Meryl Streep‘s latest film “The Iron Lady,” in which she portrays Margaret Thatcher, isn’t without controversy, not least of which because she’s playing one of the most polarizing figures of the 20th century. When director Phyllida Lloyd first considered casting Streep – the two last teamed up on Lloyd’s directorial debut “Mamma Mia!” – she thought some of the uproar might be over an American taking on such an iconic British figure, but as it turns out, that fear was unwarranted. Instead, most of the outcry has centered on how Thatcher is portrayed, or that she’s even being portrayed at all. Streep, Lloyd, the film’s screenwriter Abi Morgan, and actor Henry Lloyd (no relation to the director) talked about some of their choices and the reaction so far during a recent press day at the Waldorf Astoria in New York.
The filmmakers expected a political controversy, but the movie isn’t that political.
“Margaret Thatcher is regarded by half of England, still, as a she-devil,” Lloyd told The Playlist. “People talk about how they want to dance on her grave. They’ve saved up for street parties when she dies. As Meryl says, there’s a special venom for her. There’s a sort of medieval thing about this.”
In England, this is split down party lines – conservatives loved Maggie (for bringing Britain back from the edge of WWII decline and allegedly revitalizing the economy), while liberals hated her (for dismantling unions, deregulating industries and allegedly destroying manufacturing). She was also noted for being tough on the IRA and the Soviet Union. But, as Streep pointed out, Thatcher was a fiscal conservative, not a social one. “She was pro-choice, she was an early proponent of global warming, and she had no beef against personal lives, homosexuality,” the actress said. “She would have been drummed out of the conservative party in America.”
Because she was a reviled conservative, Thatcher was not embraced by the feminist movement despite being the first female leader of the Western world. (Gloria Steinem, for instance, loves to point out how Thatcher “did her best” to destroy the women’s movement in England.) Streep said that Thatcher’s achievements deserve some feminist recognition, however. “I’m in awe of all the things that were arrayed against her succeeding, to get to the top of her party, to lead her country, to be the longest serving Prime Minister of the 20th century,” Streep said. “She did a service for our team.”
The obstacles Thatcher faced are more to the point, Lloyd said. “How did it feel to be a woman in a room full of men?” she asked. “We sort of know how it feels in our worlds, but I’ve never felt as isolated as Margaret Thatcher must have felt.”
The film faced a second controversy, over depicting Thatcher with dementia.
“One of the themes was how our significance diminishes,” Lloyd said. “We thought of this as a ‘King Lear‘ for girls.”
“It’s a night of reckoning for a great powerful king, but in this case, a queen,” Morgan said.
Thatcher, now 86, retired from public life about ten years ago. Her daughter Carol’s memoir, “A Swim-On Part in the Goldfish Bowl,” reveals that the former Prime Minister has been struggling with memory loss, and that was the film’s entry point.
“This is not a docudrama,” Streep said. “This is not a chronicling of Margaret Thatcher’s political life. This is a very particular look back through her own eyes of selected memories, not in chronological order, but a jumble of memory. This film takes place during the three days it takes to move her dead husband’s things out of her life, and we use the turbulence of those days as a trigger for the memories and disorientation and feeling of being thrust back and forth between past and present.”
However, some of Thatcher’s supporters have been vocal in their outrage about this approach and type of portrayal, with critics asking if it’s “fair” to depict Thatcher’s frailty when she can’t defend herself.
Addressing the criticism, Streep said that those arguments presuppose that frailty is shameful to begin with. “If you think that debility, delicacy, dementia are 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 those things are shameful,” she said. “But I don’t think that. I have experience with dementia. I think it’s natural. And I think we are naturally interested in our leaders and we tell stories about ourselves through stories of important people. We don’t talk about Hamlet’s politics, or whether King Lear was a good leader. We talk about loss of power, because it’s interesting.”
Streep saw Thatcher once – as did the screenwriter.
Given Thatcher’s state of health, the filmmakers had no illusions about meeting with her or getting her cooperation for the movie. Morgan had a close encounter with Thatcher once, well before she had dreamed of writing the screenplay, back when she was working as a catering waitress at an event at London’s National Portrait Gallery to celebrate the birthday of Deputy Prime Minister William Whitelaw.
And when Streep’s daughter, Mammie Gummer, was attending Northwestern back in 2001, she had occasion to hear Thatcher speak for a lecture called “Challenges Facing the 21st Century and The War on Terrorism.” Thatcher was slated to lecture for an hour, with a half-hour Q&A session to follow. But Thatcher took questions for a full hour-and-a-half. “She was already frail,” Streep said. “But she made an indelible impression on me.”
Streep had to learn to do two voices.
Streep is a master of accents – and she’s done the British accent a number of times, including “The French Lieutenant’s Woman” and “Plenty.” “That’s the easiest thing I do, accents,” Streep said. “I’m just copying a voice in my head that I’ve heard before.”
But in Thatcher’s case, Streep had to learn two voices – Thatcher’s natural speaking voice, a local accent from Lincolnshire which she tried to hide, and the plummy voice she acquired when she became a leader.
The actress took speeches from the House of Commons and tried to say them along with Thatcher, but the breathing was the trickiest part. “She would accomplish long lines of thought that she would launch into without taking a breath,” Streep said. “Even with all the drama school that I’ve had, I had a lot of trouble managing that. She had this galvanizing energy and drive and 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. It was masterful.”
Streep enjoys walking around unrecognized as an old lady.
For the film’s opening scene, Streep – as Thatcher – shuffles down the street to a grocery, buys milk and walks home, quite unrecognized as her country’s former Prime Minister. (Imagine if a former President did the same.)
“The insignificance and the invisibility of an old lady was something that we all found really interesting,” Lloyd said.
On the day they shot that scene, Streep had a little fun with the paparazzi gathered around the set, who were trying to get a glimpse of her. Dressed as the elderly Thatcher with “tissue-thin” prosthetics and makeup, she walked over to them and asked what was going on. “I tried to look them in the eyes,” Streep said, “and they would look away.”
“She couldn’t get anybody to make eye contact with her,” Lloyd said. “The people on the street, joggers, passersby. It was almost as if she was invisible. And Meryl was exultant about that.”
“I began to wonder, is it invisible?” Streep asked. “Or is it because an old person is someone who we’re all going to become, and we don’t want to make eye contact with them because we don’t want to be reminded of it?”
“The Iron Lady” opens in limited release on December 30, and goes wide on January 13, 2012.