Janet McTeer interview: The actress is back on the London stage, playing Merteuil in Les Liaisons Dangereuses

Aged 54, the actress tells Nick Clark how she's never struggled to find strong, female parts

Janet McTeer feared she would have to quit acting when she hit 50. "I worried I would have to give up because I couldn't take dull parts after so many brilliant roles," says the actress. "But it just has not happened."

Now 54, McTeer remains as busy as ever playing strong, complex characters in shows like The White Queen, The Woman in Black and The Honourable Woman. She has now devised a plan for when she hits 60 instead. "That's when I'll start smoking and drinking again and never use skin products, so I can get all the interesting, wrinkly parts; bring them on." Before then, she laughs, "I'm enjoying my final fling as a cougar."

The actress's next role is the wickedly calculating and charismatic schemer, the Marquise de Merteuil in the 30th-anniversary production of Christopher Hampton's Les Liaisons Dangereuses at the Donmar Warehouse. "In Les Liaisons you get the lot and the character is beyond fun," she says. "Merteuil's mission is to mess people up, to mess with men's lives and hopefully bring a few girls along with her." Dominic West plays her manipulative foil, the Vicomte de Valmont, with Una Stubbs and Edward Holcroft, currently appearing in BBC2's London Spy, also in the cast.

Hampton's adaptation of the 1782 novel by Pierre Choderlos de Laclos premiered at the RSC in 1985 with Lindsay Duncan and Alan Rickman in the lead roles. An award-winning film followed in 1998 and it was revived on Broadway a decade later. The Marquise has been played by Glenn Close and Laura Linney, among others. "There's a process in rehearsal where you have to let go of that and ask what you can do with the part," says McTeer.

"They behave so appallingly, and their egos and vanities and evilness should make them cringingly awful, yet as an audience you kind of love them. There is something delicious about seeing these people in their finery behaving in a supposedly serious manner then all they can talk about is deflowering each other and who can sleep with whom. The contrast heightens it all."

McTeer and West have worked hard in rehearsals, from creating crackling tension to drawing up a backstory for the two manipulators. "Like all great manipulators, they are jazz pianists. It's not that they have a great plan, but they think on their feet," she says. "She clearly loves Valmont but in the end she destroys him rather than let him hurt her. If there's no vulnerability about her then it just makes her purely evil." She believes the Marquise is shaped by a troubled past. "This is a play about damage. Merteuil describes herself with a catalogue of repression she's grown up under, how to escape it, and the accompanying sexual hatred. You think she's in control but she isn't. She messes herself up and destroys her life."

The play marks the Newcastle-born actress's return to the Donmar for the first time in a decade after she starred there opposite Harriet Walter in Mary Stuart, which subsequently transferred to Broadway. "To come back here feels fitting," she says. "I love the Donmar, everything about it. About the way these wonderful women [artistic director Josie Rourke and executive producer Kate Pakenham] run it. It's a great place. I also hadn't done a play in London for a long time."

She last appeared on the London stage in Yasmina Reza's God of Carnage at the Gielgud Theatre in 2008 and has been keen to return, though being based with her family in Maine has made it tricky. "I've been on Broadway three times and I've loved every minute of it. But the London stage is my home, without a doubt. It feels like where I belong, it is a joy," she said. "There have been offers before but they didn't feel right."

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McTeer rehearsing ‘Les Liaisons Dangereuses’ (Johan Persson)

While known largely for character roles on television, in the theatre McTeer has been described as "one of the finest classical actresses of her generation". After a stand-out performance in Uncle Vanya at the National Theatre in 1992, she won an Olivier Award and then a Tony for her "supercharged" portrayal of Nora in A Doll's House, which opened in London in 1996. It was her performance on Broadway as Mary Stuart that prompted Glenn Close to offer her a role in the film Albert Nobbs, for which they both received Oscar nominations in 2012. That came just over a decade after her first Academy Award nomination for the quirky independent film Tumbleweeds for which she won a Golden Globe. "In my heart of hearts I love theatre. It's the joy and terror of putting a play on, the creativity of it," she said. "It is infinitely harder than film and television and more tiring. Your performance is heightened in the way it isn't with film."

Her love affair with the theatre was kindled relatively late, at the age of 16, when she got a job in the café of the Theatre Royal in York. After seeing the productions there, "I remember thinking that was what I want to do". Encouragement came from an unusual source. Gary Oldman was working in the theatre and suggested she apply to drama school. McTeer said the pair joked about it when they were both nominated for an Oscar in 2012, she for Albert Nobbs, he for Tinker Tailor Soldier Spy.

She was accepted at Rada and left early when she was cast in a play. She has worked ever since. "The people I respected and wanted to be then are still the people I respect and want to be. Lindsay Duncan, Harriet Walter, Juliet Stevenson, Maggie Smith, Judi Dench, Helen Mirren, who all did amazing theatre and were just incredibly good at what they did. That's what I wanted to be. The only way to do that is to be as good as you possibly can be in as varied roles as possible."

"I've been very fortunate and never not worked," she adds. "I feel strongly for the younger actresses when a lot of their career is based on how they look. That must be hard when your looks begin to go and you haven't built up the wealth of character parts to get into something else. I've never had that. I was always a character actress," McTeer says. "You never have the ingénue parts when you are young but it stands you in great stead later on. When you are old enough to rule countries and bosses and play powerful parts, who cares if you're 45, 55 or 65?"

McTeer has had her fair share of powerful roles, from the Nineties television series, The Governor, in which she played the first woman in charge of a maximum security prison, to last year's roles as the head of the MI6 in The Honourable Woman, and police chief Kim Commander Guziewicz in Battle Creek.

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‘Les Liaisons Dangereuses’ co-stars Una Stubbs and Dominic West (Johan Persson)

"I do get offered senior authority roles a lot. I think it's because I have a deep voice, am over 6ft and am clearly authoritarian. I find strong roles really interesting. Usually that means the character is also clever. I'm fortunate I'm in a good niche. I often say if it looks like they're going to either kill people or rule people they'll call me up."

When she played Jacquetta Woodville in the BBC series The White Queen, she even demanded adjustments to her part. "They let me play her more politically which was great. One scene was written quite bitchily, and I didn't want to play a woman of this age who's still bitchy. It's belittling to women. Let's make it a power struggle, and they did."

She is tactical about the jobs she takes. Sometimes it's about "being grown up and having to pay the mortgage" but then there are the no-brainers. "When Glenn turned up in my dressing room for Albert Nobbs. When Josie asked me to do Les Liaisons..." A recent no-brainer was accepting a role in the film The Kaiser's Last Kiss, due for release next year. McTeer plays Christopher Plummer's wife.

"He was my first love," she says. On her sixth birthday her family had just moved from Newcastle to York and she had no friends to invite to a party on her birthday. Instead she was taken to see The Sound of Music, her first ever trip to the cinema.

"I fell madly in love with Christopher Plummer and I've never fallen out of love with him," she says. "I phoned my husband and told him about the part this year. He groaned and said he'd draw up the divorce papers."

'Les Liaisons Dangereuses', Donmar Warehouse, London WC2 (www.donmarwarehouse.com) 11 December to 13 February

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