The blushing, bristling Meryl Streep

She has no interest in self-analysis. Aging, however, is another matter.

Film

February 24, 2002|By Chris Kaltenbach | Chris Kaltenbach,Sun Movie Critic

WASHINGTON -- Meryl Streep smiles and blushes and waves her hand nonchalantly. Acting, she insists, is something she just does, not something that taxes her or something she struggles with. She almost makes it sound easy.

But those of us who have watched her on-screen for the past 25 years know better. Nothing so good can, if there is any justice in the world, be so simple.

"This is why I've never been able to teach anything," Streep says in mock exasperation when asked what she has drawn on in bringing so many memorable characters to the screen. "It's a complete mystery to me. Usually, I feel that I've already got the person inside of me when I read the script for the first time, but I don't know how the people arrive there. Maybe it's a little multiple personality disorder."

Streep laughs easily at herself; that much was obvious this past week as she was interviewed by Michael Kahn, director of Washington's Shakespeare Theater, before a nearly packed audience at D.C.'s Lisner Auditorium. Her appearance was sponsored by the Smithsonian Institution.

Pressed repeatedly for insights into how she does what she does, Streep refuses to overanalyze herself. Her talent, she insists, "I try to keep alive by not investigating it too deeply."

Which is not to say she wasn't up to probing some other subjects at length. Dressed very-New-York-chic -- a black calf-length duster over black slacks and a white top -- the New Jersey native was unceasingly charming as she discussed her career, her craft and her collected experiences. Notwithstanding that easygoing exterior, however, it wasn't hard to get the sense that here was a woman of great complexity, an actress grateful for her successes, but vexed by the limitations her profession (not to mention her public) imposes.

Wrinkles in the face

Take, for instance, the issue of age. At 52, Streep is way past the ingenue stage -- although still beautiful and vibrant, with cheekbones to die for, her face betrays the wrinkles that inevitably accompany the advancing years. Now, when you're Meryl Streep, widely regarded as one of the greatest actresses of your generation, the parts will always be there, no matter how youth-obsessed Hollywood and American society may be. But other actresses aren't so lucky, and that clearly bothers her.

"I have earned these," she says, pointing at her own face and smiling broadly, the better to accentuate every wrinkle. A member of the audience has just asked why American actresses seem to be discarded by the industry once they reach 40 or so, while European actresses -- he cites Judi Dench as an example -- continue to have full and rewarding careers. Streep pounces on the topic, one she's clearly thought through.

"The idea of shooting something into your face, to make it not reflect what you feel, is unbelievable in our industry," she says. "It's a problem. ... I have earned, Judi Dench has earned her face. It gives her eloquence. Americans are not stupid. They love her work. It's just that they are not allowed to see people like that, usually. Americans are not allowed to see somebody who looks her age. We see Joan Collins."

And while Streep may profess not to understand how she does what she does, she knows how to showcase that talent to best advantage. The trick, she says, is to work with directors with a clear vision. Want to see the dark side of Meryl Streep? Be a director who's unsure of what to do, who leaves everything up to the actors, who isn't prepared.

"All I want is confidence," she says. "I want certainty. The worst thing in a director is to feel nothing there, that they don't know what they want. It's terrible."

How does she react? "I get very badly behaved," she says deliberately, and the audience laughs at her carefully worded nonsentence. "Sulking. Sarcastic. Very bad, very, very bad. I just want to get a reaction. I want to know that he knows or she knows what she wants. I want so much of the work to have been done in the director's mind before we arrive."

None of which, Streep emphasizes, guarantees smooth sailing on the movie set. Having earned a degree in costume design, she's not afraid to offer her opinions on how a character should look. ("Thank God I work with understanding people," she says.) And even her relations with the best directors can become heated. She's been in three films directed by Mike Nichols (Postcards From the Edge, Heartburn and Silkwood); of their relationship, she says with a smile, "We have a sort of shorthand and natural contempt that we both understand."

Becoming another person

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