'Kramer vs. Kramer' Director on the "Alien" Brilliance of Meryl Streep: "I Was Afraid of Her"

Holly Bower/Columbia Pictures/Photofest; Stephen Lovekin/Getty Images
'Kramer vs. Kramer' (Inset: Robert Benton)

Robert Benton recalls directing the legendary Golden Globes Cecil B. DeMille honoree in the 1979 film in a role originally intended for 'Charlie's Angels' star Kate Jackson.

In the spring of 1978, we had meetings with Kate Jackson [to play Joanna Kramer]. She was terrific, but the network began throwing up obstacles because of their scheduling for Charlie's Angels. We said, "Sooner or later, they are going to make it impossible." We looked at other people, and some were wonderful and some were adequate. Then Sam Cohn, my agent, said, "Would you do me a favor and see Meryl Streep?" I said, "I saw her [onstage] in The Cherry Orchard and she was wonderful, but we need somebody who has an enormous presence and skill." He said, "Just meet her." So I talked to Dustin [Hoffman] and Stanley [Jaffe, the producer], and as a courtesy we met with Meryl in the Sherry-Netherland Hotel [in New York].

Now she tells a different story: She says she gave us a lecture, that this was an anti-feminist work. But I don't remember that. I remember that it was the least [successful audition]. She only said six words. It was the worst interview I have ever had with an actor in my entire life, bar none! I don't mean she was rude, but you're used to meeting with people and they want the role. They try to impress you. It was like she didn't want to be there. But there was some quality in her. Whatever it was, it was exactly right. Dustin turned to me, and I turned to Dustin, and we said, "That's Joanna Kramer." Where our conviction came from, I don't know, but it was mutual.

On the first day of shooting, she was magnificent. I thought, "OK. Let's see what happens next." She held her own the whole time and had the rest of us chasing after her. She's the most disciplined actor I've ever seen. From day one, I loved her. She doesn't make a show out of everything, and she does her job. She's courteous, she's kind, she's smart, she's witty. She's immensely charming.

Toward the end of Kramer, in the courtroom scenes, we were all exhausted. We started with Meryl on the stand. I said, "Meryl, listen, we're covering this in a wide shot, a medium shot and then a close-up and other points of view, so you're going to be shooting for a long time. Please save [the emotion] for the close-up because that's where most of the scene is going to play." She said, "Fine." Then in the wide shot, she did [all the emotion] and in every take. She finished the fifth [take], and there was a beat of silence. I've never had that in my life, where an actor just stopped everybody. I went to her and said, "Meryl, that was wonderful, but please remember what I said." Then we did it in the medium shot, and it was the same thing. We did it in the close-up; she did not vary. And when we turned around and shot other people's points of view of her, she did the same performance.

When we finished that day of shooting, I was afraid of her. I really was afraid of her. I had never met anyone like that in my entire life. I thought I'd been invaded by an alien. She was that brilliant.

This story first appeared in the Jan. 13 issue of The Hollywood Reporter magazine. To receive the magazine, click here to subscribe.