When Tumbleweeds made its debut last winter at the Sundance Film Festival, a few people found themselves a bit flustered. One fan charmed by Janet McTeer's lead performance as a high-strung North Carolina mama with a cornpone-coated heart raised his hand during a post-screening Q&A to offer an observation. ''You the sweetest Southern girl I ever seen,'' he shouted. ''Ain't you my cousin?''
''I rather think not,'' McTeer responded, ''unless you mean the south of England.''
That a Royal Academy of Dramatic Art-trained thespian could so convincingly transform into a fried green tomato may explain why McTeer, 38, is being touted as an early Oscar contender (having Fine Line and powerhouse PR firm PMK pushing her for a nomination doesn't hurt either). Last month, McTeer's scalding work in Tumbleweeds a dysfunctional mother-and-daughter road flick now opening across the country won her a Best Actress trophy at the Fort Lauderdale Film Festival. Don't laugh. Those tiny regional awards have a way of predicting who gets a date with the little gold man. Nor was that the first time McTeer had taken home a statue: She's already packing a Tony from her 1997 Broadway revival of Ibsen's A Doll's House.
''I'd never even been to America,'' McTeer says of her journey from the moors of England to the New York stage and beyond. ''I'd done quite a lot of arty-farty BBC stuff, but I wasn't exactly a big commercial kind of girl. As far as I was concerned, I was coming to do my little play and go home.''
That return ticket took some time to get punched. Word of McTeer's wide-eyed talent in addition to her BBC activities, she'd honed her craft with Shakespearean stage roles quickly made her a hot property. She now has the same American agent as Calista Flockhart (Bill Butler), and a manager who reps Nicole Kidman (Marc Epstein). ''All these people would come and visit and offer me work,'' says McTeer. ''So I thought, Well, I'll just stay here a little while and see what happens.''
One person who'd heard about McTeer was indie writer-director Gavin O'Connor, whose Tumbleweeds screenplay featured a grits-and-gravy lead named Mary Jo, who drags her daughter Ava (Kimberly J. Brown) through a deep pile of man trouble. ''I saw Janet on Charlie Rose,'' he says, ''and I knew -- this is Mary Jo.'' The two met for drinks, and, impressed by McTeer's ankle tattoo and truck-driver vocabulary, O'Connor offered her the job. Goodbye Ibsen, hello Appalachia. ''I felt like burning my corsets,'' McTeer recalls.
Still, it takes some preparation for a woman raised on tea and crumpets to handle hardcore Dixie shtick. Leaving her London flat behind, the unmarried six-foot actress embarked on some serious research: ''I watched Coal Miner's Daughter 32 million times,'' she explains. ''Then I spent three months in North Carolina listening.'' McTeer certainly went beyond the call of duty, considering, as she quips, she made only a few thousand quid for the gig. ''I actually earned less than I spent,'' she says. But O'Connor's intuition may foretell a lucrative future for the actress. McTeer will next be heard in two new Sundance features: the hillbilly drama Songcatcher and the romantic drama Waking the Dead, costarring Billy Crudup. ''Janet came in and did the best American accent I ever heard a Brit do,'' says director Keith Gordon (Mother Night). ''It was flawless.''