Question and Answer Session: Meryl Streep

American actress Meryl Streep is considered by many to be the finest actress of her generation. Her 27 year film career spans a range of genres, and has accrued countless awards and nominations including two Oscars. Her breakthrough role in The Deer Hunter (1978) drew her first nomination, with Kramer Vs Kramer (1979)delivering the first award. Since then her films have included The French Lieutenant’s Woman (1981), Sophie’s Choice (1982), Silkwood (1983), Out of Africa (1985),, A Cry In The Dark (1988). The Bridges of Madison County (1995), Adaptation (2002) and The Hours (2002).

Counter Culture is pleased to present a question and answer session with Meryl.

You’ve never seen the original version of The Manchurian Candidate – how come?

I’m not really a cinephile. I don’t have an encyclopaedic knowledge of movies. So I missed it on the first time round. I would have been very young then anyway. Then when I got the job I decided not to look at it, because I thought I might steal something from Angela Lansbury [who played the role in the 1962 original] or I would be affected by the performance in some way and maybe react to it. Or do something arbitrary, so as not to be like her. I saw it afterwards and realised how different ours is, but also how specific both films are to their time.

Do you recognise any political relevance in the story that speaks to the times we are living in?

I think when things are really true and relevant to a time they’re relevant to every time and place. One of the biggest themes in this is the embeddedness of money and finance in influencing foreign policy. That’s something that, in America, our founding fathers worried about. They worried about the corporations. Dwight Eisenhower famously worried about the military-industrial complex unduly influencing governments. So it’s something that’s been around a long time it just periodically gets more pressing and more urgent. And another theme of this film is who pays? Who pays with their lives? Certainly not the people that make these decisions, or their children.

What then was the appeal of Eleanor Shaw for you?

I thought of it as a great opportunity to play, and to understand, someone who was not like me. I also thought that she presented a unique opportunity because she was the full embodiment of everybody’s fear of women in power. It’s interesting because people in England thinks it’s Maggie Thatcher, while everyone at home thinks it’s Hillary Clinton, because these are the two most formidable women in political life. But those two women couldn’t be more dissimilar from each other or from this character that I play, so I think we’re touching on something very deep about Mommy and the fear of her taking over. It was all a great opportunity.

She’s certainly a strong woman, an atypical feature film villain.

I thought it was really unusual, that in the first half hour of a picture it was a woman who drove the plot, who drove the machinery of the story so forceful and aggressively. I loved having that much to say, it was almost like a play more than a movie in a way.

There is a depth to the character even if her motives are flawed. She even has a sense of humour, doesn’t she?

I think everything serious has something funny in it, and everything funny has something tragic embedded in the bottom of it. That’s the Chekhovian way of looking at things. That’s the way I see life, so I couldn’t play her as a straight ahead Gorgon, it didn’t interest me because I think people that get things done in Washington have charm, often, in big measure. And they’re pushy. And not just Washington, I think in the wider world. So it helps to round out this character with that sense you get of her own understanding of how monstrous she can sometimes be. Of her self awareness. I think it’s more interesting when people are like we all are, self aware.

There’s a provocative scene with you and your screen son, played by Liev Schreiber, that hints at something more in your characters’ relationship. Was there more to it that we didn’t see?

The scene was shot in a lot of different ways and from many different angles and there were a lot of different choices in different cuts of the film. It really pulled it in an extreme direction each time we changed it. It was interesting, that scene more than any other worked its primal power. In the end we decided that less is more and you get what you get. But you see everything that happens.

Did you have a say in Eleanor Shaw’s power outfits?

I did. I think in my next life I’m going to be a costume designer because I really think what you wear announces something to people. I’m a pain in the ass to all of the costume designers I work with, because I have very strong feelings about this subject. Especially when I think of my women viewers. When I sit with my husband in a movie, he notices the costume if the female character is bra-less, other than that it doesn’t register. But women read these clues closely. It was very important to me to have really good jewellery, the clink of those heavy pearls was like the clink of power and entitlement. I thought that was important, and the power suit is a trope of that kind of woman.

Are there a lot of roles out there that you are offered?

I think that things are changing, but every time you say that they change back to the bad old days. The emergence of cable opportunities through HBO and Showtime, unconventional financing of films helps. Some of the most exciting work is now happening in those venues on television. There are many more independent pictures, and they are giving opportunities to older women. But in my case the biggest reason that I’m working is that there are two women running the studios where I’ve worked in the last few years. One is Amy Pascal who runs Sony Pictures – she gave the okay for me to be in Adaptation. That was really a part written for a 35 year old, but Spike said he wanted me, and she said fine. Another studio head would have said “eugh! Why? Let’s get somebody 16 years younger”. She was great with it. And Sherry Lansing runs Paramount, and she has kept me in work in The Hours, and The Manchurian Candidate and Lemony Snicket. I guess I’m her blood sister or something. I think it’s harder for male studio heads to be interested in stories featuring women who resemble their first wives!

Is a good critical reception to your films important to you?

The work is the most fun thing. It seems illicit, how much fun it is. But the critical reaction is satisfying too. When other actors like you, that’s really good. And I’m really happy when young people like my work. It’s very gratifying to have that recognition.

With your body of work, and reputation for such high standards, have you found that people have been wary of offering you quirky, left field stuff that might otherwise have appealed to you?

I’m sure there’s been that inhibition in getting things to me. I don’t have ‘a staff’, or an office of any size. But I like it that way, I like it simple. The amount of things that I’m offered seems to be too much to read and go through. Maybe I’ve missed opportunities, but I’ve been grateful for the ones I’ve had, so I can’t complain.

Do you ever revisit your earlier work?

I don’t. But last June I was honoured by the American Film Institute and they had a televised retrospective. It’s so horrifying to see how young I was, and how I didn’t appreciate it then. Just seeing those clips reminded me that it’s been a really long, interesting journey with a lot of amazingly talented people. And the sad thing is how many of them are gone. I’m thinking about Karel Reisz, Alan Pakula and Nestor Almendros, Joseph Papp – people who really made my career in the early days but are all gone. I can’t properly thank them, so it was great to be able to thank the people who are alive and who were there. That’s nice.

THE MANCHURIAN CANDIDATE opens in the UK and Ireland through United International Pictures on November 19.

LEMONY SNICKET opens through United International Pictures on December 17.

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