Janet McTeer is barely recognizable in the role for which she’s been nominated for a Best Supporting Actress Oscar, playing a woman passing as a man in nineteenth-century Dublin in Albert Nobbs. (Her co-star, Glenn Close, is up for Best Actress, also for playing a disguised woman.) This isn’t McTeer’s first nomination — she was previously nominated for Best Actress for 1999’s Tumbleweeds — and it isn’t her first gender-bending role (Gertrude Lawrence in Daphne, Vita Sackville-West in Portrait of a Marriage). But the Nobbs nod is helping American audiences rediscover her, just as she’s about to hit theaters and TV screens in two new roles. Vulture checked in with McTeer about playing a man and flashing her breasts in Nobbs, acting possessed in the upcoming Daniel Radcliffe horror film A Woman in Black (in theaters Friday), and getting giggly on the next season of Damages.
Congratulations on the Oscar nomination!
Thanks! I was sitting on the couch to do the Today show when I found out, sitting in the green room, and I was kind of surprised. I didn’t think I was going to make it into the category. I just had my beady eyes on the television, and when Glenn [Close] was announced as well, I was very happy. By the time I had finished my day, I was completely exhausted, so we had a low-key celebration; my husband and I drank Champagne, ate cheesecake, and watched Downton Abbey. It doesn’t get better than that.
It seems like female actors who do male impersonations have a better chance at the Oscar: Linda Hunt for The Year of Living Dangerously, Gwyneth Paltrow for Shakespeare in Love, even Hilary Swank for Boys Don’t Cry, which beat both you and Meryl Streep that year …
That’s very funny — I hadn’t noticed that trend. I hadn’t thought about that. But I still don’t think it’s in the bag. I don’t have any assumptions that I would win, so if I do, I’ll just have to wing it. But I might wear a tux, just to increase my chances! [Laughs.]
To play Hubert, you were emulating Brendan Gleeson and Liam Neeson?
They were my two muses. They’ve got that Viking blood in them, while being very Irish. They’re big Irish Viking men, so I wanted that sense of being very big and taking up a lot of space, while being warm and having a cheeky character. I was copying Brendan on set, but I don’t think he knew it. Liam has this barrel chest and a real sense of confidence, the way he holds his weight. I couldn’t dream of competing with him in real life!
Usually when a woman impersonates a man, she binds and flattens her breasts. You didn’t do that, so how did you camouflage your chest?
It required an awful lot of padding, on my shoulders and arms, to batten down the hatches.
Well, it worked — it’s the best use of nudity in a period picture.
Can you imagine there being an Oscar for that? That would be funny.
Hubert wouldn’t have called himself/herself a lesbian — the term didn’t really exist then.
That’s one of the reasons I loved the script and the film — it takes place in a time before labels. As soon as you label yourself, you’re limiting and defining yourself. Hubert wouldn’t define himself as a cross-dresser, a lesbian, a transvestite. He might be all of those things, but if he were to describe himself, he might say, “I like wearing black.” He would just define himself as Hubert. And that’s a wonderfully freeing way to live. It’s like when Hubert said to Albert, “If you find someone to love … ” She doesn’t say, “Go find her,” or “Go find him.” She just sees Albert as a decent human being.
You reteam with Glenn Close on the next season of Damages. Do you ever break into Hubert and Albert mode?
[Laughs.] We slip into it a little bit for fun on the set. We giggle the whole time, because it’s really strange for our characters to talk that way, and then we get over it. My character Kate Franklin used to work with Patty Hewes, but I don’t want to work with Patty now; she’s the kind of person who might try to kill you when she’s working with you. Wasn’t that brilliant when she tried to kill Ellen in the first season?
Hubert is a painter, and your character in A Woman in Black is also artistic — if you count her eerie knife etchings on the dining-room table.
That’s a stretch! But as far as characters go, she is quite bonkers. When you’re doing a scene like that, you try so hard to hit just the right tone: You keep pushing a little farther, and once you’ve gone too far, then you back off a bit. You start off where you seem sane and normal, and then two and a half minutes in, you’re off your rocker.