A friend convinced Meryl Streep to play August: Osage County’s fearsome matriarch to help those emotionally hurt by their mothers.
WITH a record 18th Oscar nomination for her performance in the new movie August: Osage County, Meryl Streep’s unbroken reign as the most decorated screen actor continues apace.
But rather than heralding a new era for older actresses, perhaps the only thing the 64-year-old three-time Oscar-winner has proven is “that there are still great parts in Hollywood for Meryl Streeps over 60”, as co-host Tina Fey quipped at the recent Golden Globe Awards.
A day before she earned her latest critical nod, which makes her the most-nominated actor in the history of the Academy Awards, Streep was asked if her stellar career is the exception that proves the rule about older actresses having a limited shelf life.
“I prefer to think of myself as somebody who shoved her foot in the door, and now, others will go through. Because I didn’t give up, I didn’t stop,” she says, speaking to a handful of reporters in Los Angeles recently.
She qualifies this by acknowledging that the longevity of her storied career, which began with her breakout Oscar-nominated performance in the Vietnam War movie The Deer Hunter in 1978, has not been entirely her own doing.
“It’s that there were people brave enough in the industry to put their money behind projects that had older women in them.I mean, that’s not my decision, I’m not a producer,” says Streep who, in person, is a serene, almost genteel presence, that famously expressive face only occasionally springing to life to illustrate a point or witty anecdote.
Many of her biggest accolades came in her 30s, including her Oscar-winning roles in the divorce drama Kramer Vs. Kramer (1979) and Sophie’s Choice (1982), in which she played a Holocaust survivor.
Decades later, she was still going strong, picking up silverware for both dramas and comedies, among them an Emmy for the 2004 television mini-series Angels In America; Golden Globes for The Devil Wears Prada (2006) and Julie & Julia (2009) and her third Oscar for The Iron Lady (2011), the Margaret Thatcher biopic which also showed her uncanny talent for physical transformation and mimicry.
Adapted from the Pulitzer Prize-winning play of the same name, August: Osage County – which co-stars Julia Roberts, Chris Cooper, Ewan McGregor, Benedict Cumberbatch, Juliette Lewis and Julianne Nicholson – was a project she had turned down a couple of times, she reveals.
“I had seen the play and knew it was a great part, but I didn’t really want to do it because it just seemed like a poisonous place to be.
“To want to pretend that I have mouth cancer, to want to smoke 48 cigarettes a day in spite of that, to imagine being in physical, spiritual and mental anguish all the time, to feel that alone and that loathed within my own family... I’ve never played a character like this,” says the actress, who lost weight, chain-smoked herbal cigarettes and “drank like a fish” so she would “get cadaverous and horrible-looking”.
She eventually accepted the part because a friend told her: “Well, you had a great mother, Meryl, and you loved her. But you have to do this for all of us who had mothers who tried to stop us, for whatever reason, whatever their damage was.”
That friend “made me really think about what that achievement was for her ... and how hard it is to break that cycle of abuse”.
And the role has been another late-career highlight for Streep, earning her Best Actress nominations at the Globes as well as the upcoming Oscars.
She smiles at Fey’s Golden Globes joke about her unique success as an older actress, but says: “It’s not completely true. Helen Mirren has had wonderful success,” she says, referring to the 68-year-old Oscar-winner and star of The Queen (2006). “Judi Dench too. And Maggie Smith is working forever,” she says of the stars of Philomena (2013) and Downton Abbey respectively, both of whom are 79.
“There are increasingly parts for women. And let’s not forget Sandra Bullock is 49 and counting,” she adds, although she admits the star of Gravity (2013) and The Heat (2013) “is a Hollywood 49. She looks like a 29-year-old in any other culture.”
The actress, who has been openly supportive of fellow female performers such as 48-year-old Viola Davis (The Help, 2011), whom she had said should win the 2011 Best Actress Oscar instead of her, also believes it is the responsibility of all actors, whatever their gender or age, to “speak about other people whom they admire” in the industry.
“Because it’s a great privilege to be who we are and have the ability to amplify what we’d like to see changed in our industry,” says Streep, who has two up-and-coming actresses for daughters – Mamie Gummer, 30, and Grace Gummer, 27. They are her children with sculptor Don Gummer, whom she married in 1978.
“Why not talk about it? Everybody’s afraid that they’ll be unemployable, but the more people who speak out (the better).
“The world is now the Tower of Babel, everybody’s talking all the time. Just say something that means something ... because there’s so much blather that doesn’t mean anything.”
Of course, no one speaks out quite like the redoubtable Streep, an engaging, entertaining and occasionally controversial public speaker.
Her speech in praise of actress Emma Thompson – to whom she presented Best Actress honours at the National Board of Review awards earlier this month for the latter’s role in Saving Mr. Banks – went viral when she called out Walt Disney, portrayed in the film by Tom Hanks, as a misogynist and racist.
Asked about this, Streep confesses that she was “annoyed” that this aspect of what she said ended up overshadowing everything else, including her tribute to Thompson, 54. “I only spoke out about Walt Disney in his time. And as a man of his time, he was not alone in this.”
Nevertheless, she does not seem even slightly fazed by the storm her remarks provoked or by the possibility that they might have offended the Disney studio.
In fact, she believes it is her duty to speak out about inequality and prejudice wherever she sees them. “I think it behooves the ones in privileged societies to speak out on behalf of those who don’t have a voice.”
And the rights of women are not the only ones she is concerned with.
“I speak out about women because I am one. I see inequities and disparity in pay at the very top of our industry and the bottom. And I see it in every industry and across cultures,” she says. “I don’t think about ‘empowering women’ – it’s about enhancing humanity.” – The Straits Times, Singapore/Asia News Network
> August: Osage County opens in selected cinemas in the Klang Valley on March 7.