Janet McTeer Plays Genderqueer in ‘Albert Nobbs’

The two-time Academy Award nominee talks about her role in the Oscar-nominated period drama set in 19th century Ireland

British actress Janet McTeer portrays a cross-dressing lesbian in Albert Nobbs, opposite Glenn Close who stars in the title role. Based on a short story by George Moore and directed by Rodrigo Garcia, Albert Nobbs (in theaters now) stars Close as a woman passing as a man for more than 30 years in hard-scrabble 19th-century Dublin. Working as a butler at a hotel, a job only open to men, Albert excels in hospitality while keeping her biological gender a secret. In squirreling away her wages, Albert dreams of buying a tobacconist’s shop and finding someone to love. Hubert Page (McTeer) is a working-class painter with a similar secret—but for whom love, security and self-acceptance aren’t just dreams.

McTeer, 50, noted for her selection of uber-challenging roles, has never played transgender—but she certainly has played gay before. If you were lucky, you witnessed her astonishing performance as Vita Sackville-West in the 1990 TV miniseries Portrait of a Marriage. More recently, McTeer played Gertrude Lawrence, a British stage actress romantically linked with author and playwright Daphne du Maurier, in the 2007 TV movie Daphne. This month, she appears again on the big screen in The Woman in Black, a supernatural thriller starring Daniel Radcliffe.

Currently, McTeer is living in New York, shooting the fifth season of the TV series Damages with her Nobbs co-star, Glenn Close.

GO: Let’s talk about your role in Albert Nobbs, Hubert Page. How did you prepare to play your character?

Janet McTeer: I really felt that Hubert should be everything that Albert wanted and everything that Albert wasn’t; though, as a character, you’re also a function in a piece. I just felt that Hubert was confident, funny, peaceful, happy and very much at peace as a human being. That’s what Albert sees. That’s what Albert emulates and wants to become.

And the only way to do that was to play somebody who wasn’t hiding as a man, but somebody who was actually free as a man. So, instead of portraying Hubert as someone who had become a man to escape abuse, which is true, I think Hubert remained a man because Hubert found it to be the most comfortable. I thought that was really important.

And that essentially sums up Hubert’s character, gender identity and romantic relationship. It’s all very matter-of-fact and totally natural.

Absolutely. A bit later on, after they’ve been dressed as women, Hubert says to Albert, “you’re a really kind, nice human being, so if you want someone to share your life with, go out and find someone.” And Hubert doesn’t tell Albert to find her or find him. Hubert doesn’t presume anything. It’s a sort of utopian, non-judgmental quality that I wanted the character to have.

About Hubert’s physical appearance, movement and speech, did that take trial and error to develop? Did you have to overcome some feminine mannerisms?

It did take a bit of trial and error. I worked on the movement and the speech for quite a long time before it all came together. Just in terms of trying to feel like a man, walk like a man, move like a man—and certainly the Irish accent—I practiced all that for quite a long time. When I found the boots and the trousers, that really helped. I wore three pairs of socks and the boots were huge and heavy, which helped my movement.

I also hid my hands. You can’t really hide your hands and my hands are quite feminine, so I tried my best to keep them in my pocket. Or I’d smoke a cigarette with them. Every now and then, Rodrigo [Garcia], our fantastic director, would go, “Put your hands in your pocket!”

Can you talk about the significance of the beach scene in Albert Nobbs, where Albert and Hubert are dressed as women? 

When Albert speaks of having forgotten what it’s like to be a woman, Hubert can see that Albert kind of doesn’t know who she is. And Albert says, “maybe I can come and live here with you, the way that Kathleen [Hubert’s partner] did.” Hubert can see that she has no idea what that’s about and probably suspects that, given the choice, Albert would continue to live as a man.

Hubert says, “let’s get some dresses on” and they put the dresses on and go running about on the beach, but Albert realizes that she’s no longer that person. So, then they come back, get dressed up as men again, and Hubert says, “you don’t have to be anybody but who you are.” Just be yourself. That’s the significance.

One of the tragic things about Albert is that even though Hubert demonstrates a life of love and natural ease and happiness that Albert can perceive, maybe she’s not quite capable of it.

It’s like at the end of a very long marriage, when the thing that remains more than anything else is being best friends, no matter how hot the sheets were at the beginning. That’s a huge part of a relationship. Albert wants that. Albert wants a home: safety, security, companionship. I think that’s a very common fantasy for lots of people. She just doesn’t quite manage it. And Hubert has it.

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