I was sipping my morning cup of coffee in New York’s Regency Hotel’s restaurant when I spotted Harvey Weinstein (the producer of Meryl Streep’s new movie, The Iron Lady) talking to a group of hisyoung assistants. I walked over to him to enquire about the whereabouts of the star of his movie, but before I even reached him, he beckoned to one of the lovely blondes in his entourage, saying “Let me introduce you to Meryl.”
Indeed, the smiling blonde, exuding youth and playfulness, was not one of his 30-something assistants, but the 62-year-old iconic actress, Meryl Streep.
“I am Meryl,” Streep says, shaking my hand and showering me with a warm smile that makes the bitter winter outside feel like Spring, completely enchaining my attention.
Suddenly, Weinstein and his entourage vanish from my consciousness as I freeze for a moment, while my brain registers that I am standing before the greatest actress who ever lived. Wearing black-rimmed glasses and dressed in red sweater, in spite of her age she is still endowed with celestial beauty.
“You look so luminous and beautiful,” I instinctively blurt.
“You’re so sweet. Thank you” she laughs as she gently strokes my hand with her other hand. Then she reveals that he went to bed at 3 o’clock in the morning after a long night of drinking with “bad men” such as De Niro at the Kennedy Centre, where she was honoured by President Obama for her commitment to Art.
Hailing from Summit, New Jersey and a graduate of Yale University, Streep began her career in 1975 performing on the New York stage before she moved into TV and film. Demonstrating an unparallelled mastery of character, accents and genre, she made her Broadway debut, won an Emmy (for Holocaust) and received her first Oscar nomination (for The Deer Hunter) within three years of her graduation.
Delivering some of cinema’s finest performances during her 35-year career, Streep has wowed critics and cinema goers alike with her staggering command of her craft, garnering numerous awards, including a record 16 Oscar nominations and 2 wins (for Sophie’s Choice and Kramer Vs Kramer). Her capacity for playing a wide gamut of characters of exceptional depth and immersing herself in them is incontestably uncanny, yet the legendary actress insists that she doesn’t have a method.
“I wish I did, because it would make it less painful to start,” she laughs, waving her hand. “Starting is hard and especially when you have a lot of work behind you that you have to get rid of it and erase it, not have it bleed into this new person and find what’s me in her and why would I feel like this? I like to immerse myself completely in it before we start a little bit and just start that imaginative process.”
Streep also chooses her roles judiciously. “Generally, if I’m drawn to a project, it’s because I’ve found things in that person that are consonant with something that I know about myself and even if I don’t identify them, there is a feeling of recognition.”
So when director Philida LIoyd offered her the role of the former British prime minister, Margaret Thatcher, in the movie The Iron Lady, she agreed unhesitatingly. Like Streep, Thatcher, the daughter of grocer, had also ascended from a humble background to the top of her field, becoming the first British female prime minister in 1979 and leading her country for 11 years.
“She is the Iron Lady and I am the ironing lady,” quips Streep, ironing the air with her hand. “I think I do like to not be misconstrued in what I’m trying to do, something I share that with the Iron Lady. She took a stance and stood by it and I feel defensive about every character I’ve played and defend them as if they’re my own life because for the time that I embody them they feel like they are me,” she laughs.
Indeed, in spite of being a champion of liberal values and a staunch supporter of President Obama, Streep speaks admirably of the rigidly conservative British Prime Minister. She also reveals that, although she disagreed with Lady Thatcher’s politics, she was secretly thrilled when she was elected to lead the United Kingdom in 1979.
“I was 19 and there were no women in government at any level. It was very rare, so we were excited even though we didn’t like the politics. We thought if this could happen in gender-biased, homophobic, class-ridden England, it could happen in America any second, and we really thought we’d get a woman President within 5 years. Still waiting,” Streep laughs lamentably, shaking her head.
Admittedly, the election of the first woman in the western world to lead her country was a triumph for the female gender, but there are a lot of people who wouldn’t remember Thatcher’s reign as chapter of triumphs in the British history. In fact, many of Streep’s liberal friends revile the Iron Lady for her policies, charging her of favouring the wealthy and powerful and battering the poor and powerless. Nonetheless, Streep is steadfast in her defence of the British leader.
“First of all, she would not be regarded as a conservative in American today,” Streep stresses. “She was pro-choice, she recognised global warming and was one of the earliest people to do that. Her understanding of the need to dismantle the welfare state in socialist England was something you can argue with, whether you feel that England should still be a socialist state and have all of its industries belonging to and being administered by the government, and whether you think England should have the Euro.”
None of those questions were dwelled upon in the movie. Instead, The Iron Lady takes us on a personal journey through the eyes of a 80-year-old Lady Thatcher, who suffers from Dementia, as she is swept away by memories from her past while confined into her London apartment in the present day.
“It’s personal; it’s not a trip through history hitting all the points,” Streep says. “We don’t concern ourselves with every single step in the chronological telling of Thatcher’s life. We are interested in the moment in a life of an old woman coming to terms with her turbulent past.”
“I have just lost both of my parents, so I wanted to make a movie about mortality and we found a story that we felt could tell that tale. We were not interested in making a documentary. This is completely subjective look at Margaret Thatcher’s end of her life, the ebb and the diminishment of her power.”
Having had an experience with dementia in her family, Streep felt a special connection with and deep understanding of her character’s affliction. Working closely with the writer Abi Morgan and director Phyllida Lloyed, the double-Oscar winner embarked on an imaginative journey into the mind of someone on the edge of understanding reality and having moments of clarity and moments of confusion, without being too clinical.
“We tried to get as close as we could to the truth that you can get with a fiction. Sometimes, you’re freer to talk about things when you’re just imagining them and we don’t make any pretence about that.”
As she immersed herself into Lady Thatcher’s character, Streep talked to many of her close friends and even adversaries, imbibing the minutiae of her life and learning about her strengths and weaknesses.
“Everybody in England has an opinion of her,” she laughs, rolling her eyes. “There’s a line right down the centre of the British Isles and you’re one side or the other and the feelings are scarlet.”
Hence being an American, the Hollywood superstar was very nervous about playing one of the most prominent and controversial personas in modern British history. But her nerves were quickly soothed by the director who told her that she was perfect because she was an outsider, like Thatcher, who was an outsider in her party. Nonetheless, trepidation and doubt lingered in Streep’s mind.
“She was always where she didn’t belong or where she wasn’t wanted. I didn’t feel unwanted but I did feel nervous the very first day when I walked into the rehearsal and there were 45 of the most wonderful British actors and they’d all done deep homework into their characters so I never felt more like I was from New Jersey than that moment,” Streep laughs.
But the generosity of those actors towards her was instrumental in erasing the traces of doubt from her mind. “Every actor knows that you can only believe in yourself to the degree that the other person credits you, that they see you as who you’re claiming to be and that’s where I’m grateful to them.”
Indeed, the legendary actress delivers the most credible portrayal of the Iron Lady, as a member of Parliament in her 40s, a prime minister in her 50-60’s and as a retiree in her 80s, impeccably mastering her accent, the tone of her voice, her bodily movements and even the flaming gaze in her eyes.
Watching Streep perform, one would think that she could play any role, but the veteran actress disagrees.
“I won’t play women who wield heavy guns,” she laughs jovially.