Janet McTeer is the sort of interview subject that when you get them on the phone they are more interested in talking to you than the preassigned subject. That’s not to say McTeer isn’t proud of her work on “Ozark,” but she had a reputation as an ego-less interview for decades. And in a pandemic where many stars have let their hair or guard down for one reason or another, she’s the same charming Janet McTeer who won over awards season nine years ago when on the campaign trail for “Albert Nobbs.”
A two-time Oscar nominee for her roles in “Nobbs” and “Tumbleweeds,” McTeer has turned heads once again with her performance as Helen Pierce in the third season of the Netflix drama series. As Marty and Wendy Bryde (Jason Bateman, Laura Linney) attempt to re-start their Missouri lives by running a river casino, Helen decides to move to the area for the summer to oversee the investment of her boss, Omar Navarro (Felix Solis), a notorious Mexican drug lord. To say it’s a rough and tumble few months for all involved is an understatement.
McTeer jumped on the phone from her home in Maine to discuss her time on the series, whether Helen is as cold as her icy exterior suggests and her thoughts on returning to film in a pandemic environment.
Please note: There are major spoilers for “Ozark” season three below.
The Playlist: How are things in Maine? I’m assuming pretty calm and not too crazy.
Janet McTeer: Yeah. We’re so fortunate, honestly. We live in the woods, you’ve got a lot of space. You can go for a walk, you can go for a hike. You can go for a bike ride. My garden is looking better than it’s ever lived before. We’re not traveling anywhere and considering we travel all the time, that feels like a real bonus. The weather is beautiful. It’s summer. It’s not winter. We’re just incredibly fortunate that this is where we live during this time. I feel very lucky.
No doubt. Well, you sound like you’ve had one of the best places to be during a stay at home isolation than anyone I’ve talked to.
I know, I know. I feel guilty every time I say it, to be honest. Rubbing everybody else’s nose in it. All my friends, everyone who’s stuck inside and it’s just… Yeah. Are you in LA?
I am in LA, which by the way, was not a horrible place to be during the stay at home.
No. You can get out on a bike or go for a walk, I guess. Where about are you in LA?
I live in West Hollywood. I’m sure you’ve been to LA many times. I would say about up to four weeks ago, you would have seen more people walking around this city than you could ever believe.
I didn’t even know people who lived in Los Angeles had legs.
We do have legs. We use them rarely. Usually just for exercise.
Yeah, exactly. To actually going on a bike or to go from a bar to a restaurant to a film set.
But no, trust me, I have a lot of sympathy for friends in very crowded cities like New York.
Yeah. That’s that is brutal. I don’t know how they do it.
Me either, to be honest. But wait, we need to talk about “Ozark”!
We don’t have to, we can just talk if you’d like.
But I do want to talk about it because I want to congratulate you on the third season.
Also, not that the show wasn’t popular before, but this season’s release occurred right when the pandemic was happening. And I had more people telling me they were watching it than ever before. Granted you’re in Maine, I don’t know what your access to social media is, But did you get any sense of that, about how many people were actually watching this season?
Yes. Somebody told me some extraordinary number of like 29 million households tuned into it within the first, whatever it was, week or something. It was just unbelievable. And on the one hand, you think, “Wow, that’s crazy.” And on the other hand, you think, “Well, we’re in the middle of a pandemic. Or rather at the beginning of a pandemic. How wonderful that there’s something that people want to watch. That’s so cool.” But you feel like, “O.K., well, I’m hoping I’m helping a little bit by being the most evil person and really long legs in tall pants. That’s really sort of helping you kind of while away the day, while we all come to terms with the world shutting down.” So, that felt good.
Well, it should because I think it did help. Do you remember when in season two you knew that Helen would return for a third season? Was it discussed?
Yes, it was. Because, honestly, I had a one-season deal. I was doing it for one season, just for fun. And then during the course of, I don’t know, maybe I’d film four or five episodes. We all got on well. We all were having a nice time. And there started to be little jokes [executive producer Chris Mundy] about, “Ooh, when Helen comes back next year. Ooh, when she comes back, maybe we’d have to do this, that, and the other.” And then he, eventually, he said, “Would you be interested in doing it, if we did it?” And I said, “Absolutely, I’m having a great time. I would love to come back.” And so from then on, that was kind of it really.
But for the third season, you knew it was just for that season. Am I correct?
Correct. Yes. That’s correct.
I talked to Laura a few weeks ago and she recalled that she didn’t know until close to the end that maybe you weren’t coming back or what was going to happen to Helen.
Yeah, she got very wobbly chinned when I told her. She did, because we’re great friends and we shared a house while we were filming. And so when I told her, she went, “No, no, they can’t do that to me. They can’t take you away from me. That’s not fair.” And Chris said, “I’m really sorry, but that’s the way the story goes. And someone has to go. And it’s always going to be a surprise because that’s the nature of the beast.”
When Helen first appears in this season, she’s literally being waterboarded. I’ve heard that you refused to let a stunt person do it. What was your thinking behind that?
I mean, no, there was a stunt person there. Absolutely. You can’t do something like that without a stunt person there. I had a stunt double, but they kept saying, “You all right, Janet? You all right?” And I’m like, “No, I’m absolutely fine. I’m absolutely fine.” I don’t know. It’s a sort of a point of pride. I can’t put my finger on it. You just sort of think, “No, I just want to give it a go.” I think she did one shot, I think, and then I did the rest. I think there might have been one shot that she did, one long shot. I’m not quite sure, but I know I was there and underneath the towel and soaking wet from many, many hours.
It was a great way to come back even though that doesn’t sound very fun.
Oh, no. You know, if you’re only doing something like that as a one-off, then it’s always really good fun because it’s something you’re never going to do again. And that was kind of fun. I was kind of looking forward to it. I was reading the first script and there it was. And it says, “This is what’s happening. And then the hand comes up and we realize it’s Helen.” I absolutely howled with laughter. I thought it was just such a brilliant entrance for her to come back as, the person who’s the bad guy, to come back being the victim, which is just such clever writing. It was just so great. I laughed out loud.
I wanted to ask about that because I would have thought that any rational human being if someone they were working for that is publicly known did this to them, I would try to find a way to get out of it. And Helen, who seems very intent on protecting her daughter isn’t running for the hills, isn’t trying to figure a way to get out of it. Why do you think that is?
I mean, a lot of the conversation is really about why does somebody get involved in that job in the first place, especially when it’s such a dangerous job with such dangerous people? And when you have a family, and why would you do that? That was a huge kind of conversation, but we had a lot. Because obviously as an actor, you have to figure that out, why somebody does what they do. When we talked about that scene, we sort of said, “You know what? It’s a bit like if you want to be a lawyer, you’re going to have to go through the LSATs. If you’re going to work for a drug cartel, at some point they are going to probably interrogate you one very unpleasant way or another to make sure that you’re still on board, you’re still on the side. You’re still on message.” But that her kind of stubbornness was that “I can do this. Don’t mess with me. I’m absolutely top-notch.” And at some point, we sort of discussed how she fell into the job as it were or created the job for herself. And I think it became this sort of mad challenge that she couldn’t get herself disentangled from. And, of course, the story in episode three, my character, Helen, is that the older her children get, they’re in a trickier position. The more that you can’t actually walk away from the job and you end up kind of keep doing what you’re doing. And then, of course, in the end, we all know what happens to her. So, it wasn’t really a good choice, was it?
No, it wasn’t. It’s funny, I think a lot of people watch the show and think there’s very little redeeming about Helen as a person. But I felt like as the season went on, the love for her daughter really did come to the forefront. Do you think that’s why she keeps doing this?
I think she keeps doing it for the challenge. I really do. I think she keeps doing it partly because she just got into it, and partly because it’s so complicated and so difficult to keep your head above water in that sense, to keep ahead of the law, to keep ahead of the feds. And that there’s something about that challenge that just really appeals to her that nobody else could do it from her point of view. And that’s really enticing to her, appeals to her ego, I think. And I think when they introduced the whole idea of her having a family and you see her with her family, I was kind of initially slightly nervous about that, and as much as I was like, “Oh, hang on. I don’t know how to be scary Helen if I have to go around packing lunchboxes and discussing motherly matters.” And then I realized that that was kind of the point. The point is, how do you play somebody who works a drug cartel on one hand and then, on the other hand, is looking after, worrying and loving of her children? And I think there was a moment when me and Madison, who plays my daughter, we were sitting, it was the top of a scene and I said, “Oh, let it go on a bit longer. I think this is the only time you’d ever see Helen really laugh,” or something like that. And there becomes this ease with her and her daughter and you just see this person who looks like a normal mom. And that contradiction between the normal mom and scary Helen is kind of also scary. You know what I mean? Just before Ben comes in and screams.
Right. I remember that scene. I remember thinking, “Oh, this is the first time we’ve seen her just seem like a regular person.”
Exactly. And I don’t think that was written that way and I said, “Can we just rest a little bit, right at the beginning, just a line or two, so you really see us having a good time and just being normal. And let’s just see if that can work.” And so they kept a little bit of that in, which was really what I was hoping for. It just adds to the complexity of this curious woman who can literally order people to be killed one minute and then go home and be cross with her ex-husband the next.
In the final episode, there’s that great scene where Jonah [Skylar Gaertner] arrives at her home with a shotgun and eventually forces her toward the couch. And for a good chunk of it, it seems like, “Oh, it’s Helen the lawyer trying to negotiate, trying to calm him down.” But then there’s a moment where she says, “I’m sorry. I’m sorry.” And you actually think she might be.
Yeah, I think she is.
Was it written that way in the script? Can you just talk about the thought process at that moment?
When we did it, I just felt really clear that if you’re a big controlling person and you think you’ve got everything in control, you think you know where you are, you think you know what’s happening. And then you find yourself in a situation where you realize that actually not in control at all anymore or not much. And I felt like it would be a good thing if we just got a hint of the fact that this person, particularly because I know that we’re half an episode away from the end, I just thought it’d be really good if you just saw this person who, just for a glimpse, was like, “Oh, you know what I should never have got involved with this. I’ve messed up my daughter. I’m in trouble. And now there’s this nice young kid with her. I’m really sorry, mate. Honestly, I should just never have gone for it. This isn’t what I had planned. I’m really sorry.” And that she means it. I thought given where I know that the next bit of the story was going to go, I felt it was really important to see that.
I felt like it gave her a slight bit of redemption as a human being.
Marginal. Yes. Marginal. [Laughs.]
Marginal redemption. I don’t want to turn her into this nice person, all of a sudden. Absolutely not. But somebody who just for a second, you just think, “Oh, maybe you’ve learned your lesson mate. It wasn’t quite such a good idea.”
I know you guys were in Georgia and I know you said that you shared a house with Laura. Was it a fun experience overall?
Oh my God, yeah. By the time he got to shooting the last episode, we were all turning around going, “Maybe, we should just shoot her in the leg,” because we were all having such a good time. And then we can’t because that’s the real kind of bang, bang, holy cow, that sends you off into the next season, hopefully. But we had a lovely time. I mean, one of the things about working for an ongoing television… Would you call it a series?
It’s a series. Yeah, yeah.
Often you are working with the same people a lot. So the same DP, the same crew. They come back a second time because they had such a nice time. And the people in charge are incredibly decent, lovely people who want the workplace to be a nice environment. I mean, there were times obviously where everyone’s exhausted and the weather’s terrible. As you know, we were in Georgia. There were many Saturday nights when we were out by the lake where we shoot, and when the lightning comes, you have to stop. You can’t have anything electric outside. So, you all just go inside and you’re stuck inside for three or four hours doing nothing, waiting for the lightning to go, by which time it’s three o’clock in the morning. And you are like, “Ugh, I can’t even remember the lines of the scene anymore. Let alone what I’m supposed to say or how I’m supposed to say it.” So, of course, there are lots of very tiring moments or it’s very incredibly hot or incredibly cold as it was the season before. But it was tremendous fun because, like I said, the people who are in charge only like to work with nice people and all the people involved were just great and very professional. And we all had a ball. I mean, really. You go into the makeup trailer in the morning and those old days when everyone could cram into the same makeup trailer, not anymore, but then, and you would have everybody’s dogs in there and everybody’s all playing in the corner. Nice music. I mean, it was a delightful work. And then, of course, sharing a house with Laura and Susan, who is a makeup lady, [and it] was just three grown-up women, all with families, all looking after each other, all having a nice time in our pajamas, making each other coffee. It was delicious. So, because if you’re going to be away from your family for quite some time filming, it can get quite lonely. And so it was just very, very nice to share with friends, and that made it a much nicer experience. And now I’m talking to you, I think, well, I’m going to have to call Chris Mundy and say, “Maybe they should have shot me in the leg.”
You mentioned how at the time you could have so many people in the makeup trailer. They’ve tried to figure out some ways to shoot again in this new environment. I’m not sure if you shot “The President is Missing” yet.
Yeah. We shot the first week, I think. And I was shooting all of my stuff because they were shooting me out in the first episode because I was actually somewhere else the following week. And so we had been there, I think, for two weeks. We rehearsed and then we shot for a week. And then all of a sudden it was Wednesday night or Thursday night and we were filming quite late and I picked up my phone to say good night to my boys and all of a sudden, there’s like a thousand texts. And I’m like, “What?” And suddenly the whole world shut down. So we filmed for, it might’ve been the Thursday night. And we filmed one extra day, and then we all came home. That was it. It was insanity like it was for everyone else. Yeah. So, I have no idea. They still have to finish that.
Are you done with that or do you have to go back?
No, I think I’m done with the pilot unless they have to re-write it in the current environment. I have no idea. Do you know what I mean? Because it’s a modern piece. So, I have no idea what’s happening with that at the moment. I’ve been reading everything about how we’re going to shoot in the future, et cetera, et cetera.
Are you looking forward to filming in general again? How do you feel about it, if I can ask?
I don’t know if I can remember how to act anymore. I don’t know what that is. I know I used to do it once, but now all I can do…[Laughs.] Well, all I can say is all I’ve done is garden. So, I hope whoever my character is [that she] has very bad nails because trust me, I have terrible nails. Am I looking forward to it? That’s a funny one. I mean, of course, I am. But I’m still more concerned about everyone being all right. That concerns me more. Because one of the benefits of being older is that I’ve done it for a long time and have every intention of doing it for a lot longer. And I’m very fortunate, unlike a lot of very young actors starting out, who’ve now got nothing and probably no money. And they’re wondering how they’re going to pay their rent. So I would much rather they did a lot of work if I’m honest because I’m all right. And then when everybody’s all right and they’ve all got jobs, then I’ll come back to work. Will I miss it? Would I miss it? Yes, I would. Absolutely. I mean, if I get to September, summer in Maine, what’s not to love? If I get to September and October and I still haven’t got a job, I’ll be slightly kind of, “Ooh, O.K.” Well, I know what I’d do. I’m going to start studying. But I feel, if I’m totally honest, I’m not making myself try and sound like a saint, but I’m very concerned for all the young actors around and all the young people in our profession on every walk of life. And I want them to get out there and start living their lives. I’m fine.
Same. I totally am with you.
Do you know what I mean?
Yeah, I totally do, actually. It is a concern and, listen, I’m pretty fortunate. I can basically work anywhere for what I personally do. So, I have so much concern and sympathy for those who do not.
But Janet, thank you so much for taking the time today. I hope that you have a wonderful summer and if you go to the beach, you watch out for those sandflies because the Maine sandflies are horrible.
I don’t think I will go to the beach. They opened the beach yesterday and apparently they were turning people away. It was absolutely packed.
Oh wow. Really?
Yeah. I’m not sure I’m going to be doing that anytime soon.
Well, if you steal a moment away. But thank you so much and best of luck with this and hope to talk to you down the road.
Thank you so much. And stay well and stay safe.
“Ozark” season three is available on Netflix worldwide.