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Saturday, July 05, 2008

Super Trouper

My feature-profile on Meryl Streep in today's Irish Examiner.

Audiences have seen her play everything from a Holocaust survivor to a10-year-old girl on The Simpsons. Now screen legend Meryl Streep can add 'Dancing Queen' to her astonishingly varied repertoire thanks to her new role in the movie adaptation of the monster hit ABBA musical Mamma Mia!

The 59-year-old star might be best known for her fiercely dramatic performances, and ability to master any accent a part demands of her, but Mamma Mia! gives Streep the opportunity to showcase her equally impressive song and dance skills, as well as her shrewd comic timing.
In the movie, which opens here on Thursday (July 10), Streep plays Donna Sheridan, a former wild child living on a Greek island, and now the single mother of Sophie (Mean Girls star Amanda Seyfried), a bride-to-be who starts asking awkward questions about her absent father.

Things then get more complicated when Sophie tries to crack the mystery of her paternity by inviting three of her mother's former lovers – played by Colin Firth, Stellan Skarsgard and Irish hunk Pierce Brosnan – to the wedding. The result is a lively and hugely entertaining movie, one that Streep became involved with almost a decade ago – albeit inadvertently.

"I took my daughter Louisa to see the show in 2000, as a birthday treat," the two-time Oscar winner explains. "Of course, I was up in the aisle, dancing and screaming and yelling. It was an infusion of joy. I just fell in love with it.

"I wrote a fan letter to the cast, and the producers remembered this when they began casting the movie. So they called and said, 'You probably won't be interested but ...' and I said, 'Are you crazy? I would love to do it'. That fan letter got me the job."

Fans of the stage show – and there are some 30 million of them globally according to ticket sales – will be eager to see, and hear, how well the movie's A-list cast carry the tunes originally made famous by Agnetha, Bjorn, Benny and Anni-Frid in the 1970s.

However, the artist formerly known as Mary Louise Streep is no stranger to warbling on screen, having flexed her vocal cords in Postcards from the Edge and A Prairie Home Companion, as well as contributing to the soundtrack of her 1983 movie Silkwood.

"I love singing and I had sung before, so I was more afraid of the physicality of the role because there was a lot of dancing involved," reveals New Jersey-native Streep, who belts out nine numbers in the movie, amongst them 'Money, Money, Money', 'The Winner Takes It All', and the rousing title track.

Mamma Mia! is widely predicted to top box office charts all over the world next week, marking another major upward swing in Streep's career renaissance over the past decade. Having made her movie debut in the 1977 drama Julia, the icy-blonde, porcelain-skinned Streep quickly went on to win her first Academy Award for the divorce weepie Kramer vs Kramer (1979).

Between 1980 and 1990, 'La Streep' established, and solidified, her reputation as the world's greatest living actress, winning a second Academy Award for the wrenching Sophie's Choice, and picking up a further six of her record-setting 14 career Oscar nominations for classics such as
The French Lieutenant's Woman, Out of Africa and A Cry in the Dark.

But, by the star's own admission, her career stalled in the early-to-mid 1990s, having made some poorly-received moves into comedy in the likes of She-Devil and Death Becomes Her (though she shined as a voiceover artist in The Simpsons, playing Bart's first girlfriend Jessica Lovejoy).

Between 1995 and 1999, she plied her trade in middle-of-the-road fare with appalling titles like One True Thing and Music of the Heart, and tackled an Irish brogue (with mixed results) in the movie adaptation of Brian Friel's Dancing at Lughnasa (1998).

Streep then pulled off a whopper of a comeback in 2002 with two wildly different movies: Spike Jones' bizarre Adaptation, and the weighty literary drama The Hours (opposite Nicole Kidman and Julianne Moore), which, for my money, is Streep's finest screen performance.

However, the charismatic star scored the biggest hit of her three-decade-long career two years ago when she played the monstrous fashion magazine editor in The Devil Wears Prada, a spiky office comedy that grossed a massive $300 million worldwide.

Suddenly, Streep was not only back at the top of her game – she was bankable. Today, she is arguably the only actress over the age of 50 whom movie studios will trust to deliver a box office hit. So how does she stay so regularly employed in such an ageist industry?

"There are two female studio bosses [Sherry Lansing and Amy Pascal] that have kept me working and refused to cast some fabulous looking 32-year-old in the parts I've played," Streep states.

"People don't like older people on screen. It's understandable, because movies are a fantasy. Someone once said that male studio heads don't want to cast films with the image of their first wife in the role. They like the idea of the new one."

With her formidable reputation and mantelpiece-straining stack of awards (which also includes 6 Golden Globes, 2 Emmys and a Best Actress gong from Cannes), one would imagine Streep to be the most self-assured actress on the planet. Nothing could be further from the truth, she claims.

"I have doubts all the time, and have had so all through my success," she admits frankly. "It's because I don't know if I can do certain things. Each time I begin a film, I have varying degrees of confidence and self- loathing. I think, 'Why did they hire me? I've got to get out of this'. That's my process. I've always imagined that the wolf is at the door, and I'll never work again."

Streep says that it's Don Gummer, her husband of almost 30 years, who always encourages her to overcome her self-doubt. Streep first met sculptor Don soon after the death of her first love, actor John Cazale, when she sublet his apartment.

They married within nine months, and have been together ever since, raising four children in the process: Henry (28), Mamie (24), Grace (22) and Louisa (17).

The star's family has always precedence over everything else, to the point where Streep cut back on her workload to keep her children's lives as regular as possible.

"Motherhood was a full-time job, and my children's teachers took a dim view of me taking them out of school so I could make a movie," she explains. "So I accepted only one film a year, working about four months, and rejecting films if it meant travelling in the children's school year.

"I had to be home with them, or I couldn't sleep. For Dancing at Lughnasa I was on my own in Ireland for six weeks. It almost killed me. It felt like a lifetime. I was never again away from my family for more than two weeks at the time."

Streep also went out of her way to keep her children separate from her own public profile, and to that end the family lived for 16 years on a farm in rural Connecticut to maintain their privacy and stay grounded.

"You can't get spoiled if you do your own ironing," Streep laughs. "There was no media in Connecticut, just people being used to me, and it was good for the children.

"My girls just hated being talked about. It was so embarrassing for them to have me as a mother. It was harder on the girls because they read everything.

"My son was fine. His friends were not interested at all. They were like, 'Meryl who? What was she in?' The one thing I've never done is to publicise my family to enhance me. If I publicised them in pictures, they are public figures and they don't have any protections. I don't want them to suffer because I have chosen a job in the limelight."

Be that as it may, two of her children have followed their mother into showbiz. Henry recently made his movie debut in Lying, while Mamie actually co-starred with Streep in last year's Evening, where mother and daughter played the same character at different ages. Surely Streep must advise them on their careers?

She laughs before replying: "Endlessly, but do they listen? They're going to do whatever they want to do because it's a hard choice to enter our business.

"They've gotten a skewed version of things because I've kept them completely out of the picture. They have never seen me at work and having fun on the set. They have just seen me come home and do what I do at home, which is to whine and complain and go 'poor me!' And yet they still want to do it. It's quite unbelievable!"

1 comment:

Ciara said...

She was great on Jonathan Woss on Friday.

Seesies you?

ps. Keep up the good cardigan work, I was loving it yesterday. Very Federer.