Lions for Lambs with Meryl Streep

The political drama, “Lions for Lambs,” is directed by Robert Redford from a screenplay by Matthew Michael Carnahan, who also penned The Kingdom. Its all-star cast includes Redford, Tom Cruise, and Meryl Streep. This is Streep's second appearance in a secondary role in a political film this season, following Gavin Hood's “Rendition,” in which she plays a top CIA officer.

The story takes place on three equally tense and emotional fronts, each with considerable personal stakes. In a Congressional office, Presidential hopeful Senator Jasper Irving (Tom Cruise) is about to give a bombshell of a story about a new war strategy to a probing TV journalist (Meryl Streep), as the two carry out a fierce cat-and-mouse game of wit, charm and evasion. At a West Coast University, a once idealistic professor, Dr. Malley (Robert Redford) confronts a privileged but blas student (Andrew Garfield) in need of fire and in danger of never fulfilling his enormous potential. Meanwhile, in the heated battle in Afghanistan, two of Dr. Malleys former students, Arian (Derek Luke) and Ernest (Michael Pea), lay bare the debates and arguments of mentors and politicians in a stark fight for sheer survival.

The final, irresistible pull for Redford, other than the film's significant issues, was the fact that Tom Cruise had already expressed interest in coming on board, not only to take the role of the slick yet impassioned Senator Irving but to make the film with his partner Paula Wagner, marking their first project in the renaissance of United Artists.

And there was word that Meryl Streep also had the script in her hands. I dont think the film would have been made were it not for Tom, says Redford. The idea of Tom playing a Senator was so different and intriguing, it really got me interested. Then I called Meryl and said Im interested in this, how about you and she said If you do it, Ill do it and thats how it came together so quickly.

Indeed, when Streep read the script it did not yet have Redfords imprimatur on it. Rather, it was the simple urgency of the subject matter that grabbed her and would not let go. Its a story about making the right choices, but its also a film about how easy it is not to make a choice at all, she says. Its a film that says it doesnt matter what you think or feel if you dont do something about it, if you dont stand up and jeopardize everything.

Meryl Streep and Tom Cruise, two of the most popular and lauded actors, have never performed together on screen. By embodying broadcast journalist Janine Roth and U.S. Senator Jasper Irving in the midst of one brief but potentially world-altering meeting, they each got a chance to bring to the fore two palpably real human beings caught up in one of the most intense and serious tug-of-wars of our times: media freedom versus political power.

The Character

Streeps Janine Roth arrives at the office of Senator Irving uncertain of what he wants. Years ago, an article she wrote helped to position the ambitious young politician as the savior of his party and he has been grateful ever since. Now, he hopes to gain her support for a story that conceivably will have a far bigger impact both on the War on Terror and his own ambitions to be President. The only problem is that this time Roth, who has seen how the media can get up in political agendas, isnt so easily swayed.

Getting Involved

A two-time Oscar winner and almost perennial nominee, Streep has had the opportunity to work with many of the finest writers and filmmakers of the day yet, it was relative newcomer Matthew Michael Carnahans script that first drew her to LIONS FOR LAMBS, well before she knew of Robert Redfords involvement. I think Matthew has a great ear for smart, aggressive talk. Its like David Mamet in a way, but its not. Its different, its very much his own voice, and its quite unusual to find that, she observes. I thought the script was like a great play, with both immediacy and power. Its a strong look at important issues, yet it has the emotional punch of being about people you care about.

Streep continues: I was very interested in the way it was about engagement and involvement and personal responsibility the idea that I am my brothers keeper. Its also concerned with the question of what is the responsibility of each individual citizen in a democracy to stand up and about just how hard that really is.

To Play or Not to Play Ball

Streep was especially drawn to Janine Roths moral dilemma: to play or not to play ball with a politician who wants to use her to carefully sell his story about a deadly military operation. Streep right away understood all that would go in to Roths thought process under such titillating yet dangerous circumstances. Shes a prestigious woman in her 50s with family responsibilities and she knows she wouldnt really be employable if she were to be fired, Streep explains. So there a lot of things that might mitigate against her saying what she really thinks.

Streep as News Junkie

Yet also clear to Streep, as they are to Janine Roth, are the consequences of a press unwilling to risk everything to seek out the full truth in a democratic society. We depend on the free press to give us the right information to make very emotional decisions, she points out. A self-described news junkie, Streep notes that shes always been fascinated by the lives of women journalists. Christiane Amanpour is my hero, she remarks. I really admire people who get out on the front lines and bring us back the story who are not pushed by emotion to one side or the other. But what such a woman doesnt want to tell you is the harder thing to find out — and thats what makes her a very intriguing kind of character to play.

Dancing Intelligence

Streep filled her performance with nuances that reveal the turmoil beneath Roths cool surfaces. She especially enjoyed engaging full-throttle in the battle of wits with Tom Cruises savvy Senator. I wanted to bring to the character a kind of dancing intelligence where you never are quite sure whether she or the Senator is leading, Streep says. Janines doing a tricky thing where ideally shes the one leading but she doesnt want it to seem like she is. For her, its all about how to get the hidden answers without antagonizing the person who has them.

Once on the set, Streep was further inspired by playing off of Tom Cruises performance — the one sharpening and intensifying the other. He reminded me of an amalgam of Rick Santorum and John Edwards, she observes. Tom brought a strong sense of someone who has a real shot at being the future of his party. Our scenes were like a duel, with feints and thrusts, and two well-reasoned arguments coming up against each other. Janines job is to hide what she feels in order to get the story and the Senators job is to subsume who he really is in order to present who hed like to be known as so its very interesting to watch that play out.

Acting With Redford

The last time Streep had worked with Robert Redford was as his co-star in the acclaimed Out of Africa, though the two have since developed a friendship, sustained by their mutual passion for the environment. This time around, working with Redford as a director was a revelation. Back then, he was this kind of huge, gigantic star and I was, I dont know, kind of in awe of him, she admits. But now I see us both as veterans. As a director, he was so smart and so knowledgeable about the issues, and I relied on him completely. This is unlike anything hes tackled before but he always has a certain kind of integrity about material. And I was amazed to see how he made this feel like one story instead of three and how he gave it so much power and poignancy.

Redford was thrilled to work with his good friend as a director and says his only regret with Streep is that he himself had no scenes with her. It would have been nice to work with her in this film as an actor because I really enjoy that, but this was a different relationship, he says. The good news was that, in directing her, there was already a lot of trust built from what we had experienced before with each other as artists. He continues: I worked with her collaboratively because shes so smart and I invited her to contribute whatever she wanted to in terms of improvising, so that was just a pleasure.

To dig deeper behind Irvings fervent arguments in favor of increased military aggression, Cruise dove into an intensive period of reading and learning. I spent a lot of time brushing up on modern government, on the history of conservative thought, on current foreign affairs, he notes. I had to become Irving by delving into what he knows. I was also fortunate enough to talk to some people at very high levels who were very open with me in sharing their point of view.

Cruise's Dream to Work with Streep

He also had to find the most dynamic way to interact with Meryl Streeps journalist character to create a highly entertaining frisson in scenes that take place in just a few hundred square feet of office space. I couldnt wait to play these scenes with her, to carry out this wonderful game of wit and intellect, Cruise admits. Everything has already been said about Meryl that could possibly be said about an artist and I think theyre all true. She is an enormously powerful woman and an incredibly generous actor. It was a true dream for me to work with her.

Electric Tension

For Cruise, the key to their scenes together was to get the audience to feel the electric tension between them. The dynamic between the Senator and Meryls character is very exciting, I think, because youre bouncing back and forth among different conflicting ideas. This intellectual parrying was quite challenging and, as an actor, tremendous fun, he says.