An interview with Janet McTeer

Janet McTeer has been able to straddle the blurred lines of femininity and masculinity better than most throughout her career. She’s donned riding pants and romanced women as bisexual writer Vita Sackville-West in Portrait of a Marriage, but she’s also strolled around in gothic gowns in the 1992 film version of Wuthering Heights. She’s won awards for her work on both the stage and screen, including a Golden Globe for Best Actress in Tumbleweeds and a Tony for A Doll’s House.

Attention: Spoilers ahead.

There seems to be no role McTeer can’t play — or hasn’t played — up until Albert Nobbs. In the new film, opening in theaters January 27, McTeer plays Hubert, a woman who lives her life as a male painter and is married to a woman, Kathleen. It was announced today that McTeer is up for a Best Supporting Actress Oscar for the role.

If you haven’t seen the film or read much about it, you might not know McTeer is in it at all. Promotional posters and trailers leave McTeer out, instead focusing on star Glenn Close as the title character, who is also a woman living life as a man. McTeer insists this is all intentional, as she’d hoped to be kept a secret until viewers were privy to the big reveal.

“There was a sort of vague hope from the beginning that nobody would mention that I was playing the part,” McTeer told me by phone. “That people would be surprised when I reveal myself as a woman. I think, for a while, we were vaguely hoping people wouldn’t say — at least for half a beat they might think that I was a guy rather than already knowing I’m a girl.”

McTeer doesn’t look like herself in Albert Nobbs, and that’s intentional, too. Both she and Close had prosthetics and makeup to aid in their transformations. As Hubert, McTeer is a charming flirt. He meets Albert when coming to paint the hotel Albert lives and works at as a butler. When Albert is forced to share his room (and bed) with the painter, it becomes evident that Hubert will find out his secret. And when it comes out, Albert is shocked but relieved to find that Hubert is sharing the same one.

But while Albert lives his life in a solitary fashion, saving all of his money with dreams of owning his own tobacco shop someday, Hubert is happily living with his wife, Kathleen, a seamstress.

“We kind of hashed out an idea that probably I had met her while painting a house,” McTeer said of the backstory between Hubert and Kathleen’s meeting. “She probably came to make somebody a hat or came to do the dressmaking she did. Probably we became friends and probably there was a certain something there and then probably I suspect she realized she was in love with her, which I could imagine in that day and age was a little bit of a surprise for Hubert. And then probably I imagine she tells the truth — probably daring to tell somebody she was in fact a woman and probably Kathleen was probably quite didn’t mind or was quite relieved, one of the two. They were very happy and that’s that. It’s relatively simple” They fell in love with each other, really trusted each other and were very happy together.”

Albert is so baffled by the idea that this kind of love and relationship could exist, he’s intent on finding his own wife. But McTeer said that while she thinks Hubert is a lesbian (as he is in love with his wife), Albert isn’t necessarily identifiable as such. Albert does attempt to woo his co-worker Helen Dawes (Mia Wasikowska), but he seems to do so more out of his hope of achieving a “normal” life.

“I think Albert is a damaged human being,” McTeer said. “I don’t think Albert has any idea about sexuality at all. I think she’s got a sort of thinking, ‘Well clearly I can’t be in a dress. I’m not sort of good at that anymore. I’m more comfortable as a man, therefore I have to find a wife.’ It’s sort of logical rather than being emotional, if you know what I mean.And I think Albert, when she fights for Helen at the end, when she fights Joe, she cares deeply for Helen. Whether that’s in a romantic way, I think Albert has no idea. Whether Albert is asexual or gay I have no idea. To be honest, I think Albert doesn’t know.”

When Kathleen passes away after contracting typhoid fever, Hubert is grief-stricken and turns down Albert’s asking if he can move into their home. McTeer explained why her character reacts so angrily toward Albert in this moment, telling him he can’t come in and take Kathleen’s place.

“Hubert’s just lost his wife and she was the love of Hubert’s life,” McTeer said, “and the idea that she wouldn’t say, ‘Of course, move in! Why not? Come and be a roommate’ — It’s more that Albert doesn’t understand at all that she was the love of his life. I think Albert thinks it’s sort of kindly a matter of convenience as opposed to two people who really loved each other. So I think partly it’s about Hubert showing Albert that they really loved each other and you can’t just walk into somebody else’s shoes like that. It’s not the way it works.”

McTeer said that Hubert also has to show Albert that it’s not as simple as them living together and Albert being able to go to back to living life as a woman.

“Albert realizes she can’t,” McTeer said. “That the person she is now, the Albert we know, is who she is. Which is why it leads to one of the more important lines that Hubert has when it comes up. Hubert says, ‘You want to find somebody to love, go out and find that person. You’re hard working, you saved your money, you’re a catch.’ Hubert doesn’t say if that’s with a man or with a woman. There’s no judgmental point of view, but saying ‘Just be who you are.’ It’s the most important line, I think.”

As Albert attempts to find out who he really is, Hubert tries to rebuild his life without Kathleen in it any longer. The film takes a sad turn and never quite recovers, but McTeer’s performance is so strong, viewers are drawn in by her emotive expressions that show what she can’t say when in the presence of other people outside of Albert. McTeer has received an Oscar nod and other award nominations, and the actress said she thinks it’s just lovely the film is getting attention.

“I know that we’ve had lots of lovely things written. I want to know for Glenn because she’s a very dear friend and, considering it was made for 27 dollars and six cents, it’s really done remarkably well and that’s amazing. It’s such an achievement.”

In several interviews, McTeer and Close have both discussed how Albert Nobbs isn’t a lesbian, considering he’s just not sure himself. McTeer explained why she thinks the film isn’t not a lesbian-themed film; it’s just that “it’s not purely that.”

“It’s not like one person is in the closet and the other person has refashioned the closet. It isn’t that,” she said. “The thing is that to label Albert as a lesbian is not necessarily true. I think Hubert definitely is and is very happily married, but Albert, I think, is more complicated in a way, because I’m not convinced that Albert is anything. Albert may be truly asexual, I don’t know. I guess to say it’s not one thing or another is, I suppose, comes from partly from living in a time before labels. I’ve always said Hubert is gay, transexual, crossdressing — he’s probably all of those things. He could be any of them. He doesn’t have a label. And when I think about Hubert, sometimes i refer to him as he, sometimes as she. Because I think Hubert is genuinely in the middle; somebody who, given the fact that, for all kinds of reasons, somebody who is just really at peace and really happy with themselves, somebody that just wants to have a mate. And I love that just being uncomplicated and lovely.”

“That’s the kind of the Utopian ideal, really,” she continued. “Hubert says to Albert , ‘You don’t have to be anyone but who you are. You’ve worked hard, you’ve saved your money. Find somebody.’ Who cares? As long as you love each other!”

McTeer said it’s that idea that makes the film so important and so enjoyable to be a part of. “I personally find that such an important philosophy that I believe in, the idea of creating a character like that just works great, with a huge sense of humor and a not-taking-yourself-too-seriously kind of quality,” she said. “I just thought that was really a character I haven’t really seen too often.”

She also said she enjoyed the simplicity of Hubert in that way. “I always play the more complicated f—ed up people! So it was great. I enjoyed every second of playing Hubert, I really did.”

One of those complicated people she’s played included her role as Vita Sackville-West, one of Virginia Woolf‘s lovers and a prolific writer in her own right. In Portrait of Marriage, McTeer played Vita during her marriage to husband Howard and her famous affair with women.

“She was very happily married for about five years and had two children and after that point she fell in love with Violet Trefusis,” McTeer said. “She and Howard stayed together all their lives and they were absolutely devoted to one another. They were each other’s partners in life, but both of them had affairs. She had affairs with women, he had affairs with men. They were each others partner and only once or twice did anything come between them in that sense. They figured it out.”

In this unconventional set-up, McTeer recalls one part of a conversation she had on screen.

“She had said to her first girlfriend, Violet, that she had married because that was one does and was lucky enough to have found Howard, and she had always presumed that everyone all over had felt about women like she did,” she said. “It had never occurred to her that she was different in anyway. She presumed everyone that felt like that. I remember thinking that’s so extraordinary because no one ever talked about that. If you were lucky, somebody told you to do your duty to your husband and said it might hurt on your wedding night, but after that, get on with it. Nobody ever — nothing was ever discussed. So it was so much untapped. In a way, she was such a complicated person who figured it out. I’m sure there was some heartbreak but she figured it out.”

It is true that playing complicated characters seems to be common thread throughout her career, but that’s because she’s got such a great range and she seems to be fearless when it comes to the roles she chooses. McTeer said she doesn’t have any dream roles, and that she’s only missed out on a few that she has wanted to work out, but she feels very lucky for the number of great ones she’s been able to play. This includes her work with out director Phyllida Lloyd, a friend of hers she said she’s worked with five times now.

“We were Skyping just this morning,” McTeer said of Phyllida, whose most recent film is The Iron Lady, starring Meryl Streep. “We’ll be thinking of some things to do together in the future, definitely.”

But first she can be seen in the upcoming season of Damages alongside her Albert Nobbs co-star Glenn Close. McTeer plays an attorney who works with Ellen Parons (Rose Byrne) and McTeer said it becomes clear that she and Patty (Close) “have some kind of history.” And, she noted, “I’m way taller than her.”

Albert Nobbs opens in theaters January 27.

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