The eternally talented and effortlessly gorgeous Meryl Streep is no stranger to biographical films. After her Oscar-nominated performance as Julia Child in Julie & Julia, Streep steps up to the podium as former British Prime Minister Margaret Thatcher. The Iron Lady takes a look at the politician's career as a strict conservative and her hard stand against the Soviet Union during the Cold War. Racking up award nominations left and right, Streep recently sat down with Buzzine to discuss the weight of playing such an important woman.
Emmanuel Itier: I understand you spent, like, four or five hours a day with the makeup for Margaret Thatcher...
Meryl Streep: No, we got it down to under two.
EI: I wonder if you ever worried, though, with a character who is in so much makeup like that, if it will obscure your performance, or conversely be the performance.
MS: Interestingly, in the process of developing the older Margaret, we ended up taking away, taking away, taking away. There were certain elements that the genius prosthetics designer, Mark Coulier, was able to achieve. He created something that was tissue-thin, so I felt very free, and I felt like I was looking at a member of my family, if not me, so it actually made acting easier.
EI: How did your background in theater enhance your experience in this particular film?
MS: I think that for me to imagine myself in different ways comes from my beginnings in the theater. People are more accepting when you go apparently wildly afield from who you are or where you were brought up. Otherwise I would always play people from New Jersey, which limits the career. So yes, I felt like I had freedom to try to step into these very small, tight, big shoes.
EI: How did you relate to Margaret Thatcher as a mother?
MS: I have an inkling of the size of the day that she fulfilled. I looked at her daily calendar and tried to imagine that. I’m a mother, and I work in spurts throughout my career, so I’d work for four or five months and then not, so I was home a lot. And I tried to imagine 11 ½ years of this... She was unhappy if there were 10 minutes of free time anywhere in her day that was wasted time. So I imagined trying to be in the lives of your children to the degree that I try to be in their lives, and I think it would have been very difficult.
EI: Gay men obviously love strong women like yourself, and Margaret Thatcher was a fierce lady. It’s been said that she would be a gay icon. What do you think? Do you think she has what it takes to be a gay icon?
MS: I don’t know. I just recently found out I’m a gay icon from that show where they do little arias from all my movies. I haven’t gotten up the nerve to go. I think she stirs very strong feelings, even today -- 20 years after leaving power -- and she remains divisive. The film will enter a landscape of a world where she continues to cause controversy. I can’t answer the question about whether she’s a gay icon. That’s a difficult one for me.
EI: You've said that you admire the fact that Margaret Thatcher was unafraid to lead and knew how to lead, yet that seems to be so hard for women more than men, especially in politics. Can you comment on that?
MS: I’m in awe of all the things that were arrayed against her succeeding to get to the top of her party and then to lead the country, and to be the longest-serving prime minister in the 20th century. The array of obstacles that stood before her in England at that time were enormous, and I think she did a service for our team by getting there. Even though you might not agree with the politics, just the fact of her determination, her stamina, her courage to take it on -- I think anybody that stands up and is willing to be a leader who is prepared as she was and as smart as she was, it’s admirable on a certain level because you really sacrifice a great deal. All of our public figures do.
EI: Obviously you didn’t interact with your older or younger counterparts on screen, but I don’t know if you had interaction behind the scenes in talking about the characters and how they evolved. Could you talk a little about that, and would you explain how you directed them in relation to their younger or older counterparts?
MS: For me, just to see Harry (Lloyd) and Alex (Roach)... On that same day, you danced through the dining room while Jim (Broadbent) and I were dancing, and I was completely overcome. I just broke down because it was like seeing, actually, your life flash before your eyes. I’d been so immersed in my age and ability, and then to see this glorious couple come through and free, and that music, and Phyllida (Lloyd) played it right through and they did the whole thing. You only see a flash of it in the picture, but it did anchor something emotionally in me that was very important. And then, of course, when I saw the movie, I completely fell in love with Harry Lloyd and could see why she did.
EI: What do you think was the turning point for Margaret Thatcher, in terms of her decision to lead the life of a politician? And what was the turning point for you in your own life when you decided, "I want to make it as an actress"?
MS: I’m sure that Margaret Thatcher was forged within her family, in a family of two girls, in a time when sons were favored, and a man that had no sons had no ambition, really -- no place to put his ambition. Her father was the mayor of Grantham, very engaged politically, but also he was a lay-Methodist minister, and he preached, and he liked to be up front speaking. And he discovered that, of his two daughters, he had one that was uncommonly bright and uncommonly curious, and maybe this could be his boy. That’s what I think. But I could be completely wrong. But I think that, in that time, it was a disappointment to have a family with two girls, and it remains that in many parts of the world. So we can understand this: it’s not that alien of a landscape, although I can’t imagine it. I think that she fulfilled a promise, and she was uncommonly curious, had a prodigious appetite for learning and for doing things right, and he infused in her the courage to get up and out, I suppose. Not only is she the first female prime minister, but she’s the first chemist to be elected prime minister. She took her degree in Oxford in chemistry, and then took the law boards. Yes, I think she had a lot of promise and she wanted to live up to it. For me, I never really decided. I’m still ambivalent. But being an actor lets me be a million different things so I don’t have to decide.
EI: Obviously, this performance has much more to do than the outside appearance, but did you get to meet with Margaret? The way that you pitched yourself forward, what points of that were the director, in the writing of the script, in just your general observation?
MS: I did observe lots of newsreel footage of her, and the biggest challenge for me was just accomplishing the long lines of thought that she would launch into without taking a breath. Even with all the drama school that I’ve had, I had a lot of trouble managing that, matching to it. And that has something to do with who she was as a person, just the galvanizing energy and the drive, and the capacity to follow through with a conviction all the way to the end of your breath until you can’t go any further. And not to let anybody interrupt. "And by the way," and go on from there. It was masterful, the way she could manage these interviews. I’m taking notes on that.
EI: How do you choose a character like Thatcher who’s still alive and might be able to see it, as opposed to Julia Child, who will never be able to see these things? Do you have it in your head that someday she might see it and comment?
MS: Yes. I did not meet her. I did see her once at my daughter’s university, at Northwestern. We went to see her lecture, and that made an indelible impression on me, in about 2001-2002, I can’t remember. But we have come under criticism for portraying someone who is frail and in delicate health. Some people have said it’s shameful to portray this part of a life, but the corollary thought to that is if you think that debility, delicacy, dementia is shameful, if you think that the ebbing end of life is something that should be shut away, if you think that people need to be defended from those images, then yes. If you think that, then it’s a shameful thing. But I don’t think that. I have had experience with people with dementia, I understand it, and I think it’s natural. We are naturally interested in our leaders, and we tell stories about ourselves through the stories of important people. Going back to Lear and deciding questions of existence through Hamlet -- we’re not talking about Hamlet’s politics or whether Lear was a good leader; we’re talking about the loss of power, because it’s interesting.
EI: Did you meet her daughter?
MS: No, I haven’t.
EI: I was just wondering what it was like working together again after Mamma Mia! and if you had developed a shorthand with Phyllida Lloyd?
MS: I loved working with her the first time. But yes, we had a shorthand, and we had to because we had $14 million to shoot a movie that takes place over the course of six decades, right? Something like that. That’s basically no money. That’s less than a tenth of what Hugo cost. So ten movies of the scale of Margaret Thatcher. You can’t spend time missing cues. We did discuss things on the run, and all of us understood, through a process of a year before we began shooting, what we were wanting from this piece -- that it was not going to be a docudrama, not a chronicling of Margaret Thatcher’s political life, that it would be a very particular look back through her own eyes at selected memories. Not in chronological order, in a jumble of memory; we grant glory days that it would all be a part of a reckoning at the end. So we had many discussions before we got onto the game field, and then, once we got on, we just went.
EI: When you play a character like Margaret Thatcher, obviously people know her, she's in the public record, and we have an impression of her. Do you prefer playing real people or fictional characters, where you can have more interpretation of that fictional character?
MS: Since a good 40% of the film, I’m playing a Margaret Thatcher no one has seen or knows and we can’t know, it’s an imagined journey that we were taking. So I felt a lot of freedom. I felt completely free, and that’s a testament to the director and the strength of that vision, that we were taking three days in the life of an old lady and using the turbulence of those days, the moving out of her husband’s things, as a trigger to a lot of memories and disorientation, and a feeling of being thrust back and forth between the past and the present.
Twentieth Century Fox Film Corporation's 'The Iron Lady' is released on January 13, 2011.