The consummate character actor, Janet McTeer disappears into her roles—not an easy feat when you’re 6’1″. The British 55-year-old is currently vanishing into the decadent yet cruel world of the pre-Revolution French aristocracy in director Josie Rourke’s fresh adaptation of the centuries-old novel Les Liaisons Dangereuses for Broadway. As the Marquise de Merteuil, the smooth operator who hides her vulnerabilities behind games of seduction, McTeer smolders opposite Liev Schreiber’s Vicomte de Valmont. Though she lives in Maine now with her husband and dog, New York is McTeer’s second home. It’s here she won a Tony Award in 1997 for her turn as Nora in A Doll’s House and where, last summer, she played Petruchio in the Shakespeare in the Park all-female production of The Taming of the Shrew. McTeer took a break from her on-stage scheming to chat about the election, her chemistry secret with Schreiber, and her favorite NYC spots.
What Should We Do: What is it like being a Brit right now in the U.S.?
Janet McTeer: It’s truly, truly shocking. We had to live through Brexit and now we have to live through this. I think we’re moving into the next 1970s… all the young disaffected and unheard students will rise up, I hope.
WSWD: What do you think the role of art and theater is in times like these?
McTeer: I think the role of art and theater is what it has always been. It’s something above the mundanity of the day-to-day. It’s something that reminds you of the bigger picture or takes you away from the daily life or adds to a daily life in that it makes you think of things in a different way. Theater has always been about compassion because it allows you to see characters that aren’t necessarily your friends. You hear them talk in ways that you wouldn’t necessarily hear anyone speak other than on a stage or on the screen. You see them in situations that you have never been in yourself. And that, I think, allows you insight into other people—and also yourself, perhaps. It breeds empathy, compassion, and wisdom, three things I think we really need right now.
WSWD: How do you see those ideas playing out in Les Liaisons Dangereuses specifically?
McTeer: Well, it’s set in a time and place where people have too much money and too much power. Well, look what happened… they all got their heads chopped off in a few years’ time. That’s one thing. It was also a time when women had very, very little personal power and were treated shabbily by men and by society. Women were married off to the highest bidders by age 15, regardless of whether they liked them. It had all to do with the political nature of the marriage. Women had to behave impeccably or else they were banished to the country, as it were. Men could do whatever they liked. If Hillary had spoken about men the way he spoke about women, she would have been thrown off the ticket. It’s hardly surprising that some women ended up like the Marquise, my character, who is completely incapable of having a relationship with a man she loves. She’s like almost any abuse victim, really, for whom intimacy is a really difficult thing, if not impossible.
WSWD: Is that how you see the character of the Marquise de Merteuil, as a victim of abuse?
McTeer: Well, with her it’s an incredible damage and this huge anger. She is somebody who says the line, “I was born to dominate your sex and avenge my own.” She feels that she’s got to get revenge on all the men in the world. So she goes on to cause all of these intrigues as a way to find revenge.
WSWD: The show had an eight-week run in London before coming to New York. How do you keep the same intensity when you’re playing the same character for so long?
McTeer: You can only do it if it’s a really well-written play—and this is a really well-written play. The language is extraordinary. So I imagine all of the different things that are going on in [the Marquise’s] head at any one time, whether it’s revenge or love or sex or power or pain or self-esteem. And then on any given day, I allow my third eye to be concentrated on one of those things because the words are so good. It’s a little trick to keep [the material] alive and bright and to keep myself still exploring so that I’m not saying the lines the same way every day.
WSWD: Do you ever use that trick in collaboration with your co-stars?
McTeer: Yes, sometimes, you know, Liev [Schreiber] and I will say, “Ooh, what’s our word for today? Wicked. That’s our word.” The next day our word might be “champagne,” or “bubbly,” or “insouciant.” If we’re tired, you know, on a matinee day, we’ll choose a word like “fiery” or “dancing” so that we have an image in our head of something that helps us feel light and quick.
WSWD: Do you get a chance to enjoy the city when you’re doing a show here?
McTeer: No, not in the slightest. We only just opened a week ago and before that we were literally rehearsing every day while doing eight shows a week in previews. So far I’ve gone to get a massage and get my nails done because the Marquise should have nice nails. That’s about it. I need a few days just chilling out.
WSWD: What would you like to do when you get that chance?
McTeer: Walk down the High Line and visit the museum [the Whitney] and go to Chelsea Market for food. That’s a favorite of mine. You get a nice little walk outside, a little bit of art, and then delicious food.
See McTeer as the beguiling Marquise:
Les Liaisons Dangereuses
222 West 45th Street (between Broadway and Eighth Avenue)
Tickets start at $40