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Interview with Janet McTeer

Janet McTeer smiling

HBO

Did you do any research to play Clementine?

Janet McTeer

Yes. There've been many, many books written about Winston, and their daughter Mary Soames wrote a wonderful book about her mother. I read that cover to cover and then cover to cover again. And then Winston and Clemmie wrote these amazing letters to each other all their lives, and Lady Soames collected that into a book called 'Speaking for Themselves' and I read that as well. You try and get into their heads really, and work out what they really thought about each other, how they really felt, what she was like as a person, how she must have sounded. You look at all the photographs and see all the choices that she made about how she chose to dress herself and do her hair and psychologically what that all means or what you can infer from that. It's much, much, much, much, much more fun than playing an imaginary character.

HBO

Really?

Janet McTeer

Oh yeah, because it's lots of things that you wouldn't necessarily think of, ever. It's great.

I don't know how she put up with him, honestly, bloody hell.

HBO

How would you describe her?

Janet McTeer

Incredibly elegant, hugely discreet in all kinds of ways. Everyone referred to her as reserved, but she wasn't a 'little woman.' She had very strong political beliefs. She was a woman who hugely believed in duty: Your duty to your country, your duty to your husband, your duty to all kinds of things. She worked incredibly hard at what she considered to be her duty. If she felt that Winston was making a mistake, she'd absolutely tell him he was making a mistake. The 'little woman' behind the man as it were, wasn't her at all. If she thought he was wrong, she'd tell him. They had huge fights sometimes. She was a devoted loyal friend. Not a frivolous person in any way shape or form.

HBO

Although this story is about world events, it's actually about relationships. What point have they reached in their relationship, would you say?

Janet McTeer

If you wanted to do a film about Winston Churchill at war, you might as well watch one of the many brilliant documentaries that are already out there. The reason Hugh Whitemore has written such a good script is that it's about the human cost of being that person. How do you cope with having that much responsibility? What does it do to you, what does it do to your relationship, how do you cope with that and where does it leave you? Which is why the film starts in 1945, with the cost on their relationship, and how hard that was. It was a different time, and people didn't separate so much as they do now, but it was a moment in time when they could have, and the film examines how they got there.

I've described her as, a bit of a saint. I don't know how she put up with him, honestly, bloody hell. I guess because he was genuinely brilliant and was hugely entertaining and hugely funny. I think partly because his mother was American, he had this huge emotional availability that a lot of reserved Englishmen probably didn't and she loved that. He was slightly eccentric in all those ways, but he was really hard work and I sometimes wonder whether she thought it was worth it. But I think in the end she did, which is why they were generally loving all their lives, but it wasn't an easy marriage in that sense. That's why doing a film as opposed to a documentary is interesting, because you can explore that.

HBO

As an actor, is there a moment where you have to say, 'Well I have to forget that she was a real person that I've read about and I just have to play in the scene as I would any other?'

Janet McTeer

No, no, no, never. You'd always play the scene as you think she would have done it, which is always going to be a version of yourself. I mean if Clementine Churchill's there and I'm here, the performance will always be there, somewhere in the middle. Otherwise, I'd just be doing an impression which would be rather dull. You have to bring your own heart and imagination. And yet I'm not her, I can't be her. So you have to sort of meet somewhere in the middle. But all the choices that you make, how a person gets cross or how she laughs or how she asks for a cup of tea. Or how she reacts to being applauded is not how I would react.

HBO

Do you have to make a mental note of the fact that it's set in a different time?

Janet McTeer

It becomes part of the rehearsal period, imagining how you live your day, imagining what you do with your time, imagining what you're imagining. And watching a lot of documentaries, like the 'The World at War,' and looking at books and thinking about how people really lived their lives. And talking to my dad who was in the war. It's funny my nephew's an extra today. And he's eighteen and he's down there in a RAF uniform and a funny moustache and a weird haircut. And you look at him and think, God, he's just eighteen. He'd be out there fighting, possibly dying, and that's what people lived with every single day. Trying to imagine the genuine everyday terror and the pressure of thinking, are we going to bomb Dresden? Are we going to bomb Lubeck? Are we going to send men in the boats? How are we going to get people out of Dunkirk? How many can we possibly save? How many do we think we might lose? We think we might lose 200,000 men. I mean imagine that. We're so far away from the war, our generation, we can't remember it. Really imagine you don't know whether you're going to win the war. You don't know whether Hitler is going to invade. You don't know anything, really. And that was sort of pre-media, no television, everyone had a wireless, that's it. And pre-celebrity. Apart from the movies that people would go to. The most famous people in England were Winston Churchill and Clementine Churchill. Imagining who you could possibly trust, how you couldn't tell your best friends anything. Winston would tell Clementine a huge amount of political things that she was never allowed to open her mouth about. Imagine the weight of that kind of responsibility. So you try and put yourself inside it a little bit and then see what it does, it's interesting.

HBO

Can you talk about the last scene of the movie, which you've been shooting today?

Janet McTeer

It's based on something that really happened. After the war in 1945, he lost the election to a landslide Labor victory, which was such an enormous shock and an enormous humiliation for him. He led the country to victory and everyone knew it, and many people were shocked that people wouldn't vote for him in peace. He was incredibly broken by that. So it's the end of the war, he's exhausted, and just at the end of his tether, really, as was Clemmie, and they go to the theater to try and have a nice evening out, not really looking forward to it, and end up being quite moved when at the theater, they applaud him for saving the nation. It's incredibly moving to realize that it's all been for something. It might have cost an enormous amount in human terms, but it was for something -- the freedom of everybody there not being in a Nazi prison somewhere.

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