Spoilers below for Jessica Jones season two.
Unless you paid close attention to the credits of Jessica Jones season two, you’d be forgiven for not noticing that the superpowered killer who turns out to be Jessica’s mother is played by Janet McTeer. Over her 30 years in the industry, the English actress has made a habit of transformation, playing a road-tripping mother in Tumbleweeds, a fiery monarch in productions of Mary Stuart, and a swaggering cross-dressing painter in Albert Nobbs. (According to Glenn Close, when Brendan Gleeson ran into McTeer on the set of Albert Nobbs — just after playing her husband in another project — he had “no clue” who she was.)
For Jessica Jones, McTeer puts on an American accent and a long, ragged wig to play Alisa Jones, the year’s most unconventional TV mom. Talking to Vulture over the phone from her house in Maine, she explained just what drew her to this particular wig, and how her character’s arc changed at the very last minute.
You have a reputation as an actor who works only when you want to. What drew you to the world of Jessica Jones?
I was a bit, Oh, I’m not sure this is me. It wasn’t really my world. And then I watched the first season, which wasn’t what I imagined it was going to be. It was dark — superpowered people with superpowered problems. And then I spoke to Melissa [Rosenberg] and Raelle [Tucker], and I loved talking to them. I felt like they were women writing for my age, as opposed to some 20-year-old writing a version of “mom.” They were really delightful, collaborative, interesting women. I’ve been around a long time, and there’s stuff I haven’t done before that seems like it’s gonna be fun. I have to enjoy what I’m doing. If I don’t, then I’d be miserable.
They sent me a few scripts to read, and I thought, I can see why you thought I might be good for this role. She had to be very strong, she had to be someone who could match Jessica, and she had to be somebody who could also pull out a bit of mum stuff. What was great about the script was Krysten [Ritter] and I — because we film these episodes in sequence — we met as relative strangers and got to know each other as actors and as people as it went along, which I think fed into the story.
When you say it felt like they were writing for your age, what do you mean?
With great respect for a lot of young writers, I think if you write a figure that is “a mother,” all of the ordinary things come out. You either end up looking like you’re in an episode of Ab Fab or you end up like Betty Crocker cooking in the kitchen. But in the middle of that are real, complicated women who are usually in a really complicated time of their lives. It’s the busiest time of one’s life, and as Eleanor Roosevelt said, it’s the most fun. I believe that. There’s a certain area of wisdom that comes from having lived a life.
I felt like that came into play with the writing, that they were open to more complicated aspects of being a parent. She was originally written as somebody who was slightly more of “a mom.” But with the confidence of having been around a little bit, I said, let’s just get a whole bunch of clothes and try a whole bunch of things on until we find a fit. We ended up with something completely different than what was written on the page. We pushed it toward looking more like an old version of my daughter — the boots, the jeans, the T-shirts, the lack of anything mumsy-ish. You wouldn’t look at Alisa and think she knew how to bake a cupcake. I felt like it would be fun to have to work really hard to feel motherly, so we decided to play against that as much as possible. Which is how we ended up with that fabulous wig.
Yes, tell me more about that wig.
Originally, they wanted me to use my own hair, which is short and relatively blonde from something else I’d been doing. I felt like it had no threat in it, nothing scary about it. I just kept thinking, We’re going to see this woman do all these murders, and it would be fun to see something a little more unusual. I suggested that we try like 20 different wigs on, and we put on this long, shaggy wig and everybody went, “Yep, that’s the one.” It looks slightly dangerous, slightly ex-hippie, slightly like an older Jessica. Kind of like Patti Smith, whom I happen to love. And I wanted a bit of all of that.
This is another reason why they were so great: When we got two-thirds of the way through the season, we had a big conversation, because once she broke out of prison, she originally became this huge rage monster. They asked me about it and I said I felt like that wasn’t the right way to go with what we’d done. Krysten and I had brought a lot more love than was originally in the script. I also felt, I already killed lots of people in monstrous ways. What else could I do? They were completely in agreement, and that’s why we decided to rejiggle the end. It was more about grief; it was more about frustration; it was more about a growing realization that this wasn’t going to work. They totally rewrote the arc of the character for the last two episodes. That’s real collaboration.
She does kill a whole lot of people.
We had lots of conversations about this. At some point, she normalizes the fact that she’s killed people. The only thing I can relate that to in my imagination was if I was in a war. Genuinely, if I, Janet, were in the Second World War and had to kill some Nazis, how would I feel about that? The truth is, I’d probably feel dreadful, but you’d justify it to yourself because that’s what people had to do in the war. So to a certain extent, that’s how she justified it to herself.
Throughout the season, there’s this push-pull, where Alisa reaches out to Jessica emotionally, but often it’s when she wants Jessica to do things that will benefit Alisa in the moment. Is that real, or is it manipulation?
There’s a very fine line between manipulating and persuading. She believes what she says — “A child always needs their mother.” She’s going to fight to have her kid in her life again. Whether you call that manipulating or persuading — manipulating feels cold, it’s like a considered, cold-blooded kind of thing, whereas trying to persuade somebody has warmth and heart and love in it.
Similarly, do you think Alisa and Karl had real love, or was the power dynamic so one-sided to make that impossible?
I think she absolutely loved him. He started off with IGH, he was trying to do something good, then they took his work away from him. They’re disillusioned people. They’ve been living in a house by the old lake, where they never go out and they never see anybody. When you don’t actually know what’s going on in the world anymore, whatever is going on in your life just becomes massive. I think their relationship got skewed. She definitely needed him because there was nobody else who could even treat her, and he really did want to help her. He really liked her and she really liked him, and it just became an obvious relationship. When she realizes he’s dead, she’s absolutely devastated.
I’ve seen a few people say that Trish was the real villain of Jessica Jones season two. Do you agree?
I play Alisa, so obviously I think Trish is the bad guy.
Do you have to identify with your character like that?
You do and you don’t. You have to be able to see things from your character’s point of view, and you also, I think, have to be able to see the entire piece of the whole — like a jigsaw puzzle. At the end of the day, Trish is the bad guy who shoots the mom, but at the same time, she’s also the good guy because she’s doing it to rescue her friend. And yet, Trish has her own demons. She wants to have powers, which is ultimately selfish. I think what’s nice about the series is the idea that superpowers aren’t necessarily a great thing. It’s really hard to have a superpower unless you have a really together brain and a really happy life. Which we know Jessica hasn’t had and neither has Alisa.