LOS ANGELES—We all know that singing is one of the million and one things that Meryl Streep can do so well and earn yet another acting award in the process. Well, add rhythm guitar playing and rock band frontwoman to the list. Meryl totally rocks in “Ricki and the Flash,” directed by Jonathan Demme and written by Diablo Cody.
The acting legend plays Ricki Rendazzo, a singer-guitarist who gave up everything, including her family, to pursue rock ’n’ roll stardom. But she just ends up leading a cover band, The Flash, which plays in a joint in the San Fernando Valley (California). Rick Springfield, portraying Greg, a member of The Flash who is in love with Ricki, is the movie’s surprise—the former teen idol delivers a cool, solid performance.
A family matter forces Ricki to return home and face her children, which includes Julie (Meryl’s real-life daughter, Mamie Gummer); ex-husband Pete (Kevin Kline) and his new wife, Maureen (Audra McDonald).
The music scenes rock, especially in one where Meryl just quietly sings the centerpiece song, “Cold One.” Several confrontations, including a climactic one between Meryl and Audra, offer tense drama and interludes from the enjoyable music scenes that often let the band play complete songs.
Meryl, wearing a Derek Lam print dress, was her usual candid, gracious self, in this recent Sunday morning chat at the Ritz Carlton Central Park. The following are excerpts:
When you presented a Grammy Award to Paul McCartney, you told the story of going to The Beatles’ concert at New York’s Shea Stadium in 1965. Can you talk about your early fascination with rock ’n’ roll?
Nancy Meyers (writer-director) and I bonded over that fact because we were both at Shea in 1965. We are the same age so we were 14 then. I couldn’t believe my parents let me drive to “exotic” Flushing, Queens, from New Jersey to see The Beatles. It was absolutely amazing. That was the first time stadium concerts were done. All the promoters said, “Oh, they will never fill it.” And there were 70,000 people exactly my age. And it was wonderful.
That was the beginning of all that big rock ’n’ roll. I lived all that. I remember the day (Bob) Dylan went electric at Newport. Everybody remembers that seismic event. I was in a concert in Newark, New Jersey, where somebody said, “Oh, this other band is not as good as The Beatles but the British are coming.” So it was The Rolling Stones and we all knew that the lead singer, Mick Jagger, was somebody great. I was sitting in the audience. The band went onstage and everybody went crazy.
Someone singing came down the aisle in a bright red satin dress. That was Mick. Cross-dressing was not a common thing in 1965 (laughs). It was really unusual. We couldn’t figure it out—is that a man or a woman? It was fantastic.
So I love rock ’n’ roll. I can’t believe that at 65, I would be offered the lead in a rock ’n’ roll movie (laughs). But it’s pretty great to play someone who had those big dreams herself and they didn’t come up to what she’d hoped. And to play a failed rock ’n’ roll wannabe star.
But failed only by an outside measure because she was someone who really loved her life. She is playing in a cover band in the San Fernando Valley and making a living and living the dream. I was thrilled to have that little late life fantasy fulfillment.
Did you ever sing Rick’s “Jessie’s Girl”?
Oh, definitely (laughs). But not as good as Rick did.
Did you have a say in the songs that you sang in the movie?
Jonathan let us listen to a lot of different songs. We had to play songs that would be played in a bar in the San Fernando Valley. What does that audience want to hear? Often, those bars are filled with people my age and then there are young hipster cohorts who are there ironically.
Cover bands play music from the golden era of rock ’n’ roll: “American Girl” by Tom Petty, “Keep Playin’ That Rock and Roll,” “Wooly Bully.” We went through a list of songs from that era and picked our favorites.
If you didn’t become an actress, you said you’d be a country singer. Do you remember that?
No (laughs). I must have been tired.
How did you choose that Bruce Springsteen song?
Bruce plays it a lot in concerts but I don’t even know which record it is on. I heard on the Bruce Springsteen channel on XM Radio … as I was driving. We were looking and looking for a song. Jonathan said, “I want an anthemic song!”
Jonathan went to a lot of different songwriters and auditioned a lot of original music. Nothing was quite right. I was driving down on 684 (highway) and there it was, “My Love Will Not Let You Down.”
Can you compare singing in this movie and in “Mamma Mia!”?
“Mamma Mia!” was a sound that was established so clearly, the ABBA songs … especially that great iconic song (“The Winner Takes It All”) at the end. I felt a responsibility to the sound that Benny and Bjorn had honed over the years. So that was singing of a song already in my head, while in “Ricki,” that had to be her voice, specifically her singing of everybody’s music, a lot of different kinds of rock ’n’ roll. But filtering it through her own sound. That was fun and the songs come from different eras. Which one was harder to nail? They were both equally challenging.
How do you feel about the choice Ricki made—leave her kids to pursue her dream?
This is a story of Ricki and her choices and who she was. What is interesting about the screenplay is that there are many mysteries in it, like we are not told why that marriage broke up. We are not told when Maureen (Audra) came into it. We are not told why Ricki had this dream and he (Pete) knew about it and why it was impossible if you are a stock analyst, not to practice that in Los Angeles.
There are many mysteries. It’s very interesting—everybody writes his own version of what happened. Like in every divorce, there’s his version and her version. The truth lies somewhere in an unknowable zone. So for me, I felt like Ricki made the decision that she had to make because she was who she was. There is an inevitability to that imperative and that’s who she is.
How important is it to you that among your many accomplishments is that you changed the perception of women in film?
I don’t think I have. I have been fortunate to be in certain movies that were in some ways seminal to the time in which they appeared. “Kramer vs. Kramer” defined something and that was at a time when nobody got divorced. Few got divorced and it was unusual for a woman to leave a marriage and a child.
So, I feel like I have been a mirror for a lot of things that are happening in society. And so I am where it appears. But it bubbles up from somewhere else, from the writing and the people who are willing to put these stories out there. But our business is still male-driven. It’s a male-narrative driven industry in movies as opposed to television and cable.
Working moms sometimes feel guilt. Were there moments when you felt that?
When my kids were younger, I would always try to take jobs that, if I had to shoot away, it would only be two weeks. I remember when we made “Dancing at Lughnasa,” we got the same promise from the production company that it would only be two weeks.
Two weeks turned to three and then we were headed into the fourth. Don had to bring all the kids over because I was spitting furious. It taught me that you must get everything in writing and you make them sign. Because nobody cares and the goodwill is gone in the economics of movies now (laughs).
This film was written by a woman (Diablo). Some of the biggest franchises are written by women. Do you think there’s progress or is the plight of female writers still the same?
This past year, when I went to the American Film Institute Awards luncheon—they have a great big luncheon for all the people who worked on the nominated television and film lists (Top 10 television programs and Top 10 movies). The television list was dominated by “Orange Is the New Black” and many series that had women as protagonists.
The Top 10 films had one female protagonist. Films are lagging behind television. Films are still concerned with toy franchises and other things—gaming. I am not sure why; somebody smarter has to figure that out.
Can you talk about your continued fight for women’s rights?
The world is going to be better managed if it’s more balanced. And to make it more balanced is what I am hoping. Generally, in countries where there’s a lot of internal strife, it’s where women have less of a role and fewer rights. And those are the countries that are impoverished and tend to have a lot of hostilities.
Where women have more rights and have more of a stake in the economic life of the country, those are more stable societies. That’s just an economic fact. Like everything else, money drives the world. If women are more equally represented and just equal, nobody has to suffer for their being admitted into the circle of decision makers. Everybody will be better off.
You have been married to the same man (artist Don Gummer) for many years. What do you do right that many people do wrong?
I don’t know (laughs). I feel very lucky. I know many people who are also still married to the same person. I know lots of long marriages. My husband himself was divorced. He married at 21 and was married for a year. So everybody has a life. I don’t think there’s any prescription. I am just fortunate to have found a good man.
What was the key in raising kids with good values?
Movies and television are in certain ways more accommodating to flex time. Sometimes you are working and sometimes you are not. So I have more time with my kids honestly than a lot of people who have two weeks off every year and have a desk job.
I have no illusions that I had a little bit of an easier time. Even early on, I would work for those movies that took six months to make and then I wouldn’t work for another six months. So I would be home. It would be good if we had more flexible time for fathers, too. Fathers and mothers both need to be there.
Mamie went through a divorce (from actor Benjamin Walker). How tough was it for you to see her go through that?
We are fairly close as a family, anyway. Mamie has something that I never had when I was growing up … two sisters. I had two brothers and I love them, but it’s not the same. To see it with these girls—oh my God, they are so deep into each other’s lives. Her two sisters were on either side of her and supporting her.
Ultimately, I think it turned out for the better. Sometimes, life throws you stuff that seems hard at first but it turns out to be the right thing, deeply and wonderfully. That’s true for Mamie. She’s a strong girl and she has acting. There are very few jobs where you can exercise your emotional interior life in a fictional way. That’s a very valuable thing.
You’ve chosen your roles very well. Was there a role that you felt was not a good fit?
What I cannot do (laughs)? I do feel like I was a failure in trying to be a noir mystery woman with Robert Benton right after we made “Kramer vs. Kramer.” He made a film called “Still of the Night.” I felt that kind of iconic mystery woman in film, where you just don’t know who she is or what her essence is, but she is beautiful and enigmatic and that’s all we needed to know.
I have never been interested in it (laughs) and I failed at it. All I can see is my hairdo—keeping it smooth. And it was very smooth. It was boring to play that representation of a woman as opposed to a (real) woman.
One of the intense moments in the movie is your scene with Audra. Can you talk about the pleasure of doing that scene with her?
Audra is an extraordinary artist. We are very lucky that she agreed to do this part. I had maybe a scene and a half with her in the kitchen, which is very simple.
But there’s a pivotal scene where so much information has to be conveyed between the lines because it’s not given—what the nature of Ricki’s absence was, how much she was in the lives of her kids and how much she was allowed in. There’s so much that turns up in that scene.
Audra was amazing. Her dignity and unflappable quality is just wonderful. You see right there why she was a good mother for those children. You also see how Ricki might have been kept out of there. Both of those things were important pieces of information emotionally.
You gave this movie’s script to Mamie for her to consider. Would you have done the film if she didn’t accept it?
Yes. I have done a lot of movies without my daughter. Renee Zellweger and Claire Danes have played my daughters. Mark Platt (producer) was the one who said, “I don’t want to suggest this if this throws a monkey wrench into anything. But I just can’t stop thinking about Mamie in this part.”
The minute he said that, I thought, that’s what I had been thinking. She’s perfect for this and it’s a fabulous part. I know she can knock it out of the park. So I was glad he came to it because I would never have suggested it.
It’s been 10 years since you worked with Jonathan. Was the experience similar to that first time?
The first time I was playing a character that I am not sure I quite understood in “The Manchurian Candidate.” It was sort of a construct more than a person. And without question, not much fun to play. But making this (“Ricki”) was one of my favorite experiences because it was just free. Ricki is free—she is free of constraints.
Does Jonathan give a lot of direction?
Jonathan doesn’t give a lot of direction. But he did one weird thing—he requested that I not talk to Mamie during the filming. I thought that was odd, but other than that, it was fun.
And he is very famous for making a family of the company. He will cast a lot of his friends. His daughter Jos is in the film. Rick Springfield’s son was our PA. Mark Platt’s son is the bartender, so Jonathan takes nepotism to a new level (laughs).
In your new film, “Florence Foster Jenkins,” why did the title role, a New York heiress who wanted to become an opera diva despite her terrible voice, resonate with you?
I just wrapped that film. It’s a touching, sweet, hilarious true story. So I couldn’t resist. Have you ever heard her sing? Well, you have a treat in store! Every music student I have ever met knows who Florence was.
She was famous but she was a rich lady in New York—a club woman who underwrote Toscanini at Carnegie Hall. She basically wanted to be a singer. And she was not a good singer. So that’s her story.
So you play a bad opera singer?
Pretty accurately (laughs). You wait, you will see.
(E-mail the columnist at rvnepales_5585 @yahoo.com. Follow him at twitter.com/ nepalesruben.)