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Mamma Mia! The Movie - Meryl Streep interview

Meryl Streep in Mamma Mia: The Movie

Interview by Rob Carnevale

MERYL Streep talks about singing and dancing in Mamma Mia: The Movie and why appearing a musical felt like returning to something she has always loved…

Q. I gather that when you saw the show on Broadway you sent a “well done” letter to the cast of the musical. Was that your way of saying count me in if there’s a movie?
Meryl Streep: [Laughs] I did see the show and I did write a mash note seven years ago to the cast of the Broadway production. I saw it in New York and I took my 10-year-old for her birthday party. It was right after it had opened and it was right after September 11th [2001] and everyone was feeling really low. And I thought: “What am I going to do with all these kids?” And I saw an ad in the NY Times and it said: “New British musical – buoyant fun’ and I thought, I’m there!” So, I took the kids and we were all dancing in the aisles and down the street… we bought the cast album and sang the songs for two years. And so that’s why I wrote the note to the cast, to basically say: “Thank You For The Music and for the injection of joy that was so needful at that moment.”

Q. How difficult was it to begin a song in Pinewood and finish it in Greece?
Meryl Streep: Well, I think I’ve sung all of these songs about 70,000 times! From starting in my closet – which was the only place my family would allow me to practice – all the way to Pinewood. In Holland Park, where we were living, those poor neighbours… but I never got sick of singing these songs, never ever. In my dance school they used to use Abba to rev everybody up for dance class because you just can’t not be excited when it starts. So, it wasn’t a big problem re-inserting yourself into the moment, from Pinewood to Greece. Greece was just nicer [laughs].

Q. How much influence did Benny and Bjorn [producers and Abba founders] have in the way you performed the songs?
Meryl Streep: They were there all the time, whenever we were recording. First we did a pre-record and then we recorded on body mikes while we were shooting. They were very generous in how they let us own the songs and express their songs, as long as we were exact on the words and the timing. I didn’t want to disappoint them, or let them down, and I didn’t want to let down all the Donnas – there’s something like 500 Donnas and we’re in a club now. But there are so many great songs and it was such a joy to sing them. It wasn’t hard work.

Q. This was quite a physical role. Did you do all your own stunts – singing as well as dancing?
Meryl Streep: The hardest number was Voulez-Vous. It was so hard to learn those dance steps. We worked on it for three weeks before shooting and it was everyone’s bette noir, all the non-dancing actors, which is to basically say all the actors, apart from Christine [Baranski]. I don’t think there’s a single shot of our feet in that sequence. It went so fast and there were 150 people on set, it’s the only number where everybody was dancing at once, the whole cast and every dancer in London I think. It was really scary. And then there was those disco lights, eight hours a day – we couldn’t wait to get there in the morning to do it again, right?

Q. How did you go about creating such a close bond with your fellow cast members?
Meryl Streep: People who work on plays have this experience but most movies people fly in and do their bit and then fly out again. But on this, because we were incarcerated in that barn trying to learn Voulez-Vous for three weeks before filming started, that’s all we thought about, was Voulez-Vous, we didn’t have time to worry about anything else. Colin Firth was so worried about it and Stellan Skarsgard was beside himself, Pierce was drenched in sweat every day, but we all bonded over that. We felt like a company and we lived together. That’s a large part of why we were able to bond so well. And then, of course, we went to Greece and put us in the most beautiful places!

Q. And how was Julie Walters to work with?
Meryl Streep: She’s so divine and so warm and she’s very wicked about everyone, so we had a lot of fun. I hope the outtakes never see the light of day!

Q. Having taken your family to the stage show seven years ago are you now nervous about their reaction to seeing you in the musical?
Meryl Streep: I was nervous but I’m not now, I showed them all the stills and they’ve already had their mortification moment – they have to get over it. I can’t wait for them to see it. We’ve made this for our daughters. My son may be appalled – but I actually think he’ll like it because he’s a musician and he’ll get a kick out of it because he appreciates good music. This music is much more precise than I thought when I first sang along to the radio and thought I knew every word. All the words I thought I knew were wrong and working on it made me appreciate it so much more, and how sharp it is.

Q. You’re known for doing more dramatic roles, so what made you decide to tackle a musical?
Meryl Streep: Somebody asked me [laughs]! I’ve done a lot of musicals in my life. My first Broadway show was a musical, Happy End with Kurt Weill music and Brecht. I’d also done a lot of musicals in high school, so this was more like coming home to something I’ve always loved doing. I’ve never done a really big musical because I haven’t done much stage, even though I wanted to, and it’s been a long time. People are also afraid to make musicals into movies.

Read our review of Mamma Mia!

Read our interview with Pierce Brosnan, Colin Firth and Stellan Skarsgard