Doubt - Meryl Streep interview
Interview by Rob Carnevale
MERYL Streep has just landed her 15th Oscar nomination for her performance as Sister Aloysius in Doubt.
But here she tells us why promoting films in the summer is much more fun than the horse race of the awards season, as well as lifting the lid on what it’s like to perform without make-up and why the kids weren’t intimidated by her. She even drops a hint about a possible Mamma Mia! sequel.
Q. How do you go about selecting a role and what in particular about Doubt spoke to you?
Meryl Streep: I’d seen the play years before. My friend, Cherry Jones, had given what I thought was the definitive portrayal of Sister Aloysius. But I thought it was a great, great, great play. And I still feel that. But I never thought it was going to be made into a movie until John [Patrick Shanley, director] called and said: “Let’s have lunch about it.” My first thought was for Cherry, and I asked: “Why isn’t Cherry doing this? She was so amazing!”
But John explained that among other things, such as financial considerations, he had not directed that production. He wanted his own hands on this. So, I thought it was really valid and felt that I sure would like a crack at that Sister Aloysius. I also think that like all good pieces of literature, this one will hold a lot of different interpretations. You’ll see this play over and over again. You’ll see a lot of different interpretations of Sister James and of Mrs Muller. But I’m really proud of this one and what we did.
Q. How do you feel about your Bafta [and now Oscar] nominations, and what does it feel like competing against Kate Winslet?
Meryl Streep: Well, as you can imagine this has come up a lot. And all I can say is that it’s so much more fun to publicise a film in July because you talk about the film, not the horse race. It’s almost like a different thing altogether – it has to do with marketing and jockeying from studios, campaigning. It’s a political thing. Having said that, I think Kate Winslet is great and I’m glad she wasn’t in three movies this year.
Q. How was it acting with so little make-up? And was it quicker for you in the morning?
Meryl Streep: Well, I had a great deal of old age make-up on! [laughs aloud] It took hours! But seriously, it’s really a very freeing thing. You throw away everything that women normally waste a great number of hours of the day on. You don’t worry about how your hair looks, how your face is, or what the state of the disarray is. Everything is gone and all you have is what you do. It’s probably the way we should be, and it was very, very liberating and sort of spiritual, if I dare use the word.
Q. Do you often feel that some of your co-stars judge you by your body of work and, if so, what do you do to counter that?
Meryl Streep: I’m intimidated by me. I’m intimidated by the thing that they say is me. But it goes away in the process of working. Actors really do want to clear away everything that is extraneous, so we get to it quickly enough.
Q. And the flip-side of that, how were the child actors around you? I imagine perhaps not as intimidated by your reputation?
Meryl Streep: That’s very true. Kids aren’t impressed by anything, although all they wanted to talk about was The Devil Wears Prada. They’d all seen that and I didn’t want to talk about that while I was in the habit [laughs].
Q. What research did you carry out to get into the role of a nun?
Meryl Streep: I did some wonderful interviews with the Sisters of Charity, the retired nuns… one of whom was John’s first grade teacher. She was a model for Sister James in a way. She’s 71 now and she was not only a font of information, but an inspiration. She’s similarly liberated. Visiting the retirement home, I had a couple of meals with them and it was really great. They were mostly in their 70s, 80s and 90s. I don’t know how many retirement homes you’ve visited, but they’re not usually happy places. But these retirement homes were filled with people who were happy. They were with their family. They were all productively engaged in some kind of work. No one was retired. They were still tutoring kids, they were visiting the bereaved… so it was a great inspiration.
Q. You’ve played an extraordinary amount of amazing women throughout your career. Is there any one of those roles you’d like to revisit? And if you had to be one of those people in real life, which one would it be?
Meryl Streep: Well, I have never really imagined revisiting any of them, although there’s word of a sequel to Mamma Mia! [raises eyebrows and laughs]. So, you might be inflicted with that one again. As for which one would I be? I think I’m all of them. I’m right there if anybody cares to look. You can find us in everything we play.
Q. Who has inspired you?
Meryl Streep: I had a number of great teachers and the ones that really were the strongest influences on me were women. They were really, really smart and interesting women. But that’s because I was educated at a time when you could be, as a smart, educated and ambitious woman, a nurse, a teacher, run a hairdressing salon and you could aim at a job in journalism but you’d only get so high. If you were extremely entrepreneurial, you could start your own boutique business of women products. But you couldn’t rise in publishing, you couldn’t rise in business, in law, you couldn’t be a doctor.
It’s not like now… now, half of the law students and medical students in America are women. So, when I was a kid that’s what you could aspire to and I had some great, great teachers as a result of the limitations on their horizon. These women taught, otherwise they would have run corporations or been lawyers.
So, to answer your question, I had some great women teachers. I had a music teacher in high school who had just been a student of Pablo Casals. So, she came to our high school because she was broke and because Casals had told her: “You’re a wonderful player, but women don’t rise in a great orchestra.” I also had a number of English teachers that I loved.
Q. Do you have any awards etiquette to impart upon potential winners at the Oscars?
Meryl Streep: Assuming that I won’t be one? I don’t have any tips. You’re out of your own body in that moment when they call your name. So, I think every person makes a fool of themselves in their own way – and the ones that are the happiest are the ones sitting at home going: “Look at that, look at that!” It’s a beautiful position… the one on the couch. It’s hard to manage your emotions.
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