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For someone who isn’t a drag performer, Janet McTeer has enjoyed an awful lot of success playing men. Or at least playing women playing men.
She received an Oscar nomination for her supporting role in the 2011 film Albert Nobbs as a woman in late 19th century Ireland who adopted a masculine identity to escape her abusive husband. And she garnered critical raves with her exuberant performance as the swaggering Petruchio, wooing Cush Jumbo’s Kate, in Phyllida Lloyd’s 2016 all-female staging of Shakespeare’s The Taming of the Shrew.
McTeer, 57, won a Tony Award for her performance as Nora in the 1997 revival of Ibsen’s A Doll’s House. Now she’s back on Broadway in yet another turn in which she gets to wear pants, or at least tights. She stars in Bernhardt/Hamlet, the new play by Theresa Rebeck (Seminar, Mauritius) about legendary actress Sarah Bernhardt creating a sensation when she took on the role of Hamlet in 1899 in Paris and London.
Funnily enough, it won’t even be the last time this season that a great British actress takes on a male Shakespearean part. Next spring, Glenda Jackson will be returning to Broadway in the title role of King Lear, which she played to tremendous acclaim in London.
McTeer, who can be seen on Netflix’s Jessica Jones and Ozark, as well as the new Facebook Watch series Sorry for Your Loss, sat down with The Hollywood Reporter to chat about the Roundabout Theatre Company’s world premiere production of Bernhard/Hamlet, which is currently in previews ahead of a Sept. 25 official opening.
With this play and your turn as Petruchio in the 2016 Central Park production of The Taming of the Shrew, you’ve now played more male Shakespearean characters on New York stages than female ones.
You’re totally right! (Laughs). That’s very funny!
I take it that wasn’t by design?
No, that’s just the way it worked out. You’re the only one that’s noticed!
After so much commentary about the lack of representation of women playwrights on Broadway, Bernhardt/Hamlet is the second play to open this season and both were written by women. The other was Young Jean Lee’s Straight White Men.
Let’s keep that trend going. We like that!
Do you think this play has a particular resonance now in light of the #MeToo movement and other recent events? At the performance I saw, several of your lines about female empowerment were greeted with cheers from the audience. Were you expecting that?
I think the rest of the cast was expecting that. I wasn’t. But it’s a really lovely thing. I think, specifically at the moment, the idea of women stepping into their own power and not having to pretend that they’re less than they are in any way, shape or form is important. Standing up for themselves and saying, “Me too.” “Me too” doesn’t just mean “I was hurt, as well.” It also means, “Me too, I’m as good as you, pay attention to me.” And I think the play does that.
Did you know much about Sarah Bernhardt before you were offered the role?
I did, as a matter of fact. Partly because I’m European, and she was a much bigger star in Europe than she probably was over here. I don’t think she’s in people’s imaginative world here the way she is in Europe. I had read a book about her playing Hamlet many years ago, someone sent it to me. And I read Bob Gottlieb’s book about her. So, I knew about her. But nowhere near as much as I do now!
It’s probably a good thing that most Americans don’t know what she looked like, because you’ve got 8 inches in height on her.
I think I have about 12 inches on her, actually. And a lot more shoulder and chest. But I have to say, that was very freeing. Because she was very short, she was very skinny, at least in her younger years. She looked so spectacularly different from me that there’s nothing you can do about. So I didn’t even have to try to look like her. Because I can’t. All I can do is try and embody her spirit and try to bring a fully rounded human being and not a pastiche to the stage.
Is Hamlet a role you would like to play for real?
I don’t know if I would like to play it now. I definitely did at one point. It’s such an extraordinary role. But for me the play is about grief, it’s about depression. I can’t imagine how harrowing it must be to play it. I learned all of the big speeches during the summer. I thought I’d get them under my belt in preparation for this. Just so I could really draw on them imaginatively. There’s a part of me that would love to give it a go, like for 10 performances. I can’t imagine doing it eight times a week. I mean, kill me now!
Are there any other male Shakespearean parts you would like to tackle?
I wouldn’t mind playing Richard III. I wouldn’t mind playing Iago. I never wanted to play Henry V. Way too butch. Maybe Coriolanus. And maybe Lear, eventually. When everyone’s forgotten how magnificent Glenda Jackson was (laughs). I can’t imagine how exhausting that one is!
You’ve done three New York stage productions in as many years. Prior to that there were long gaps. Is that because you’re now living in the United States?
Yes, I just didn’t want to be away from my family. But we now live in Maine. The travel is a lot easier. And to be honest, all of the runs have been relatively short.
You had another cross-dressing success with the film Albert Nobbs, for which you were nominated for an Oscar.
Yes, I’m good at cross-dressing!
Do you think that’s partly because of your stature? I mean your height, not your reputation.
(Laughs.) Yes, I think it’s partly to do with my height, partly to do with my voice, partly to do with my energy. I’m very female, but I’m also very male. I’m an alpha female, I guess. So I find it just as easy to butch up as feminine up.
You’re currently being seen in not one but two Netflix series, Ozark and Jessica Jones, as well as a new show on Facebook Watch, Sorry for Your Loss.
Yeah, I’m just everywhere these days. You can’t escape me!
Is that the future for actors?
It’s just great. People can bitch and moan about a streaming society, but the world we live in keeps changing. There are so many more opportunities for great writing. I’m currently obsessed with The Looming Tower, which my friend Jeff Daniels is in. Now that I’m doing the play and trying not to talk in the mornings, I binge-watch episodes. I’m sure that we’ll all soon be sitting in our living rooms with big glasses on and being in the movies. Whether people will still go to the movies, I don’t know.
Do you know your next project after the play finishes its limited run?
I really don’t! Isn’t that funny? I’m so old now that I’ve learned to not worry about it, just let things land. They always do.
Bernhard/Hamlet runs at the American Airlines Theatre in New York through Sunday, Nov. 11.
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