Film Scouts Interviews

Meryl Streep on "Marvin's Room"

by Henri Béhar

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December 22, 1996

(exclusive to Film Scouts)

In Andrew Bergman's "Striptease", there is a scene where actor Ving Rhames, who plays stripper Demi Moore's bodyguard, is chatting with two guards on the pier outside the yacht where Demi is entertaining Burt Reynolds. "So tell me," asks one of the hoods, "have you met many celebrities who stripped, you know, before they became celebrities?" Ving Rhames thinks hard, then, with a hint of a wicked smile, replies: "Meryl Streep."

"Get out of here! Meryl stripped?"

"She was one of the best. Remember Chesty LaFrance?" A pause. "That was Meryl."

The line draws a huge laugh. Yet no one would doubt the oft-nominated Oscar-winner's capacity to out-gypsy Ms. Rose Lee. She's done everything - from tormented mothers ("Sophie's Choice") to anti-nuclear activists ("Silkwood") to self-absorbed torch-singer ("Death Becomes Her"), and there's a hell of a lot more where that came from. Fascinating.

In Jerry Zacks' "Marvin's Room", based on a play by Scott McPherson (who died of AIDS a few years ago), Streep plays Lee, a fiercely independent woman who fled her Florida home when her father Marvin (Hume Cronyn) had his first heart attack, leaving him and her aunt (Gwen Verdon) in the care of her sister Bessie (Diane Keaton). Nearly twenty years later, Lee gets a phone call from Bessie: the latter has just been told by Dr. Wally (Robert de Niro) that she has leukemia; only a bone marrow transplant from a kin might save her. Lee packs her bag, picks up her two sons - one of whom, Hank (Leonardo de Caprio), she has a stormy rapport with and gets out of a troubled juveniles' institution (don't ask). Time for the two estranged sisters to perhaps bridge that gap and mend their relationship - and then again, perhaps not.

Watching Streep being interviewed - let alone interviewing her - is an (almost) equally fascinating experience. Call it consideration, if you will, or respect for the work of a journalist: at a time when most interviewees are content to just recite excerpts from their press kit, she'll give each and every interviewer a story, a theory, an idea - a nugget that she hasn't given anyone else. She demands that you know what you're talking about; she's generous to a fault, however, when you don't.

As evinced by a recent Oprah Winfrey show she and Robert de Niro were sole guests on, she hates being the center of attention and although she is more extrovert and more agile, verbally, than Mr. de Niro (an understatement, that), she constantly, and very subtly, brought him back into the program, giving *him* the key light. Her co-workers are lucky: she knows how to make them look their best.

Her hair long (the familiar image) or cut short (as she sports it now), she is extremely beautiful. Her features would be icon-perfect if that "imperfect" nose, which emphasizes the perfection of the rest, did not prevent one from treating her as an icon. The first word that comes to mind when meeting with her is "intelligence", a close second is "woman", the third is "funny".

Theatregoers have known it for years, but cinema has barely begun to tap into this actress's comedic resources. She has a mischievous, wicked sense of humor, one that you suspect might turn gleefully bawdy.

You can also tell she is an accomplished musician (as theatregoers also know). All you have to do is listen back to the tape to want to transcribe it not on normal paper but on a score sheet. Edit her for content, as one usually does, and you might imperil an essential element to any interview with her: its musicality. So, with minimal cleanup, here goes. - HB


FILM SCOUTS: How did you got involved with "Marvin's Room"?

MERYL STREEP: Bob de Niro called me up. He - I guess that was years ago, when they were starting TriBeCa Films - he had this woman whose name escapes me right now who owned the film rights to Scott McPherson's play and who, since she owned it, got to say she wanted to direct it as well. She'd never directed before, either in movies or tv. I thought I should see the play first, so I took my son Henry, who was then twelve (he's now 17), and we loved it! We thought it was really interesting.

So we proceeded down the road. I was to play Bessie, Anjelica Huston was going to play Lee.

It fell apart basically because I was afraid. Because of the nature of the play. Because it skirts a very fine line between real-felt tragedy and a purely comic sensibility. And I thought it would take too heavy a toll to do it.

So I bailed.

Years later, Bob came back to me about it; by then he and [producer] Scott Rudin had bought the rights to the play, they had got a real director - Jerry Zaks - and it felt like a good thing.

By that time, however, I didn't want to play Bessie. I had just shot [Barbet Schroeder's] "Before and After", I had played all those good mothers and good people... So I just said, "Gimme the shitty one." (She laughs)

Bob growled, "Stop it, I'm out of here." But that's where I was, in my brain: I just wanted to be that. Now, I count it as my most selfless act! (She chuckles).
I also felt that Diane [Keaton] would be... what she is in the film: transcendant, magical.

I went to bat for her, because I knew that we'd really have a thing. And when we came to our first reading - Bob was there - we knew. We just knew we had a shot at something wonderful.

FS: So YOU chose Diane.

MS: No, but I'm gonna take credit for it! (She laughs) Hey! I had this idea, and I just said to them "You know, this person..." I don't know if they had the idea at the same time - maybe they did! But I had no other interest in playing with any other Bessie, and there was never anyone put before me to consider. (A pause.) 'Cause I didn't want to. Tee-hee! (She laughs).

FS: Were you close friends?

MS: No. I had met her once, in 1978, when I was on Broadway doing a musical called "Happy End"; she was already a BIG star and she came backstage with Jack Nicholson and Warren Beatty. When she walked into my dressing-room, I just went: 'Arggghhh'! (She laughs).

Among the many many lovely things - because she is so ineffably charming, and I mean that as a great compliment - she said, "I hope we get to work together some day." I choked! "My dream!" "Good luck."

I'm really happy that we got her to play the part.

FS: Diane Keaton says that although she has worked with Robert de Niro on "Marvin's Room", she doesn't really know him. Having worked with him extensively over the years, do you feel YOU do?

MS: (Pause) We don't hang out. But I don't think he does, anyway. He works a lot, and... I don't know even where he's living at the moment! (She laughs). But I've had a long, long history with him, and he's always been very loyal, from the very beginning, when he and [Barbra Streisand's partner] Cis Corman saw me in a Chekhov play at Lincoln Center, and they came back after a hockey movie I did on TV, and put me in "The Deer Hunter."

FS: What hockey movie?

MS: It was called "The Deadliest Season" with Michael Moriarty, and I don't remember anything about it except that I still wear the bathrobe that I had. (Laughs)

So Bob has always been very loyal to me, during a really hard time in my life, and I feel I can count on him. But deeply, I don't know him. He is a very kind of unto-himself person, too.

FS: How about the dynamics of acting with him?

MS: Well, (she sing-songs) he drives me insa-a-ne! Because he does a lot of ta-a-kes! (She laughs) I always feel like I want to chop him because I'm just "Two, three takes, that's it, that's all I have in me, I'm sorry, I'm exhausted." And he'll go 20, 21... Sick! Really sick! (She laughs)

And I don't know what it is, because every single one of them is fantastic. And different. I guess that's the way he works with Scorsese: they mold it and shape it and they have as many choices as possible.

FS: Have you always had that sort of relationship in the movies you made together?

MS: Yeah, I'm always done, he never is. (She laughs)

FS: Back to "the shitty sister".

MS: Yeah?

FS: When you tackle that kind of a part, how do you keep her shitty throughout while also making her understandable - if not necessarily likable? For instance, when you began production, was the end more ambiguous as to whether Lee was going to stay or not?

MS: Oh, yeah. That was a question. In *my* mind - to me, as an actress - people do not have sea changes; they remain who they are. They can be enlightened, they can have their best sides emerge; but their other side is going to be there, agitating to be let loose.

And I feel that's true for Lee. She's not gonna ever have that transcendence happen that Bessie has. But she might just realize the worth of what she has and the love that's available to her. She is who she is, she's never gonna really be completely satisfied with everything. But that's alright, that's real.

To approach her, I just wanted to play her honestly. To be, and to have her be, as peeved by her dissatisfaction as many many many people are. Some people are filled by compassion and a desire to do good, some simply don't think anything's going to make a difference, and some just go, "I gotta get ahead of him, because ever since we were in third grade, he's got ahead of me."

Now this is my little backstory, it has nothing to do with anything that you'll ever see in the movie; but Lee, I think, just never feels loved enough. And ironically, she produces a child that has the same affliction. That happens. Although, as Bessie gets into all their hearts, I think Leonardo's character is redeemable. He's not a lost cause.

FS: Do you find that, as you grow in age and stature, you're scrutinized more for the films you choose to appear in? Do you feel any pressure to "change things for women in the film industry?"

MS: I don't feel that pressure because I'm older and there's some sort of seniority. As a matter of fact, the seniority ebbs as you get older as an actress... (laughs)

FS: You do have the power to change things, however, don't you?

MERYL STREEP (falsely shocked): I do? (She laughs) No, I won't say I do. I mean, I don't. I have the power to pick what I want to be in of the things that are offered to me - most of which are dreadful.

So it's not so much the pressure as it is the responsibility of my own integrity: What I put out into the world, mostly in front of my kids. What I am contributing or giving out there. Most things, I don't know why we're putting them out. "What are we doing?" Marvin's Room was an opportunity to give love, and that made it all the more interesting.

To feel that "pressure," you have to devote your life to it, and it takes more time than I care to give to my career. I have enormous responsibilities at home - I have four kids, a 17-year-old son and 13-, 10-, and 5-year-old daughters - and that's a big job. Unimaginably big! (She laughs) No one told me THAT evening that these things happen! (She laughs)

The way to "change things", as you put it, is to create a production company, find executives for your company that you would then hope would move on, take jobs in the studios or the networks, so that you would maybe end up with a network of people sympathetic to the kind of projects you want to pitch.

I have another life agenda. I have four to five months, tops!, per year to give to my acting work. My other work will take the rest of it.

FS: So the fight rests more with today's leading ladies in their 20s and 30s?

MS: Oh, they're wonderfully talented actresses. It's a really rich field. There isn't as rich a field of material, however. But probably, with the success of films like "Emma"... The more people that go to the movies, the better, and the more good vehicles for women.

Usually, those vehicles are for younger women. So that's problematic for me and other actresses of my age that want to work. But the younger group of women have wide opportunities right now to go through good material and get it made.

Is it "humbling" that there's not that much for women of my age? (Long pause) It's not so much "humbling" as just, What am I going to see at the movies? What can I go to see? I don't want to see parodistic, ironic, edgy things about gangsters in well-cut '50s suits. I just don't care... as much.

Well, I do because I love to see good acting, I love to go and appreciate that. But as for what these films are saying...! And everything we say signifies; everything counts, that we put out into the world. It impacts on kids, it impacts on the "zeitgeist" of the time. Everything.

So I choose to work on things that put a positive energy out, because otherwise I don't know why I am alive.

FS: Looking back, are there films that you are surprised you did because you thought you wouldn't or couldn't?

MS: I'm real proud of "The River Wild". I never thought I would do anything like that. That was a little selfish of me, because I just wanted to have that adventure. I mean, Harrison Ford has that adventure all the time! (She laughs) Why should he be the only one to do that?

I also wanted to have a physical challenge, which is no less daunting than an emotional one - and there were emotional challenges in "River Wild". But mostly it was the physical thing. Confronting my own fear of anything other than, you know, very slow downhill skiing.

FS: You said you were willing to give your career four or five months a year, tops! Could you go without?

MS: It's funny, because when I've been pregnant and then had a baby, each time I took off a year, a year and a half. And the more time goes by, the more I get tired. All the stuff in your life that goes up and takes up all the space, "How can I work, I don't have the time!"

I get irritable. No one knows why. Strike that: my husband generally knows why. I just get short. And I realize I NEED that other outlet. I really love it. I really do.

But then I get impatient with the whole process, with the real slow, sluggish pace of film. All that attention to the perfect lighting, the perfect this, the perfect that, I find terribly annoying. Sometimes I feel like, if I were a director, I'd be more interested in capturing what's fleeting, what goes away if you lose momentum. Sort of in the Cassavetes mode or something. Because you can only get it in seconds, and it's really really hard to keep your attention over, er...

FS: Twenty takes?

MS: (Laughs) Right! That's why I loved making this television movie I just made: it was good - and it lasted seven weeks.

FS: What TV movie?

MS: It's called "First Do No Harm", and it's about a family who confronts half of the Healthcare system.

FS: Who directed it?

MS: Jim Abrahams, who's done a lot of fun movies [Jim Abrahams is the "A" in the "ZAZ" trio that concocted the "Airplane" series]. But this is a serious subject. One that he is very close to: pediatric epilepsy.

FS: You also recently did a reading of a play with Anjelica Huston?

MS: That was really cool! It was commissionned by the Public Theatre and the UN and it was a benefit for the UN Commission for Women and Children Refugees, which helps people all over the world, but this one was specifically about the Bosnian relief effort. It's about the women who are in camps in the former Yugoslavia and have been displaced and have had horrible things happen to them.

It's a really interesting project - and it was fun because I finally got to work with Anjel at last!

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