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'Fresh Air' Favorites: Meryl Streep


This is FRESH AIR. I'm Terry Gross. We're ending the decade with a holiday week series of interviews featuring staff picks from the decade. We begin with Meryl Streep, who we've been lucky enough to have on our show twice; today, excerpts from both interviews. She is widely acknowledged as one of our greatest actors. Here's just a few of her awards - three Oscars for "Iron Lady," "Sophie's Choice" and "Kramer Vs. Kramer"; five Golden Globes, including for "Julie And Julia," "The Devil Wears Prada" and "Adaptation." She also won the Globes' Cecil B. DeMille Award. She won four primetime Emmys. I could go on. This year she costarred in the HBO series "Big Little Lies," and she's now on Greta Gerwig's adaptation of "Little Women" in the role of Aunt March.

When we spoke in February 2012, her film "Iron Lady" was about to open, in which she portrayed Margaret Thatcher, the former British prime minister. Here's an excerpt of her Oscar-winning performance as Thatcher.


MERYL STREEP: (As Margaret Thatcher) The right honorable gentleman knows very well that we had no choice but to close the school...

UNIDENTIFIED ACTORS #1: (Yelling, unintelligible).

STREEP: (As Margaret Thatcher) ...Because...

UNIDENTIFIED ACTORS #1: (Yelling, unintelligible).

UNIDENTIFIED ACTOR #1: (As Cabinet Minister) Disgrace.

STREEP: (As Margaret Thatcher) ...Because his union paymasters have called a strike deliberately to cripple our economy.

UNIDENTIFIED ACTORS #1: (Yelling, unintelligible).

STREEP: (As Margaret Thatcher) Teachers cannot teach when there is no heating, no lighting in their classrooms. And I ask the right honorable gentleman, whose fault is that?

UNIDENTIFIED ACTORS #1: (Yelling, unintelligible).

UNIDENTIFIED ACTOR #2: (As Cabinet Minister) Your hypocrisy.

UNIDENTIFIED ACTOR #3: (As Labour Shadow Minister) Methinks the right honorable lady doth screech too much.


UNIDENTIFIED ACTOR #4: (As cabinet minister) Oh, sit down.

UNIDENTIFIED ACTOR #3: (As cabinet minister) And if she wants us to take her seriously, she must learn to calm down.

UNIDENTIFIED ACTORS #1: (Yelling, unintelligible).

STREEP: (As Margaret Thatcher) If the right honorable gentleman perhaps a tad more closely to what I am saying rather than how I am saying it...

UNIDENTIFIED ACTOR #5: (As cabinet minister) Yeah, yeah.

STREEP: (As Margaret Thatcher) He may receive a valuable education in spite of himself.


GROSS: Margaret Thatcher later took voice lessons from a drama coach to help her sound more authoritative. Here's Streep as Thatcher after those lessons addressing Parliament about the war in the Falklands.


STREEP: (As Margaret Thatcher) We were faced with an act of unprovoked aggression, and we responded, as we have responded in times past, with unity, strength and courage...

UNIDENTIFIED ACTORS #2: (As crowd) Yeah.

STREEP: (As Margaret Thatcher) ...Shown in the knowledge that though much is sacrificed, in the end, right will prevail over wrong.

UNIDENTIFIED ACTORS #2: (As crowd) Yeah.

GROSS: Meryl Streep, welcome to FRESH AIR. Thank you so much for being here.

STREEP: Thank you very much for having me, Terry. I'm a huge fan.

GROSS: Oh, wow. Thank you.

STREEP: (Laughter).

GROSS: So we just heard you before and after Margaret Thatcher has voice lessons to teach her authority and power so that she can speak more powerfully to the parliament. So can you talk a little bit about what you think she learned with those vocal lessons and how you transformed your voice as her after she really learned her way around as a public figure and had the advantage of those voice lessons?

STREEP: Well, I think that voice lessons really just bring out a voice that you already possess. So she already had whatever - the sort of stentorian tones that she acquired over time. They were all lying in wait there within her arsenal. And she'd also had elocution in her high school - the equivalent of high school in Grantham. She had changed her way of speaking. Her accent from Grantham had disappeared by the time she went to Oxford to study chemistry, and she had decided on a sort of a plummy, kind of aspirant, upper-middle-class voice. And so what the voice coach did was enabled her to expand her breath, deepen her voice, bring it to a place where men could listen to it in its most emphatic tones.

GROSS: So how did you change your voice for the before and after, for the more confident and experienced Margaret Thatcher versus the early Margaret Thatcher?

STREEP: Well, I had evidence of both voices, you know, from the public record, so I could listen to them. And it's sort of my fun to sing along with records and imitate people that are on the telephone that have different ways of speaking. I mean, I'd pick things up like that, so it's not a thing that's a struggle. It's work, but it's not a struggle. It's fun. And she had a very particular way of emphasizing points and making her point, and that had to do with bringing out a word that you didn't normally think was the most important word in the sentence. Do you know what I mean?


STREEP: And she also had a sort of way like a railroad train of going - taking a breath and starting quite quietly and making a point in a way that you don't really know that this point is going to be made through several examples, and there will not be a break in the speaking voice at any point. And you - if you think you're going to interrupt, you're really not going to have the opportunity because she's just got capacity. It's just really stunning as I looked at interviews.

GROSS: So you need a lot of breath to keep talking like that. Did you have it?

STREEP: I've just been talking like that (laughter). Yeah, I did need a lot of breath. I needed much more breath than I have after all my expensive drama school training. I couldn't keep up with her.

GROSS: I think it's interesting that when you're doing the voice of a real person - or, I suppose, if you're learning an accent, too - you think of it as singing along with a record. So is that what you do? Like, you play Margaret Thatcher giving a speech, and you do the equivalent of singing along with it. You give the speech as you're listening to it.

STREEP: I say that because that's my way in at the very beginning...

GROSS: Yeah.

STREEP: ...How to enter it. Very quickly in the process, I don't think about voice being separate from the way you hold your head or the way you sit or the way you dress or the way you put on lipstick. It's all a piece of a person, and it's all driven by conviction. In other characters, it's driven by insecurity, or it's driven by fear, or - there's always a driver. And the - all the physical manifestations - you need your way in, so yeah.

When I was a kid - when I was 16, 17, I'd come home from high school, and my dad collected all of Barbra Streisand's records. And she was very young then. I think she was - she probably had three records out, and she was 21. And we had them all, and I knew every single song, every breath, every elision, every swell. And I sang along to it, but it - for me, it was a way to get out the feeling of the song and also to get out the feelings that, you know, roil in high school to express something that I had no other way of expressing. And, of course, now I'm rich and famous, and I met Barbra Streisand, and I told her that. She was nonplussed.


STREEP: She was just - we can't know what we mean to each other, you know? Artists, you can't know - you can't know that.

GROSS: You know, I hear a certain similarity between your voice in "The Iron Lady" as Margaret Thatcher and your voice in "Julie And Julia" as Julia Child. It almost strikes me as if, and I never thought about this until hearing you in both those films, that if Margaret Thatcher kind of drank too much...


GROSS: ...And started being, like, surprised and delighted about how her, like, food concoction was behaving, that she might sound like Julia Child. What do you think?

STREEP: Well, they had a similar flutiness in - especially in the younger - Julia Child had a flutiness, you know?

GROSS: Yeah (laughter).

STREEP: Which is - and it's also part of her class, the way that there are women of that time and of that class - we don't like to talk about that in America, but there are classes in America. And she was of a class of women who were wealthy, privately educated, went to Smith, moved in that sort of circle.

GROSS: Let me play a little bit of you as Julia Child in "Julie And Julia." And this is a scene when you're on TV early in your TV career, and you're making some kind of like mashed potato pancake concoction that you're about to flip. And it's not - it kind of...

STREEP: It doesn't go well.

GROSS: It doesn't go well. It kind of splatters in the air, and half of it lands on the stove instead of in the pan. So let's hear a little bit of that. And this scene alternates with you on TV and with Julie watching you on TV.

STREEP: Amy Adams, yeah.

GROSS: Yeah, Amy Adams is Julie.


STREEP: (As Julia Child) I'm going to try to flip this thing over now, which is a rather daring thing to do.

AMY ADAMS: (As Julie Powell) She changed everything. Before her, it was frozen food and can openers and marshmallows.

CHRIS MESSINA: (As Eric Powell) Don't knock marshmallows.

STREEP: (As Julia Child) ...We'll give it a try. When you flip anything, you've just got to have the courage of your convictions, especially if it's a loose sort of mass like - oh, that didn't go very well. But you see, when I flipped it, I didn't have the courage...

ADAMS: (As Julie Powell) She's so adorable.

STREEP: (As Julia Child) ...I needed to, the way I should have. But you can always put it together, and you're alone in the kitchen. Who's to see?

ADAMS: (As Julie Powell) Pearls, the woman is wearing pearls in the kitchen.

STREEP: (As Julia Child) You've just got to practice, like the piano. I'm Julia Child. Bon appetit.

GROSS: I know I love that because you talk about studying someone's voice as if it's music, and she has such a musical voice.

STREEP: She does, and she has no breath, absolutely none (laughter).

GROSS: I was going to say that, exactly. It sounds like she's been running up a hill.

STREEP: She always sounds like that. I feel like that when I'm in the kitchen. Don't you? Well, I'm not very good cook, but...

GROSS: Me neither, honestly.

STREEP: I just...

GROSS: I believe that's why delis exist, so that I don't have to cook.

STREEP: (Laughter) Well, I got better after this, and my entire family really did appreciate it. Usually, they're resentful of movies that I go off and make, but this one had a bonus attached. But yeah, she had no breath.

GROSS: You know, I compared her voice and Thatcher's voice before. But breath-wise, they're the opposite because she's almost, like, gasping for air, and Thatcher has this, like, endlessly long breath.

STREEP: Well she's so alive, Julia Child. And Margaret is so designed. She's so intent upon making her point. That's the most important thing, is that she win the argument. And there is nothing that stands in the way of that train, you know? But Julia's just alive in front of you. That's part of why people loved her. They lived it with her. They breathed it with her. And the mistakes were all part of it. But she was adept, too, at what she was doing - incredibly adept.

GROSS: We're listening to my 2012 interview with Meryl Streep. We'll hear more of the interview after a break as we continue our series of staff picks from the decade. This is FRESH AIR.


GROSS: This is FRESH AIR. Let's get back to my 2012 interview with Meryl Streep.


GROSS: OK, so here's a story I read which I assume is true, but you can tell me if it actually happened - that in - for the 1976 Dino De Laurentiis remake of "King Kong," you auditioned for Dino De Laurentiis and his son...


GROSS: ...Who were Italian.


GROSS: And Dino De Laurentiis said in Italian - what did he say?

STREEP: (Speaking Italian) I don't know. I can't speak Italian anymore because I'm so old and forgetful. But he said something like, but this is so ugly. Why do you bring me this?

GROSS: This being you (laughter).


GROSS: Yeah.

STREEP: I'm sitting in front of him at opposite the does. He's smiling. He looks impeccable. He has everything beautiful. And his son is very kind. His son said - 'cause his son had seen me in something - and he said, no, you know, dad, she's a wonderful actress.

And because I had just - I had studied a year of Italian at Vassar, I could understand what they were saying. And I said, you know, (speaking Italian) I'm very sorry that I'm not as beautiful as I should be, but, you know, (laughter) this is it. This is what you get, sort of. And I left. I mean, I was very upset, but I didn't show it. Yes, it's a true story.

GROSS: So a very interesting story because you're being told early in career, basically, that you're not beautiful.


GROSS: You're not qualified. Your face is not qualified for this role. And you're also...

STREEP: Face and body, I believe.

GROSS: And body. But then you're also making the decision to let them know that you understand what they said. They were intentionally speaking in Italian so that you wouldn't understand them.

STREEP: Right. Right, right.

GROSS: But you did understand them. You let them know you understood them and...

STREEP: Because they did - they think actresses are stupid. That was the other thing that - I mean, not they because I don't think his son was that way. His son was my champion. I mean, he was the reason I was in the office. But the dad, he wasn't being mean to me. He was just speaking to his son in Italian, but he had no idea that I would understand because they think Americans are stupid, too, so...

GROSS: Did you worry that you were basically - I mean, you hadn't been in any movies yet. So did you worry that word would spread about you that you were - that you spoke back to directors?

STREEP: A pain in the a**?

GROSS: Yeah, that you were a real pain and that you were - yeah, that you were problems, so, like, avoid her.

STREEP: I am a pain in the a** (laughter). How can I hide it? I mean, yeah, that is the package, you know? And - but I was not - I was not probably suited to that role either. I mean, that was the truth.

GROSS: How much did you want it?

STREEP: Not much. I mean, I did want a break, but I didn't think I would be good in it, honestly. I didn't. It represented something that - I don't know - I wasn't drawn to. So I suppose it was easier to be obstreperous in the meeting because of that.

If it was an audition for "Sophie's Choice" and Alan Pakula had said something like that, I maybe would have swallowed it because I wanted it so badly.

GROSS: You gave a terrific commencement address at Barnard in 2010. And one of things you talked about was that the hardest thing in the world is to persuade a straight, male audience to identify with a woman character. It's easier for women because we were brought up identifying with male characters in literature. It's hard for straight boys to identify with Juliet or Wendy in "Peter Pan," whereas girls identify with Romeo and with Peter Pan. What led you to that conclusion?

STREEP: What let me to that was I have never - I mean, I watch movies. And I don't care who is the protagonist, I feel what that guy is feeling. You know, if it's Tom Cruise leaping over a building - I want to make it, you know? And I'm going to - yes, I made it. And yeah, so I get that. And I've grown up, well, partly because there weren't great girls' literature - Nancy Drew, maybe - but there weren't things.

So there was Huck Finn and "Spin And Marty." The boys characters were interesting, and you've - you lived through them when you're watching it. You know, you don't - you're not aware of it, but you're following the action of the film through the body of the protagonist, you know? You feel what he feels when he jumps, when he leaps, when he wins, when he loses. But it became obvious to me that men don't live through the female characters.

GROSS: Do you think that women have that kind of double consciousness and men, like, boys...

STREEP: I think it has to do with...

GROSS: ...Don't make that leap?

STREEP: Well, it has to do with very deep things, you know, because it might be that imagining yourself as a girl is a diminishment. But it is something that when I made "The Devil Wears Prada," it was the first time in my life, 30 years of making movies, that a man came up and said, I know how you felt. I know how you felt. I have a job like that. People don't understand.

GROSS: It's the first time?

STREEP: First time. First time. And they say lots of things. I think they - this is what I was trying to say in that speech. It's very hard point to make because I guess it's hard to wrap your head around it. But for men, the most - usually the favorite character that I've ever played is Linda in "The Deer Hunter."

Without question, of the heterosexual men that I've spoken to over the years, that's usually - they say, you know, my favorite thing you've ever done was Linda or Sophie. And they were a particular kind of very feminine, recessive kind of personality. They - so they fell in love with her, but they didn't feel the story through her body. And it took to "The Devil Wears Prada" to play someone tough, who had to make hard decisions, who was running an organization, and sometimes that takes making tough decisions for a certain kind of man to empathize. That's the word - empathize. Feel the story through her. And that's the first time anybody has ever said that they felt that way.

GROSS: That's really interesting. Yeah, what do women tell you their favorite role is?

STREEP: Oh, they love everything.

GROSS: (Laughter) OK.

STREEP: OK? They really do. I mean, it's a range of stuff.

GROSS: So do you like seeing yourself on screen, or is that an uncomfortable experience?

STREEP: I don't dislike it. I don't, you know, pop in the CD - the DVD.


GROSS: Let's look at that again.

STREEP: Yeah. But I do think when, you know, sometimes, the scrolling through the TV and there's something on. And I look at it, and I think, oh, my God. I thought I was fat? What is my problem?


STREEP: You know, when I was younger, I spent way too much time thinking about that. So stupid.

GROSS: My interview with Meryl Streep was recorded in 2012. After a short break, we'll hear an excerpt of my 2016 interview with her, in which we talked about her singing. And we'll hear an excerpt of my interview with Carrie Fisher recorded in 2016, one month before her death as we continue our interview series of staff picks from the decade. I'm Terry Gross, and this is FRESH AIR.


GROSS: This is FRESH AIR. I'm Terry Gross. As part of our staff picks from the decade series, we're going to hear an excerpt of our second interview with Meryl Streep, recorded in 2016 after the release of her movie, "Florence Foster Jenkins," in which she portrayed a wildly off-key, screechy singer. In that film, Streep was convincing as a committed but terrible singer. But Streep sang well for real in other films, including "Postcards From The Edge," "Mamma Mia," and "Into The Woods."


GROSS: So you were in the screen adaptation of the Stephen Sondheim musical "Into The Woods," and you played the Witch. And the story in this is - basically, it's a mash-up of several fairy tales, including "Red Riding Hood," "Rapunzel," "Cinderella," "Jack And The Beanstalk." And you play a witch, a beautiful woman who, because of a spell, was turned into a witch and so on. And this is a song that you sing in it.

And it's a very Sondheim song in the sense that the intervals are odd in a way that Sondheim intervals are unusual. The syncopations are unusual in his unusual way. So it takes a lot of talent to sing this. So here's Meryl Streep from the soundtrack of the Stephen Sondheim musical "Into The Woods."


STREEP: (Singing) It's the last midnight. It's the last wish. It's the last midnight. Soon it will boom, squish. Told a little lie, stole a little gold, broke a little vow. Did you? Had to get your prince. Had to get your cow. Had to get your wish, doesn't matter how. Anyway, it doesn't matter now. It's the last midnight. It's the boom, splat. Nothing but a vast midnight. Everybody smashed flat. Nothing we can do. Not exactly true. We could always give her the boy. No, of course, what really matters is the blame, someone you can blame. Fine, if that's the thing you enjoy, placing the blame. If that's the aim, give me the blame. Just give me the boy.




STREEP: (Singing) You're so nice. You're not good. You're not bad.

GROSS: Meryl Streep from the soundtrack of the Stephen Sondheim musical "Into The Woods." Did Stephen Sondheim work with you at all on that?

STREEP: A little bit. What he did was he wrote me a new song that we recorded but was taken out of the movie because of length. But he played it for me in his apartment and sang it to me. I mean, it's one of the great, most cherished memories of my life is just that little hallowed afternoon where he played this magical thing for me in it.

And I think he's our great composer...

GROSS: Oh, yeah.

STREEP: ...You know, for the musical theater.

GROSS: (Laughter) Yes.

STREEP: So it was like, you know, c'mon, I could die now.

GROSS: Do you know who you are singing as yourself? Because I've only seen you sing in character. And when you're...

STREEP: Yes, in character.

GROSS: ...In, like, a rock musical, you know, "Ricki And The Flash," and...


GROSS: ...In "Postcards From The Edge," you're singing more - I don't know, but somewhere it's between like - well, there's a country and western song. And then there's a more, you know...

STREEP: Oh, yeah. In "Postcards," yeah, yeah.

GROSS: Yeah. So, like, I don't know - I don't have a sense of, like, if I said, and tonight, Meryl Streep in concert, I don't know what you'd sing or how you'd sound.

STREEP: Well, it would be a varied show. I don't know. I don't really... (vocalizing).

GROSS: (Laughter).

STREEP: I don't really...

GROSS: Is that a warm-up exercise?

STREEP: I have a - yeah, it's just like - well, one Christmas I remember when I was 12, my mother decided to - in front of the whole family, the gathered family, including my formidable grandmother Mammie (ph) - she said, Meryl saying "O Holy Night" in French. And, Meryl, sing it now.

And I have never - if I ever have to play a person who is overcome with fear and terror, I go back to that moment because I was just - I hadn't had any trouble singing in the Christmas concert. But standing in the living room in front of my whole family, all my, you know, annoying brothers and my cousins and everybody looking at me, I just went crazy. I just was, like, shaking. I remember everything shaking. And I thought, I don't like this feeling. I think I'm not a natural performer. I think I'm an actor.

GROSS: Well, getting back to music, I want to play something else. And this is from "Postcards From The Edge," which was made in 1990, directed by the now late Mike Nichols based on a book by...

STREEP: Carrie Fisher.

GROSS: ...By Carrie Fisher, yes. And it's kind of biographical. So you've been in rehab. You're kind of trying to figure out your life in this, your character. And your mother, who is modeled on Carrie Fisher's mother, Debbie Reynolds, is a singer and performer who was big in musicals in the '50s and '60s. You've been living with her. There's a party at her place, and you're asked to sing.

STREEP: It's funny that I spoke about my - that moment in my grandmother's house because it was very similar. Shirley MacLaine plays my mother. She makes me do this. And I've just gotten out of rehab. And my character is very tender and raw. And she kind of, more or less, forces me to get up in front of all these people and sing.

So that's - it's very deflected and sort of a lot of excuses built into singing something that actually means something. And still, it's almost this little, tiny voice from somewhere deep inside. And then her mother gets up and sings Stephen Sondheim's "I'm Still Here"...

GROSS: (Laughter) That's right.

STREEP: ...And throws her legs up on the piano and the red, sequined dress. And it just blows her daughter out of the water once again.

GROSS: I really like your performance in that. You've been living with her. There's a party at her place, and you're asked to sing. So you go up to - I forget if it's a guitarist or pianist - and you start working it out...


GROSS: ...With him.


GROSS: And the song is "You Don't Know Me." So here is Meryl Streep from "Postcards From The Edge."


STREEP: (As Suzanne Vale) You know that - OK. (Singing) You give your hand to me - that Ray Charles tune - (singing) and then you say hello.

SCOTT FRANKEL: (As pianist at party) Yeah, I know it.

STREEP: (As Suzanne Vale) Yeah.

FRANKEL: (As pianist at party) Keep going.

STREEP: (As Suzanne Vale, singing) And I can hardly speak - (laughter) sing. My heart is beating so, and anyone can tell - that's it. You think you know me well.

UNIDENTIFIED ACTOR #6: (As character) What a sweet song.

STREEP: (As Suzanne Vale, singing) Well, you don't know me.

UNIDENTIFIED ACTOR #7: (As character) Singing it.

STREEP: (As Suzanne Vale, singing) No, you don't know the one who dreams of you at night, longs to kiss your lips, longs to hold you tight. To you, I'm just a friend, and that's all that I've ever been. But you don't know me.

I don't know the bridge.

GROSS: That's Meryl Streep singing in the film "Postcards From The Edge." Well, Meryl Streep, I really regret that we're out of time. It's been great to talk with you. Thank you so much for being on our show.

STREEP: Thanks, Terry. I enjoyed it.

GROSS: Meryl Streep recorded in 2016. The film "Postcards From The Edge" starring Streep was written by Carrie Fisher, who adapted it from her novel. After a short break, we'll hear my 2016 interview with Fisher recorded after the publication of her memoir about making the first "Star Wars" film as we continue our interview series of staff picks from the decade. This is FRESH AIR.

(SOUNDBITE OF LONNIE SMITH'S "TALK ABOUT THIS") Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.

Combine an intelligent interviewer with a roster of guests that, according to the Chicago Tribune, would be prized by any talk-show host, and you're bound to get an interesting conversation. Fresh Air interviews, though, are in a category by themselves, distinguished by the unique approach of host and executive producer Terry Gross. "A remarkable blend of empathy and warmth, genuine curiosity and sharp intelligence," says the San Francisco Chronicle.