Janet McTeer reveals how Uta Hagen taught her the nitty-gritty side of acting and jokingly questions whether she was swapped at birth!
Award-winning actress Janet McTeer, 51, is known for roles in Parade’s End and Waking the Dead. She recently starred in the historical drama The White Queen, on BBC1.
I first read this when I was 18 and a novice at Rada. In the days of Stanislavski, the book was almost anti-“method”, noting that there are many ways to climb the proverbial mountain. Acting, it suggested, shouldn’t be about polished performances where the audience says afterwards, “Marvellous, darling! Gin and tonic?” It should move and challenge, and sometimes frighten. The book became my Bible, Hagen my icon. In the late 1990s, she came to see me backstage in New York when I was in Ibsen’s A Dolls House. We went out afterwards and drank margaritas.
When this “lesbian” novel was written in 1928, it was hugely controversial. I read it in 1990 to help my portrayal of Vita Sackville-West (who had a lesbian relationship) in the BBC adaptation of Portrait of a Marriage. I found it profoundly moving, mostly because it was about someone who didn’t fit into society. I suppose it chimed with me because I’d always been a square peg in a round hole myself. Don’t get me wrong, I adore my family, but I’m definitely the odd one out. My mother always said if I didn’t look so much like her she’d believe I’d been swapped at birth! In my twenties, the book echoed my feeling of not quite knowing who I was or where I belonged.
I’m a prolific reader and have been since I first picked up The Hobbit. It was this book that opened my mind to the written word. Up to that point, I’d read lots of Enid Blyton—Mallory Towers and the Famous Five. But The Hobbit took reading to a new level entirely. It was a book about a whole other world, peopled by extraordinary characters. It could be funny or dark and sinister. Recently, I’ve been reading the book aloud to my ten-year-old stepson, who loved it as much as I did, and the pleasure of sharing it with him was huge. I still have my original copy, complete with an inscription, written in childish handwriting: “Janet McTeer, aged eight, York, England, The World, The Universe.” And that book really did open up the universe of books for me. Thank you, Tolkien!
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