Janet McTeer talks Jessica Jones and playing the superhero mother with her own dark edge.
When Janet McTeer’s character first appeared in Jessica Jones, she was a menace, an interesting character, but she was dark with a lot of power. Turns out she was Alisa Campbell Jones, Jessica’s mother. Her character is a change from anything McTeer has played before, but it was a once in a lifetime role that she gladly accepted, especially when it was a role written by women.
Below, McTeer talks about playing Alisa and what it was like to work alongside Melissa Rosenberg, the show’s producer and writer Raelle Tucker as she brought Alisa to our TV screens.
How did this start for you?
I was given that phone call where they said, “They’re interested in you for this and it’s a Marvel thing.” I thought, “Crikey, that’s not for me, that’s not my world at all.” They told me to watch Jessica Jones so I started watching the first season and got really hooked. I thought it was really good and it was not what I had expected at all. Not that I think anything Marvel wasn’t good, it was more that I didn’t know how to do that superhero stuff.
I talked to Melissa Rosenberg (showrunner) and Raelle Tucker (writer) and they were so together and great and clearly they were writing for women. I felt like the story was darker than I had imagined and was more about real things. It seemed to me that the idea of playing these characters could have normal problems but in a superhero world that meant their powers were superpowers and that seemed very dramatic to me.
Again, because it was female writers writing for women. I felt that if this had been written by men, I’d feel this would have been her father not her mother. I’d never seen a woman play this kind of character with this kind of rage and with this kind of power, but also with the complexity and with all the things you can bring to it as a woman and mother and I thought that was a really fantastic combination. All these great things you could bring to her.
What were you told about her going in?
I read scripts and they told me everything that was going to happen to her and it felt like such a complicated character to dive into. On the page, the last episodes were still being worked on, they slightly tailor things so we had big conversations about the last chapter and where that was going. They were great about it.
I knew everything. We had to sign a no-release form and not tell anyone about what you’re doing. You go along with that and I think it’s really good fun. Why would you want to tell the audience and spoil it for them? Why would you want to do anything that’s less than good fun for your audience?
You’re coming into season two, was there pressure coming in at that point at all or was it just fresh?
I think what was less pressure was that I wasn’t trying to outkill Killgrave because you can’t and David Tennant was fantastic. All you can do is do something completely different story. You’re not trying to outbad somebody or compete on the bad level. You could just do what’s on the page and you give it your best. I thought the biggest challenge was not to make her a monster, but to make her complicated and to make people feel for her. That was the most complicated challenge.
You’re starring opposite Krysten Ritter, what is that like playing opposite her?
We were very fortunate to shoot the scenes in sequence so the scenes we shot first were those where they hadn’t seen each other for ten years. By the time, we got to the end of the series, we had been working together really closely for months and that gave us a chance to work together and create that relationship together in sequence and that was invaluable in terms of shooting.
What do you think drives her?
Her desire to protect people she loves. It’s as simple as that. Even if it comes out in a wrong and twisted way, that’s all she’s interested in.
Was it fun to play someone like this?
I had never done anything like that before. It was really fun doing that.
You’ve also got Ozark a whole other world. Talk about being on that and going from Marvel to the other.
I had already seen season one and thought the actors and writing were great. When that came up, it just seemed like a no-brainer to do. I had finished this and did that after.
What makes you say yes to a role?
It has to be something that interests me or the writing has to be really good or that the people involved are really good. Sometimes, I read something and think I just want to have a go at it. Other times, you think about how long you’ll be away from your family and will you get home enough and those other questions. Somewhere along the line, you have to pay your mortgage. It’s usually a combination of all those things, but in general, if it doesn’t interest me I won’t do it.
Did you have a say in the way your character looked?
Absolutely. 100%. I felt her original look was weak, not because it was imagined as weak, but maybe because they didn’t have me in mind when they wrote it. I thought she should be hard, especially as you find out she’s Jessica’s mother. We have pre-conceived ideas of what mothers should look like. Metaphorically, they should be soft at the edges and easily accessible. I felt it would be more interesting if the gentle and mothering side of her nature would be harder to find.
I went into a room with Melissa and Raelle and said that we should try a bunch of stuff. I just really felt she should look like Jessica Jones twenty years ago. She wore the jeans, the boots and was sort of somewhat similar in terms of that. We didn’t see a flowery pattern anywhere and got rid of all those soft edges. We know early on that she is the killer and you have that pre-conceived notion of what a killer is. They are hard, they are dangerous and terrifying. I wanted a portrayal of all those things so that the motherly things would be more of a shock. We spent more than three hours trying a number of looks.
Who is the true bad-ass this season?
Well, according to my butcher, it’s Trish Walker.