Education Dramaturg Ted Sod spoke with Actor Janet McTeer about her work in "Bernhardt/Hamlet."
Ted Sod: Where were you born and educated? When did you decide you wanted to become an actor? Did you have any teachers who had a profound impact on you?
Janet McTeer: I was born in Newcastle, in the north of England, to a family completely unrelated to my profession—how I managed to be an actor I’ve no idea! I caught my bus from school outside the local theatre and used to have coffee there. I just loved the place and got a job selling coffees there on a Saturday, so somehow got in to see all the plays. That made me decide to try to act, having only ever done one school play at the age of 13. I knew I had to give it a try, and luckily my family were wonderfully supportive. My two English teachers, Mrs. Green and Mrs. Surgener, were amazing. I loved them dearly, and they were an enormous help in my choosing speeches for my auditions.
TS: Why did you choose to play the title role in Theresa Rebeck’s Bernhardt/Hamlet?
JM: I was sent the play to do a reading of it and loved it immediately. It has wit, charm, interest, and the characters are fabulous. Since then we have done three readings and a workshop as Theresa has been honing the play.
TS: I realize the rehearsal process hasn’t begun yet, but can you share some of your preliminary thoughts about the role of Sarah Bernhardt? What made her such an enduring icon? What do you find most challenging and exciting about this role? What kind of preparation or research do you have to do, in order to play this role? How do you approach a historical character who has so much myth surrounding her?
JM: Sarah is, of course, an amazing icon. She paved the way for so many other actresses. She was an eccentric, forceful character. How much of her eccentricity was a clever use of publicity and how much her own—who can say? That will be a fun part of rehearsals! As she got older, she was appalled at the lack of great roles for older actresses, so decided just to play some of the men’s parts…hmmm, where have I heard that resounding complaint before??? I love that about her. What is exciting is attempting to embody this amazing person—gulp—whilst also showing her rehearsal process. I have read several books about her, trying to find the similarities between her and myself, somewhere deep down. When playing a historical figure, all you can do is attempt to meet them somewhere in the middle, between them and you. Otherwise, it would simply be a parody or a copy, not a rounded character from a deep place. As for the myth…take what is universally accepted, interpret what is assumed and helpful, and ditch the rest.
TS: What do you think the play is about? It tackles the idea that successful women are often treated with disdain when they display traits that are celebrated in men. It also suggests that theatre is an act of transformation for both artists and audiences. Any preliminary thoughts on either subject as you are about to begin rehearsals?
JM: The play is a celebration of Bernhardt and a celebration of the process of rehearsal, of women who refuse to take the common tack and fade gracefully away, of humor, of irreverence for the common way, of passion, and love, and theatre. All of which I thoroughly applaud.
TS: Can you talk about the relationship between Sarah and her son, Maurice? Do you see Sarah as having prioritized her career over being a parent? What do you think motivated Bernhardt to play the title role in Shakespeare’s Hamlet? She doesn’t seem to care for the character as Shakespeare wrote him—what do you think her attraction to the role is? How do you understand the relationship between Sarah and her lover, playwright Edmond Rostand? Is it simply transactional?
JM: Hmmm…hard to judge a parent…especially since we truthfully know only facts and report. What we do know is that they absolutely adored each other and lived often in each other’s pockets. She gave him masses of money, adored it when she was a grandmother, didn’t speak to him for a year over a political disagreement, and she died in his arms. She sounds like an adoring, irritating, unusual, interesting, inspirational, infuriating, endlessly entertaining, iconic mother, and that doesn’t sound too bad to me.
Hamlet has the greatest words ever written—who wouldn’t want to play him? I don’t think she hates the words as written…remember almost all Shakespeare plays are seen now in a trimmed and cut version. I recently did an all-female The Taming of the Shrew and we cut it probably in half…what’s so different? She’s just wrestling with, as she says, too many words. She went on to perform it many times extremely successfully, so...
No one really knows what her relationship with Rostand was. She clearly had many lovers, so why shouldn’t he have been one? They did stay friends for many, many years, and for the purpose of this play and to show that side of her character—she clearly loves him.
TS: How do you like to collaborate with a writer on a new work? Can you describe what the development process has been like for you on this play?
JM: It’s been fabulous. Theresa Rebeck is wonderful: open, amusing, furiously clever, collaborative, and delightful. Moritz, the director, and Theresa and I have been open with ideas, opinions, questions, and themes—all of which she has taken on board, if only as food for thought. It has been a joy.
TS: What do you look for from a director when collaborating on a new play?
JM: Intelligence, openness, a willingness to collaborate, i.e., not to have fixed ideas, and to do it all with a good grace and humor! All of which Moritz has in spades. He, too, is a joy.
TS: What keeps you inspired as an artist? Public school students will read this interview and will want to know what it takes to be a very successful actress—what advice can you give young people who want to act?
JM: I am constantly surprised by the amount of talented amazing people there are, both young and old, and as long as something grabs me, it just does. Why do some paintings or pieces of music grab us the way others don’t? Perhaps because they reflect something in ourselves, or a dream we have, or a reason we can’t put our finger on? Some things just grab you. Perhaps the mystery is the fun. And some things you do to pay the mortgage, let’s be honest—the trick is to attempt to do both!
My advice to anyone wanting to be an actor: if it’s the only thing you can possibly think you want to do…do it. If there are other things you want to do, don’t do it. It’s a tough profession. Self-employed, endless auditions—particularly when young. Far too much travel, which can be fun, yet is often simply exhausting, being away from the people you love. In other words, the price is high—so if you aren’t prepared to pay it —don’t. But if you are and it works—it’s fabulous—it’s the very best! The people, the work, the art, the fun, the never getting bored, the massive, massive fulfillment and gratification when a job goes well. But be prepared to work hard. Very, very hard. If you’re young and starting out, put the work in all the time. And write this on a post-it note and put it on your mirror —or have it as your screensaver: “Someone has to succeed. There’s no reason why it shouldn’t be me.” Good luck. When its grand, it’s truly grand, and there is always, always room for young talent. Always.
2018-2019 Season, Bernhardt/Hamlet