Meryl Streep: Greatest Living Actress on her Career, Imaginations, Hollywood as Boys Club, and her Long Hair and Nose

Boundless Energy and Imagination:

I want never to be limited, in terms of my imagination. I never have to stop being a child. I never have to stop imagining what it’s like to be somebody else. I have a restless imagination and I do have a kind of relentlessness to my personality, I’ve been told. So I think I’ve found the perfect job.

Streep has accumulated an unprecedented 21 acting Oscar nominations over the course of her career, winning three: Kramer vs. Kramer, Sophie’s Choice and The Iron Lady.

Trying to be Pretty and Popular

In high school, I tried to be pretty, popular, a cheerleader and all those things, and only when I went off to Vassar College (then an all-women school) my brain woke up.

Doubts about Acting as Career

At the prestigious Yale School of Drama, she had major doubts about her career choice and almost abandoned it. “I was very influenced by environmental concerns and thought being an actor, at that time, felt like an indulgence or a vanity project that I was going into debt to be, and maybe if I were going to go into debt it should be in the service of something more meaningful and more measurable–my contribution would be something you could see instead of what I was aiming for, which was a life in the theater. At that time, I didn’t consider myself anybody that could be in the movies.

Some in the industry deemed her looks unworthy of the big screen. Dino De Laurentiis, who met her while casting his remake of King Kong, asked his son in Italian, “Why do you bring me this ugly thing?” And Streep, who knew Italian, apologized for disappointing him.

Heavy Dramas:

Serious dramas described her first roles in TV movies, Holocaust, and films: The Deer Hunter, Kramer vs. Kramer, Sophie’s Choice, Out of Africa. That defined me, having long blonde hair and a serious long nose and a serious face. That was how I was cast after that. That’s the kind of script that came. They were serious parts.

Streep’s Heroes

I liked Liv Ullmann, Liza Minnelli, Irene Worth, Geraldine Page, Colleen Dewhurst. They weren’t women who were preoccupied mostly with how they looked or were they appealing; they were just women being women. I saw myself, and I still see myself, as a character actor, as a person who fits what I know into the skin of someone who doesn’t look like me necessarily or hasn’t been raised like I was.

Playing Women Needing Defense:

That may just be a bent of mine, you know? That may be my personal predilection to feel that I’m misunderstood and I need to explain it.

Streep made her feature debut in Julia in 1977, starred in the best picture Oscar winners for 1978, 1979 and 1985 and won Oscars for performances in 1979 and 1982.

Greatest Film Actress as Label

It gives me agita, is what it gives me. It’s just nauseating and unhelpful in the deepest sense of what acting is. Acting is just this exchange — unless you’re alone in a room or you’re Jeremy Irons in that thing where he played twins 1988’s Dead Ringers. The hype tends to intimidate my scene partners. It makes it harder. It’s like this big thing that you have to deflate.

Queen of Accents?

I don’t even think about that stuff when I’m working, when I’m making a scene with somebody. I’m just listening to the other person. I’m not thinking, ‘Oh, is this vowel right?’ You know?

Mining Venom in Characters

MS: If somebody expects me to be sweet, I can’t help but mine the venom in that character that’s there, because people are so complicated, people are so interesting and there’s always something that’s hidden and something’s that contradictory in a character.

Streep Over 60:

She has anchored summer hit after summer hit — The Devils Wears Prada, Mamma Mia!, Julie & Julia, Hope Springs, The Giver. Each one was regarded by the powers that be at the studios as a one-off. Well, that was an anomaly. But then they kept happening.

Writers Lab

In 2015, she has funded The Writers Lab, a program that annually provides 12 women screenwriters over the age of 40 with an intensive four-day retreat at which they work with women who have already “made it” in the biz.  She feels it’s essential for more women to be elevated to positions of power in Hollywood. “I think that movies and movie-making decisions do also operate on a level of personal pride, so that maybe these so-called ‘business decisions’ really have to do more with what ‘he’ wants to associate himself with. The current way of doing things is bad business. Look at television: it’s a landscape of women, interesting women. Movies haven’t caught up.”

Oscar as Marketing Tool

The Oscars can be an extremely valuable marketing tool for movies that are otherwise tough sells. The Iron Lady‘s box-office success (It grossed $150 million worldwide): That success was because of the Oscars (Streep won Best Actress and her longtime collaborator J. Roy Helland shared Best Hairstyle and Makeup with Mark Coulier. That really helped the film to be seen. Otherwise, who would want to go see a movie about a woman with Alzheimer’s, late in her life after she’s been prime minister, not while she’s ordering the ships around?”

No Privacy or Being Natural Anymore

MS: I have to say, since the advent of the cell phone camera and the selfies, who is really behaving naturally? It’s like, no one! Everybody’s performing. That was sort of the joy of doing Florence. It was in a time when people were not aware of how they presented themselves completely. They weren’t so self-aware and self-conscious all the time. On a deep level, they just lived. That was appealing to me, to sort of imagine that freedom of care.