With her 18th Oscar nomination, Meryl Streep’s hit the record books – but it hasn’t come easy. The actress tells Shereen Low why her latest roles was one of her most challenging to date.
“Women aren’t sexy when they’re old,” declares Violet Weston during a vitriolic rant in August: Osage County.
But one look at Meryl Streep, the actress who portrays her, and you realise that she, at least, certainly defies that remark.
Oozing elegance in a black blouse and fitted trousers, her blonde hair tidied away from her face and barely any lines or wrinkles on her glowing skin, the Oscar-winning actress looks a decade younger than her 64 years.
The star of films like Julie & Julia, Mamma Mia! and The Hours has made history after receiving her 18th Oscar nomination for her performance in the big screen adaptation of Tracy Letts’s Pulitzer Prize-winning play. She already has three golden statuettes in her possession.
Julia Roberts, who plays Streep’s daughter in the movie, is also up for a Best Supporting Actress Oscar and Bafta.
“I’m so happy for our film, that Julia and I have been nominated. We’re both so proud of August: Osage County,” says Streep, adding that it’s ‘thrilling’ that the awards buzz will help to attract more people to watch the film.
Things could have been very different, though – she turned the part down at first.
“I said no, I really did,” the softly-spoken actress admits. “But they dragged me in, kicking and screaming,” she adds, smiling.
Streep is no stranger to portraying ‘hard’ women – after all, this is the actress who took on former Prime Minister Margaret Thatcher (The Iron Lady), tyrannical magazine editor Miranda Priestly (The Devil Wears Prada) and an accusing nun (Doubt) – but she wasn’t sure about sharp-tongued, pill-popping cancer-stricken matriarch Violet.
The story revolves around Violet’s strained relationship with her family, as they reunite following a crisis. Tensions build as previous clashes are rekindled – one scene even sees Roberts strangle Streep as the two women come to blows.
“I said no, because who really wants to sign up to know what it feels like to have mouth cancer, children that hate you, a husband who’d rather kill himself than be in your presence, and chemotherapy, pills, misery and a horrible past?” Streep continues.
“To crawl into that head and that heart, argh! Because part of that pain, you realise as you get older, is these things cost you more, in a weird way. You carry them home, you feel you bleed more easily with it.”
Director John Wells understands why his leading lady had her ‘reasonable doubts’.
“The role is, on a day-to-day basis, a difficult place to be,” he says. “Violet’s bitter and sarcastic, a holy terror to everyone who comes into her path. Meryl is actually a personable, kind, gentle person, so day after day, she was attacking all these people that she likes.”
Streep was eventually persuaded to sign on though, when she heard who her co-stars would be.
If initial reactions are anything to go by, Streep has nothing to be nervous about. As well as the record-breaking Oscar nomination, her performance has met with rave reviews, and once again, she pulls off a remarkable visual transformation as Violet. The non-smoking actress also had to light up for the part – Violet’s a chain-smoker, and Wells recognises that it was a physically demanding job.
“A lot of days, we’d finish and she [Streep] would look at me and say, ‘This is really hard’. But the commitment to that performance is part of what makes it a truly memorable and classic performance of hers,” says the director.
Streep didn’t have to look too far for her research and preparation for the role.
“Sadly, I have friends who’ve had cancer and I have friends who were having chemo, and I checked in with them about what that felt like,” she says.
“So it was a horrible little hot-ball of burning lead that I carried around in my stomach for a while, but there is also great pleasure in knowing it’s fiction,” she adds.
“You can close the door on it at the end of the day.”