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Mon February 6, 2012
Movie Interviews

Meryl Streep: The Fresh Air Interview

Originally published on Tue February 7, 2012 8:39 am

Meryl Streep is known for completely enveloping herself in her characters, capturing their nuances, speech patterns and personalities. In her films, she's transformed herself into such disparate people as the chef Julia Child, the writer Susan Orlean and plutonium-plant worker Karen Silkwood, winning countless honors and awards along the way.

In her latest film, the biopic The Iron Lady, Streep once again fully inhabits a real-world figure — this time former British Prime Minister Margaret Thatcher. Her performance has already won her a Golden Globe and an Oscar nomination, and has earned rave reviews from critics, including Charles McGrath in The New York Times, who wrote that Streep "seems even more Thatcher-like than Mrs. Thatcher."

As with all of her roles, Streep conducted extensive research about Thatcher's life before filming began. She learned that Thatcher carried around notecards with quotations from Lincoln and Shakespeare, and that she took voice lessons to sound more confident in her speech patterns.

"I remember reading that Lawrence Olivier had something to do with arranging for her to have [voice lessons]," she tells Fresh Air's Terry Gross. "He said he wouldn't care to do it himself, but he steered her in the direction of a good vocal coach. And she did go, and it did help her and and was part of the Pygmalion process."

Voice Lessons

Steep explains that Thatcher's vocal coach didn't reinvent her speech; he simply brought out a quality that the Tory leader already possessed.

"She already had whatever the stentorian tones [were] that she acquired over time — they were all lying in wait there, within her arsenal," the actress says. "She had ... a plummy kind of aspirant, upper-middle-class voice, and so what the voice coach did was enable her to expand her breath, deepen her voice, bring it to a place where men could listen to it in its most emphatic tones."

Streep listened to tapes of Thatcher both before and after the voice lessons in order to capture the nuances of her speech. She focused, she says, on the way Thatcher paused and emphasized certain words to make her points.

"[It] had to do with bringing out a word that you didn't normally think was the most important word in the sentence," she says. "And she also had a way, like a railroad train, of taking a breath quite quietly and making a point in a way that you don't realize that this point is going to be made through several examples, and there will not be a break in the speaking voice at any point, and if you think you're going to interrupt her, you're not going to have the opportunity, because she's just got capacity. ..."

It was a stunning quality, says Streep, and one that required a lot of vocal stamina.

"I needed much more breath than I have, after all of my expensive drama school training," she says. "I couldn't keep up with her. ... [She gave one speech when she was 65] that I couldn't have done when I was 30 years old, fresh out of drama school. Just the breath. As an actor, you're looking at it and going, 'Just the breath.' It's fantastic."

To play Thatcher over the course of four decades, Streep also had to wear prosthetics to age her face and neck. She worked with prosthetics designer Mark Coulier and master hair and makeup artist Roy Helland, who bleached her hair in Sophie's Choice, gave her a brown mullet for Silkwood and shaped her asymmetrical bob in The Devil Wears Prada.

Coulier is "interested, in the way I am, in changing the outside to get at something inside," Streep says. "I flew to London [for] three different tests, and it was all about taking away, taking away, taking away. Mark would carve a sculpture of me and then he'd add on, with clay, age. And then they'd cast it in a silicon thing, and I would wear it — and I would say, inevitably, 'Less, less.' So it's kind of remarkable how little I'm wearing."

She says she wanted minimal makeup in part so that her face could remain expressive — and in part so the other actors on set would see her as Thatcher.

"It's not about the audience," she says. "It's all about fooling the other actors into believing who you say you are. That's hard, when you walk on set, when it's a big makeup job. And I take my entire performance from them, so if they don't look at me and hate me appropriately or love me the way they're supposed to ... then I'm lost, I don't have anything to go on."

Playing Popular

In a 2010 commencement speech at Barnard College, Streep talked about what she has come to think of as her first role: being a popular girl at her high school. She detailed how she immersed herself in Vogue and Seventeen magazines, trying to imitate the hair and clothes of the popular girls at school. She also adjusted her temperament.

"Opinions took a back seat," she says. "Opinions were not attractive. This is stuff I remember thinking when I was quite young. At my house ... you learned to rise above the contending voices, but I recognized early on that that wasn't attractive on a date."

Streep calls her high-school performance "a form of acting for a purpose."

"Now, I don't think, [girls] don't do that as much," she says. "I have three daughters, and they're all getting along in life on their own terms. And I don't feel they make those accommodations quite in the way we did. But this was something people did."

Streep says it's only in retrospect that she thinks about her high-school years as "playing a role."

"I wasn't aware of designing myself in high school, but when I got to [college at] Vassar, all of that fell away, because it was just girls and it was the early '70s and it was the classic consciousness-raising time when people were earnestly talking about 'What's a woman? What's our role in the world? What is our capacity? What is holding us back?' "

"I felt free," she says. "A thing emerged, which was my actual personality and my actual voice, I guess, and I realized that I was funny, and allowed to be — and allowed to be loud, and obnoxious — and I took full advantage of it. ... It was an emergence."


Interview Highlights

On imitating a voice being like singing along to a record

"That's my way in, the very beginning, how to enter it. Very quickly in the process, I don't think of voice as being separate from the way you hold your head or the way you sit or the way you put on lipstick. It's all a piece of a person, and it's all driven by conviction. All the physical manifestations — you need your way in. When I was a kid — 16, 17 — I'd come home from high school, and my dad collected all of Barbra Streisand's records. She probably had three records out and she was 21. And I knew every single song, every breath, every elision, every swell. And I sang along to it. But for me, it was a way for me to get out the feeling in the song, and the feelings in high school that ... I had no other way of expressing."

On studying opera as a teenager

"I was 13. I didn't like opera. Ew. I liked cheerleading and boys — that was what I was interested in, and Barbra Streisand, The Beatles and Bob Dylan. But I loved singing. I loved it. And I did have a very good coloratura. I listened to my high school Music Man just as I was getting ready to get the Kennedy Center Honors with Barbara Cook, because I had been to see her when I was a kid in The Music Man on Broadway. And I had sung the part in my high school production and it's very good, but it's a voice I don't have anymore. It was very high and light and free."

On the difference between doing Julia Child's voice and Margaret Thatcher's voice

"Julia Child's so alive. Margaret is so designed, so intent upon making her point. That's the most important thing — that she win the argument — and there is nothing that stands in the way of that train. Julia's just alive in front of you; that's part of why people loved her."

On caring for her former partner John Cazale when he had bone cancer

"It's a part of my body. It was very hard. But yes, it did align things for me in my head and in my heart about what's important and what doesn't matter a damn."

On the roles she was offered in her 40s and 50s

"I remember when I turned 40, I was offered, within one year, three different witch roles. To play three different witches in three different contexts. It was almost like the world was saying or the studios were saying, 'We don't know what to do with you.' ... I think there was, for a long time in the movie business, a period of — when a woman was attractive and marriageable or f- - -able, that was it. And then they didn't know what to do with you until you were the lioness in winter, until you were 70, and then it was OK to do Driving Miss Daisy ... [and] things like that. But that middle period — the most vibrant of a woman's life, arguably, from 40 to 60, no one knew what to do with them. That really has changed, not completely, not for everybody, but for me it has changed. Part of it has to do with, I wasn't that word that I just said that you bleeped before; when I was a younger actress, that wasn't the first thing about me."

On men not living through female characters

"When I made The Devil Wears Prada, it was the first time in my life that a man came up and said, 'I know how you felt. I have a job like that.' First time. ... For men, the favorite character that I've ever played is Linda in The Deer Hunter, without question. The heterosexual men that I've spoken to over the years, they say, 'That's my favorite thing you've ever done.'

"Or Sophie. And they were a particular kind of feminine, recessive personalities. No question that this person was not going to dominate the conversation at a dinner party. So they fell in love with her, but they didn't feel the story through her body. It took [me until] The Devil Wears Prada to play someone tough, who had to make hard decisions, who was running an organization, [where] a certain type of man [was able] to empathize and feel the story through her. That's the first time anyone has ever said that they felt that way."


Copyright 2013 NPR. To see more, visit http://www.npr.org/.

Transcript

TERRY GROSS, HOST:

This is FRESH AIR. I'm Terry Gross. My guest, Meryl Streep, is nominated for an Oscar for her portrayal of former British Prime Minister Margaret Thatcher in the movie "The Iron Lady." Streep has a record number of Oscar nominations; this is her 17th. She's won twice, for "Kramer vs. Kramer" and "Sophie's Choice."

Streep is famous among other things for her uncanny ability to do accents. Let's start by hearing how she sounds as Margaret Thatcher. The film begins after Thatcher has lost her husband and is suffering from dementia, imagining that her husband is still there with her and talking to her. Much of the film is told in flashbacks to Thatcher's youth, her early political career and her years as a staunchly conservative prime minister.

Streep portrays Thatcher from the age of 49, when she became the first woman to lead the Conservative Party. In this scene, early in her political career, she's speaking before the House of Commons.

(SOUNDBITE OF MOVIE, "THE IRON LADY")

MERYL STREEP: (as Margaret Thatcher) The Right Honourable Gentleman knows very well that we had no choice but to close the school...

(SOUNDBITE OF SHOUTING)

STREEP: (as Margaret Thatcher) ...because, because his union paymasters have called a strike deliberately to cripple our economy. Teachers cannot teach when there is no heating, no lighting in their classrooms, and I ask the Right Honourable Gentleman, whose fault is that?

(SOUNDBITE OF SHOUTING)

DAVID WESTHEAD: (as Shadow Minister) Methinks the Right Honourable Lady doth screech too much.

(SOUNDBITE OF LAUGHTER)

WESTHEAD: (as Shadow Minister) And if she wants us to take her seriously, she must learn to calm down.

(SOUNDBITE OF LAUGHTER)

STREEP: (as Margaret Thatcher) If the Right Honourable Gentleman could perhaps attend more closely to what I am saying rather than how I am saying it, he may receive a valuable education in spite of himself.

GROSS: Margaret Thatcher later took voice lessons from a drama coach to help her sound more authoritative. Here's Streep as Thatcher after those lessons, addressing Parliament about the war in the Falklands.

(SOUNDBITE OF MOVIE, "THE IRON LADY")

STREEP: (as Thatcher) We were faced with an act of unprovoked aggression, and we responded as we have responded in times past, with unity, strength and courage, sure in the knowledge that though much is sacrificed, in the end, right will prevail over wrong.

GROSS: Meryl Streep, welcome to FRESH AIR. Thank you so much for being here. And congratulations on your Golden Globe and your Oscar nomination.

STREEP: Thank you very much for having me, Terry. I'm a huge fan.

(SOUNDBITE OF LAUGHTER)

GROSS: Oh wow, thank you. So we just heard you before and after Margaret Thatcher has voice lessons, voice lessons to teach her authority and power so that she can speak more powerfully to the Parliament. Did she really have that kind of vocal training?

STREEP: She did. My memory is a little cloudy, but I remember reading that Lawrence Olivier had something to do with arranging for her to have - he demurred. He said he wouldn't care to do it himself, but he steered her in the direction of a good vocal coach. And she did go, and it did help her, and was part of the Pygmalion process that Gordon Rhys(ph) put her through.

GROSS: So can you talk a little bit about what you think she learned with those vocal lessons and how you transformed your voice as her after she really learned her way around as a public figure and had the advantage of those voice lessons?

STREEP: Well, I think that voice lessons really just bring out a voice that you already possess. So she had whatever the sort of stentorian tones that she acquired over time, they were all lying in wait there, within her arsenal.

And she'd also had elocution in her high school, The equivalent of high school, in Grantham. She had changed her way of speaking. Her accent from Grantham had disappeared by the time she went to Oxford to study chemistry, and she had decided on a sort of a plummy kind of aspirant, upper-middle-class - what we would call upper-middle-class voice.

And so what the voice coach did was enabled her to expand her breath, deepen her voice, bring it to a place where men could listen to it in its most emphatic tones.

GROSS: So how did you change your voice for the before and after, for the more confident and experienced Margaret Thatcher versus the early Margaret Thatcher?

STREEP: Well, I had evidence of both voices, you know, from the public record. So I could listen to them. And it's sort of my fun to sing along with records and imitate people who are on the telephone that have different ways of speaking. I mean, I pick things up like that.

So it's not a thing that's a struggle. It's work, but it's not a struggle. It's fun. And she had a very particular way of emphasizing points and making her point, and that had to do with bringing out a word that you didn't normally think was the most important word in the sentence. Do you know what I mean?

GROSS: Yes.

STREEP: And she also had a sort of a way, like a railroad train, of going, taking a breath and starting quite quietly and making a point in a way that you don't really know if this point is going to be made through several examples, and there will be not be a break in the speaking voice at any point.

And you - if you think you're going to interrupt, you're really not going to have the opportunity because she's just got capacity. It's just really stunning as I looked at interviews.

GROSS: So you need a lot of breath to keep talking like that. Did you have it?

STREEP: I've just been talking like that.

(SOUNDBITE OF LAUGHTER)

STREEP: Yeah, I did need a lot of breath. I needed much more breath than I have, after all of my expensive drama school training. I couldn't keep up with her.

GROSS: I think it's interesting that when you're doing the voice of a real person, or I suppose if you're learning an accent, too, you think of it as singing along with a record. So is that what you do? Like you play Margaret Thatcher giving a speech, and you do the equivalent of singing along with it, you give the speech as you're listening to it?

STREEP: I say that because that's my way in, the very beginning, how to enter it. Very quickly in the process, I don't think about voice as being separate from the way you hold your head or the way you sit or the way you put on lipstick. It's all a piece of a person, and it's all driven by conviction.

In other characters, it's driven by insecurity, or it's driven by fear, or - there's always a driver. And all the physical manifestations, you need your way in. So yeah, when I was a kid, when I was 16, 17, I'd come home from high school, and my dad collected all of Barbra Streisand's records. And she was very young then. I think she probably had three records out, and she was 21, and we had them all. And I knew every single song, every breath, every elision, every swell. And I sang along to it. But for me, it was a way for me to get out the feeling in the song, and also to get out the feelings that, you know, roil in high school, to express something that I had no other way of expressing.

And of course now I'm rich and famous, and I met Barbra Streisand, and I told her that, and she was nonplussed.

(SOUNDBITE OF LAUGHTER)

STREEP: She was just - we can't know what we mean to each. You know, artists, you can't know that, but she was really important.

GROSS: So you took singing lessons when you were young? Did you study opera? I read that.

STREEP: Yes, I studied opera, yes. I studied opera with Estelle Liebling, who had studied with Liszt, OK, Liszt's son.

GROSS: As in Franz Liszt?

STREEP: Yes, yes I'm sorry, that's how old I am, and that's old she was. She was about 90 when I studied with her.

GROSS: So did you expect to be an opera singer, or did you just want to learn more about voice?

STREEP: No, I hated opera. I was 13. I didn't like opera, ew. I liked cheerleading and boys.

(SOUNDBITE OF LAUGHTER)

STREEP: And the Beatles and Bob Dylan. You know, I wasn't - but I loved singing. I loved it. And I did have a very good coloratura voice. Now I've listened to my high school "Music Man" just as I, you know, was getting ready to get the Kennedy Center Honors with Barbara Cook, and I had gone to see her when I was a kid in "The Music Man" on Broadway.

And I had sung the part in my high school production, we have a recording of it, and it's very good, but it's a voice I don't have anymore. It's very, very high and light and free.

GROSS: So even thought you didn't like opera, you studied opera in high school. What did you learn that stayed with you?

STREEP: Oh, lots of things. I was - I learned that I was singing something I didn't feel and understand. So that was an important lesson, not to do that, to find the thing that I could feel through. And I learned the importance of breath and also there's a thing that I learned in my lessons with Estelle Liebling about breathing from your back. I mean, you always think you're going to take a deep breath, and your diaphragm expands.

But she would always say there's room in your back, you know. And that was very helpful, that you expand three-dimensionally, not just in the front, what you're thinking about, just the outer ribs, the back of your ribs, as well.

GROSS: Did you think about that when you had to take really deep breaths to do the really long Margaret Thatcher sentences?

STREEP: Sure, yeah. I use it all. I used every little thing I had to get through.

GROSS: My guest is Meryl Streep, and she won a Golden Globe for her performance as Margaret Thatcher in "The Iron Lady." Now she's nominate for an Oscar for that performance. Let's take a short break here, and then we'll talk some more. This is FRESH AIR.

(SOUNDBITE OF MUSIC)

GROSS: If you're just joining us, my guest is Meryl Streep, and she's nominated for an Oscar for her performance in "The Iron Lady." She's already won a Golden Globe for that performance.

I have another Margaret Thatcher question for you. Because you age several decades through the course of the film...

STREEP: Four.

GROSS: Yeah. So you had to wear, you know, like a prosthetic, older person's neck, and your face has a lot of makeup or something because, you know, you age four decades. So it is harder to be expressive when you're underneath something, you know, either a lot of makeup or prosthetic or whatever?

STREEP: Well...

STREEP: I mean, you manage to be very expressive, but I'm wondering if it's, you know, more difficult?

STREEP: It can be, but I didn't want it to be. So I've worked for 35 years with a master artist, makeup artist and hairdresser, that's Roy Helland. And he's done everything, bleached my eyebrows for - and hair for "Sophie's Choice" and gave me a brown mullet in "Silkwood" and, you know, he got me ready for the Golden Globes. You know, he's always, always with me.

And he understands the job and changing the outside to get at something inside. So in conjunction with this British prosthetics designer Mark Coulier, he and Roy and I got ready maybe three months in advance. I flew to London three different times, and we did tests, and it was all about taking away, taking away, taking away.

You know, we start with what Mark would carve the - a sculpture of me. They took a life mask, and then he'd add on, with clay, or whatever the material is, age. And then they'd cast it sort of this silicon thing, and then I would wear it, and we'd test it, and I would say, inevitably: less, less, less, less. So it's kind of remarkable how little I really am wearing. You don't know that.

(SOUNDBITE OF LAUGHTER)

STREEP: But the things that I'm wearing, it's minimal, but the things that are done are eloquent. So they trick your eye into thinking you're seeing an older person, you're seeing a lot of stuff where you're not, you're really not.

GROSS: And when you're saying less, less, I want less, is that partly so that you can move your face and be expressive?

STREEP: It's all about being free and having - so I can look in the mirror and see me, not stuff. And it all has to do with, you know, it's not about the audience. It's all about fooling the other actors into believing that you are who you say you are because that's hard when you walk on set, and it's a big makeup job, and it makes it hard for them.

And I take my entire performance from them, so if they don't look at me and hate me appropriately or love me the way they're supposed to or find, you know, an old face but see the young one underneath, which is Jim Broadbent's task as Dennis Thatcher, then I'm lost. I don't have anything to go on because I can read that immediately in their eyes, you know.

GROSS: Gee, I never thought of it that way, that you have to convince the other actors that you're Margaret Thatcher.

STREEP: That's the whole deal, the whole deal.

GROSS: You know, I hear a certain similarity between your voice in "The Iron Lady" as Margaret Thatcher" and your voice in "Julie and Julia" as Julia Child. It almost strikes me as if, and I never thought about this until hearing you in both those films, that if Margaret Thatcher kind of drank too much...

(SOUNDBITE OF LAUGHTER)

GROSS: And started being, like, surprised and delighted about how her, like, food concoction was behaving, then she might sound like Julia Child. What do you think?

STREEP: Well, they had a similar flutiness in - especially in the younger - Julia Child had a flutiness, you know.

(SOUNDBITE OF LAUGHTER)

STREEP: Which is - and it's also part of her class, the way that there are women of that time and of that class - we don't like to talk about that in America, but there are classes in America - and she was of a class of women who were wealthy, privately educated, went to Smith, moved in that sort of circle. She was conscripted into the OSS, which is the early CIA, which was all filled with Yalies and Princeton and Harvard people and a few women - who were typing mostly - but also had something to do.

And they had a way of speaking. I mean, the last person you would know, you would also recognize as having that way of speaking is Katherine Hepburn, probably.

When I was in - at Vassar, and I came from a public high school in New Jersey, there was - that class still existed. I think it's pretty much gone, but there was a way of talking that the private school girls had that was different than the way I talked from New Jersey.

GROSS: Let me play a little bit of you as Julie Child in "Julie and Julia," and this is a scene when you're on TV early in your TV career, and you're making some kind of like mashed potato pancake concoction that you're about to flip, and it's not - it kind of...

STREEP: It doesn't go well.

GROSS: It doesn't go well. It kind of splatters in the air, and half of it lands on the stove instead of in the pan. So let's hear a little bit of that. And this scene alternates with you on TV and with Julie watching you on TV.

STREEP: Amy Adams, yeah.

GROSS: Yeah, Amy Adams is Julie.

(SOUNDBITE OF MOVIE, "JULIE AND JULIA)

(SOUNDBITE OF MUSIC)

STREEP: (As Julia Child) I'm going to try to flip this thing over now, which is a rather daring thing to do.

AMY ADAMS: (As Julie Powell) She changed everything. Before her, it was frozen food and can openers and marshmallows.

CHRIS MESSINA: (As Eric Powell) Don't knock marshmallows.

STREEP: (As Julia Child) ...we'll give it a try. When you flip anything, you've just got to have the courage of your convictions, especially if it's a loose sort of mass like - oh, that didn't go very well. But you see, when I flipped it, I didn't have the courage...

ADAMS: (As Julie Powell) She's so adorable.

STREEP: (As Julia Child) ...I needed to, the way I should've. But you can always put it together, and you're alone in the kitchen, who's to see?

ADAMS: (As Julie Powell) Pearls, the woman is wearing pearls in the kitchen.

STREEP: (As Julia Child) You've just go to practice, like the piano. I'm Julia Child. Bon appetit.

GROSS: I know I love that because you talk about studying someone's voice as if it's music, and she has such a musical voice.

STREEP: She does, and she has no breath, absolutely none.

(SOUNDBITE OF LAUGHTER)

GROSS: I was going to say that, exactly. It sounds like she's been running up a hill.

STREEP: She always sounds like that. I feel like that when I'm in the kitchen, don't you? Well, I'm not a very good cook, but...

GROSS: Me neither, honestly.

(SOUNDBITE OF LAUGHTER)

STREEP: I just...

GROSS: I believe that's why delis exist, so that I don't have to cook. But...

STREEP: Well, I got better after this, and my entire family really did appreciate it. Usually they're resentful of movies that I go off and make, but this one had a bonus attached. But yeah, she had no breath.

GROSS: You know, I compared her voice and Thatcher's voice before, but breathwise, they're the opposite because she's almost like gasping for air, and Thatcher has this, like, endlessly long breath.

STREEP: Well, she's so alive, Julia Child. And Margaret is so, is so designed. She's so intent upon making her point. That's the most important thing, is that she win the argument, and there is nothing that stands in the way of that train, you know. But Julia's just alive in front of you. That's part of why people loved her. They lived it with her. They breathed it with her. And the mistakes were all part of it.

But she was adept, too, at what she was doing, incredibly adept.

GROSS: Meryl Streep will be back in the second half of the show. She's nominated for an Oscar for her portrayal of Margaret Thatcher in the movie "The Iron Lady." I'm Terry Gross, and this is FRESH AIR.

(SOUNDBITE OF MUSIC)

GROSS: This is FRESH AIR. I'm Terry Gross back with Meryl Streep. She's nominated for an Oscar for her portrayal of Margaret Thatcher in the film "The Iron Lady." Streep won a Golden Globe for that performance. She's received more Oscar nominations than any other actor - 17. Her best-known movies include "The Deer Hunter," "Kramer versus Kramer," "Sophie's Choice," "Silkwood," "Out of Africa," "Adaptation," "The Hours," "The Devil Wears Prada," "Mamma Mia!," "Julie and Julia" and "It's Complicated."

You gave a terrific commencement address at Bernard in 2010. One of the things you talked about was how you think of your first character as being you in high school, when you wanted to be the pretty, popular girl. So what you did was you studied Vogue and Mademoiselle, and what were some of the things you taught yourself to do?

STREEP: Bleach my hair, A, and curl it. And that was an elaborate thing because there weren't hot curlers in those days, so you have to go to bed on, sleeping on rollers, which is just a torture. Like maybe sleeping on one of those Massai wooden plugs that they put under your neck in the Boma, you know, to go to sleep, which I also don't understand.

GROSS: Did you have to use the tin can thing, putting a tin can on top of your head?

STREEP: That was for the people with curly hair.

GROSS: I see. All right. I get it.

STREEP: I was interested in curling...

GROSS: I get it.

STREEP: ...my bone-straight hair, which won't bend, you know, under any circumstance. Yeah. But the girls with curly hair put it on cans so that it was straightened out...

GROSS: Right.

STREEP: ...during the night. Everybody was miserable.

GROSS: So you said that you adjusted your temperament too in trying to be popular and appealing to boys.

STREEP: Yeah. Oh sure. I remember that.

GROSS: What did you change?

STREEP: Well, opinions took a back seat. Opinions were not, you know, attractive. I mean this is stuff I remember thinking when I was quite young. You know, at my house in order to be heard you have to get your, no, you have to get your opinion out. No, no, no, don't interrupt me. You know, dad, he did that again. And you just, you...

(SOUNDBITE OF LAUGHTER)

STREEP: ...got it out. You learned to rise above the contending voices. But I recognized early on that that wasn't attractive on a date. Like if he said something stupid you go no, I don't agree with that at all. That's, how can you say that? It's idiotic. And that would not get a second date. So I would learn to go, wow, yeah, cool, you know.

(SOUNDBITE OF LAUGHTER)

STREEP: And that would be OK. So it's a form of acting for a purpose, which girls learned to do, and girls are good at it if they care to be. Now, I don't think they - what do I know? I have three daughters and they're all doing it on their own in their own way. I mean getting along in life on their own terms and I don't feel they make those accommodations quite in the way we did, but this was something people did. Yeah, back in the day.

GROSS: So did you think of yourself then as playing a role? Or is that only in retrospect?

STREEP: I wasn't thinking about playing the role at all. I was thinking about getting along, getting ahead. I was always the kid who wanted to do well, to get good grades and be a cheerleader and whatever the contest was I wanted to be on top of that. But when I got to Vassar, and that was at a time when it was just girls, and I wasn't aware, Terry, of designing myself in high school - I wasn't. But when I got to Vassar, and all of that fell away because it was just girls and it was the early 70s and it was the classic consciousness-raising time when people were really earnestly talking about what's a woman? What's our role in the world? What is our capacity? What's holding us back? All those things. That I felt free. I felt a thing emerge, which was my actual personality and my actual voice, I guess, and just I realized that I was funny and I was allowed to be and I was allowed to be loud and obnoxious and I took full advantage of it at Vassar, and made great strong friends who accepted me for all of those things. And yeah, it was an emergence, which is what you hope for for a kid when they go off to college.

GROSS: We're you in a consciousness-raising group? Did you take women's studies classes?

STREEP: There weren't any, I don't think...

GROSS: Read the feminist literature of the time?

STREEP: It was more about, you know, being just waking up - waking up. I remember reading "Soul on Ice" and deep conversations about race. And I remember there was an unspoken rule the first two years of school where - because you had to go way on the weekends to the boys' colleges, to Yale or wherever people went. And if you'd made a date with a friend for the weekend to go to the concert at Skinner Hall or something, if a boy asked you for a weekend, absolutely, that would just be dumped, you know, that's just, that wasn't a prior thing. The boy and the weekend had precedence.

And I remember when I was like a sophomore that someone brought up that probably this was rude and weird and cruel and that friends were as important as boys. That was a new idea, completely new idea. Even now I think probably there's a little bump in my understanding about it, because I'd been so schooled to what was important.

GROSS: OK. So here's a story I read, which I assume is true, but you can tell me if it actually happened - for the 1970 Dino De Laurentiis remake of "King Kong" you auditioned for Dino De Laurentiis and his son...

STREEP: Yes.

GROSS: ...who were Italian.

STREEP: Yes.

GROSS: And Dino De Laurentiis said in Italian, what did he say?

STREEP: (Foreign language spoken) I don't know. I can't speak Italian anymore 'cause I'm so old and forgetful. But he said something like, but this is so ugly. Why do you bring me this?

GROSS: This being you.

(SOUNDBITE OF LAUGHTER)

STREEP: Yes.

GROSS: Yes.

STREEP: I'm sitting in front of him at opposite the desk. He smiling. He looks impeccable. He has everything beautiful. And his son is very kind. His son said, 'cause his son had seen me in something and he said no, you know, dad, she's a wonderful actress. And because I just, I had studied a year of Italian at Vassar I could understand what they were saying and I said (Foreign language spoken) that I'm very sorry that I'm not as beautiful as I should be but, you know...

(SOUNDBITE OF LAUGHTER)

STREEP: ...this is it. This is what you get, sort of. And I left. I mean I was very upset but I didn't show it. Yes, it's a true story.

GROSS: So, a very interesting story, because you're being told very early in your career basically that you're not beautiful...

STREEP: Yeah.

GROSS: You're not qualified. Your face is not qualified for this role. And you're also...

STREEP: Face and body, I believe.

GROSS: And body.

STREEP: Yes.

(SOUNDBITE OF LAUGHTER)

GROSS: But then you're also making the decision to let them know that you understand what they said. They were intentionally speaking in Italian so that you wouldn't understand them.

STREEP: Right. Right-right.

GROSS: But you don't understand them. You let them know you understood them and...

STREEP: Because they did - they think actresses are stupid. That was the other thing that - I mean not they 'cause I don't think his son was that way. His son was my champion. I mean he was a reason I was in the office. But the dad, he wasn't being mean to me, he was just speaking to his son in Italian but and he had no idea that I would understand because they think Americans are stupid too, so.

GROSS: Did you worried that you were basically - I mean you haven't been in any movies yet. So did you worry that word would spread about you that you were - that she spoke back to directors?

STREEP: A pain in the ass?

GROSS: Yeah. That you are a real pain and that you were, yeah, that you were problems, so like avoid her?

(SOUNDBITE OF LAUGHTER)

STREEP: I am a pain in the ass.

(SOUNDBITE OF LAUGHTER)

STREEP: How can I hide it?

(SOUNDBITE OF LAUGHTER)

STREEP: I mean, yeah, that is the package, you know, and but I was not - I was not probably suited to that role either. I mean that was the truth.

GROSS: How much did you want it?

STREEP: Not much.

GROSS: Mm-hmm.

STREEP: I mean I did want a break. But I didn't, I didn't think I would be good in it honestly, I didn't. It represented something that...

(SOUNDBITE OF LAUGHTER)

STREEP: I don't know, I wasn't drawn to. So I suppose it was easier to be obstreperous in the meeting because, because of that. If it were an audition for "Sophie's Choice" and Alan Pakula had said something like, I maybe would have swallowed it because I wanted it so badly.

GROSS: My guest is Meryl Streep. She's nominated for an Oscar for her portrayal of Margaret Thatcher in the film "The Iron Lady." We'll talk more after a break. This is FRESH AIR.

(SOUNDBITE OF MUSIC)

GROSS: If you're just joining us, my guest is Meryl Streep, and she's nominated for an Oscar for her performance as Margaret Thatcher in "The Iron Lady." She's already won a Golden Globe for that performance.

You were engaged to be actor John Cazale, who most people know as Fredo in "Godfather I and II," and...

STREEP: "Dog Day Afternoon."

GROSS: ...in "Dog Day Afternoon." Why my blanking on the title? And he had a small part in "The Deer Hunter." You were nominated for an Oscar for your part in "The Deer Hunter," it was like one of your first films.

STREEP: Mm-hmm.

GROSS: And so you were engaged and he died of bone cancer shortly after in 1978.

STREEP: Yes. We were not engaged but we were a couple. We lived together and, yes, for like three years. Mm-hmm.

GROSS: So he probably died not knowing how famous his roles were going to be, how famous those movies were going to be.

STREEP: I know. I know. He had - well, he had "The Godfather" movies were unbelievably popular and, you know, they were just, popular isn't the word. They were...

GROSS: Well, they've entered into iconic. Yeah.

STREEP: Yeah. Absolutely. And they did early. I mean early, early on they have that importance, certainly, in New York where we lived. And, you know, we would walk along the street and people would roll down the window and they'd go, hey, Fredo, you know, and we could never pay for a dinner if we went to Little Italy, never, which was great. We went all the time. But he, yeah, he made five movies and all five of them were nominated for Best Picture.

GROSS: You know, in his two most famous roles in "Dog Day Afternoon" and "The Godfather" he did not play somebody who was very bright, but he was supposed to be a brilliant actor. Was that disconnect hard for him?

(SOUNDBITE OF LAUGHTER)

GROSS: Being really smart and playing kind of dumb in his best-known roles?

STREEP: Well, he could sort of do anything. We met when we were doing "Measure for Measure," Shakespeare in Central Park. He was playing Angelo, the evil administrator of this town in place of the Duke who's gone away. And, yeah, he was, had great capacity as an actor and he taught me a lot about acting. The directors used to call him 20 Questions because he would just ask questions all the time, all the time. Talk about a pain in the ass. I mean he was really...

(SOUNDBITE OF LAUGHTER)

STREEP: But I learned that, you know, you can't know enough. You can't know enough.

GROSS: About the character?

STREEP: Yeah. And what, about the character but also what the vision is, what the person wants because it's such a collaborative enterprise, you know, making a movie. And the actors get all the credit, but it's really, it's filtered through the director's point of view, always, always, always. So you want to know what they want. You can read something on the page and it appears some, you know, what David Linn says the world is as we see it. So we read a script and it appeals to us or it moves us or jangles us according to our own lights but, you know, the director may have completely other feelings.

And so you need to know. You need to know. And John always would ask. Yeah.

GROSS: So was he the first person who you were very close to who died?

STREEP: No. My grandmother died before that and I was very close to her. You mean of my contemporaries?

GROSS: Yeah, sure. Yeah.

STREEP: Yeah. Yeah.

GROSS: Mm-hmm.

STREEP: Yes.

GROSS: And you probably took care of him toward the end.

STREEP: Yes. I did.

GROSS: Were you transformed by that experience, by losing him and by watching him suffer and caring for him as he did?

STREEP: I'm sure. I'm sure. I mean, it's a part of my body. Yeah. I mean, it was very hard but - yes, it sort of did align things for me in my head and in my heart about what's important and what doesn't matter a damn.

GROSS: So how have the - I mean, one of the thing actresses, I think, worry about, you can be the leading lady in her 20s and 30s. Once you're in your 40s it's really harder to get roles. There's character roles and, you know, the parents roles. I think things are starting to change but have you been satisfied with the roles for women of your age as you've changed ages over the years? Or have you been frustrated with what's out there?

STREEP: Both. I remember when I turned 40 I was offered within one year three different witch roles.

GROSS: Literally witch?

STREEP: Witches. To play three different witches in three different contexts. But it was almost like the world was saying, or the studios were saying...

(SOUNDBITE OF LAUGHTER)

STREEP: ...we don't know what to do with you. And I remember, I mean, I've repeated this before many times but I remember being shocked to find out that Bette Davis was 40 or 41 when she did "All About Eve" and was playing an over-the-hill, done, out of it, you're finished actress. And that she was only 50 when she did "Baby Jane" and "Hush, Hush Sweet Charlotte" and those grotesques of witches.

You could call them witches. So, yeah, I think there was for a long time in the movie business a period of when a woman was attractive and marriageable or something - not marriageable. (Bleep) I guess is the word.

(SOUNDBITE OF LAUGHTER)

GROSS: You can't really say that on the radio.

STREEP: No, you can't say that. OK. Well, you know what I'm saying. So you substitute something better.

GROSS: We could bleep it.

STREEP: OK.

GROSS: It will have been bleeped by the time listeners hear that.

STREEP: OK. So that was it. And then after that they really didn't know what to do with you until you were the lioness in winter, right? Until you were 70 and then it was OK to, you know, "Driving Miss Daisy" or "Trip to Bountiful" or things like that. But that middle period, what we call the middle, the most vibrant years of a woman's life, arguably, from 40 to 60 were completely - nobody knew what to do with them.

And that really has changed, completely changed. Not for everybody but for me it has changed. And part of it, I think, has to do with the fact that I wasn't that word that I just said that you bleeped before. When I was a younger actress that wasn't the first thing about me.

GROSS: Sexuality was not the first thing, is what you're saying.

STREEP: Was not the first thing.

GROSS: Sexiness.

STREEP: Yeah. Because when that goes away - cute. I was never cute. So when cute goes away, because that goes away with age.

GROSS: My guest is Meryl Streep. She's nominated for an Oscar for her portrayal of Margaret Thatcher in the film "The Iron Lady." We'll talk more after a break. This is FRESH AIR.

(SOUNDBITE OF MUSIC)

GROSS: My guest is Meryl Streep. She won a Golden Globe for her portrayal of Margaret Thatcher in the film "The Iron Lady" and she's nominated for an Oscar. So I want to quote something else you said, and this was in the Barnard speech that you gave in 2010, that "The hardest thing in the world is to persuade a straight male audience to identify with a woman character. It's easier for women because we were brought up identifying with male characters in literature."

"It's hard for straight boys to identify with Juliet or Wendy in "Peter Pan," whereas girls identify with Romeo and with Peter Pan." What led you to that conclusion?

STREEP: Well, it seems like true.

(SOUNDBITE OF LAUGHTER)

GROSS: I will accept that as evidence.

STREEP: All right. All right. What led me to that? What led me to that was I have never - I mean I watch movies and I don't care who is the protagonist, I feel what that guy is feeling. You know, if it's Tom Cruise leaping over a building I, I want to make it, you know? And I'm going to, yes, I made it. And yeah, so I get that.

And I've grown up, well, partly because there weren't great girls' literature. Nancy Drew maybe. But there weren't things. So there was Huck Finn and Spin and Marty. The boys' characters were interesting and you lived through them when you're watching it. You know, you're not aware of it but you're following the action of the film through the body of the protagonist.

You know, you feel what he feels when he jumps, when he leaps, when he wins, when he loses. And I think I just took it for granted that, you know, we can all do that. But it became obvious to me that men don't live through the female characters.

GROSS: Do you think that women have that kind of double consciousness and men, you think, like, boys...

STREEP: I think it has to do with...

GROSS: ...don't make that leap. Yeah.

STREEP: Well, it has to do with very deep things, you know, because it might be that imagining yourself as a girl is a diminishment but it is something that - when I made "The Devil Wears Prada" it was the first time in my life, 30 years of making movies, that a man came up and said, "I know how you felt. I know how you felt. I have a job like that." People understand.

GROSS: It's the first time?

STREEP: First time. First time. And they say lots of things I think they - this is what I was trying to say in that speech. It's a very hard point to make because I guess it's hard to wrap your head around it, but for men the most - usually the favorite character that I've ever played is Linda in "The Deer Hunter."

Without question, of the heterosexual men that I've spoken to over the years, that's usually - they say, you know, my favorite thing you've ever done was Linda. Or Sophie. And they were a particular kind of very feminine, recessive kind of personality. So they fell in love with her but they didn't feel the story through her body. And it took to "The Devil Wears Prada" to play someone tough, who had to make hard decisions, who was running an organization...

...and sometimes that takes making tough decisions for a certain kind of man to empathize. That's the word - empathize. Feel the story through her. And that's the first time anybody has ever said that they felt that way. And yet...

GROSS: That's really Interesting. Yeah. What do women tell you their favorite role is?

STREEP: Oh, they love everything.

(SOUNDBITE OF LAUGHTER)

GROSS: OK.

STREEP: OK? They really do. I mean, it's a range of stuff. But I don't know, I really think there's a difference between how men critics see things than how women tend to. And I don't want to make that - it's not a generality and I don't want to say that, but I just feel - I know I do the same thing. There are certain things that I just am not that interested in. Certain kinds of films. I just don't enter them.

I just don't enter the world, you know.

GROSS: So do you like seeing yourself on screen or is that an uncomfortable experience?

STREEP: I don't dislike. I don't, you know, pop in the CD - the DVD.

(SOUNDBITE OF LAUGHTER)

GROSS: Let's look at that again.

STREEP: Yeah. But I do think when, you know, sometimes when scrolling through the TV and there's something on and I look at it and I think oh, my god. I thought I was fat? What is my problem?

(SOUNDBITE OF LAUGHTER)

STREEP: You know, when I was younger I spent way too much time thinking about that. So stupid.

GROSS: Well, Meryl Streep, I really regret that we're out of time. It's been great to talk with you.

STREEP: You too. Great to talk with you.

GROSS: Thank you so much for being on our show.

STREEP: Thanks, Terry. I enjoyed it.

GROSS: Meryl Streep is nominated for an Oscar for her portrayal of Margaret Thatcher in the film "The Iron Lady." You can watch her 2010 Barnard commencement address on our website freshair.npr.org. Here's a scene from another film for which Streep was nominated for an Oscar, "The Devil Wears Prada." Streep plays Miranda Priestly, the demanding editor of a popular fashion magazine.

Miranda is choosing an outfit for a spread in the next edition and trying to decide between two belts that strike her as very different. As she's deliberating, her new assistant, played by Anne Hathaway, is laughing to herself.

(SOUNDBITE OF MOVIE "THE DEVIL WEARS PRADA")

STREEP: (As Miranda) Is something funny?

ANNE HATHAWAY: (As Andy) No. No, nothing's, you know, it's just that both those belts look exactly the same to me. You know, I'm still learning about this stuff and...

STREEP: (As Miranda) This stuff? Oh. OK. I see. You think this has nothing to do with you. You go to your closet and you select, I don't know, that lumpy blue sweater for instance because you're trying to tell the world that you take yourself too seriously to care about what you put on your back, but what you don't know is that that sweater is not just blue.

(As Miranda) It's not turquoise, it's not lapis. It's actually cerulean. And you're also blithely unaware of the fact that in 2002 Oscar de la Renta did a collection of cerulean gowns. And then I think it was Yves St. Laurent, wasn't it, who showed cerulean military jackets? I think we need a jacket here.

(As Miranda) And then cerulean quickly showed up in the collections of eight different designers and then it filtered down through the department stores and then trickled on down in to some tragic Casual Corner where you no doubt fished it out of some clearance bin.

(As Miranda) However, that blue represents millions of dollars and countless jobs and it's sort of comical how you think that you've made a choice that exempts you from the fashion industry when, in fact, you're wearing a sweater that was selected for you by the people in this room - from a pile of stuff. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.

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