A Broadway beheading was never such a high as it is for Janet McTeer in the title role of Mary Stuart. Though the Scots queen has been imprisoned, rained upon for twelve solid minutes, and sentenced to death, she goes to the ax happily, beaming with faith. “And since I am still her when I come offstage,” says the strapping McTeer, “that happiness comes with me—at least until I fall asleep two hours later.”
Great performances are forged in the tension between an actor’s sufficiency and insufficiency: Janet McTeer is clearly not Mary Stuart, and yet, for those three hours, eight times a week, Mary Stuart can only be Janet McTeer. To turn what could easily have been a botch into a triumph (McTeer is up for her second Tony award in June) takes technique—and then “years of practice” to make it disappear. “You should be able to do it like driving a car,” she says—or like a plane whose wheels retract after takeoff.
If that suggests how one flight might be achieved, it doesn’t explain how dozens of different ones are; in the HBO drama Into the Storm, debuting Sunday, the voluptuous Queen of Scots is barely recognizable as the desiccated Clemmie (Mrs. Winston) Churchill, whose stiff upper lip seems to have been achieved through decades of biting her tongue. And what about the flamboyantly self-righteous poseur McTeer played in the London production of God of Carnage (the role nailed here by Marcia Gay Harden, who competes with McTeer in the lead-actress category) or the Oscar-nominated southern sexpot of Tumbleweeds or the whirling dervish of a Nora in A Doll’s House, which earned McTeer her first Tony in 1997? If she always changes the temperature of a room the moment she appears, it’s never to the same temperature.
Chameleonism is merely the art of disguise; what McTeer does is quite the opposite. She strides (or slinks, or mouses) out of hiding into the space between herself and her quarry. “I’m over six foot,” she says, “and so every character I play is over six foot as well. But how are they over six foot? Every one must have a different attitude toward it. If all you can think is How would I behave in this situation?, you might be truthful, but you’re only playing a version of yourself. And that’s all you can play. The trick is knowing how to meet a character somewhere in the middle.” The greater the distance, the harder the challenge—and thus, she says, the more fun. “Which is why I like playing historical characters”—because they come with enormous built-in constraints. “Constraint is what people have, right? Without it, everything’s too easy.”
Still, there are characters she isn’t interested in meeting even halfway. “I’ve never played Hedda, and I’ve been asked often. She’s repulsive; what the hell is the point? This miserable, selfish cow who kills herself? I’d be living that horror. I couldn’t do it.” No, she’d rather be drenched and beheaded nightly, or, as Mrs. Churchill, driven to despair by a patriotic duty to endure her husband’s neglect. And though she looks forward to a large cocktail and a “big bloody holiday” (sans rain) when Mary Stuart closes, she does not personally feel trapped by the constraint so necessary to her idea of drama: “I feel quite free, actually.” Even the typical plight of a 47-year-old actress—a diminishing of plum roles—fails to concern her; she has no grande dame aspirations. “How could I, darling?” she asks. “I am one.”