Dialogue: Meryl Streep

The third annual Sherry Lansing Leadership Award recipient ranks among the greatest actresses ever to hit celluloid.

Although actresses continually bemoan the lack of meaty roles available in Hollywood -- particularly for women past their ingenue phase -- Meryl Streep always seems to find the substantial roles when they're out there. Between playing a radio crooner in Picturehouse's "A Prairie Home Companion" and a powerful white-haired magazine editor in Fox's "The Devil Wears Prada," this formidable thespian is poised for a record 14th Oscar nomination, which could mean breaking her own record of 13, the highest number to date in Academy Awards history.

As impressive as her film credits are, however, Streep also remains committed to stopping violence and discrimination against women and girls around the world through Equality Now, a global organization that was founded in 1992. Streep's particular cause with the group has been the repeal of government laws that discriminate against women -- so far, 13 out of 45 countries have mandated the necessary reforms.

This year's recipient of the third annual Sherry Lansing Leadership Award spoke recently with The Hollywood Reporter's deputy film editor Anne Thompson about her craft and what projects she has on the horizon.

The Hollywood Reporter:
While you've complained of a dearth of juicy film roles for older women in the past, this year you scored not one but two meaty parts. Has it gotten easier to find them?
Meryl Streep: Well, "Prairie" almost lost its funding two days before we went to shoot. And "Prada" ran up against some problems about whether it was marketable; that was before the budget needed more applied to it to make the movie look good. With movie vehicles with women or older women in prominent positions on the one-sheet, it's not ever anything that isn't completely terrifying and shaky, even in the best of circumstances. It's not easy to get these movies financed. I'd still like to do Jodie Foster's movie "Flora Plum" one of these years.

THR: What makes it so hard?
Streep: It's not mysterious, really. Movies are people's fantasies. Most of the people who run studios are men. It's not their fantasy, seeing their first wife up there. Their fantasy is seeing somebody more like their second or third wives.

THR: Do you get involved in developing or producing your own projects?
Streep: I don't have any interest in following through and dealing with lawyers. I just like the imaginary part of acting. As an actor, I know how to submit to the fates. You wait for somebody to come over and ask you to dance. It's collaborative with the illusion of control. You imagine you are in control, but you are never in control. I like the fact that we are all in it together -- director, writers, actors. Things come, but you have to wrestle them into shape if you want to make them. So many parts for older women are cartoons; they're usually grotesques, but they're there -- you can wrangle a little bit with the material.

THR: So, you added layers to the role of "Prada's" Miranda Priestly?
Streep: The director, David Frankel, and the writer, Aline Brosh McKenna, were equally intrigued by my ideas when we discussed the part. It offered so many opportunities to look at: how we're more comfortable saying that women in positions of power are diminished in some way and emotionally in every way. And we vilify them. We are terrified of them still. There were a lot of things I've learned over the years from various bosses I've had -- men and women, people of authority with big, big pressures. I don't live that way, with my day divided into nanoseconds. I couldn't do it. But some people are energized by it. She was an interesting creature to look at. I was not interested in doing your standard Gorgon. I was interested in knowing about her business; I didn't know anything about how it all worked.

THR: Did you research Vogue magazine editor Anna Wintour, who inspired the original novel?
Streep: I didn't want to meet Anna Wintour. I didn't know her and didn't want to play her. I wanted to make her my own thing! I had the freedom to imagine how to get my own sweet revenge back on my bosses -- and also to express the humanity behind her every external action and to tune into her pain. It was fun to make her as smart as someone who occupies that position has to be.

THR: "Prairie" looks like it was a lot of fun to do.
Streep: It was just a riot -- the closest thing to being in a play that I've done. Everybody involved in the whole thing had a holistic approach to the piece; everyone was equally invested in the whole thing. You'd sit and watch one scene instead of going off, like you do on most movies, which aren't as collegial. It was an intense shooting schedule. We had three cameras going all the time. It was spontaneous and really fun.

THR: When you started out as a young actress, were you ever a pretty young ingenue?
Streep: I never had ingenue status in my life. I was never allowed to do that. I was definitely a character actor. I always thought of myself that way from the time I was blinking awake. I never had that starlet thing. I didn't think I looked that smashing. I needed to be engaged in my work.

THR: You played a romantic lead opposite Robert Redford in 1985's "Out of Africa."
Streep: By then I was not a starlet. That was a mature woman. I never had that other thing -- which saved my life. If I had started out that way, things would have been different. It's hard -- once people place you in a glamorous universe -- to break out of it. Charlize (Theron) has been very smart.

THR: Aren't you working with Redford again soon?
Streep: I have a movie ("Lions for Lambs") with Redford in January -- he's directing and acting -- about a professor and two students in Afghanistan. Tom Cruise plays a senator. I'm the investigative reporter on his ass.

THR: Why did you take such a small role in the upcoming independent film "Dark Matter"?
Streep: It's an important part, not a big part. A friend of mine is producing it, and the story intrigued me. Chen Shi-Zheng is a Chinese director who looks at the university experience through the eyes of Chinese students in the '90s who come here to the U.S. It was an opportunity to make connections with Chinese actors, which was very interesting. If we can't get along with people in our own country, how are we going to manage around the world? It's an intriguing look through others' eyes at our culture. I also shot one day on (Focus Features' upcoming) "Evening," based on Susan Minot's novel. And in the spring, I'm shooting in Russia "The Last Station," with Anthony Hopkins, about the last days of Leo Tolstoy, directed by Michael Hoffman. I'm Mrs. Tolstoy.

THR: How do you feel about actors who cosmetically alter themselves? Does it diminish their ability to use their face as an acting instrument?
Streep: Without question, yeah. I'm not sure what it is, but there is an interruption between you and seeing the person, seeing inside them. This interruption is a mask, a thing they're putting up in front of you. You are aware that they want you to see that and not who they are. It's an interruption in the connection. Something stops you as an audience from getting through. For three years, I wore contacts. In the lens, you could see there was an interruption; it was subtle, but light stopped -- it was reflected. That's something that nobody else is going to notice. But now, I wear glasses and take them off when I'm working.

THR: You worked with Clint Eastwood as your director and co-star in 1995's "The Bridges of Madison County." How do you feel about his ongoing success?
Streep: He's 76 years old! That's incredible to me. He's a very disciplined worker, very economical in his planning. So, he knows he has everything planned out really well. There's no big extravagance. It's extraordinary what he's done.

THR: Would you want to direct as well?
Streep: Directing is a big, big time chunk of your life for long periods of time. Actors can shut the door whenever they let you out of work, then you don't think about it. Directors take phone calls all night and worry about all these things. I don't think I could have another thing as important on my plate.

THR: How hard has it been to juggle your acting career and home life?
Streep: I manage somehow to do it. It's tricky. Three of my kids graduated to various schools. I've been in New York since 2001. It seemed like a good time to do more theater. I do plays every summer. I have one left, a 15-year-old sophomore. Thank God for hair dye.

THR: How was doing Bertolt Brecht's "Mother Courage and Her Children" at the Delacorte Theatre in New York?
Streep: That was short, six weeks in the summer. It was really kind of wonderful: Out in the elements, there was lots of bluster from the sky in the New York summer -- thunderstorms and wind and heat. The audience tromped through the wind with us -- that was thrilling. It's wonderful to do something live. It takes everything you can give it and more to go through the long haul of it. Three hours. It was an energy boost: I couldn't come down -- I couldn't go to sleep until 3 a.m. I was living the same life as all of my three grown children, staying up all night.

THR: How will your life change when you've sent off your last child?
Streep: A chasm opens up. You do what you've always promised yourself you would do when you had time to do it. Why am I not writing that book or making that movie? I always said I'd go back to the theater when my youngest was not so eager to have me out of the house at night and on the weekend. We're at a scary moment now, before our golden goose gets cooked and they start making movies for people on iPods, and nobody gets paid. I'm not a futurist. I'm deep in the ostrich hole.


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