Meryl Streep Stepping In and Out of Roles

Inside the preternaturally talented actress's meteoric rise

Meryl Streep, circa 1980. Credit: Evening Standard/Getty

That reminds me of a dream I sometimes have in which I'm on top of a pillar and can't see any way of getting down. When I look down, I'm dizzy; I have to get down, but I haven't the courage to jump. I can't stay there and I long to fall but I don't fall. There's no respite.
– Meryl Streep as Strindberg's Miss Julie

Meryl Streep gets nervous. Not all the time, mind you. But there are occasions when an eerie chill rides down her spine, introspective moments when it seems as if the walls of her well-constructed edifice could tumble down with an ignominious crash.

She'll be chatting, a concerned look crossing her lambent face, about her fears of nuclear accidents, her worries about the world's safety with the bomb at Ronald Reagan's fingertips. And somehow, though these sentiments sound sincere, there's something hollow in the presentation. Meryl insists they're anything but ersatz, practically scoffs at the suggestion, in fact, but then concedes a bit. An actress, perhaps better than anyone else, can always detect a false note.

"I'm not really self-analytical," she says slowly. "But I've been thinking that maybe a lot of my anxiety about these things may have to do with – it's a way of displacing my own anxieties about my own incredible good fortune. Maybe that's my way of dealing with it. So much happiness has come to me, and I think somewhere, somebody's got to pay."

You almost get the feeling that Meryl Streep would like to get the dues-paying over with. When you've risen to celebrity as quickly as she, when in five years you've gone from drama-school graduate to the most sought-after actress of her generation in Hollywood, when talent and beauty have combined to produce a performer capable of playing any role, something's probably got to give. Even if she doesn't fail, someone will inevitably stand up to say she did.

"I'm sure that everybody's chomping at the bit to do that," she says, calmly anticipating a pen in the back. "It's because of all the glowing, gushing things that have been said. And I'm standing in the middle of this: one pours flowers on me, the other one sees that, so now it's time to dump shit."

This is, indeed, a reasonable expectation, the ways of a world of fickle idolatry. But would-be demystifiers are in for stern competition; her self-assessments are far more scathing than anything a critic might concoct. The higher you get, the steeper the fall. Meryl Streep considers herself lucky and knows just how good she is, so she is determined to keep questioning herself to continue the ascent.

Consider The French Lieutenant's Woman. As Sarah, the mysterious, caped heroine of John Fowles' rural Victorian Britain, Meryl must – for the first time in her career – carry the dual burdens of a starring vehicle and the screen usage of an obscure accent. Just before filming commenced, Meryl sat with an acquaintance in a London park, quivering, "I'm so frightened, I'm so frightened about something as important as this." The director, Karel Reisz, also became aware of this perturbation and was worried whether Streep could handle the difficult quirks of nineteenth-century vocal inflections so crucial to the part. "Meryl was very concerned at first," he said. "We even had it up our sleeve that we could lip-sync some of those parts if it was necessary."

It wasn't, though. Meryl concentrated, focused and applied the sort of intensity that awes everyone she's worked with. She hired a voice coach and spent endless hours reading aloud from Jane Austen and George Eliot to perfect her efforts. By the time The French Lieutenant's Woman was under way, Meryl's involvement was so acute that a close friend she called in New York didn't recognize her voice.

Now, this transformation is not unique in a fine actress. All part of the job, this stepping in and out of roles. But what makes it so odd in Streep's case is that despite her effortless skills, her uncanny way of squirreling inside any character's life and psyche, she has grave doubts about her ability to pull it off. Perhaps because she's never failed to meet a professional challenge, there's an internal pressure within her, a dynamic defensiveness, which spurs her to greatness while preventing the slightest slip into complacency.

"When Meryl's onstage, there's a look in her eye of a real fighter," says Elizabeth Wilson, a veteran actress who's appeared with Streep several times. "But though you don't see it when she's performing, Meryl suffers greatly before an opening. She perspires, she paces. I don't know if she actually gets sick, but she's very, very nervous – more so than almost anyone I've ever known.

"She would say to me, 'I wonder why people are so scared to be onstage.' So I'd tell her stories about actresses I'm close to who'd say, 'I'm so scared, I'm so afraid I'm going to lose control onstage, I'm going to die there.' And Meryl said, 'Lizzie, do you believe that?' And I said, 'Yes.' The look on her face then was so terribly sad. I was sorry I told her."

It's just like the routine Meryl goes through with her brother Harry, a modern dancer, shortly before every premiere – a period when she feels "everything I do is shit." She tells him: "I am nowhere, I'm absolutely at a loss. This is the worst thing I've ever done." To which Harry invariably replies: "Don't you remember? This isn't the worst thing. The last thing you did was the worst thing."

Meryl's version of why any of this occurs is more technical than deep. "I don't have any method. People who have est, or people who have other means of relaxation, feel sure they have 'The Way' tucked inside their scripts. I don't have that. I sort of go at everything from a different direction."

And her approach, the one that ostensibly accounts for this angst, is simply to assume the life of whomever it is she is about to portray. To become part of the landscape, as Meryl aptly puts it, to see a character's world and simply step right in. To disappear into the warped reality of acting fiction and emerge as someone else.

To do this too well can be scary.

I have done precious little else in thirty years but arm myself against the certainty that people die or grow cold or go away forever, after one nice evening, and the world changes.
– Meryl Streep as Andrea in Thomas Babe's 'Taken in Marriage'

At age thirty-two, Meryl Streep is well-armed. Always in control, cautious to a fault. The world is perilous, and Meryl goes to great lengths to keep its vague cruelties away from her door. Acting is how. Just as it is difficult to separate the dancer from the dance, so one must reach to divine the Meryl Streep beneath the greasepaint. "It's seldom that Meryl's not involved in the acting task," says Joe Papp, head of New York's Shakespeare Festival and the producer of many of Streep's theatrical triumphs. "I don't think she gives that up, in a play or anyplace else."

Does Papp ever feel uncertain whether he's dealing with his close friend or with a strange, famous actress? "It depends on the social situation," he says. "If we're having dinner and her kid is there, and her husband is there, that's one thing. But when it's a more public situation, her antennae are out and the warning signals go out. Actually, she has a certain shyness, and a lot of that is protecting herself."

The reason for this is more pragmatic than neurotic. The cutting edge of celebrity is exposure and risk. She talks about weird people waiting outside her lower Manhattan apartment when she comes home from the theater late at night; she, her husband, Don Gummer, a sculptor, and their infant son, Henry, are now moving to a similar loft, but one with far better security. It is a sensitive subject, one which infuriates her if breached. Her reaction to a small-town reporter who virtually printed the directions to her secluded upstate New York home – a tiny, three-room house surrounded by ninety-two acres of Christmas trees – was practically venomous: "I wrote her: 'What's going on in your mind? I don't live like the Kennedys. I don't have a compound and nine Weimaraners running the grounds. You just make us sitting ducks.'"

The flags go up every time she opens her mouth. "At home, I don't have any defenses," she says. "I'm not wary. But I am very wary in this business, generally, so I'll be careful of what I say. It's a sad thing, because I used to be more opinionated – I mean, I'm still opinionated, but I used to be louder about them. Now, the size of my opinions is distorted into something important. So if I say, 'So-and-so really stank in that,' it really gets around, all out of proportion to the way I felt. And it's so tiring to go around and sweep up after yourself and say, 'Look, I didn't mean it that way.' You feel like a politician. Who wants to live like that?"

The solution, Meryl has found, is simply not to go out anymore. It is a trade-off she's made but abhors, a bow to a gossipy, nosy culture that's now made it hard for her to go to museums or galleries or just wander about without being recognized or annoyed. "It seems to me," she says, "when you become famous, a lot of your energy goes into maintaining what you had before you were famous, maintaining your sense of observation, being able to look at other people. If they take away your observation powers, you're lost."

For an actress, that is a harsh jolt. So why has she done a limited amount of, though enough, publicity to make her face an object of almost freak attention? Certainly to assist in the promotion of films she believes in and also to further her career at a juncture where stars either soar or turn into novae. It needs to be done, but Meryl well understands the absurdity and transience of a public persona.

There is a story told around the Public Theater in New York, for example, about the time Canadian Prime Minister Pierre Trudeau attended one of Meryl's performances. After the show, Trudeau came backstage to extend his best wishes and then promptly asked her out. Meryl, slightly stunned, politely demurred. When Trudeau finally left, she said to a colleague: "I don't understand it. Why do famous people only want to meet other famous people?"

The notion gets funnier. "Put yourself in this position," she says. "You're passing the newsstand at Fifty-Seventh Street and Sixth Avenue, and there's your face on the cover of a magazine. And one week later, you're on the subway, and there's that cover, with your face, on the floor. Somebody's probably pissed on it. It's an immediate sense of recognition of what this is."

So it is a joke, a harrowing joke, but a joke nonetheless. To escape, the mask goes back on and Meryl is someone else. Two of her recent parts have carried her through time and space, deliberate decisions by her to assume new lives.

There was Alice in Concert, an Elizabeth Swados musical version of Alice in Wonderland, in which Meryl romped onstage in violet overalls, the very image of a curious seven-year-old girl. As she rolled on the floor, toyed with her hair or stared sullenly at her feet, she had you believing she was a precocious child. In a way, Meryl believed it, too.

"I had just done three movies, and I needed to jump and leap and feel the way I see my little boy play," she says. "And I wanted to forget the way I look, to become un-self-conscious, to have that freedom children have when they're doing something in the middle of a room full of adults looking at them – and they just totally don't care. Sure, maybe I can go to an analyst to try not to be self-conscious, but it never occurred to me to do that."

And with The French Lieutenant's Woman, the appeal was similar: an opportunity to pretend, to let her imagination become the truth. After playing contemporary women in all her previous major films, Meryl chose to dress up by switching places with a lady 100 years in the past. "I said to my agent, 'I've got to do something outside of Manhattan, outside of 1981, outside of my experience,'" Meryl recalls. "'Put me on the moon; I want to be someplace else. I want to be held in the boundaries of a different time and place."

As Karel Reisz says: "Some actors feel humiliated by costumes. Meryl feels liberated by them."

I see a woman may be made a fool if she had not a spirit to resist.
– Meryl Streep as Katerina in 'The Taming of the Shrew'

When playwright Christopher Durang attended the Yale School of Drama in the early Seventies, Meryl Streep was the institution's leading lady. Recognizing her remarkable talent, the school worked her to the bone, casting her relentlessly, driving her to exhaustion. Generally, Meryl played along with the Yale powers that be, but, Durang recalls, her capacity to suffer fools was limited then, as now.

"In an acting project, she was cast as a queen and I as her son in Brecht's Edward the Second," Durang says. "We rehearsed for a couple of weeks and it wasn't going well. Now, the director had mentioned that he wanted to use a circus conceit in the staging, but when the costume parade came around, Meryl was dressed like a trapeze artist: she had beads on her chest, beads on her crotch – they made noise whenever she walked. Well, Meryl put this on and shot the director a look of daggers. She said there was no way she'd perform in that outfit. She did it – without the beads."

There is a tremendous temptation for a star approaching peak earning power to go for the brass ring quickly, to get his or her name above the credits in any sleazy, wealthy production and let the critics fall where they may. But Meryl Streep does not do junk; she refuses to. All of her cinematic ventures – Julia, The Deer Hunter, Manhattan, The Seduction of Joe Tynan, Kramer vs. Kramer and The French Lieutenant's Woman – have been quality products and not even necessarily the most lucrative ones. In fact, for The French Lieutenant's Woman, Meryl received $350,000, not a grand sum by today's standards in Hollywood. It is all a byproduct of enormous pride and an uncompromising nature that is more willful than stern.

"Meryl's always had the courage of her convictions, and those convictions have always been dignified," says Kate MacGregor Stewart, an actress with Streep at Yale. "I know about jobs she's turned down at times when it would have been nice for her to have those things."

Streep says she's just discriminating, patient and motivated by a need to be "engaged" by whatever she's working on, avoiding boredom by playing characters whose souls have more than a single dimension. "This is a particularly unadventurous time intellectually and artistically, even in terms of entertainment," she says. "And I feel worried, because my livelihood is threatened because I'm not interested in doing most of the films that are being made. People think you make choices based on some array of characters that are placed in front of you. Well, it isn't that way. There are so few beautifully written scripts that if there's something with any promise, you latch on. You pay them to do it."

This isn't as elitist or self-righteous as it sounds. Merely realistic, arrived at through a commanding stature of ability and taste and uttered with a twinge of pain. But it also stems from something else, perhaps Streep's exceptional streak of good fortune. Meryl has rarely been forced into a corner, and things have generally come easily to her. She's someone who's always strived, not struggled.

"I'm in a position where I can turn down jobs," she says. "I'm not supporting five kids all alone and trying to get a commercial on the side. I have that luxury. Sure, when you have the ability to wait between jobs, you can have all the integrity and scruples you want."

But what if she didn't have that liberty? "I don't know what would happen. I've never tested it. I haven't gone on unemployment just to see what I would do."

Yes, but if a moral dilemma did develop? "I just don't know. But I've always thought this: Never run for a bus; there'll always be another."

This unyielding temperament extends far beyond her work. When she attended Vassar, Meryl refused to join the antiwar protests because she thought the key participants were hypocritical. "It was the first year Vassar was coed, with forty-some men and 1600 women. But the whole strike committee was boys; they took over and got off on it. I'm so sensitive to theater, and these boys would get up and perform. Everybody was a mini–Abbie Hoffman in front of this adoring swarm of girls. I just thought it was bullshit."

As for her private life, Meryl will only rarely discuss it, for fear of peddling the intimacies of her existence. This is especially true if the subject turns to John Cazale, the fine young actor who was Meryl's lover until his death from cancer in 1978. They had completed filming The Deer Hunter together, and then Meryl went off to Austria to shoot Holocaust. She returned in time to spend his final months at his bedside, cutting herself off from the world, focusing solely on keeping his spirits alive by her unswerving companionship. It was the one real tragedy in her otherwise porcelain life.

It wasn't long after Cazale's death that the New York Times Magazine ran the first lengthy profile of Streep. In it, she told some details of their star-crossed relationship, and since then, it seems, questions about the affair have become obligatory from reporters trying to draw her out. But Meryl is disgusted by confessionals and wisely resents intrusions on the recesses of her heart.

"It's so demeaning to discuss something that means a lot," she says, "to have to make it interesting each time you tell it. So now I just say, 'I'd rather not talk about that,' or just give some sort of summary sentence. And because of that omission, I guess it becomes more tantalizing." The one real exception she made was narrating a series of videocassettes called Coping with Serious Illness, for Time-Life.

"I felt like I had something to say to people who were really involved," she says. "Everything else is prurient. It's hard, though. Because I have this feeling sometimes when I read something that someone else has said – even garbage, even in People magazine – and it has to do with my own life, I'm grateful they put it in. At the same time, it takes a piece of me to talk about that – and it's like selling it down the river."

The source of her indignation is clear. Meryl had first met Cazale when they appeared in Measure for Measure in Central Park, and a visitor now reminded her of her long day's journey after opening night. Following the first show, the cast partied at an Upper West Side bar, after which Streep and Cazale went to dinner at three in the morning. She got home at five, couldn't sleep, and her eyes looked like cherry tomatoes when she arrived a few hours later for a newspaper interview, giddy and thrilled.

"It was a wonderful experience, a wonderful night. That's all I can really say," Meryl remembers. Her gaze takes on a faraway look, fixed on some point a million miles away. She smiles, ever so slightly, then is quiet for many moments.

The silence is dignified, magical.

Yes, I am a remarkable person.
– Meryl Streep as the French Lieutenant's Woman

There are few clues. One thing that makes Meryl Streep so intriguing is the abject lack of an "interesting" past. Her life, her youth, seem commonplace and mundane, a comfortable setting that does little to reveal the inner secrets of the performer that she is.

The childhood was in Bernardsville, New Jersey, a suburban enclave of well-kept homes and well-to-do families. Neither of her parents had a theatrical bent (though her business-executive father sometimes composed songs), and Meryl had no early ambitions toward the stage. Until high school, in fact, she found herself barely presentable: homely, glasses, unhappy hair, the sort of girl you always avoided on the bus home from school.

But with a dramatic flair, she changed her teenage self, and it was quite a performance. Gone was the nebbish look; peroxide hit the hair, and a cheerleader, an athlete and a homecoming queen were born. "Everybody's self-conscious at that age," she says. "You want to conform, be perfect, fit in, have the right shoes. You want to make sure that you're not scaggy so that everyone doesn't throw up when they look at you."

And while blooming socially, something else was happening. Meryl had been taking voice lessons since she was twelve, and, as if to round out her healthy, ultranormal teenage life, a tryout for the school play was in order: first, The Music Man, and then it might as well have been Broadway.

It is difficult, you see, to write intelligently about Meryl Streep's development as an actress. Because what is most remarkable about her is that her talents seem to have arrived fully formed, making her a kind of idiot savant of the stage. Meryl is the sort of consummate player whose stagecraft is so radiant, so compelling, she could only have been a natural.

Of course, she can and does talk eloquently about the principles of her work. How she must become a blank, totally immerse herself in a characterization, how she trusts her instincts, how she must feel that a line or motion is right, how she edits her own stage business down to avoid excess, how the lower register of her voice needs more training if she's to do Shakespeare again. But all the technical data cannot explain 'the Gift'; to be alive as someone else in performance yet allow her own being – her warmth, intelligence, sensitivity and humor – to filter through. Her work does not so much improve as acquire the greater depth age brings to artistry.

"One of our directors, Clint Atkinson, asked me, 'Why don't we do Miss Julie?'" recalls Evert Sprinchorn, once head of Vassar's drama department. "I said no. I didn't want to see it butchered, and it has only three roles. So Atkinson said, 'Well, why don't you come to a reading tonight and see what you think.' So I went, and after about ten minutes, I saw that Meryl was just outstanding. It hit you right in the eye. I looked at Atkinson across the table and nodded yes."

What made this all the more astonishing was that Miss Julie is a notoriously difficult part, and Meryl had neither seen that play – nor any other serious play – until her collegiate performance. Soon after entering Yale Drama School on a scholarship, she became that company's top attraction, drawing attentive audiences, New York critics and producers. Her highest acclaim came for her comedic roles – given the opportunity, Meryl will mimic or do a pratfall at the drop of a curtain – especially that of the maddened, crippled ancient Russian translator Constance Garnett in The Idiots Karamazov.

"Tom Haas directed the student production, and he had it in for Meryl," says Christopher Durang, who wrote the farce with Albert Innaurato. "Haas also thought that Meryl took too much focus away from another character's speech at the end; Haas told her to do less. So she did. But when the curtain calls came, Meryl improvised by rolling herself around the stage in her wheelchair, screaming, 'Go home! Go home!' Then she faked a heart attack. It was hilarious. And she got even."

Meryl declined drama school dean Robert Brustein's request that she stay in the theater's repertory unit after graduation, and, owing Yale $4000, she left New Haven for Manhattan. She was sick of academic pressure, tired of teachers trying to impose a variety of techniques on her style and ready and able to hit the big time. She passed her first audition, a Papp production of Trelawny of the Wells at Lincoln Center.

Since then, she has refused to take it easy, driving herself and her peers to theatrical highs. Meryl argues strongly with directors and cast members to get her ideas across, and, although she's willing to listen to counterproposals, she generally stands firm. "Meryl doesn't wilt," says Papp. "She's a tough actress in rehearsal and in everything else. She can be kidding around and girlish, but though she plays, there are no games."

This no-nonsense attitude both frightens and draws respect from her coworkers. "Whenever she suggested something, I trusted her and at least tried it," says Jeremy Irons, her costar in The French Lieutenant's Woman. "If ever there was a possibility for a confrontation. I tried it her way.

"When we shot the barn scene, where Meryl wakes up to me watching over her, it wasn't going well after many takes," Irons continues. "So she came over to me and physically shook me and said, 'It's hard, it's hard. You have to do it, though, it never is easy.'"

Irons says Meryl's rattling had a good effect on him, an effect generally shared by those who have encountered her devotion to doing the best. "Anything she says she can do, she can," says Robert Benton, who directed Streep in the upcoming Stab and in his Kramer vs. Kramer. "She will fight in a way that's reasonable and intelligent. I've never seen a display of temper from her at all. She is a remarkably wise person. She has always been able to find in characters a resonance and humanity that I sometimes was not even aware was there."

And for Streep? Why these incessant attempts at perfection? "Because it pays off," she says. "Maybe only a few people will see the lie if you just go ahead and do it. But more people will see the truth of what you're doing. They don't always see the fakery, but when something is right, they see it. An audience says: 'That's it. My God, that happened to me.'

"But, you see, outside my area of expertise, I don't give a damn. I'm not fastidious. I'm a slob. My husband and I were just discussing this today. We're doing our loft, and the architect is very specific about the details. And in some places, I think, okay, that's important. But really, I don't give a shit if it's not the perfect coffee table. I don't want people to walk in and say, 'Wow! Fantastic! Who did your place?'

"So my husband advanced the opinion that maybe I was less than tolerant. 'In your own work,' he said, 'you demand each detail to be perfect. Why can't you accept that in this?' And I said, 'Well, because this is my house.'"

And Meryl laughs heartily at the crack in her own veneer. "It's only when applied to my work that I really care. Because it's a boundary I understand. I can be as demanding within the boundaries of fiction as I want."