Janet McTeer Plays Gender-Queer in Oscar-Nominated Albert Nobbs
The two-time Academy Award nominee talks about her role in the acclaimed period drama set in 19th century Ireland
British actress Janet McTeer portrays a cross-dressing lesbian in Albert Nobbs, starring opposite Glenn Close who plays the title role. McTeer, 50, noted for her selection of uber-challenging roles, has never played FTM transgender -- but she certainly has played gay before. If you were lucky, you witnessed her astonishing performance as Vita Sackville-West in the 1990 TV miniseries “Portrait of a Marriage.“ Based on real events, it documents the life of a writer/aristrocrat whose tumultuous lesbian affair (with Violet Trefusis) almost wrecks her marriage. More recently, McTeer played Gertrude Lawrence, a British stage actress romantically linked with author and playwright Daphne du Maurier, in the 2007 TV movie “Daphne.”
A Shakespearean actor who studied at the Royal Academy of Dramatic Art in London, McTeer has quietly practiced her craft for the past three decades, making a name for herself on both sides of the Atlantic. Her first Oscar nod came in 2000 for her role as a restless single mother looking for love in the 1999 film Tumbleweeds. Three years earlier, she stunned Broadway audiences and won a Tony for her portrayal of Nora in Henrik Ibsen’s classic, “A Doll’s House”. She returned to Broadway in 2009 and 2010, playing Mary Queen of Scots in “Mary Stuart” and Veronica in “God of Carnage”. Next month, she appears again on the big screen in The Woman in Black, a supernatural thriller starring Daniel Radcliffe.
Currently, McTeer is back in New York, shooting the fifth season of the TV series “Damages” with Nobbs co-star, Glenn Close.
GO: It took Glenn Close more than a decade to get Albert Nobbs to the screen. When did you come on board? How did you become involved with this project?
Janet McTeer: I was doing “Mary Stuart” on Broadway and she came to see the play and came backstage afterwards with her daughter, Annie. We had met briefly before, but I didn’t really know her. We were having a lovely chat and then she said, “I have a script. Can I give it to you?” I said, “Yes, of course.” So, it arrived the following day and I read it. I knew it was great. We met the following week. After that point, we were supposed to be going [into production] in a few months, but it would be about a year and a half before the movie was shot.
Let’s talk about your character, Hubert Page. One of the most significant qualities that I noticed was the unselfconscious masculinity, the naturalness of Hubert, who almost represents the opposite of Albert: self-accepting, happy, comfortable in one’s skin. How did you view this interaction and how did you approach your character?
I think that sort of evolved as we were working on it. Obviously we had tons of conversations about Albert’s character and also Hubert’s. I really felt that Hubert should be everything that Albert wanted and everything that Albert wasn’t; though, as a character, you’re also a function in a piece. I just felt that Hubert was confident, funny, peaceful, happy and very much at peace as a human being. That’s what Albert sees. That’s what Albert emulates and wants to become. And the only way to do that was to play somebody who wasn’t hiding as a man, but somebody who was actually free as a man. So, instead of portraying Hubert as someone who had become a man to escape abuse, which is true, I think Hubert remained a man because Hubert found it to be the most comfortable. I thought that was really important.
One of the things I loved about the character, as we were working through the dialogue, is that Hubert takes things with a pinch of salt. There’s a line in the scene by the fire, which we discussed at great length -- at one point it was tossed out but I said, “you’ve got to put it back in” -- because Hubert is the one person in the film who says, “It’s not like we’ve done anything wrong. It’s not like we’ve killed anyone.” To me, that’s a key philosophical point, which is to say, “what’ve we done wrong exactly?”
And that essentially sums up Hubert’s character, gender identity and romantic relationship. It’s all very matter-of-fact and totally natural.
Absolutely. A bit later on, after they’ve been dressed as women, Hubert says to Albert, “you’re a really kind, nice human being, so if you want someone to share your life with, go out and find someone.” And Hubert doesn’t tell Albert to find her or find him. Hubert doesn’t presume anything. It’s a sort of utopian, non-judgmental quality that I wanted the character to have.
It seems like the role of Hubert served many functions, maybe to provide contrast to Albert’s innocence and illustrate Albert‘s asexuality or “pre-sexuality”. Do you agree?
I’ve always thought of Albert as rather asexual, but actually “pre-sexual” or completely non-sexual is more precise. It’s not that Albert is not interested in sex; it’s that Albert doesn’t know anything about it!
Both Albert and Hubert are living in a time when sexuality isn’t even part of a person’s identity -- meaning that no category or label or acronym or political context exists.
About Hubert’s physical appearance, movement and speech, did that take a tremendous amount of trial and error to develop?
It did. I worked on the movement and the speech for quite a long time before it all came together. Just in terms of trying to feel like a man, walk like a man, move like a man -- and certainly the Irish accent -- I practiced all that for quite a long time. When we were rehearsing, that’s when all the elements had come together. By then, we’d also done several [rehearsals] in hair, makeup and costume. When I found the boots and the trousers, that really helped. I wore three pairs of socks and the boots were huge, huge, and very heavy, which helped me in my movement.
I also hid my hands. You can’t really hide your hands and my hands are quite feminine, so I tried my best to keep them in my pocket. Or I’d smoke a cigarette with them. Other than that, I tried not to use my hands much at all. I tried not to be expressive with my hands, because it’s a very female thing. Every now and then, Rodrigo [Garcia], our fantastic director, would go, “Put your hands in your pocket!”
The hair and the makeup also helped me feel, like, “Wow, I really do look different.” And looking different helps you feel different. Then the whole thing sort of came together like a jigsaw puzzle, but we did work for a long time on all of those elements to get them feeling natural.
I think naturalness is the key element for Hubert because Albert Nobbs isn’t Victor/Victoria. It’s not a campy musical. It’s about women living as men, where being authentic and convincing is crucial to their survival.
Albert Nobbs began as a short story, which became a play and then became a film, is that right?
Next thing you know it’ll be an opera.
You have a very strong background in theatre, so does Glenn Close. How was the production of Albert Nobbs choreographed with the ensemble of actors? Did you approach it sort of like a play?
Almost all the other actors had previously worked with either Glenn, myself or Rodrigo, so it was a bunch of people who were very willing to jump on board and be involved in something interesting and exciting, with hardly any money. And it very much had that ensemble feeling that you get with theatre. There was a lot of attention paid to the other characters, as well. They have a very rich history. It wasn’t just about Albert Nobbs; it was about all the other people in the hotel.
Unlike theatre, everything about this film is subtle, including the humor, and there’s an intimacy that can be achieved only with film. What do you think?
What’s wonderful about the intimacy of the film is that Albert doesn’t show anything or really say anything. It’s all in the way that Albert views people and what’s going on in Albert’s head as Albert changes. That’s a very intimate thing and that’s the story, ultimately.
I first saw your work 20 years ago in the BBC‘s “Portrait of Marriage” miniseries. You played the main character, Vita Sackville-West, who was a lesbian. What was that experience like?
It was great and I loved playing Vita. It was completely exhausting, though, because we spent a lot more time shooting than ever happens now. We shot it for months and months and months. It was a very grueling shoot and I wasn’t good at pacing myself. I got unbelievably tired, I seem to remember. Other than that, it was an amazing ride playing her because she was such an interesting character. Like any actor, I’ve always enjoyed playing characters that are very different from myself. I found Vita fascinating. Of course, when you play a real person, that’s always really fascinating as you try to understand all the elements of that character. Vita was an extraordinary person who was great to play. The only thing she has in common with the Hubert character is that they’re both gay. They’re completely different people, spectacularly different. I don’t think Vita was particularly kind or a hugely empathetic person or had the same sense of humor as Hubert. She was upper class, not working class. She never wanted to be a man; she liked being a woman.
Can you talk about significance of the beach scene in Albert Nobbs, where Albert and Hubert are dressed as women? How did that fit into the story?
When Albert speaks of having forgotten what it’s like to be a woman, Hubert can see that Albert kind of doesn’t know who she is. And Albert says, “maybe I can come and live here with you, the way that Kathleen [Hubert’s partner] did.” Hubert can see that she has no idea what’s that about and probably suspects that, given the choice, Albert would continue to live as a man. Hubert says, “let’s get some dresses on” and they put the dresses on and go running about on the beach, but Albert realizes that she’s no longer that person. So, then they come back, get dressed up as men again, and Hubert says, “you don’t have to be anybody but who you are.” In other words, you don’t have to get dressed up in a frilly frock because that’s what you’re supposed to do. If you’re happy in your waiter’s suit, stay in your waiter’s suit. You don’t have to be anybody else. Just be yourself. That’s the significance.
From Hubert’s point of view, however, there’s also a great poignancy in the fact that Kathleen made those dresses and Kathleen has just died. Hubert is in the middle of deep grief. And Hubert has absolutely no intention of ever getting in a dress again, as you can see by the way Hubert walks and moves, making no attempt at all to be feminine. Given the fact that it’s just been quite tragic, it’s also a great moment of comic relief in the film. It’s all of those things, but I think mostly what it is starts with Albert saying, ‘I could come and live here like Kathleen” and ends with Hubert saying, “you don’t have to be anybody but who you are.”
One of the tragic things about Albert is that even though Hubert demonstrates a life of love and natural ease and happiness that Albert can perceive, maybe she’s not quite capable of it.
It’s like at the end of a very long marriage, particularly if you’re in your 90s or something, when the thing that remains more than anything else is being best friends, no matter how hot the sheets were at the beginning. That’s a huge part of a relationship. Albert wants that. Albert wants a home: safety, security, companionship. I think Albert has felt really frightened all her life and just wants to feel safe, secure and at home. I think that’s a very common fantasy for lots of people. She just doesn’t quite manage it. And Hubert has it.
Albert Nobbs opens this Friday, January 27 at NYC theaters.