Janet McTeer glides through the realms of theater, television and film with an ease and skill few possess. After growing up in York, England and training at the Royal Academy of Dramatic Art in London, she established herself at the Royal Exchange Theatre in Manchester before exploding onto the scene in 1996, when she starred in the West End production of Henrik Ibsen’s A Doll’s House. Her performance as Nora earned her both the Laurence Olivier Theatre Award and Critics’ Circle Theatre Award and when the production hopped the pond to Broadway, McTeer won the Tony Award for Best Actress in a Play.
But that was only the beginning. After and extensive television career that included Les Girls, The Governor and The Amazing Mrs Pritchard, McTeer found breakthrough success in the 1999 film Tumbleweeds, an American mother-daughter comedy-drama, that earned her an Independent Spirit Award and Screen Actors Guild Award nomination, a Golden Globe win and ultimately, her first Oscar nomination, as Best Actress. She nominated for an Oscar again, in Supporting Actress, for 2011’s Albert Nobbs.
But McTeer has recently been navigating a prolific television career, with Netflix’s Jessica Jones, Sorry For Your Loss from Facebook Watch and Emmy and Golden Globe-nominated turns in Into the Storm and The White Queen, respectively. She entered the second season of Netflix’s Emmy-winning Ozark as the statuesque and intimidating Helen Pierce, the concise and sometimes laconic face of the Navarro drug cartel and go between for them and Marty and Wendy Byrde’s money laundering system. Stellar reviews buoyed her to main cast status in season three, introducing us to Helen’s family and personal life in a way we hadn’t seen before and possibly putting them in grave danger.
I spoke with the award-winning actress on her versatility, the complicated nature of the women of Ozark and what role she dreams of playing.
You seem to be able to navigate the worlds of theater, film and television quite successfully. What is it about each that draws you to them?
I love the difference between the avenues of film, tv and theater they all have different qualities but the one thing they do share is the sense of family – theater companies, film and TV sets – they are small families. They’re pretty special and of course with theater you get the immediate response from an audience. I love them all.
I want to flash back and sidebar a bit. I probably would have given anything to see you and Mark Rylance in Much Ado About Nothing. What was that experience and period like for you?
Much ado with Mark…oh, we had such fun doing that! We were in the west end and had great houses I threw Mark over my back every evening and did press-ups When he found me in the garden it was hilarious. And it was directed by Matthew Warchus who I’ve worked with since it was excellent fun.
You’re a series regular for Ozark’s third season and it really opens up Helen’s background and family life. Did that leave room for enough mystery and menace with your character and who she is?
Interesting question! I was initially a bit worried about keeping her scary status as high if we see her in her private life…but then I realised that first of all, I love a good challenge. Secondly that Ozark is concerned with families and how to deal with the drug cartel business so it would be fascinating to see how that unfolds . Otherwise, it would have been more of the same scary Helen from season 2.
For Helen, what, if any, any influences did you pull from in building her?
I didn’t really. We made up her background and I tried to make her compartmentalise as much as possible. If I drew from anything it was a shark; always looking and evaluating and emotionless.
Helen’s costuming feels like an integral part of who she is much more so than other characters. How much did Helen’s wardrobe impact your performance?
I think people think actors wear clothes people give them, it’s so not true! Costumes are absolutely integral since it’s the way we all of us present ourselves to the world both consciously and unconsciously. So we worked hard on how she wanted to present, how she felt about what she wore, we tried a ton of stuff on before we decided on her style etc etc. I was lucky our costume designer Stephani Lewis was amazing.
Between Jessica Jones, Sorry For Your Loss and Ozark, you’ve been steadily in projects that are very female forward. Was that intentional?
Yes, I think so. The older I get the less I’m willing to put up with sexist bullshit. However, the older I get the more great parts there are for women. Not equal yet by any means but getting better, and I’ve worked with more developed men and that really helps also. But I’m also fortunate to be offered strong interesting women.
How would you describe Helen’s relationship with Wendy this season compared to last?
Wendy impresses Helen by the end of season 2 so there’s a big curve in the season 3 story there…will they be friends? Or competitors? I mean, you can’t talk about any of the drug cartel issues with other women you know so that’s a lure certainly for Helen and Wendy.
At one point this season Helen asks someone “Do you ever get tired of this?” How do you think Helen would answer that?
Yes, I thought about that a lot in the speaking of the line. Am I saying it because I’m sick of it? Or because I want to know if I can still trust him? Or both? I don’t think she is sick of it, no.
What’s a role or genre you’d like to tackle next? Anything that’s eluded you so far?
I’ve never done a Bond. I want to be Jason Bourne. I think that boat has sailed, however.
Who would you like to work with that you haven’t yet?
If I had to choose 3 people they would be Judi Dench, Maggie Smith and Helen Mirren. If I could choose 4 more they would be JJ Abrams, Taika Waititi, Steven Spielberg and Martin Scorsese. I have a very long list those came to my head first.
With the era of streaming content like Netflix provides, do you have any bingeable favorites right now?
Babylon Berlin, The Great British Baking Show, Hillary the documentary. Oh and I hear there’s a show called Ozark that’s pretty good I might watch that (laughs).
Season 3 of Ozark is currently streaming exclusively on Netflix.
This interview has been edited and condensed for clarity.