Streep fighter: New role too demanding, says Meryl
Oscar-winning actress Meryl Streep is famous for the sheer amount of gongs she's won, as well as her obvious immense talent. Will Lawrence met her to discuss her latest challenging role
The film has already earned her a Golden Globe nomination but Meryl Streep had no desire to take the leading role in August: Osage County, the big-screen adaptation of Tracy Letts' Pulitzer Prize-winning play. The role was just too demanding.
"I didn't want to do it," begins the three-time Oscar winner when we catch up in London. "It was difficult because it was unpleasant to be in that character's skin."
Her character is not a well woman, physically or mentally. "Having mouth cancer is not something that you happily sign up to play," says the 64-year-old, who lost one of her own partners, her co-star in The Deer Hunter, John Cazale, to cancer in 1978.
"And then there's chemo on top of that, giving you nausea, and on top of that you are detested by your children, with good reason. And then there is the drug regiment and the pain cycle and how high she was at any given moment.
"It was tricky to figure out how to do that and it was unpleasant to experience any one of those states." She smiles. "I thought that the humour in the story would save us, though, because the play was a rollercoaster and the house rocked with laughter."
The film is significantly shorter than the play, which first played in Chicago, and its humour is as black as night, focusing on a family with a harridan of a matriarch, Violet, brought to life on screen by Streep.
"I think audiences see some solace for their own family," says the actress, who won her third Academy Award in 2012 courtesy of her performance as Margaret Thatcher in The Iron Lady. "It makes people realise that often their situation isn't that bad!
"Sometimes it is worse, of course, but I think every happy family is alike, as Tolstoy said, and every unhappy family is unhappy in its own way."
The family unhappiness in the film erupts during a family reunion in the aftermath of a death. "This story, it is translatable," she says. "It is the story of a family that comes together over an event that affects the family -- a funeral -- and all the old resentments and jokes are revived, like at most family reunions!
"Violet is a woman who is disappointed with life and takes it out on those around her. She is afflicted by her past, by cancer, by her own worst self, which she can't move out of the room, even with drugs. She is a trial and is tough."
Her character has three daughters, all of whom dislike her in equal measure. They're played by acclaimed actresses Julia Roberts, Juliette Lewis and Julianne Nicholson.
"My family Jules, I called them," chuckles Streep, who has four children of her own with her husband, sculptor Don Gummer, whom she married in 1978.
"Violet's eldest daughter is Julia Roberts' character, Barbara, and she is my character's favourite. The others know it. Violet, like many wrong-headed parents, puts all her hopes on one child, the one with the most promise and the one she sees is most like her.
"I can't help thinking that Julia's character and her brains and intelligence and sense of incipient disappointment are very like her mother's. And that's what scares her."
Playing the life-embittered Barbara, Roberts turns in arguably her best-ever screen performance. She wrestles with Streep verbally, emotionally and, in one key scene, physically.
"It was hard for Julia to get in that character's skin," continues Streep, "because the real Julia is so warm and engaging and you immediately connect with her, while Barbara is disappointed with all the doors in her life that are closing.
"And Juliette Lewis blew everyone away," adds Streep, who made headlines last week when launching a verbal attack on Walt Disney when giving an award to actress Emma Thompson for her performance in the Disney biopic Saving Mr Banks.
"At our first reading people were crying with laughter. The character Juliette creates is such a wingnut -- the damage is so deep, what she has gone through with this mother and the terrible men she has chosen in her life."
If the film's short on the feel-good factor, it's certainly tall on talent, with a supporting cast that boasts the likes of Benedict Cumberbatch, Ewan McGregor, Sam Shepard, Dermot Mulroney, Chris Cooper and Little Miss Sunshine star Abigail Breslin, all of whom were enamoured with Letts' highly acclaimed stage play, which won the Pulitzer in 2008.
"This cast was just a plethora of riches," Streep says. "I liked the fact that it wasn't all on my shoulders. I was the catalyst for events between other members of the family and it was satisfying to work in an ensemble. It was a gorgeous group of actors, people who are very serious about their work.
"Abigail Breslin, for example, has such maturity for a young actress. She is such a baby in years but has something so strong in her, such gravitas. Chris Cooper is wonderful, an old friend. The whole cast is amazing and Tracy did such a terrific job adapting his play."
Letts has adapted his own play for the screen rendition, which is directed by John Wells, who wrote and directed 2011's The Company Men.
"That put pressure on Tracy," notes Streep, who has a total of 17 Oscar nominations, winning her first in 1980 for Kramer vs Kramer.
"Tracy won a Pulitzer and then had to rip it up and start again. That's what making a movie is, you have to kill your darlings. You have to be willing.
"Though that's not to say that every actor didn't come to the first reading with a copy of a three-hour play! Everyone has their favourite lines that are getting cut."
Streep saw the play in New York, when it played on Broadway. "And I remember thinking, 'Wow, that three and half hours just flew by.' It was like a tornado coming across the prairie. It was this torrent of words and emotions and fights and resentments and craziness. It was fun -- the house was really packed.
"But a play and a movie are just never going to be the same thing. It is like with a novel and a movie, you are going to lose out somewhere."
The film brings the landscape of Oklahoma into the story. "The landscape is unspeakably beautiful. I was not prepared for that. I thought it was a dustbowl. I have an east-coaster's prejudice against the landscape but it is really beautiful and it is interesting."
And what does Streep hope that audiences will take from the film adaptation?
"I want people to feel happy and to think that they've been on a ride and have been through something with this cast of people.
"We have all lived through holiday dinners or other obligatory gatherings where stuff comes up and everyone has different feelings, and someone takes the bait and someone chews it up. We've all been there to some degree.
"If they don't recognise people from their own lives, they might still take away an appreciation of good writing, because it is a beautifully written piece."
Meryl Streep: A life in Oscars
2012 Won: Best Actress in a Leading Role The Iron Lady (2011)
2010 Nominated: Best Actress in a Leading Role Julie & Julia (2009)
2009 Nominated: Best Actress in a Leading Role Doubt (2008)
2007 Nominated: Best Actress in a Leading Role The Devil Wears Prada (2006)
2003 Nominated: Best Actress in a Supporting Role Adaptation (2002)
2000 Nominated: Best Actress in a Leading Role Music of the Heart (1999)
1999 Nominated: Best Actress in a Leading Role One True Thing (1998)
1996 Nominated: Best Actress in a Leading Role The Bridges of Madison County (1995)
1991 Nominated: Best Actress in a Leading Role Postcards from the Edge (1990)
1989 Nominated: Best Actress in a Leading Role Evil Angels (1988)
1988 Nominated: Best Actress in a Leading Role Ironweed (1987)
1986 Nominated: Best Actress in a Leading Role Out of Africa (1985)
1984 Nominated: Best Actress in a Leading Role Silkwood (1983)
1983 Won: Best Actress in a Leading Role Sophie's Choice (1982)
1982 Nominated: Best Actress in a Leading Role The French Lieutenant's Woman (1981)
1980 Won: Best Actress in a Supporting Role Kramer vs. Kramer (1979)
1979 Nominated: Best Actress in a Supporting Role The Deer Hunter (1978)