Any list compiled of the greatest on-screen performances of recent years would surely include at least one of Meryl Streep’s mesmerising turns. The New Jersey-born star has been a staple of the Hollywood elite for decades now, and her record of most Academy Award nominations – which stands at 21, with three wins – only goes a certain way to explaining Streep’s contribution to the entertainment world.
“There are lots of women who have done just as much with fewer advantages than I’ve enjoyed,” she smiles. “I think there’s a bias against women when it comes to discussing the idea of making sacrifices. That question doesn’t arise when it comes to men – a man has always been seen as someone who works hard and has a full-time occupation. I think women should have the same opportunity and not have any stigma attached to them if they choose to pursue their careers.
“Life is all about making choices and I’m very happy with mine. I have had a wonderful time raising four children and I’ve also been lucky to have the support of a wonderful husband.”
Nevertheless, there’s no doubt that Streep has blazed a trail for future generations of actresses with her work.
Having celebrated her 71st birthday in June, she continues to be a role model for younger female stars of stage and screen, as well as a permanent reminder to the industry that age is nothing but a number – a fact that Streep is all too aware of when it comes to sharing the stage with an overawed younger actress.
“What I try to do from the very first day is break down that kind of separation between me and those actors who might feel that way,” she laughs. “You can’t have that distance or any artificial wall between you and other cast members. So I try to have fun with that; I’ll forget my lines, I’ll turn in the wrong direction, or do something to shatter any illusions of perfection they might have of me. I want the other actors to think, ‘Maybe she’s not as good as we thought’, and then they relax, and we all feel comfortable. After the first day it’s never an issue!”
Given her long history of playing strong women on screen – “I’m not as strong or as brave as some of those women,” she insists – the positive changes the movie industry has experienced in recent years must be heartening to Streep.
A vocal advocate of the #MeToo movement that has proved cataclysmic in terms of pushing women’s issues in the industry to the fore, Streep has gone on to channel that off-camera support into a starring role on one of the biggest female-driven stories on TV, HBO’s Big Little Lies , joining the series as the bereaved mother of abusive husband, Perry Wright, played by Alexander Skarsgård, and going on to earn her fifth Primetime Emmy nomination.
“I loved this show, I was addicted to it,” she says. “I thought it was an amazing exercise in what we know and don’t know about people – about family, about friends, about how we flirted with the mystery of things. I wanted to do it to be in that world. The world they created was amazing.”
“This series is a provocative act of emancipation and a reflection on male and female power, and for me personally it touches on the issue of women having the right to greater choice in life.”
It may seem that Streep would have the pick of any project she chose, but one interesting aspect of her joining Lies was her prior resistance to small-screen productions, preferring instead cinematic appearances.
“It was a personal choice,” she explains. “When it came to working in TV in the past it never felt like the right time. This time, however, I felt I had an audience already in place and I wanted to immerse myself in that microcosm of women’s lives that really addresses the ambiguities and unsaid elements between women.”
After all, it wasn’t the first time that Streep has shaken things up on-screen of late: “Everyone is surprised when they hear me sing in Mamma Mia! or in Into the Woods but mixing acting and singing is a joy that I have been carrying inside me since I was 16!”
Living with her sculptor husband of 42 years, Donald Gummer, in the Tribeca area of New York, Streep doesn’t just have it all in her career it would seem. She is also a mother to four successful children: Mamie, 35, who co-starred with her in Ricki and the Flash ; Grace, 32, who has appeared in films including Margin Call and Frances Ha ; a musician son, Henry, 39; and another daughter, Louisa, 27, who works as a model.
“We’re very close as a family,” she nods. “I have three girls and a son, who is my eldest. They’re people who are alert to the world and alive to it and interested and curious. I’m proud of them, but I keep them out of the umbrella of my fame because they hate it, and I understand that.”
Now entering the possible twilight of her career, Streep continues to turn back the clock by choosing to work with modern moviemaking aces. Next comes a musical project, The Prom , from Glee creator Ryan Murphy, and then Let Them All Talk with Steven Soderbergh.
And while her considerable filmography is stacked with confident women – arguably led by the imperious Miranda Priestley of 2006’s The Devil Wears Prada fame – the real Streep, decorated with every acting award under the sun, is also aware that she, like anyone, has her moments of doubt.
“After each film I would do I would tell my husband, ‘OK. That’s it. I’m not going to work anymore; we should find a place to retire …’” she says with a laugh.
“And often when I would be preparing to work on the next project my husband would have to listen to me worrying about this or that and indulging in all my usual doubts. Fortunately, things have turned out pretty well!”