Meryl Streep, Margo Martindale on Playing Volatile Sisters in 'August: Osage County'
How do a slew of actors bond offscreen before violently unraveling onscreen, fleeing fast from a troubled, truth-telling matriarch who is addicted to painkillers? Meryl Streep and Margo Martindale spoke candidly about their sibling characters at a special screening of August: Osage County, held at the Directors Guild of America Theatre in Los Angeles on Jan. 5.
[Warning: spoilers ahead.]
Besides hosting table readings in the Oklahoma home and unwinding with communal post-workday dinners, Streep pitched director John Wells the idea of having the cast live together in a row of condos in order to streamline the authenticity of the family dynamic.
"We especially had to really feel like sisters," said Streep, putting her hand on Martindale's. "[Otherwise] I could just see it, that everybody would be in their own little gated community … this went over real big with some members of the production, they needed some convincing."
The living situation was a first for both of the actresses, and Streep joked that the condo's paper-thin walls did help her get to know the "rhythms" and "worries" of her neighbors, Martindale and Abigail Breslin. When asked if it was fun, she responded, "It was very valuable."
The discussion was dominated by Streep's exposition of playing Violet, the volatile matriarch, addicted to painkillers and based on playwright/screenwriter Tracy Letts' real-life grandmother. (The actresses revealed that the script's anecdotes about the hammer-beating and the Christmas boots are true stories, and that Letts' mother told her son upon reading the play, "You've been very kind to my mother.")
"I had a lot of feelings about her – I thought she was kind of great in a certain way," said Streep. "I thought, whenever she was funny, she knew she was funny … some thwarted, witty people, with no place to put it, with no love in their lives, get sharper and sharper and sharper. I love her, what can I say. I have great sympathy for her – her bent, wrecked self. I thought there was so much potential in that young woman, and I think that's why she aimed so hard and so fierce at Barbara, because a woman like that lives through her child, and that child – that promising child, the one who has it – just gives up and marries the first cute dope."
She added, "And I don't think Violet lies in this thing, and that's really thrilling."
While Streep had the challenge of tracking the progress of Violet's drug-related pain cycles, especially since some scenes were shot out of order, the most difficult thing about playing Violet was the constant smoking, said Streep. She picked a wig that was a cross between the hairstyles of Martindale's Matty Fae and Elizabeth Taylor and loved that her three daughters were played so precisely by "three jewels": Julia Roberts, Julianne Nicholson and Juliette Lewis. Of the film's volatile dinner scene – which required countless takes over a three-day period – Streep said, "It was hard. It was like preparing for the Olympics or something. But, you know, it's what we live for. We love it."
Streep also noted that the hour-long drive from their condos to the remote film location helped the cast get into character. "Oklahoma is such a revelation to me. I mean, I thought it was ridiculously beautiful," she said. "You could just feel how hard it was to live out there … the isolation is overwhelming, the sky is unrelenting, and the wind never stops. The wind … 'comes sweeping down the plain!'" she sang in unison with Martindale, quoting the Oklahoma! musical.
The Q&A also was an opportunity to hear the offscreen chatter of their characters. Martindale speculated about why Matty Fae slept with Violet's husband, resulting in a child (Benedict Cumberbatch). "I think it happened because we were young, probably I saw something that maybe my sister had that I wanted," she said, then turning to Streep, "Anyway, whatever. It happened. I'm sorry! He looked at me really nice!"
In response, Streep finally spoke about the death of Sam Shepard's Beverly Weston, on behalf of Violet. "I have to say, Sam Shepard walks away with a lot of good feeling, and I don't know where he gets off! He seduces my baby sister, and then he kills himself!"
Martindale mentioned that she believes her character did forgive herself the wrongdoing – "I think it's a wonderful thing to be able to forgive yourself, I have a hard time with that," said Martindale, and that Streep's character forgave her as well. "We both know what happened – we don't give a shit, because we got each other's backs."
While the actresses disagreed on whether the film or the play has a more ambivalent ending, they agreed that the movie's main message revolves around truth.
"Saying the truth is really important, I think, and if you suppress it for so long, it can only become poisonous," said Martindale. "If you let some of the truth out along the way, maybe you won't be so violent when it does come out.
"There's that, and maybe it's wonderful to know that your family is not as bad as this one."