Meryl Streep has had more critical acclaim than any other Hollywood actress. She has won two Academy Awards for her roles in Kramer Vs. Kramer and Sophie’s Choice and been nominated for Oscars a record of sixteen times. Now, the 62 year-old actress delivers another potentially Oscar-nominated performance with her role as Margaret Thatcher in the biopic The Iron Lady.
Margaret Thatcher was Britain’s first female prime minister from 1979 to 1990. She became one of the most controversial leaders of the last 30 years due to her very right-wing conservative policies against trade unions and the Soviet Union. Streep was asked about the nearly four to five hours she spent for makeup to transform herself into Thatcher.
“No, no, no,” Meryl replied, correcting us, “We got it down to under two.”
Meryl was asked if she thought all the makeup would neuter her performance.
“Interestingly, in the process of developing the older Margaret we ended up taking away, taking away, taking away,” Streep says, “There were certain elements that the genius prosthetics designer, Mark Coulier, was able to achieve. He created something that was tissue-thin so that I felt very free and I felt like I was looking at a member of my family, if not me, and so it actually made acting easier.”
Streep talks about how her background in theater helped enhance her experience to play such a distinctive, iconic world figure.
“I think for me to imagine myself in different ways comes from my beginnings in the theater,” Meryl says, “People are more accepting of when you go apparently wildly afield from who you are or where you brought up. Otherwise, I would always play people from New Jersey, which limits the career. So yes, I felt like I had freedom to try to step into these very small, tight, big shoes.”
Meryl talks about how she felt she related to Thatcher as a mother.
“Well I got in inkling,” she says, “I have an inkling of the size of the day that she fulfilled. I looked at her daily calendar and I tried to imagine that. I’m a mother and I work in spurts throughout my career, so I’d work for four or five months and then not, so I was home a lot.”
“And I tried to imagine 11 ½ years of this kind of, you know she was unhappy if there were 10 minutes of free time anywhere in her day that was wasted, wasted time,” Streep adds, “And so I imagined trying to be in the lives of your children to the degree that I try to be in their lives, and I think it would have been very difficult.”
Streep was asked if Thatcher’s strength would make the leader a gay icon today.
“You know, I don’t know,” Meryl says, “I just recently found out I’m a gay icon from that show where they do little arias from all my movies. I haven’t gotten up the nerve to go. I don’t know.”
“I think that she stirs very strong feelings, even today, 20 years after leaving power, and she remains divisive,” she continues, “The film will enter a landscape of a world where she continues to cause controversy. I can’t answer the question about whether she’s a gay icon. That’s a difficult one for me.”
Meryl talks about how she feels that Thatcher was admirable despite her right-wing politics because she was unafraid and knew how to lead. She talks about how more difficult it may be as a woman to do that than men, especially in politics.
“Well I’m in awe of the sort of all the things that were arrayed against her succeeding to get to the top of her party and then to lead the country, and to be the longest serving prime minister in the 20th century,” Streep says, “\The array of obstacles that stood before her in England at that time were enormous and I think she did a service for our team by getting there.”
“Even though you might not agree with the politics, just the fact of her determination, her stamina, her courage to take it on,” she continues, “I think anybody that stands up and is willing to be a leader who is prepared as she was and as smart as she was, it’s admirable on a certain level because you really sacrifice a great deal. All of our public figures do.
Streep also shares what she thinks the turning point of Thatcher’s life in terms of her decision to go into a career in politics and the turning point in her own life when she decided to go into a career in acting.
“I’m sure that Margaret Thatcher was forged within her family, in a family of two girls, in a time when sons were favored, and a man that had no sons had no ambition, really, no place to put his ambition,” Meryl says, “Her father was the mayor of Grantham, very engaged politically, but also he was a lay-Methodist minister, and he preached, and he liked to be up front speaking. And he discovered that of his two daughters he had one that was uncommonly bright and uncommonly curious, and maybe this could be his boy. That’s what I think.”
“But I could be completely wrong,” she adds, “But I think that in that time it was a disappointment to have a family with two girls, and it remains that in many parts of the world. So we can understand this, it’s not that alien of a landscape, although I can’t imagine it. I think that she fulfilled a promise, and she was uncommonly curious, had a prodigious appetite for learning and for doing things right, and he infused in her the courage to get up and out I suppose. Not only is she the first female prime minister, but she’s the first chemist to be elected prime minster. She took her degree in Oxford in chemistry, and then took the law boards. Yes, I think she had a lot of promise and she wanted to live up to it. For me I never really decided. I’m still ambivalent. But being an actor lets me be a million different things, so I don’t have to decide.”
Meryl talks about the research that she had to do in order to effectively portray Thatcher on screen.
“I did observe lots of newsreel footage of her,” Streep says, “and the biggest challenge for me was just accomplishing the long lines of thought that she would launch into without taking a breath. Even with all the drama school that I’ve had I had a lot of trouble managing that, matching to it.”
“And that has something to do with who she was as a person, just the galvanizing energy and the drive and the capacity to follow through with a conviction all the way to the end of your breath until you can’t go any further,” she adds, “And not to let anybody interrupt. And by the way, and go on from there. It was masterful the way she could manage these interviews. I’m taking notes on that.”
Streep talks about playing a still living person versus playing the late Julia Child in the film Julie and Julia, which netted her an Oscar nomination.
“I did not meet [Thatcher],” she replies, “I did see her once at my daughter’s university, at Northwestern. We went to see her lecture and that made an indelible impression on me, in about 2001, 2002, I can’t remember. But the question as to the special responsibility to playing someone who lives and potentially could see this, we have come under criticism for portraying someone who is frail and in delicate health. Some people have said it’s shameful to portray this part of a life, but the corollary thought to that is if you think that debility, delicacy, dementia is shameful, if you think that the ebbing end of life is something that should be shut away, if you think that people need to be defended from those images, then yes, if you think then it’s a shameful thing.”
“But I don’t think that,” Meryl adds, “I have had experience with people with dementia, I understand it, and I think it’s natural. We are naturally interested in our leaders and we tell stories about ourselves through the stories of important people. I mean going back to Lear and deciding questions of existence through Hamlet. We’re not talking about Hamlet’s politics or whether Lear was a good leader; we’re talking about the loss of power, because it’s interesting.
The Iron Lady reunites Streep with directorPhyllida Lloyd, who previously worked together on the hit film adaptation of the musical Mamma Mia!. It was asked if the relationship between Streep and Lloyd had developed a shorthand.
“Yeah, I loved working with her the first time,” Meryl says, “But yes, we had a shorthand, and we had to because we had $14 million to shoot a movie that takes place over the course of six decades, right? Something like that. That’s basically no money. That’s less than a tenth of what Hugo cost, so 10 movies of the scale of Margaret Thatcher. You can’t spend time missing cues.”
“We did discuss things on the run and all of us understood through a process of a year before we began shooting what we were wanting from this piece,” Meryl adds, “That it was going to be not a docudrama, not a chronicling of Margaret Thatcher’s political life, that it would be a very particular look back through her own eyes at selected memories. Not in chronological order, in a jumble of memory, we grant glory days that it would all be a part of a reckoning at the end. So we had many discussions before we got onto the game field, and then once we got on we just went.”
Meryl was asked whether she prefers playing fictional or real-life roles in films.
“Well since a good 40% of the film I’m playing a Margaret Thatcher no one has seen or knows and we can’t know, it’s an imagined journey that we were taking,” Streep answers, “So I felt a lot of freedom, I did. I felt completely free, and that’s a testament to the director and the strength of that vision that we were taking three days in the life of an old lady and using the turbulence of those days, the moving out of her husband’s things, as a trigger to a lot of memories, and disorientation, and a feeling of being thrust back and forth between the past and the present.”