The legendary actress, who’s poised to add to a string of summer hits unprecedented for a woman over 60, sounds off on why its “bad business” to bet against women, why Oscars matter, why “the greatest” label gives her “agita” and much more.
“I want never to be limited, in terms of my imagination,” says Meryl Streep, the most revered and celebrated living actress, as we sit down to record an episode of ‘Awards Chatter’ in Beverly Hills. “I never have to stop being a child. I never have to stop imagining what it’s like to be somebody else. I have a restless imagination and I do have a kind of relentlessness to my personality, I’ve been told. So I think I’ve found the perfect job.” Few would disagree.
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Streep has accumulated an unprecedented 19 acting Oscar nominations over the course of her career — those for Kramer vs. Kramer, Sophie’s Choice and The Iron Lady resulted in wins, leaving her only one win behind Katharine Hepburn for the record — and, following Friday’s nationwide release of Stephen Frears‘ Florence Foster Jenkins, advance screenings of which have generated massive buzz, she may well be on her way to number 20. In the charming dramedy, she plays the eponymous turn-of-the-20th-century New York socialite who loved to perform opera but was oblivious to the fact that she had an awful voice. The part, in anyone else’s hands, could have been one-dimensional and grating. But in the hands of Streep, humor, heart and humanity always shine through.
The 67-year-old, who was born in New Jersey, tells me she’s been acting since childhood, in more than one sense. “I, in high school, tried to be pretty, popular, a cheerleader and all those things,” she admits, and it was only when she went off to Vassar College, then an all-women school, that her “brain woke up.” She went on to the prestigious Yale School of Drama, where she was a standout actress — but had major doubts about her career choice and almost abandoned it. “I was very influenced by environmental concerns and thought being an actor, at that time, felt like an indulgence or a vanity project that I was going into debt to be, and maybe if I were going to go into debt it should be in the service of something more meaningful and something more measurable — my contribution would be something you could see instead of what I was aiming for, which was a life in the theater. At that time, I didn’t consider myself anybody that could be in the movies.”
Her achievements at Yale, however, caught the notice of the film industry. Some in it deemed her looks unworthy of the silver screen. (Dino De Laurentiis, who met her while casting his remake of King Kong, asked his son in Italian, “Why do you bring me this ugly thing?” And Streep, who knew Italian, apologized for disappointing him.) Others took one look at her and concluded that she could only star in heavy dramas, which aptly describes her first roles in TV movies (Holocaust) and films (The Deer Hunter, Kramer vs. Kramer, Sophie’s Choice and Out of Africa). “That defined me, having long blonde hair and a serious long nose and a serious face,” she says. “That was how I was cast after that. That’s the kind of script that came. They were serious parts.”
Streep’s heroes were people like Liv Ullmann, Liza Minnelli, Irene Worth, Geraldine Page, Colleen Dewhurst. “They weren’t women who were preoccupied mostly with how they looked or were they appealing; they were just women being women.” She adds, “I saw myself, and I still see myself, as a character actor, as a person who fits what I know into the skin of someone who doesn’t look like me necessarily or hasn’t been raised like I was.” More often than not, she has played people who she’s felt a need to defend. She says with a laugh, “That may just be a bent of mine, you know? That may be my personal predilection to feel that I’m misunderstood and I need to explain it.”
Few performers have ever made a name for themselves faster than Streep, who made her feature debut in Julia in 1977, starred in the best picture Oscar winners for 1978, 1979 and 1985 and won Oscars for performances in 1979 and 1982. Almost immediately, people began calling her “the greatest film actress of her generation”… then “the greatest living film actress”… and now “the greatest film actress of all time.” It’s a high compliment, but one Streep finds uncomfortable. “It gives me agita, is what it gives me,” she says. “It’s just nauseating and unhelpful in the deepest sense of what acting is. Acting is just this exchange — unless you’re alone in a room or you’re Jeremy Irons in that thing where he played twins [1988’s Dead Ringers].” She says the hype tends to intimidate her scene partners. “It makes it harder. It’s like this big thing that you have to deflate.”
But Streep’s reputation, of course, doesn’t come unearned. She prepares meticulously. (She famously can nail just about any accent — although, she insists, “I don’t even think about that stuff when I’m working, when I’m making a scene with somebody. I’m just listening to the other person. I’m not thinking, ‘Oh, is this vowel right?’ You know?”) She makes unexpected choices. (“If somebody expects me to be sweet, I can’t help but mine the venom in that character that’s there, because people are so complicated, people are so interesting and there’s always something that’s hidden and something’s that contradictory in a character.”) And she consistently delivers results — not only critically-acclaimed performances, but critically-acclaimed performances in movies that make money.
Movies starring women over 40 aren’t “supposed” to be box-office smashes. Over the past decade, though, during most of which Streep has been over 60, she has anchored summer hit after summer hit — The Devils Wears Prada, Mamma Mia!, Julie & Julia, Hope Springs, The Giver and Ricki and the Flash. (Early indications suggest Florence Foster Jenkins may soon join the list.) “Each one was regarded by the powers that be at the studios as a one-off,” she says. “‘Well, that was an anomaly.’ But then they kept happening.” But is it a phenomenon that can apply beyond Streep? “Of course it can,” she says.
In fact, Streep has made it her mission to help other women “of a certain age” get their foot in the door. Since 2015, she has funded The Writers Lab, a program that annually provides 12 women screenwriters over the age of 40 with an intensive four-day retreat at which they work with women who have already “made it” in the biz. (It announced its second class earlier this month.) And she feels it’s essential for more women to be elevated to positions of power in Hollywood. “I think that movies and movie-making decisions do also operate on a level of personal pride,” she says, “so that maybe these so-called ‘business decisions’ [men predominately greenlighting projects by and starring men] really have to do more with what ‘he’ wants to associate himself with.” The current way of doing things, as she sees it, is “bad business,” adding, “Look at television: it’s a landscape of women. Interesting women. Movies haven’t caught up.”
Streep is not a notorious awards-chaser like some, but she does acknowledge that awards — and specifically the Oscars — can be an extremely valuable marketing tool for movies that are otherwise tough sells. She cites The Iron Lady‘s phenomenal box-office success — it grossed $ 150 million worldwide — as a case-in-point: “That was because of the Oscars [where she won best actress and her longtime collaborator J. Roy Helland shared best makeup with Mark Coulier]. That really helped that film to be seen. Otherwise, who would want to go see a movie about a woman with Alzheimer’s late in her life after she’s been prime minister, not while she’s ordering the ships around?”
When Streep is not making or promoting a movie, though, she prefers to fly under the radar — and acknowledges, with an unmistakable hint of dismay, that doing so seems to be going out of fashion: “I have to say, since the advent of the cell phone camera and the selfies, who is really behaving naturally? It’s like, no one! Everybody’s performing. That was sort of the joy of doing Florence: it was in a time when people were not aware of how they presented completely. They weren’t so self-aware and self-conscious all the time. On a deep level, they just lived. That was appealing to me, to sort of imagine that freedom of care.”