Streep ‘terrified’ to work with Hanks, Spielberg for the first time
LOS ANGELES—It’s almost hard to believe that the world’s preeminent actress Meryl Streep has not collaborated with Steven Spielberg and Tom Hanks until “The Post” came along.
“Steven doesn’t rehearse, so that was completely terrifying and destabilizing for me,” admitted the actress.
In Steven’s 1970s-set true-life journalism thriller, Meryl plays Katharine “Kay” Graham, the socialite-turned-publisher of The Washington Post who grapples with the decision to go along with editor Ben Bradlee’s (Tom) desire to publish the so-called Pentagon Papers.
These classified documents detailed the US government’s private acknowledgment of its failure and mistakes in the then-ongoing Vietnam War.
“But Tom knew that Steven doesn’t rehearse, so he was ready,” said Meryl, who wore glasses and tied her hair in a ponytail, in this Los Angeles interview. She was candid and gracious, as usual.
“So that was even worse (laughs). Tom never made a mistake, ever. He was always completely word-perfect and ready and on the balls of his feet. So it made me lean forward, step up and do my push-ups before I went on set.”
“But, it was joyous,” clarified the thespian who is at the top of her game at 68. “It was a happy group, because there were so many great actors and there was so little time in which to make this movie.”
Part of Meryl’s joy in being on “The Post” was observing her accomplished director. “Steven is such an amazing filmmaker. I’ve never, ever worked with anyone who has a more intuitive, sensate feel for how to construct a visual narrative.”
She cited a scene: “The idea that Steven would hear a story about the presses being in the bottom of the old Washington Post building and that he would think to have (Ben) Bagdikian (played by Bob Odenkirk) type his story and feel that the presses are running and history is shaking. The world’s shaking with what’s being printed downstairs. That’s just great storytelling. Steven would find things like that every day, so it was exciting to go to work.”
On why it took this long for her to be on Steven’s set, Meryl explained, “This is one of the few films that he’s made that’s focused on a woman’s journey. I wouldn’t have been in ‘Saving Private Ryan.’ And in lots of his films, like ‘Lincoln’ and ‘Amistad.’
“I’m very happy that Steven decided to make a film about that moment in time, because it was so seminal. It was a moment when certainly in the United States, things shifted—politically, culturally and in many different ways. He tells a number of different stories in this film.”
While “The Post” takes place in the ’70s, the story about the Nixon administration trying to silence The Washington Post and The New York Times as they attempt to publish the Pentagon Papers resonates in these times when the Trump administration seeks to discredit journalists.
As for Tom, Meryl pointed out, “He was my boss on ‘Mamma Mia!’ He was the producer. The truthful answer is that I’m seven years older than Tom.”
Referring to Hollywood’s practice of pairing actors with much younger actresses, Meryl said, “The reason we probably haven’t worked together is because I’m 27 years too old to be in a movie in the normal way (with Tom), but that’s just a fact of Hollywood.”
For her take on Graham, who transformed from a passive socialite to one of the most admired women of her generation and journalism, Meryl earned her 31st Golden Globe nomination and solidified her status as the most nominated performer in the Globes’ history.
Graham is one of many remarkable women that Meryl essayed on the screen since she made her film debut opposite Jane Fonda and Vanessa Redgrave in “Julia” in 1977.
When complimented that she shares the same qualities of some of the brave, highly principled women she has portrayed, Meryl said, “I don’t feel even remotely in the same league as the people I’ve portrayed who were so brave, going all the way back to Karen Silkwood. But, I’m curious about what makes different women stand up and take a difficult decision.”
On how the sexual misconduct allegations will impact Hollywood in the long run, she replied, “I hope it would affect not just Hollywood. It’s not going away. It’ll go right through every enterprise in America and around the world. It already did.
“In the UK, it is igniting bravery on the part of people who have had it with the silence, being polite and keeping the status quo.
“The best outcome of all this will be in the structures, not just in the Oscars, but in the studios, agencies, funding entities and the boardrooms of the larger holding parent companies of these studios.”
As to what fires up her activism, she answered, “Oh, I just get incensed. Everybody is affected more by their emotional reactions to things than by our rational ones.”
“I have a lot of fear,” she revealed, especially when she’s about to tackle a new role. “Part of it is just the cumulative expectation that’s my own fault (laughs).”
In a candid anecdote, she brought up what her husband, sculptor Donald J. Gummer, would tell her. “My husband points out to me that I always do this—I always say, I’ve never done this before. I’ve never felt this way before. I don’t think I should do the film. I’m going to call them and tell them that I have to get out of doing it because I have no idea [about how to play the part].”
Next month marks the first anniversary of her impassioned speech as the Cecil B. DeMille awardee in the 74th Golden Globe Awards. She called out the then-president-elect Donald Trump for bullying. That video of Meryl’s speech went viral and generated hot buzz on social media.
Asked to share how she wrote that unforgettable speech, Meryl laughed as she began, “I was just sitting at the table outside my little room at the Chateau Marmont and thinking about the Hollywood Foreign Press. How each time I come and speak here, it’s to people who come from all over the world and represent places that have all different kinds of challenges to their press freedom. We’re feeling it here (in the US) now, but people have withstood much more.
“There are so many people who have put their lives on the line. I was thinking about that. I also thought about how I was being honored for acting and what acting was.
Press under siege
“You can use your acting ability to really evil ends. I felt I don’t feel like talking about me, except in how I’m reacting to the moment in which I find myself, in which we all find ourselves, and the press is still under siege.
“There are so many leaders who love the idea of fake news, and that’s where my thinking came together.”
This accomplished woman is also a dedicated mom to a son, Henry (“Hank”), and three daughters—model Louisa Jacobson Gummer and actresses Mamie and Grace.
“We’re very close as a family,” she remarked. “I have three girls and a son, who is my oldest. They’re people who are alert to the world and alive to it and interested and curious. I’m proud of them, but I keep them out of the umbrella of my fame because they hate it and I understand.”
After the serious fare in “The Post,” Meryl goes for light in “Mary Poppins Returns” and “Mamma Mia! Here We Go Again.”
She’s happy that in the latter film, a sequel to the 2008 hit musical comedy, the original cast signed up to reprise their roles. Cher, whom she worked with in 1983’s “Silkwood,” and Lily James joined as new cast members.
“I was totally shocked. That was the first time Cher and I worked together in 35 years,” she said. “So that was really fun. But I have a small part in this version, so I’m not in it very much.
“They all got to go to this beautiful island in Croatia. I shot in a studio outside Ealing (UK). But, it was great to see them all, and they all look the same (laughs). That was 10 years ago.”
What does cinema’s high-achieving icon yearn to do? “I love to sleep,” she replied with a laugh. “I travel so much for my work that my total joy is to be home and have an uninterrupted month there. That’s my greatest pleasure.”
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