Janet McTeer plays Julia Walsh, the head of British intelligence, in “The Honorable Woman,” a complex eight-part political thriller about the Israeli-Palestinian crisis. “The idea of something being that clever, that doesn’t insult the intelligence of the audience, I thought was really wonderful,” she says of the project. She also gets “some of the best feminist lines ever written, I think.” (Watch our complete video chat below.)
That includes a scene in a late episode when she outmaneuvers her male counterparts and puts them in their place by saying, “In a room full of pussies, I’m the only one with a vagina.” She relished that scene, but “it’s one of those lines that’s such a killer line that you have to do it 10 times because you’re not quite sure you got it right.”
That scene, and indeed the entire miniseries, explores what it’s like for women to navigate the typically male-dominated worlds of government and business. “Particularly in England, there’s such an old boys’ network in all those echelons of government,” says McTeer, so “it was great to play a woman at the head of it.”
The actress took some inspiration from Stella Rimington, who became the first female director general of MI5 in 1992. Rimington “was very high up in government in England, and I thought a lot about her and what it takes to be that kind of cutthroat head of a political team. It takes a lot of balls,” says McTeer.
But while Julia Walsh has many admirable qualities, she’s no clear-cut hero. McTeer closely considered the character’s virtues and vices while playing her: “How many people is she willing to get rid of, or compromise, or undermine, or throw under the bus in order to fulfill her own ambition, and how much of it is for the good of the country?” she wondered. Ultimately, McTeer doesn’t think Walsh would undermine England for personal gain, “but at the same time, if you’re going to do it, you might as well get to the top.”
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