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Stardom can wait

For Janet McTeer, it's acting that matters, not fame. She helped write her latest film, 'The Intended.'

June 24, 2004|Judy Chia Hui Hsu | Times Staff Writer

Janet McTEER won a Tony Award for playing Ibsen's Nora and was Oscar-nominated for her turn as a single mother in "Tumbleweeds." Actresses have built substantial Hollywood careers from less.

Yet the British actress insists it was her choice, not circumstance, that explains her follow-up roles. These have included a supporting part in "Waking the Dead," the narrator of Todd Haynes' "Velvet Goldmine" and the lead in the well-received independent film "Songcatcher."

And so while Emmy Rossum, her young costar in "Songcatcher," jumped at a role in the high-profile film "The Day After Tomorrow," McTeer has carved a career path that veers far off the mainstream. The latest stop on that journey: "The Intended," an art-house drama that she co-wrote with Danish director Kristian Levring, which opens Friday in Los Angeles and New York.

"I never particularly wanted to be famous. I just wanted to be respected," McTeer says matter-of-factly. "If I wanted to be famous, I would have stayed [in America] and tried to become famous."

Instead, after a run of films, McTeer, 42, returned to London, working in theater for the last year and a half. Last year, she played the Duchess in John Webster's "The Duchess of Malfi" at the National Theatre and Petruchio in the all-female production of Shakespeare's "Taming of the Shrew" at the Globe Theatre.

"You caught me in my garden picking vegetables for dinner," McTeer adds, speaking by telephone from her country house in Oxfordshire, England.

In "The Intended," McTeer plays Sarah, a 40-year-old woman who flees England with her younger lover in 1924. They travel to a remote ivory trading post in the Malaysian jungle, where they hope to earn a fortune and begin a new life together. The ensemble cast includes Brenda Fricker as the tyrannical widow who runs the place and Olympia Dukakis as a nanny who still cares for the widow's idle grown son.

"It was Kristian's idea," says McTeer, who fleshed out the characters and wrote much of the dialogue. "It was influenced by 'Lord of the Flies,' Somerset Maugham, [Joseph] Conrad -- sort of the idea of taking people to some hot, humid environment and watching them all go mad."

She met Levring while working on his last film, "The King Is Alive" (2000), a Dogme 95 movie (a filmmaking philosophy that emphasizes bare-bones methods) about a group of tourists whose bus breaks down. She and Levring got along well and planned another project.

"The Intended" is McTeer's first completed screenplay. The others, she says, are "bits and pieces in my hard drive."

Writing was the best preparation for the role. By the time filming started, McTeer knew Sarah -- a woman who grows increasingly desperate. And that was a good thing, because with a $3-million budget, a cast of 11 and a set in the rainforests of Borneo, everyone had to pitch in to make the production work.

"It was a small movie, so I sort of had my little finger in every pie," McTeer says. "There were times that the river was rising. It flooded, and then it became completely dry, and then we lost a jetty. We nearly lost a boat. And then we had to sit all day to wait until the rain would stop. So it was very tense if you're on a small-budget film, but also great fun."

Like the characters in the movie, the cast and crew had to endure the oppressive heat. "It was so hot in the jungle, and we were all wearing 1920s clothes, and they were all made of heavy wool. There was a pool in our hotel -- Oh, thank God! I have never enjoyed swimming so much in my life."

Born in Newcastle, in the north of England, she moved with her family to York, where her parents still live, at age 6.

The young McTeer wanted to be a ballerina -- until she grew. She's more than 6 feet tall. Then she considered medicine, but she disliked Latin. "And I wanted to be prime minister," she says, "but then I discovered plays when I was about 13. I had two great English teachers, and they were fantastic. They would take us out and see Shakespeare and that kind of thing, and I just loved it."

At 16, she took a job selling coffee at the York Theatre on weekends, which gave her the opportunity to see shows. Inspired, she applied to the Royal Academy of Dramatic Art.

"I went to an audition to get into the drama school having never acted before," McTeer says. "It was quite scary, and looking back, I can't believe how I had the courage, but thank God I did."

At the academy, McTeer and her classmates frequented London theaters, where Judi Dench, Vanessa Redgrave and Maggie Smith reigned. "They're such great actresses. They're strong, powerful, fantastic on stage. When I was in drama school in the 1980s, we just watched these women do the parts that you hoped you'd play one day."

And she did. One of her first roles after graduating was Rosalind in Shakespeare's "As You Like It." Many compared her to Redgrave, who'd also played Rosalind on the London stage. "It was unbelievably flattering," she says.

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