week, and I never miss one. It’s ridiculous!”

“Life as a woman is harder than life as a man, it just is, in every way it’s harder.”

Normally, listening to an actress cluck away about how hard she works is tiresome. We’ve all heard the humble gripes: The theater is a grind, movie sets are dreary and dragging, looking glamorous is actually a dirty job—but when McTeer talks about her schedule or styling woes, it is delightful. She has one of those raspy, world-weary, authoritative voices that belong to the best British actresses working today—Emma Thompson, Helen Mirren—making all of her little quibbles sound droll and conspiratorial. She is a force, in height and personality, even as she sits in jeans and no makeup; the kind of expressive woman that one might describe as “fierce,” if Tyra Banks and fashion reality shows hadn’t drained the word of all meaning.

That McTeer is a more obscure name than Mirren or Thompson in the United States is due to a few factors—she’s younger (47), and she has devoted most of her life’s work to the stage, appearing in countless London productions and A Doll’s House on Broadway, which resulted in her first Tony Award. She has done most of her television work in the U.K., appearing on BBC period dramas like Sense & Sensibility and Portrait of a Marriage. Her biggest screen role in the United States—as Mary Jo Walker, a mother constantly skipping town with her 12-year-old daughter, in the 1999 Sundance hit Tumbleweeds—earned McTeer an Oscar nomination and a Golden Globe win, but it is today, 10 years later, that McTeer’s career is finally hitting a fever pitch in New York.

This month especially, McTeer’s talent seems ubiquitous; the recent reviews of Mary Stuart have been phenomenal, she’s up for the Tony again, and this month, she stars as Clementine (Clemmie) Churchill, Winston’s loyal wife, in Into the Storm, an HBO miniseries focusing on Britain in WWII. The fact that McTeer can embody two of the most iconic women in U.K. history at once, and give them both completely separate treatments, is a testament to her skill—she even seems to be able to change her height with each role. McTeer’s Clemmie, as opposed to her booming misfit of a Queen Mary, appears meek and steadfast, happy to play second fiddle to her husband. “She came from a different generation,” McTeer says of Clemmie. “She believed very firmly in duty, in a good way—looking after him. She didn’t look for applause. She wasn’t a showy person. But he very much valued her opinion on everything. It was very much a partnership between them, a very good partnership.”

McTeer plays opposite Brendan Gleeson in Into the Storm, and on-screen, they are a magnificent, powerful pair. McTeer admits that off-screen, the duo are more playful: “Brendan and I text each other insults all day,” she says. “He’s a genius. Of course I’d never say that to his face. To his face I’d tell him he’s an asshole. But he’s wonderful, and he’s a gorgeous man, and a sensational actor, and as far as I am concerned there was absolutely no question that I would work with him on this.”

“I describe myself as Michael Phelps with tits.”

One gets the sense from talking to McTeer that though she towers above most of her peers and could very easily play the diva card given her prowess, the thing she really loves about acting is other actors; she craves the collaboration. “When I was very young I got work very quickly, and I think younger actresses were very jealous, and some of them were very mean. But I’m really not competitive,” she says. “Personally I adore other women, I think women are fantastic. I also adore men.”

Adoring other women is a strong statement in an industry where females seem to claw at each other for roles—roles that become increasingly rare with age. But McTeer has that air of grace about her, the feeling that she is more interested in grabbing hold of other actresses and tugging them upward with her, rather than keeping anyone down. At the Tonys, she will be up against Harriet Walter, her co-star in Mary Stuart, and she says that any rumors of a fighting spirit between the two women are completely false. “Harriet and I are up against each other, which is really boring,” she laughs. “We’re not very competitive—we’re really not. We don’t want each other to win over the other, because we’ve become great friends. It’s so bizarre, every time I’ve done an interview, people go, ‘So do you really get on? You know, because you don’t get on on stage!’ And we laugh, and I always think, surely you wouldn’t ask that of two fellows.”

It’s this assumed cattiness among women that McTeer finds so abhorrent in the entertainment world. “As soon as you’re in your 20s, you realize that some women, yes, can be really mean. After that, life starts to get a bit more complicated. And I think women tend to have a lot more compassion for each other as they get older. Maybe it’s because life as a woman is harder than life as a man. It just is, in every way it’s harder. It’s harder in the business, there are less parts, it’s harder on our bodies. As women get older they go, this is really tough and we’re all on the same page.”

It has certainly seemed like the season for grand dames on Broadway—not only are McTeer and Walter shining in Mary Stuart, but all over Times Square, women over 40 are dominating the shows. Jane Fonda, Marcia Gay Harden, Hope Davis, and Phylicia Rashad are all pulling weight. “We’re all having a ball!” says McTeer, “And we’re all incredibly supportive. I can’t think of anything nicer than being on the same surface as some of those fantastic women.”

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McTeer’s Mary Stuart is one of the most fantastic women you can see on stage this season, and it’s a role she seems destined to play. Born in Newcastle upon Tyne, England, she attended the Royal Academy of Dramatic Arts, and played classic British women, like Ellen Dean in Wuthering Heights and Vanessa Bell in the Victorian romance Carrington. McTeer says that she started playing quirky female characters because “I wasn’t pretty pretty.” She says: “In a way, it’s easier not to look like the standard ingénue way. To me, looks are always secondary. I never was going to get those sorts of roles on film, and so I just got on with it.”

But now, she is playing one history’s most notorious beauties, and McTeer’s portrayal of Mary (one she began playing on the West End in 2005) is refreshing and honest. She plays Mary as petulant and raw, locked up in a tower and driven to near madness, but solidly convinced of her innocence and rights to the crown. McTeer crows at and intimidates Elizabeth when they meet (an imagined event—the two may never have come face to face in real life), calling her a bastard and a whore, and all while soaking wet and standing in an artificial rain, soaked to the bones.

The costumes in the show put further emphasis on McTeer’s performance—all of the males are clothed in modern suits, while McTeer and Walter wear full Elizabethan garb, bustles and corsets and all, bound together by their gender. “We really wanted to point out the similarities in these women, not the differences, which is one of the reasons why we’re in frocks and the men are in suits. Because they are the same, essentially,” she says. “They’re these icons trapped in their time, trapped in the positions that they were born into. We wanted the women to be echoes of each other. At beginning I’ve got short hair and I’m wearing a black frock and I’m wrapped in a blanket with no makeup. At the end, Harriet’s got short hair, she’s in a black frock and she’s wrapped in a blanket; at the beginning, she’s all incredibly glamorous and all done up and at the end, I’m very glamorous and all done up. So we’ve completely swapped, and the idea is whoever’s won has lost, and whoever’s lost has won. So just heightening the personal cost of being a woman in those times. It cost so much.”

Indeed, the vision of McTeer in a blood-red velvet gown at the play’s close, as she heads to execution, is one of the most gripping images on Broadway—her size and strength really shine through in the dress. One can only hope her outfit for the Tonys will bring her the same amount of attention—and many more years of work. “I feel like you have to keep reinventing yourself,” she says. “It’s what keeps people young and healthy.”

Into the Storm premieres tonight, May 31, on HBO at 9 p.m. EST. Mary Stuart will run at the Broadhurst Theater through August 16, 2009.

Rachel Syme is culture editor of The Daily Beast.