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Janet McTeer on the Emmy Race, Vince Gilligan's 'Battle Creek,' and the 'Bollocks' of Magic

Photo of Ben Travers By Ben Travers | Indiewire May 22, 2014 at 11:38AM

After landing a Golden Globe nomination last year for her performance in "The White Queen," Janet McTeer is now on the quest for an Emmy -- but not to win any red carpets.
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Janet McTeer in "The White Queen" on Starz
White Queen @2013 Company Pictures Janet McTeer in "The White Queen"

Janet McTeer knows her way around an awards show. As a two-time Oscar nominee, four time Golden Globe nominee (with one win in there for "Tumbleweeds"), and one-time Emmy nominee -- so far -- McTeer now looks at the awards race as a blessing and an opportunity for some fun. 

McTeer's role in the Starz miniseries "The White Queen" as Jacquetta Woodville, the mother of the new Queen of England who dabbles in illegal magic, already nabbed her a Golden Globe nod in January for Best Supporting Actress. Now McTeer is hoping to make voters Mc-Tear up so she can snag one more trophy for her shelf. The British actress sat down with Indiewire to discuss her attitude on awards shows, her new TV show "Battle Creek," from "Breaking Bad" creator Vince Gilligan, and why going to the Emmys would be fun.

How did you balance playing a real live person with some of the more fantastical elements of the character? Did you do research, trust the script...?

Janet McTeer on the red carpet.
White Queen @2013 Company Pictures Janet McTeer on the red carpet.

I did both. I tried to find out as much about her as I possibly could, as she's one of those forgotten women. Women weren't really written about then, so all you can really do is find out the little bit that there was -- we're talking about 1400 and something. It was a really long time ago. So there are very few facts that you know, and from the facts that you know you can glean certain things. [...] You have someone who is clever enough to be aware that they're probably more able than most people around them, but because of the nature of her sex she can't do it. So what do you do? You either give in and get miserable and get pissed off, or you learn how to wield your power in a slightly different way. I think that's what she did. And I think that's what she taught her daughter to do. 

There was some warmth in there, too, I would think. Especially since she married for love.

Exactly. I think she was a very warm, amazing person. So then, when you're having the conversations with the writers [...] I was very keen to say, "I want to portray this woman as very strong -- as the kind of woman you'd want young women to grow up to [be]. And not bitchy. Not snipey. Not nasty. Just a really clever, solid grown up."

How did you handle her magical side? There's only rumors about her practicing, so did you do your own research, trust the writers, or just go along with it for the sake of the story? 

I think a combination of all those things. I think she was definitely put on trial, possibly more than once, for [witchcraft]. People did believe in witchcraft those days, and if you don't know anything about science, it's not that hard to believe. Nowadays, it's almost like you give a child a pill, and say, "This will make that nasty pustule go away." They don't know what an antibiotic is. Though, it will go away, it's [like] witchcraft [to the uneducated]. [...] Part of it is you just have to suspend your disbelief and stretch your imagination. If you go out and you think it's going to rain and you don't take an umbrella, it's going to rain. If you go out and you do take an umbrella, you know it's not going to rain. It's an extension of that kind of nonsense. That you don't walk under a ladder. It's bollocks, and we all know it's bollocks, but you still do it anyway. [...] So if you extend that to a world where you don't know anything about science, then that becomes something I can believe in.

Miniseries are on the upswing right now, and many say it's because talented actors with a great deal of prestige who wouldn't do TV before can now because of a shorter schedule -- and because the stigma of TV is long gone. 

"I don’t know whether it’s a benefit of the crash of the economy or a sidebar or it would have happened anyway, [but] suddenly TV became a writer’s medium."

I've always believed that you take every job on its own merits, and I've always believed, "What's the definition of growing up? The definition of growing up is realizing you live your life on your terms, and you choose the people whose opinion you care about. And you choose what your definition of success is, and you realize the price of that and be prepared to pay it. The price of my job is that I only wish to do the kind of jobs that I would want to watch, whether that's in theater or television or film. Somewhere in there you hope you can pay all your bills. Because I'm not 20. I've got bills and mortgages same as everyone else. I've got to earn some money. Somewhere in there you hope you can put all those things together. 

So the price of that is I travel a lot; I take every job on its own merit; and I personally like to be challenged. A lot of the things I do because I've never done them before. And then occasionally I do jobs because you can't not do them. Like "Albert Nobbs," which took forever and was amazing and I had an amazing time doing it and I think we all earned about twenty-and-a-half dollars. You do it for the love of the beast.

READ MORE: Glenn Close and Janet McTeer On the Unsung Heroes of "Albert Nobbs"

Does it matter if it's a TV show or a movie?

It has to fit into my life. I don't want to be away from home so much where I don't get to see my family. Then what's the point in having a family? There's a huge juggling act that goes on all the time. But there are TV shows [that I like]. "Breaking Bad," I was completely addicted to. "House," I was completely addicted to. I name those two because I'm about to do something with both of those guys [CBS' Detroit-set cop drama, "Battle Creek" from Vince Gilligan and David Shore] and the shows were many series -- not miniseries, but many series [UK speak for seasons]. 

The other thing that's changed is -- it was 1996, I think, when I came to New York. There were theatre people, TV people, and film people. I stayed for a couple of years and did a couple of little independent films, and then I went home. There's not the kind of work I really want to do here -- enough [work] -- and I really wanted to go home. But I remember when I was here, watching the beginning of HBO and thinking, "Wow." Before that I'd only seen "Homicide" and "NYPD Blue" that I thought were amazing. By the time I came back to New York, and suddenly there was this amazing writing on television. I don’t know whether it’s a benefit of the crash of the economy or a sidebar or it would have happened anyway. Maybe it was because people just couldn’t afford to wait for independent films to ever get their money. Maybe it was as simple as that. Then suddenly it became a writer’s medium. […] And now I’m doing my very, very first television [series] because I also believe you have to reinvent yourself every 10 years, I think. Keep challenging yourself, otherwise you’re just kind of copying what you did before. And I’ve never done it before. I’m playing an American in an American television thing. We’ve got another 12 to go, and we start filming in July, I think.

Have you noticed any changes in awards — the races, the process, the benefits — between your first nomination back in the late ‘90s to now? 

"Also, maybe this is an English thing, but I’m not really worried about the size of my ass."

No, I think it’s kind of the same really. If things get up for awards, if people get up for awards, if things themselves get awarded, people sit up and they notice and they go, “Oh, that must be good, so let’s give it a go.” That’s why it’s always so wonderful if people do get [awards] because then so many more people will watch it.

Has anything changed for you personally?

It’s less stressful.

How so?

I was in my 20s the first time around and I was in England. It’s really scary. You’ve never done it before and there are all these unbelievably famous people. You just kind of feel completely out of place, and, if you’re me, you feel about 75 feet too tall. “Oh Christ. I’m wearing the wrong thing.” It’s a terrifying process. I think the older you get the more comfortable you get in yourself and the less bothered you are about that sort of stuff. Mostly I find them incredibly good fun now because you go and you’re going to bump into a whole bunch of people that I haven’t met and would love to meet or people I only see once in a blue moon usually on the red carpet. It’s nice to see them and have a good chat. 

Also -- maybe this is an English thing -- but I’m not really worried about the size of my ass. As long as I feel I look elegant and grown up, that’s good enough for me. You know what I mean? I’m not trying to be a fashion model and compete with those women because that’s their thing and that’s not my thing.

You had a great story about when you found out you were nominated for “Albert Nobbs.” You and your husband had a quiet evening with a dinner and some champagne before watching “Downton Abbey” to celebrate. Did you do anything for your most recent Golden Globe nomination?

Seriously, I was on my couch in New York. I wasn’t very well. My husband was at work. I was online. I must have looked probably worse than I’ve looked in a long time. I had a horrific flu. I was really unwell. I had a headache. Whatever. I was trying to order a remote thermostat because we have a house in Maine and it gets incredibly cold, and I wanted to get a thermostat so you can do it from your mobile phone. And I was trying to order it and all these emails kept popping up, and I was kept going [she mimics deleting the email alerts] “I’m trying to order my [thermostat]!” Then I noticed one and it was from my team of people going, “Oh my God! It’s so exciting!” And I’m going, “What the eff are they talking about?” And I went, “Call me. I don’t know what you’re talking about.” And they went, “Congratulations, congratulations, congratulations!” And I went, “On what?” It completely passed me by that there were any nominations that were going to happen or that it was that day. And I was absolutely convinced it was a mistake — and then my husband texted me and said, “What’s going on? Why are all these people texting me?” And it took me a good 10 minutes to realize I got a nomination for a Golden Globe. 


This article is related to: Janet McTeer, Janet McTeer, The White Queen, Starz, Emmys, Emmy Awards, 2014 Primetime Emmy Awards