LOS ANGELES—Meryl Streep’s cell phone rang in the middle of our recent interview at the Four Seasons in Los Angeles. Yes, the greatest living film actress is a human being rather like the rest of us, with a cell phone that rings at the most inopportune moments.
“Sorry, that’s one of my kids,” Meryl said with a laugh as she searched for the ringing phone in her purse. “I just know the ring. I’m going to turn it off. Sorry.”
The moment reminded us of an interview in New York several years ago, when the candid actress admitted that even while she was answering a question, she was thinking about what to cook for the family dinner that evening. We also recalled a time when Meryl kept pouting playfully because it was her wedding anniversary and her husband, sculptor Donald Gummer, wasn’t around.
These displays of vulnerability and artistic bravado make each conversation with the three-time Academy winner memorable. This time around, Meryl—wearing glasses, a long-sleeved white blouse, pants and a necklace accented with pearls—laughed heartily when told about our recent interview with her son-in-law, Benjamin Walker (married to Mamie Gummer, her eldest daughter). Benjamin said, “The only thing more intimidating than an international film star like Meryl Streep is your mother-in-law.”
“That’s a very good line,” she remarked with an infectious smile. We asked if Benjamin, a stage and film actor (“Abraham Lincoln: Vampire Hunter”) who does stand-up comedy on the side, tries his comic shtick around her and the family. “He does stand up in front of me all the time,” she replied. “He’s very funny and extremely charming. He’s really a good man and that’s all I really wanted for Mamie.”
When the son-in-law invites Meryl to the premiere of, say, “…Vampire Hunter,” does she get to go? “Oh, I am not able to do anything,” she replied, with emphasis on the “Oh.” One of the pleasures of talking to the acting goddess is hearing these vocal inflections and seeing the hand gestures and other body movements, usually magnified on the big screen, in person.
“It’s really hard,” she declared. “Everybody went to Benjamin Walker’s movie opening and I missed it because I was on stage being Juliet on ‘Romeo and Juliet’ that night. It was the 50th anniversary of the Delacorte Theater, which offers free Shakespeare productions in Central Park. I did a reading with Kevin Kline.” She mused, “In a crowded life, there’s a lot of different directions to be pulled.”
But do Meryl’s two daughters, who are actresses too—Mamie and Grace Jane Gummer—still expect her to attend their premieres and opening nights? “They do expect you to be at their opening!” she exclaimed with mock exaggeration. “Yes, they do! And the Public Theater sells $50,000 tables to their opening. And they expect you to be there. It is not easy.”
Passage of time
Asked what was it like to be Meryl Streep and put on a pedestal, she quipped, “It’s fine.”
At 63, Meryl has been acting professionally for over 40 years, having made her New York stage debut in 1971. She acknowledged the transitions in a career that has spanned four decades. “As I lose friends, you can’t help but mark the passage of time and understand that things are changing,” she said, hands on her chest. “You have a deeper appreciation of the finite number of years you have. You want to say something important in that [span of] time. You want to make it count. You want to help. You want to make people happy. You want to be there for all of it so I’m very grateful.”
She continued, “Somebody said to me that the secret to life is enjoying the passage of time.” Here, Meryl broke into a chuckle. “It’s actually a song there, right? That’s where I am—being aware of how lucky we all are to be living right now, to be here, to be doing what we do, to be engaged in something we love doing, which is making movies. I really love doing it. The opportunities that they’ve kept coming [my way] is a miracle to me. It’s different now than it’s been in the history of movies. Women my age used to have one foot in the old-age home, so that change is remarkable.”
Meryl, who made her feature film debut in Fred Zinnemann’s “Julia,” also noted strides in filmmaking. “Oh, what a different time it was when I began. Film was shot on film,” she said with a touch of irony in her voice. “There was no video monitor. The director had to watch a take and use his own judgment as to whether it was good or not.”
She rued that, nowadays, everyone has a camera phone at the ready. “We can’t have an encounter if we don’t record every second of it in photographs,” she said with a sigh. “We don’t believe it’s happening. I go to plays and movies, and people are holding up their iPhones. It’s amazing. It’s a different time.”
Meryl is grateful for her stage training. She explained: “I’m glad I had that experience because it made me have an imagination about myself and the possibilities of who I could become and embody, that was broader than if I was a young actress who came up just through television and film. Now, reality TV is sort of the benchmark of everything so it’s a very different time. I’m glad that I had emotional and imaginative conservatory early on.”
Meryl, of course, believes in the transformative power of films, “even the ones you resist and say, ‘I didn’t really like that movie.’” Laughing again, she pointed out, “Sometimes, they reside with you and they have the power to change you. It’s really weird. The movies you like, you forget. The ones that irritate you or hit a nerve, they stay with you.”
She volunteered that her new movie with Tommy Lee Jones and Steve Carell, “Hope Springs,” a comedy written by Vanessa Taylor and directed by David Frankel, was made to entertain moviegoers. “This movie is not, as Tommy says, trying to engineer social change,” she said. “This is to entertain. Maybe you attach more to a film if you relate to it.”
Meryl and Tommy play a couple, Kay and Arnold, whose marriage has lost its spark after more than 30 years. Kay persuades Arnold to attend a retreat led by a renowned marriage
therapist, Dr. Bernard Feld (played by Steve Carell).
Asked to comment on something that Tommy told us earlier—that he had accepted the film because of one name, Meryl Streep—the owner of the name said with delicious emphasis, “He’s lying!” Then, with a winning grin, she related: “He read the script and knew that this was a great part for him. He’s so graceful in this part. In a way, it’s Arnold’s film because he’s the one who makes a big change. She instigates it and she animates it with her love for him. But he’s the one who takes the trip, the journey.”
She conceded, “Tommy was a delight. I’ve wanted to work with him for 30 years since we worked at the Public Theater. He was in a Sam Shepard play. God, that was 35 years ago! He’s an incredible actor. I really mean it.”
We asked why she thought passion and sexuality, which “Hope Springs” explores in the context of its presence or absence in a long-term marriage, continue to be subjects that are not so openly discussed. Meryl commented, “That has something to do with our vulnerability in talking about sex. We’re talking about our most vulnerable self, our needs, insecurities and nakedness, literally. But we’re also talking about our emotional needs, what we yearn for and what we never stop hoping for. That’s what motivates Kay, a very quiet, reserved person who breaks out of that in order to take a big, brave step in her marriage. It’s something that people can relate to.”
Of her husband’s reaction to the film, Meryl said, “He thought it was funny. He’s a man of few words but he laughed.”
In “Hope Springs,” Meryl speaks in a light tone, the opposite of her much deeper voice in “The Iron Lady.” She explained, “Margaret Thatcher has a very distinctive voice. I had to make mine more like hers. That was a big leap. I’m always shocked when I hear my voice because it sounds like [that of] a 10-year-old boy. I’m always surprised that it doesn’t have more resonance.”
Meryl cleared her throat and, in a display of her chameleon-like ability to transform herself, began speaking in a voice that clearly had, well, powerful resonance: “It should have resonance.” Then she switched back to her real speaking voice, not really akin to a pre-pubescent boy’s but a mellifluous one that’s calming to hear. “I like to speak like that (deeper) but I normally talk more like Kay,” she added, laughing.”
Asked if she was surprised at how good Mamie had been in the pilot episode of “Emily Owens, M.D.,” the proud mom quickly answered, “Oh, I was not surprised at all. I’m really proud of her. I hope [the TV series] does well. I hope audiences like it. I love that it’s for CW [Network] and that it’s an antidote to some of the dicier things for young girls that are out there. It has real value in terms of expressing a seemingly accomplished young woman’s insecurities and voicing all the things that we’re not sure of, even when we’re grownups and well on our way to being important.”
Of the reviews that praised Mamie in a 2009 off-Broadway revival of “Uncle Vanya,” Meryl said, “She was really the best Sonya I had ever seen. She was fantastic. She was with Austin Pendleton, Maggie Gyllenhaal and Peter Sarsgaard, so that was something that asked more of an actor than most television shows do. I am not kidding and I’m very harsh in my assessments, even of my own children.”
Health-wise, the world’s most acclaimed sexagenarian claimed, “It’s pretty good except for the knees. So far, so good.” She knocked under the table. “It’s great.”
With virtually all acting awards under her belt, what does Meryl look forward to? “Grandchildren,” came the swift reply. “Yes, I’m waiting. Nothing’s happening.”
Anything else? “I look forward to getting home tomorrow and swimming,” the actress said simply, but with the smile that we hope will continue to light up cinema for many more years to come.
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