One of the many arresting images in the current Broadway production of Mary Stuart is Janet McTeer as the title character, Mary Queen of Scots standing center-stage surrounded by six men in modern-day business suits. Although she’s a prisoner, garbed in a plain period dress, and they are royal courtiers, McTeer’s Mary is by far the most powerful person on the stage. “Regal” doesn’t begin to describe the 6’ 1” British actress, known to Broadway audiences for her Tony Award-winning performance as Nora in the 1997 revival of Ibsen’s A Doll’s House. Since then, McTeer has nabbed a Best Actress Oscar nomination for Tumbleweeds, in which she assumed a spot-on Southern accent, and continued winning raves on the London stage for productions ranging from God of Carnage in the role Marcia Gay Harden is playing on Broadway to an all-female Taming of the Shrew as Petruchio. Chatting during previews in her stage-side dressing room at the Broadhurst Theatre, the 47-year-old actress brushed away talk of theatrical awards and spoke generously about the other Broadway shows she’s been devouring since arriving in New York.
What’s it like to do Mary Stuart on Broadway four years after your London run?
It’s going incredibly well. I don’t think I’ve ever worked with a cast that is (a) so good and (b) so gorgeous [laughs]. We’ve got new people and new relationships, so it’s a completely different experience.
Elizabeth is a bigger part than Mary. Why did you choose to play the title role?
Two reasons really. They’re both sensational parts, but I thought, “In 10 years’ time I’ll be too old to play Mary, so I might as well do it now.” Also, if you’re lucky enough to be a leading actress, you hardly ever get to work with other actresses you admire. Either you’re playing the Duchess of Malfi or they are. So this was a chance, if I played Mary, to get to work with Harriet [Walter as Elizabeth], one of the actresses I had looked up to for a very long time.
What’s the appeal of Mary Stuart for a modern audience?
It’s more than a historical drama, it’s a mammoth, tense thriller about the politics of being in prison, who’s going to do what to whom, and whether Mary can free herself. Instead of pulling out the differences between Elizabeth and Mary in this production, we’ve tried to pull out the similarities. I start out in short hair and a black frock, and Elizabeth ends up in short hair and a black frock. She starts out glamorous and I end up glamorous—the idea being that although I lose the political power struggle and she wins, personally speaking, I win and she loses. Even though it’s a classical play, it’s very exciting and very modern.
You’ve done several productions with director Phyllida Lloyd. Why do you work well together?
As friends, we have very similar tastes in what we enjoy seeing [onstage]. We’re sort of classical avant-gardists; we like to shake it about and make it bit dangerous and a bit interesting, not necessarily doing things in a very traditional manner. We like to create theater that we would personally go and see, so when ideas are being chucked about, we’re on the same imaginative page.
There are so many interesting concepts in this production, such as having the queens in period dress and the men in modern dress.
That was Phyllida’s idea, bearing in mind that at the Donmar [Warehouse, where the production began] we had about 72 pence to spend; we couldn’t have done it with everyone in period costume even if we’d wanted to. The women need to be iconic. They need to exist in their time, but putting the men in suits makes it modern. Men in suits have been putting pressure on leaders since time immemorial. They look so isolated, these women, and yet they’re the rulers.
And the stage is sea of black—costumes, backdrops, everything.
That was the idea of our wonderful designer, Anthony Ward. The Donmar is a tiny studio theater, about twice the size of this dressing room, so it had to be something simple. We wanted to do it with minimal glamour; we had a black wall and a bench. When we took the play to the West End, we didn’t want to change it. We loved it.
You play a lengthy scene in the pouring rain. Is that difficult?
It’s incredibly tough.
I read that you wear a wetsuit under your dress. Do you get hot?
No, because the rain is quite cold. The wetsuit keeps my body warm, so I don’t get chilled.
You’ve worked steadily in London’s West End. Is there something different about performing on Broadway?
Yes, there’s something about the concentration of all the theaters in a relatively small space that gives Broadway a lot of energy. That’s always very exciting. A lot of times in England, you go into the West End after you’ve been somewhere like the National, whereas lot of Broadway productions are commercial productions, which makes it scary. It’s harder to be dangerous and avant-garde because you’re taking a lot more risks with a lot more people’s money.
We’re about to enter the busy theater awards season. Have you prepared Harriet Walter for what that’s like?
To be honest, it hasn’t crossed my brain. We’d quite like to just get on with the play and not think about it [laughs]. I find awards embarrassing and odd.
You didn’t enjoy the hoopla when you won the Tony for A Doll’s House?
Oh, of course I did. I’d be a liar to say that I didn’t. The theater community here is hugely welcoming and fun and pleasant, and I enjoy that very much. The great thing about awards season is that you get to meet a lot of nice people and have a nice time. The difficult part is the award event itself. But I get told off for curtain calls, as well. I find curtain calls terribly difficult.
I don’t know. I suppose because I’m well known for being very private. I’m not very good at being myself in public; I like being other people in public. So I find things like awards ceremonies and curtain calls hard. I keep getting notes: “Smile more. Look at everybody.” I just find it difficult to go out and beam at an audience. I think, “They might have hated me. Why should I smile at them?” I just want to say politely, “Thank you for coming,” and get off the stage as fast as I can.
And yet you obviously feel perfectly at home on the stage.
Yes, absolutely. I have a lot of confidence on the stage. I feel, “This is what we’re doing, and we’d love to have you come and watch.” Not, “Oh my god, oh my god, I’m up here and I have to perform for you.” I don’t have any stage fright. It’s a huge challenge, but it doesn’t scare me. I love it.
Were you and Harriet up against each other for London’s theater awards when you did Mary Stuart?
We were, yeah, and we totally canceled each other out. So if we’re up for anything here, we’ll probably get canceled out as well. I think you have to take awards with a bucket of salt. Otherwise you’ll care about them, and you can’t—you just have to care about doing your job.
A Doll’s House led to the movie Tumbleweeds, and a Best Actress Oscar nomination. At that point, did you think about staying in America and trying for a high-profile career here, or maybe a TV series?
No, I really didn’t. I had a lovely time for a while, and then it was time to go home. I didn’t want to live in L.A.; I didn’t want to do a television series here. I did a few independent movies, but I have a very nice house and garden, and I just missed everybody and wanted to go home.
The whole notion of “stardom” is different in England, isn’t it?
Very different. If you want great kudos, you get them in the theater. I’ve done quite a bit of really nice television in the past few years, and a couple of films for HBO. I have one coming out soon called Into the Storm about Winston Churchill and his life during the war years. I play his wife, Clemmie, and Brendan Gleeson plays Churchill. He is absolutely genius, this huge Irishman playing an upper-class Victorian Brit. I’m able to pick and choose my jobs, which is very rare; I’ve gotten to do the roles I’ve wanted to do and gotten the respect I dreamed of getting. As long as good work is coming my way, I’m really happy.
Can you ever do an interview without the subject of your height coming up?
In England, they’ve gotten bored with it; they’re used to it now. When I was very young, I thought it would be a disadvantage, and it really hasn’t been. It’s been a huge advantage because it makes you different, it makes you powerful, and all those things are really great.
At what age were you six feet tall?
I didn’t hit six foot until I was almost 18, and by that time I loved it. I grew very quickly when I was about 14 and I hated it. But within six months I decided I loved it and I’ve loved it ever since.
Have you ever dated anyone who’s short?
Oh yeah. My ex-boyfriend was much shorter than me, and it never bothered us. The only men it bothers are the ones who are about half an inch shorter than me. The short guys and the tall guys love it; it’s only the ones who are just about your height who go, “No I’m taller than you! I am!” [Laughs.]
It’s fascinating that you tried out for the Royal Academy of Dramatic Arts and other London drama schools with no background in performing.
None at all. I wanted to go to university and study literature or languages. I’d done one play when I was about 12, then I got a job at 16 selling coffee at the theater in my local town [York] and saw all the plays. I remember walking in and thinking, “This is my home. This is where I belong.” So I decided to become an actor, because I thought, “If I don’t give it a go, I’ll regret it.” I had two fantastic English teachers who gave me a couple of speeches and I went down [to London], went everywhere and got in—having been onstage once.
Did you decide at some point to concentrate on your theatrical career rather than having a family?
Not at all. I just put one foot in front of the other; I sort of follow life where it takes me. If I woke up next week and decided I didn’t want to do this anymore, I’d do something else. I’ve never had a big plan. For example, I decided to take six months off after an incredibly busy time because I was exhausted. And I thought, “Well, I’m either going to become an alcoholic or I’m going to do something else—it’s about time I do something with that huge garden I have.” So I started gardening, and got completely hooked overnight. I thought, “Maybe I’ll give up acting and become a landscape gardener.” That lasted about 10 minutes. Because I realized I didn’t want to give up acting. My life just unfolds as it happens.
You went to the Broadway opening of God of Carnage, a play you did in London last spring. What did you think?
I loved it! I thought it was such good fun. It was strange to watch it and think, “I know what’s going to happen.” But I thought they were all brilliant, and the play translated so well in an American world.
Do you enjoy seeing theater here?
Oh, I want to see absolutely everything. I managed to see Next to Normal on a Sunday night, which I thought was wonderful. Within two minutes I was in love with the entire cast. I went to see South Pacific, which was great fun. I went to see John Leguizamo try out some stuff, because I am completely in love with him. He’s a genius. I want to see my tall friend Allison Janney in 9 to 5 if I can possibly find a time. And there are a few Brits over doing The Norman Conquests, which I might be able to see on a Sunday evening. I saw Jane Fonda [in 33 Variations], and she was fantastic. I went to opening night, and I was thinking, “Christ, you haven’t been on a stage in 46 years!” I was sending out as many good vibes as I possibly could because I know how I would feel if I hadn’t been on stage and my name was Jane Fonda. I’d be a little bloody nervous, but she’s as calm as a cucumber.
It’s lovely that you root for the success of other actors.
Shit yeah! We’re all in the same boat. I want them to be brilliant. I’m not competitive at all. I don’t see the point, which is why awards make me uncomfortable. I wish everything I’ve seen could win lots of Tonys!
See Janet McTeer in Mary Stuart at the Broadhurst Theatre.