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Meryl Streep’s 13 Lessons Playing “The Iron Lady”

Meryl Streep's 13 Lessons Playing "The Iron Lady"

Director Phyllida Lloyd’s upcoming “The Iron Lady” took center stage Tuesday night at the Director’s Guild of America Theater in New York City. Starring Meryl Streep as Great Britain’s maverick ’80s era three-term prime minister, The Hollywood Reporter’s Scott Feinberg led a discussion with Lloyd and Streep at the midtown Manhattan venue, which was also streamed live online.

Lloyd had the evening’s best anecdote, relaying the tale of an in-costume, in-character Streep inspecting both the catering wagon and the paparazzi-laden crowd that had gathered in a nearby area where everyone assumed she’d be.

But for many people (certainly those who gave her a standing ovation as she entered the stage), Ms. Streep was the main attraction. Ranging from the playful to the most sincere, IW gathered some of her best lines from the conversation.

[The Weinstein Company begins to roll out “The Iron Lady” December 30.]

Removing one’s top does not an actress make. “I do have an interest in things in movies that we don’t want to look at,” she said. “Anything forbidden is really exciting. Nudity is nothing. It’s not really a provocation. Try to talk about leaving and dying and all those things.”

Gasp! She’s not the biggest fan of Thatcher policy. Streep is not one of our most outspoken actors. Although her political tendencies were likely a matter of public record before, hearing her put her feelings toward Thatcher in such plain terms seems to be a vital aspect of understanding her performance in full context. “I had already decided I knew everything about Margaret Thatcher – and Ronald Reagan. Everybody that I disagree with,” she said with a slight chuckle. “But you don’t know everything. That’s why we’re alive is to learn more. And, God, the compassionate journey into disagreeable territory…I really like to portray prickly people, difficult women on a certain level.”

This was more of a womanly role than we might have anticipated. “This really appealed to every feminist bone in my body, which is a dirty word nowadays.”

The preparation for “The Iron Lady” was more than usual. It’s difficult to imagine Meryl Streep just rolling out of bed and giving a performance. Even some of her fluffier roles have an added twist (like having to dance or adopt a Midwestern lilt). But, apparently, it happens. “Well, I thought I’d really be prepared to do this one,” she said. “Some of them you can just sort of roll out of bed and go to work. This one, I realized, would be a different kind of challenge.”

– Then again… “What makes you think I’m not like her?” she said to Feinberg jokingly. “There are whole parts of my personality that completely dovetail.” Then, as an aside to Llloyd, she added, “Wouldn’t you agree?”

– One of hazards of being Prime Minister is needing a chiropractor. “It was really hard to stand like that for a long time,” she said. “When she was older, to curve your spine like that, I really needed a masseuse while we were there.”

– She drew on memories of older women from her family. When asked about playing someone older, she told Feinberg, “You have the old man that you’re going to be right here with you right now. You do. And I have the old woman I’m going to be. One thing my grandmother told me when she was 93, I was sitting cross-legged on the floor in front of her and she said, ‘In my mind, I can do that. I can do that. I know I can’t, but I think I can.’”

– Some of the prep work was simply talking and listening, but it was more difficult than it sounds. “I took speeches that she gave in the House of Commons that aren’t in the film and I just tried to say them along with her,” she said. “I have so much drama school, and I could not keep up with the breath and the attachment to conviction and the thought that follows through in the breath.”

– To anyone asking how to do accents as well as Meryl Streep: just have Meryl Streep’s brain. “That’s the easiest thing that I do, in my brain,” she said. “That’s the kid part of it, is copying a voice in my head that I’ve heard before. It just comes in. I work hard. I mean, it’s not easy.”

Adulation for her director comes from the whole crew, not just her. “At the end of ‘Mamma Mia,’ one of the toughest grips announced to the group (and it was only after a couple of lagers), ‘I’d walk on coals for Phillida Lloyd!’” she said, in her best deep, British accent.

She’s leaving the director’s chair empty, now and forever. “I’m never going to direct anything. I like going home and forgetting about it at the end of the night and you really can’t when you’re directing. You have to think about where they’re going to park the trucks, and…”

She’s as much of a fan of Jim Broadbent as the rest of the world is. “When I see him, he makes me happy. It was almost like he was doing the job that Dennis does in the movie for her,” she said, describing the relationship between Thatcher and her husband, Dennis Thatcher.

Little old ladies have far more to offer than you realize. In her closing answer, Streep delivered a heartfelt monologue befitting one of her onscreen personae. “I would like to think that everybody that got on the subway and saw some old lady sitting across from them, that they would imagine a whole, huge life lay behind all those wrinkles,” she said. “There’s almost nothing less interesting in our consumerist society than an old lady. Dismissed. We don’t make movies for her, we don’t give a damn. We can’t sell her anything, she doesn’t buy anything. But just the idea that everything, the whole panoply of human experience: births, deaths, struggles, joy. Everything’s in there. To imagine that, that’s what I would hope.”

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