Meryl Streep Stepping In and Out of Roles
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?”
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