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Janet McTeer on Bernhardt/Hamlet and Whether She’d Ever Play Hamlet Herself

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Janet McTeer is currently everywhere: on Broadway, on Netflix, and even on Facebook. “You can’t miss me,” she laughs. “Turn around and you’ll see me somewhere.” An English actor known for her work on the stage in A Doll’s House and Mary Stuart, and for her film roles in Tumbleweeds and Albert Nobbs, McTeer has become an unlikely pioneer in streaming television. This year, she’s appeared in two Netflix shows — as a mysterious figure in Jessica Jones and an evil lawyer in Ozark — and also in Facebook Watch’s breakout drama Sorry for Your Loss.

Now, on Broadway in Theresa Rebeck’s Bernhardt/Hamlet, McTeer is playing a pioneer of a different sort, as the legendary French actress Sarah Bernhardt, who famously played Hamlet in 1899. Vulture caught up with McTeer to discuss how she found the time to play so many roles, and whether she’d ever try her hand at Hamlet herself.

In addition to being in Bernhardt/Hamlet, you’re in three television shows this year: Jessica Jones, Ozark, and Sorry for Your Loss. Was it a conscious decision to pursue all those projects? Or was it serendipity?
Mostly serendipity. I did Jessica Jones because a lot of women are involved, and then I did Ozark because I loved Laura [Linney], Jason [Batemen], and the show. Sorry for Your Loss came up after I started that one, so I tried to put the two together, which sometimes I like to do.

Like Jessica Jones, Sorry for Your Loss is also centered on these women’s stories, with Elizabeth Olsen and Kelly Marie Tran playing your daughters. Was that what got you interested in it?
Absolutely, absolutely. At one point, I was doing Ozark and I thought, “This is enough of flying back and forth to see my family,” and I wasn’t sure I wanted to do any more work. But when I got onboard with Lizzy and all these other wonderful people, I just thought, “These women are so cool!” Then there was about two months where I was on a plane every day, more or less. They were such great women and I didn’t want to not work with them.

Even if streaming TV is pretty new, Netflix has established itself as a major player in the industry. Did you feel any trepidation in making something for Facebook, which is much newer to the game?
I feel like in the current moment with streaming platforms, that’s where the majority of the work is. If you work on a qualified piece for bona fide people and they have good money to do all the right things, then to a certain extent, how exciting it is to be on a new platform, you know? It’s fun.

In Bernhardt/Hamlet, there’s so much about how Sarah Bernhardt would cultivate her own celebrity and project this air of mystery. I feel like that’s an interesting contrast to your career, since you don’t typically do a lot of press. Has the play gotten you thinking about how celebrity plays into an acting career?
I was thinking about that, how she courted celebrity and all that stuff. I found myself thinking, “I wonder whether she did?” I think it’s probably two things. One, she did it in the way that I don’t, and she needed it in a way that I don’t. Two, she’s incredibly clever in a world where there was really only newspapers.

If she was going to go on a tour of America and do a play, or tour in Paris or London or whatever, how was anyone going to know about it unless she turned herself into a celebrity? That’s like if I’m doing a play in London with no advance publicity, no social networking, nothing in the newspapers, nothing on the radio. I couldn’t do it. Nobody would know. Since there is none of that structure to advertise what you want to do, it’s in your own interest to go out and show up at a gala, make a big splash, and make a publicity event of it. I suppose if I was in that time, I’d probably have to do that too. My problem with publicity now is that everyone knows everything about everybody. You can’t be selective about it.

It is interesting how Sarah Bernhardt plays up the mystery of herself, sleeping in a coffin or doing sorts of things that were not really letting people into her psyche.
It’s a kind of hiding. I think she hid in all of that stuff. She created this persona that was her public self, but she suffered very bad stage fright. She had supposedly this immense energy, but would wear herself so thin that she’d get herself sick and have to lie down in a room in the dark for two weeks. She had a terrible childhood. There’s no one with a terrible childhood that isn’t scarred and doesn’t need love and affection, and I think she got it in different ways. She only ever married one man and he was a monster. To me, those are the relevant facts about the hole in herself.

That’s what you see as feeding into her need for performance, or for this relationship to the audience?
It was a little bit that, but I think the need for the relationship with the audience is the same one I have. You have a talent, you want to do it, you enjoy doing it, and it gives you great pleasure. It makes you feel like you have something to offer. I think of that in the same way that somebody sings, or paints, or dances. They feel they have that in their personality to offer, and it gives them and hopefully everyone else fulfillment.

One of the threads I found interesting is the question of whether or not she even is the right kind of actor to play Hamlet. Maybe it’s a role that doesn’t fit her dramatic talents.
Except she went on to do it and it was very successful.

But the experience of grappling with it does haunt her. You played a male role, Petruchio, in Shakespeare in the Park. Did you ask yourself those same sort of questions, of whether it’s the right kind of role, or if it would make sense on stage?
I had to approach it very differently, because when I was playing Petruchio, that was more modern. I was playing Keith Richards, basically, and that was a different swagger, a different kind of part.

Whereas with this, she was still playing a classical role and it was of a time. I personally firmly believe that Hamlet is an adolescent boy. That’s a lot of what we have in the play — Theresa and I had lots of conversations about that — so I feel like it’s a totally different take on the character. [Bernhardt] was also short, dark, and pretty. I’m not and never have been that, so there was a whole element of that mentality that I could not be, because obviously there’s nothing I can do about that. The only kind of latch-on I had was the curly wig, and to go, “All right, if she were me, what would be different? How would she try to tackle it with my personality?”

There’s a line where Bernhardt talks about how it’s frustrating, because male playwrights keep writing these ingenues that are below her, and below all women. Do you feel there are many ingenue parts below women performers?
Oh yeah, there’s a thousand of them. Even now in TV or film, you’ll see 15 guys with fabulous parts and there’s one part for a girl — she’s pretty, doesn’t have much to do, and has no real oomph in comparison to those other parts. There are several actresses who got all those young, pretty parts because they were young and pretty, and then taught themselves to be really good actors and became meatier and more oomph-y as they went along.

But I was never really an ingenue because I didn’t have that physicality. I didn’t have that energy. Then you look around and there really aren’t anywhere near as many fabulous options, or parts for women, as there are for men. I feel like I’m flying the flag, as is Theresa.

There is a sense in something like your Taming of the Shrew, or the Glenda Jackson Lear
I cannot wait! Did you see it in London?

I didn’t. But there is a sense, as happens in Bernhard/Hamlet, of women trying to scale these big canonized roles that were written for men. Do you want to tackling these male parts, or do you prefer new material?
Honestly, both. I mean, it’s wonderful to do a new play that is set in the past about one of the actresses who really broke the mold — one of the few actresses who really broke the mold — and to play it in a very modern way. It’s a very modern take on what that is, and how angry and upset it makes her, and how in the end it’s still essentially her alone, flying the flag. Of course I want to do that. But I’d love to do those others as well.

Any specific ones you’d love to try?
Nothing specific in my head so far. As you know, I work too hard. Frankly, I can’t think beyond the next show.

What about Hamlet? Would you do Hamlet?
I really don’t know the answer to that question. What I do find interesting is how terrifying it would be to play one of the great, iconic male parts. I realize it helps me realize how terrified Sarah must have been, because a lot of actors have played Hamlet. Lots of actors have had a go. But if I had a go, people would still say, “Why is Janet playing Hamlet?” You still have to give a really good reason in the way that a lot of people wouldn’t.

Speaking of getting into the mind-set, how do you prepare for performances as Sarah playing Hamlet eight performances a week?
Like a lot of players who have a huge amount to do, you basically live like a nun. You eat really well, you try to get sleep, you don’t go out, you see people for an hour after the show and then you go home. Then you get a massage, wake up and check your voice, the usual stuff. But the one thing is, I always have a look at Hamlet and pictures of her in my dressing room, then we play a lot of loud French dance music and we dance before every show.

Like disco?
Depends on the mood. Me and Jason [Butler Harner] and whoever else is around the dressing room, we dance to ’60s French pop music, or modern pop music, but always in French. That’s what we do.

Janet McTeer on Bernhardt/Hamlet and Playing Hamlet Herself