Florence Foster Jenkins: Meryl Streep Discusses New Movie, Career, Family

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Meryl Streep: It is based on a real person.  The reason that Florence Foster Jenkins was so popular in her day and caused such a sensation, was not that she just sang badly, because we have people in our family who sing badly and we leave the room.  But she sang badly with so much hope and with so much joy, and with an approximation at the thing she was aspiring to. You could see the shreds of it in her work.  So I think partly that is why people loved her.  They loved the aspiration and they loved the hope in her voice.  And then when it inevitably went off the tracks, they loved the mistakes too.  But there had to be something more than just bad singing.  And so that was what attracted me to the part, the humanity of the woman.  And what is an amateur?  What is it to love the thing you do so much that you just want to do it, even if you are not that good at it?  We all have things like that that we pursue in spite of everybody saying, you are not that good a golfer.  But you just go after it.

Scene at Carnegie Hall

MS: When that fails and they are laughing at her, something crumbles inside.  But you know, when my children were little and they would get up and perform in front of the assembled family at Christmas and there would be these little elaborate Nativity plays, with the birth included, and everything, it was all very felt.  And you weren’t allowed to laugh and you weren’t allowed to leave the room.  And these performances, it’s that childlike belief, that is so touching.  I don’t know if it’s tragic; it’s touching. We watch children this way and you are laughing, but you are loving it too.

Awareness of Florence Foster Jenkins

florence_foster_jenkins_2_frears_streepMS: I was aware of her, because everyone that goes to Drama School and we did a number of productions with students from the Music School at Yale too and so she was famous.  I mean this was a record that passed around and everybody had this cassette and people would play it at parties and we all knew about her.  And then it was something I had forgotten about for years and years and it’s something that students laugh about.  It’s funny and it was touching.  I happened to, I am going to drop a big name, I happened to have a supper with Jasper Jones, and he told me that he and Robert Rauschenberg, when they were very young, they used to sit around and play her records.  I think to artists, who understand striving for something wonderful and failing occasionally how hard it is, I think it’s particularly hilarious and touching.

Singing Badly

MS: Well I did take it very seriously as did she.  I was making Ricki and the Flash with Audra McDonald and I said, Audra, I have to sing all these arias, and she said, you have to go to my teacher.  Arthur Levy will lead you through this material.  And so I studied with Audra’s coach.  He probably doesn’t want anybody to know that now.  But he was great, he was very compassionate, and he is a funny man, he has a big sort of understanding of the line we were trying to achieve.  But basically what he did was teach me the Arias, to sing them as well as I could, and then it was up to me in the moment of filming, to move it off the way I wanted to, or whatever it felt like, or what the audience was feeling, so that I knew what it was supposed to be, and then I could just aim sort of a quarter tone under or over or around.

Dying Scene

MS: I think what she is saying is, they can say what they like about me, but I did what I loved.  I think that is embedded in that remark, and she really did say that, people could say that I couldn’t sing, but they can’t say I didn’t sing.  She really said that.  I think for me, I am lucky that I found what I love and I found it early enough to make it a life work.  So I am lucky.

Cooking Dinner

MS: At the end of the filming day, I have a liquid dinner.  Because on this one I was so tired and also I was wearing a lot of weight.  And so I had to take that off at the end of the day, but I wanted a massage and you can’t get a good massage in England.  So I would cook, and I lived with two people while I was there and I cooked pretty much every night.  But there’s a great place in England that has wonderful food that is sort of prepackaged but it’s gourmet, great curries and things like that.  And we were around the corner from a great Fish and Chips shop.  So once a week we would do that, but only once a week because you will just die if you do that.  So mostly I would make vegetable things and when I am home, I do a lot of, I just found the greatest recipe and it’s so much work, but it is fantastic.  And it’s Frutti De Mari and it’s swordfish, calamari, shrimp, scallops and clams.  And you make it with the very smallest pasta, and first you, well you don’t want the whole recipe, but it’s really good and it has an interesting mix of flavors, because it’s in the tomato base, but it includes Cumin, Thyme and Sage.  So I have never had that combination before and it’s so fragrant.  And you cook it and it takes a long time, but it’s really great.

Terrorism and Politics

MS: Oh my God.  This is too big a question.  I don’t have time to go into that question honestly and deeply, the way that deserves to be answered.  And frankly, I am probably not the most eloquent in this subject.  I am concerned.   I am not worried.  I am really an optimist and I believe in the best in people.  And what is that Leonard Cohen, “there’s a crack in everything and that is how the light gets in.” That is what I feel.

Symbol of Health and Youth

MS: Sometimes I let myself fall apart when it is appropriate and for the part, and others times I try and swim every day, I swim a mile every day, and I don’t know, I just like that, it gets me in my body and I like that feeling.  But I don’t know, we are all lucky if you have your health, but none of us have it forever.  Just be happy when you do.  My mother had beautiful skin, but wrinkled, but who cares?  That’s what I have, I have the same.


Hilary Clinton as President

MS: I am a New Yorker.  I had dinner with Donald Trump once a long time ago and I do a fairly fantastic imitation of him, which I will not treat you with, and yes, I hope Hillary Clinton wins.

Who Intimidates her?

MS: A lot of people make me nervous.  I don’t want to say, because what if I meet them and then they know?  I am in awe of great musicians and artists and some people in the political realm and anybody that is got an aura.  And that is just something that you feel yourself.

Destiny and Happiness

MS: I think life hands you your destiny. Jack Nicholson said to me, never spit on another man’s happiness.  And I thought that is really good.  Because there is enough coming at you that says no in the world.  And I think it’s better to say sure, try that, do that, go ahead.  Forward is always better.  You are going to hit the wall, but that’s okay I think.  Better to do that than wake up at fifty and realize you haven’t tried the thing.  And I think she was impelled by another kind of necessity, from the state of her health.  So she really had a reason to want to try.

Hard Critic on Herself

MS: I always have things that I wish I did. Generally, I think I am always impatient when I work, I want to keep going, let’s go, and I like people that are fast on their feet and I don’t like long set ups and I don’t like green screen and technical, putting the dots on your face and all that stuff is boring. But, inevitably, when I see a film I think ooo, I wish I had more time to feel that out, or I wish they hadn’t cut that off right there.  You can’t say that as a general rule, but sometimes, things are truncated.  Like you think the real moment happened after the talking stopped.  And often they will just cut when the talking stops.  So what can you do?

Michael Cimino and The Deer Hunter

MS: It was a very, very rich experience, it really was.  I didn’t really have too much. Michael gave me a lot of freedom in creating the part and in what I would say and he created a monster really because I thought that all directors would be willing to just let the camera roll and you say what you want to say.  But he worked very closely with Bob (De Niro), and they were joined at the hip, and Vilmos Zsigmond, who was a great cinematographer.   I was like second tier in that triumvirate, they were steering the ship.  But as I say, he gave me a lot of freedom and he didn’t say a lot to me.  But it was a very difficult shoot, it was on location and very hot and we were shooting close quarters in this little trailer and in the Ukrainian church where we had the wedding and there was no air conditioning and people were just drenched in sweat.  But it was a really thoroughly wonderful experience.


MS: I did it because we were having a fundraiser for the New York Shakespeare Festival in Central Park.  Which is an organization close to my heart.  But it was just their fundraiser and they do it every Spring and Christine Baranski and I were going to sing the song from Guys and Dolls, and so the lyrics, it’s how to get a woman, and that is the song.  And so I thought well, who needs women?  I know somebody who needs women.  So we just cast it that way.  It was just a lark.  But I really was shocked when my friend sent me the Hindu Times and there it was in the paper.  And the melee something.  And it really went crazy.  But I didn’t think it would have that reach and was sort of appalled that it did and there weren’t supposed to any cell phone cameras and there were.

Advise for Younger Actresses

MS: It’s up to them, it’s up to their bosses, it’s up to the people who hire them.  They will all work to my age and they should be able to.  I am not the only older lady who should be working.  And there are a lot more opportunities now for more people because of the different platforms.  Television has offered so many women more opportunities.  And the movies are just behind.  They haven’t caught up with this economic commercial truth, that that audience is important.  And they are throwing money away not to appeal to them.

Perception of Talent

MS: It’s just something outside of me, the way that the thing has been constructed that I am or represent, and I really do approach each piece as if it were the second or third thing I ever did.  And you have to, every movie, especially in the hundred years that I have been working, is a new challenge and they are just a human being, and that is all I am trying to be.  It’s just a human being. This one is different because she is rich and can buy her way into Carnegie Hall.  But there is something wonderful about her zeal and her love of doing.  She is just as important as Ricki was to me.  The same in a weird aspiration and the same level of talent probably.  The same dream.

Kramer Vs. Kramer

I have to say, that was another instance where Robert Benton, who was the writer and director, where he just gave me so much freedom and encouragement and made me feel like a collaborator on that film, and there was no reason early on to have done that.  So I felt that he really acted as a mentor to me.  And it was another time.  That was when Sam Cohn was my agent, a great agent, an agent for Mike Nichols and Edgar Doctorow and William Styron and so many other writers, directors and actors.  And he would put together these really challenging, interesting pieces.  And Kramer Vs. Kramer was one of them.

Women Point of View

MS: I think it’s a question of empathy.  I think women are schooled in trying to figure out what it is you are really asking.  I think we have all antenna up going, trying to pick up all the signals of what it is that someone is really, what it is that they are really asking.  And I think that that is something that holds us back sometimes.  But whether men listen or not, no, men don’t listen, we have to sort of get in front of them and say, listen.  Right here, right now, okay.  And they are not as intuitively, they don’t suspect as much maybe.  And so we are more, I am speaking so generally and I shouldn’t do this, it’s stupid.  But for me, I think men listen now because they understand that they kind of have to.  That is the difference.

Acting as Bad Singer

MS: It is kind of hard to go off the note that you know it’s supposed to be.  But it became so much a part of who she is.  It’s like when people ask me, oh, that accent was so good and I have to go, wait wait.  The accent, it’s like part of the whole baby.  You don’t look at a baby and you go, oh my God, the left eyebrow is so wonderful!  How did you manage to make that left eyebrow?  No, no, you are looking at the whole thing, the whole squirming, wiggling, laughing thing.  And to me, her singing was just another piece, a manifestation of her excess and the way she dressed.  Every time I would put a necklace on, I would decide, let’s put on three more.  So it was just more, more, more with her. And when you sing, you can’t try too hard, because when you try hard, you will go off.  And that was sort of what happens with her.  She goes off because she wants it so much.

MS: Florence really did underwrite many of Toscanini’s concerts at Carnegie Hall.  She really did always slip him a check.  And they could count on her.  But I don’t presume to know what the nature of his affection was and I think he probably was grateful and happy.  I don’t really know, I don’t know too much.  And you can see that everybody wants some, but that is the world.  That is the world we live in and in the art world, people are just constantly begging for money.  And that’s it.  And you love your patrons

Preparation in General

Well, I try to get ready beforehand.  I prepare, depending on the piece and if I am playing a real person, I pay attention to what they were as far as I can tell.  And then, I sort of let it go on the first day and see what the other people give me, because to me, the whole thing just happens in the exchange.  You can only get ready so far and then you have to just forget about it.  It’s like a town you left and you are in the new town now, meeting all the new people.  So you bring your past with you, but it doesn’t stop you.  It’s just that thing of the encounter is everything in acting.  And it’s the thing you can’t predict.

I used to get the lines really easily, in the morning, in the makeup chair, but that doesn’t happen anymore. Now I have to learn them the night before.  And then I have to go over them again in the makeup chair in the morning.


MS: I am very proud of my daughters, and my son.  Well, what are they all doing?  My son is running an after school program in Los Angeles and he is a musician as well.  And the girls are all working but I forget on what continent at the moment, cause they have been flying around a lot.  And my husband is going to install the sculpture in front of the new American Embassy in Moscow.  And it’s a very big commission and he is very proud and happy and a big deal.