Julie & Julia: Interview with Meryl Streep

Meryl Streep plays Julia Child and Amy Adams is writer Julie Powell in Nora Ephron’s comedy Julie & Julia. 

Before Ina, before Rachael, before Emeril, there was Julia, the woman who forever changed the way America cooks—and eats. 


In 1948, Julia Child (Meryl Streep) was just an American woman living in France.  Her husband's job has brought them to Paris, and with her indefatigable spirit, she yearned for something to do. 


Fifty years later, Julie Powell (Amy Adams) is stuck.  Pushing 30, living in Queens and working in a cubicle as her friends achieve stunning successes, she seizes on a seemingly insane plan to focus her energies.  Julie decides to spend exactly a year cooking all 524 recipes in Julia Child's Mastering the Art of French Cooking (which Child co-wrote with Louise Bertholle and Simone Beck) – and write a blog about her experiences.


Director-writer-producer Nora Ephron melds these two true stories into a comedy that proves that if you have the right combination of passion, obsession, and butter, you can change your life and achieve your dreams.


Passion for Living


“When you talk about passion, Julia Child didn’t just have it for her husband or cooking, she had a passion for living,” says Meryl Streep. “Real, true joie de vivre. She loved being alive, and that’s inspirational in and of itself.”


A half-century later, in 2002, New Yorker Julie Powell was nearing 30, dissatisfied as a writer, and facing an emotionally depleting day job working for an organization devoted to rebuilding the World Trade Center site after 9/11 and helping displaced residents resettle.  Spurred to change her life, she decided to cook her way through Child’s masterpiece – 524 recipes in 365 days – and chronicle her efforts in a blog. With the encouragement of her husband Eric—who was happy to devour the fruits of her labors—Julie began detailing the ups and downs of her time-consuming project.


The project attracted the interest of writer/director Nora Ephron, with her witty sensibility and interest in food as it relates to life, and producer Laurence Mark and executive producer Scott Rudin came on board to shepherd the project.


“Both stories were going to be about marriage and food, two things that certainly go together in most people’s lives,” says Ephron. “When you’re in the romantic comedy business, the movie ends when people say ‘Will you marry me?’ It’s very rare to find something about what happens next, where you’ve got two equally smart people in a relationship who adore each other. It’s one of the reasons I think Meryl was completely drawn to the movie.”


Shakespeare in the Park


It’s no surprise that the Oscar-winning Streep was the logical choice to play Julia Child.  Ephron was inspired to cast Streep after running into the actress at a Shakespeare in the Park performance.  Streep asked what Ephron was working on, Ephron replied, and Streep immediately went into her Child impression: “Bon Appétit!”  Before it even began, the casting search was over.


It Made Me Cry


After she was sent the script, Streep read it and says she called Ephron immediately. “I thought it was absolutely beautiful,” Streep recalls. “It made me cry, the idea that what you put in front of your family, that love, those connections between people, are the real important things.” As for who she was being asked to play, what galvanized the accomplished actress was Julia Child’s approach to life. “Her approach to her day was one of energy and appetite and a blanket determination not to let troubles get you down. It’s a great quality and she really had it.”


“When we first meet her, she and her husband Paul are living in Paris where they’ve been posted after the Second World War, trying to promote all good things American since he worked for the diplomatic corps,” says Streep. “She was very bright, but the expectations for women at that point were not necessarily to have a career and find their life’s work. But Julia was someone who had a relentless appetite and curiosity for all sorts of things, and the food that was made in American kitchens was not that inspired. She was always sort of a gourmand, but when they went to Paris they discovered food as an art form – not merely something we need for nourishment.  So she went to the Cordon Bleu and learned cooking from the ground up, just took to it with relentless curiosity and invention.”


Doing Essence of Child but Not Replicating Her


Julia Child was famous, and because of her height (6’2”) and odd, high-pitched voice, she was a subject often impersonated–most famously by Dan Aykroyd on “Saturday Night Live”–but Streep found a way to avoid caricature in her portrayal. “My out is that I’m not really ‘doing’ Julia Child, I’m Julie Powell’s idea of who she was,” says Streep. “So while I felt a responsibility to her memory and the legacy of the great work she did, and to the essence of her character, I didn’t feel I was replicating her.”


“Meryl Streep made it possible to make this movie,” says Mark.  “She has an uncanny ability to suggest Julia Child and to imbue the character with the spirit of Julia Child, but it’s not any sort of impersonation.  It’s a beautiful, beautiful portrayal.”


Tucci's Sunstance of a Man


Streep says that Stanley Tucci’s contribution to the movie’s portrayal of a strong marriage was essential. “Stanley brings this indescribable thing, which is the substance of a man – his gravitas, his love, his three-dimensional despair when he was called back to Washington, humiliated. That’s all invaluable to our film because their marriage is a marriage of equals, and you feel the mutual regard that isn’t just romantic love, but also respect.”


Subtle Humor


Streep is in awe of Ephron’s ability to weave humor into her movie’s themes. “Her deftness as a writer is a great gift, how secretly she sneaks in what she’s talking about,” says Streep. “There’s subtlety in the humor, so that the film is very, very funny but it doesn’t set out to have any jokes. You laugh with these people, but you feel for them as well, and it’s a great thing she was able to do.”


Creating the world of Julie & Julia meant in effect bringing to life two separate movies: one relatively contemporary, the other a period piece taking place fifty years ago. For the Julia Child segments, Oscar-winning costume designer Ann Roth — who has worked many times with Meryl Streep on such films as Doubt, The Hours, and Mamma Mia! — found herself re-creating an era with which she was very familiar, having lived through it herself. “The life of Julia Child was something I know a lot about,” she says, “and I know what people wore at that time. I knew what the girdle was, and the glove and the hat, and when you wore a hat and when you wore a glove, and how many sweaters you had and how many cashmere sweaters you didn’t have. It’s a life that I knew very well. I mean, I was in school in the ‘50s.  So I felt pretty secure in that period.” Roth had previously called upon her memories and research for her Academy Award®-nominated costume designs for The Talented Mr. Ripley, which took place in the same period.


Creating Streep's New Height


Julia Child towered over most people in her presence. A primary challenge for Roth was creating and maintaining the illusion of great height for Meryl Steep. “You can’t keep saying, ‘Well, we’ll just hire four-foot or five-foot people and put her on an apple box.’  So we made four or five pair of experimental shoes, and I thought they would be difficult to walk in, to act in.  But it turned out that they worked quite well. All the fittings for Julia were done with that height, with that length of leg. We cheated on where the waistline was, we cheated all over the place, and we made a figure that was what I saw as Julia Child.  And then, of course, her husband was this perfect smaller person. A very dapper one. His suits were made for him.  As were his father’s, as were his father’s fathers and his uncles–he came from that kind of family.  Not that he was rich; he was never rich, but he was spiffy.”


Food Lessons


Though Meryl Streep is a home cook and Adams took classes before filming got underway, both were coached in French cooking techniques by Spungen, including the deboning of that duck, not to mention the trick of flipping an omelet. “That was a difficult scene to coordinate, because we had to get all these actors playing students in the Cordon Bleu to flip their omelets at the same time along with Meryl,” says Spungen.  “We gave Meryl some on-the-spot last-minute omelet-flipping lessons in our kitchen before she went on to film the scene. But she aced it, she was brilliant. She can swing a fish around in a piece of cheesecloth without anyone’s coaching.”


Good Knives


Streep says the biggest thing she took away from her culinary scenes was the importance of good knives. “Chopping onions is a breeze if the thing is nice and heavy and has a great edge,” says Streep. “As Julia says, ‘Always wash your knives, sharpen them, dry them and put them away.’ A sharp knife is everything!”