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Meryl Streep

It is a strange experience walking down a New York street with Meryl Streep. From 200 yards away, you can hear the shouts following her: ''We love you, Meryl.'' A ripple of excitement passes from block to block and she turns round, acknowledging people with a friendly smile and a brief ''Hi''. 

 

And yet she has just been telling me that New Yorkers are ''very canny and subtle'' when they recognise her. Which only makes you wonder what the rest of America must be like. ''You're a new event for everybody that sees you,'' she says, with a half sigh, half laugh. ‘It's a subject that you don't study in drama school.'' 

 

Her stature - ''my big unwieldy famous self'', as she puts it - in the States is extraordinary: regularly described as America's foremost actress, she has just been nominated for her twelfth Oscar as best actress for her role in Music of the Heart, an achievement equalled only by one other actress, Katharine Hepburn. Although Meryl Streep has done her share of mediocre films, nothing can knock her from the pedestal she established through the two films that actually won her Oscars: Kramer Versus Kramer and Sophie's Choice. 

 

We meet in Il Cantinori, an Italian restaurant in downtown Manhattan which, says Meryl's agent, is ''one of her preferred restaurants''. From my point of view, this is a terrible prospect. I envisage a crowded restaurant full of punters gawping at Streep and listening to my idiot attempts at persuading her to divulge details of her life. But it turns out that such is her status that the manager clears half the restaurant, leaving us alone and cramming the rest of the customers into tables on the other side. 

 

She looks pretty, almost girlish, with her long blonde hair clipped back from her angular face in a slide, and a flawless, unwrinkled complexion which belies her 50 years. “I’d like a cappuccino as soon as humanly possible,'' she tells the waiter as she takes off her dark blue puffa jacket and puts down her plastic bags. 

 

“I had to prise my eyes open this morning after my rough night last night. I had too much Chianti and stayed out with friends till two in the morning. I don't think I've done that for . . . I can't remember how long.'' 

 

She makes infrequent visits to New York from her 89-acre farm in Connecticut, where she lives with her husband Don Gummer, a sculptor, and their four children, Henry, Mamie, Grace and Louisa, whose ages range from 20 down to eight. “I don't like to be away for too long. I've made myself some sort of arbitrary rule that two weeks is the most . . . otherwise everything starts to fall apart, it gets to be Liberty Hall and everybody does what they want. I don't like that.'' 

 

Streep issues a peal of infectious laughter, a sound that dominates her conversation. Although shy, even nervous, when we first meet, her demeanour quickly becomes relaxed and she is soon sitting sideways on her chair with her feet propped halfway up the wall. Wearing black lace-up boots and a navy blue wide-ankle trouser suit, she looks more stylish than she does in many of her films. Well known for her lack of preciousness about her looks on screen, she wears frumpy clothes in Music of the Heart - in which she plays an inspirational violin teacher - and her hair in a mouse-coloured curly mop. “I just want to be authentic. It's hard enough for people to look at me over and over again, film after film, and see me as someone new. Whether I look pretty or not or whether it will get me another job or whether I look sexy or not, is last on my list of concerns. I don't give a fuck about it. I don't know how to be more clear. I do it in defiance of everything in our business.''

 

Being in defiance of her business seems to have become a modus vivendi for Streep. She keeps her distance from the acting fraternity and leads a relatively normal life, even shopping for groceries in her local town, Mystic. “I’m very, very old news in my town and no one raises an eyebrow. . . As an artist you have to try to find a way to ignore your celebrity and still be alive and alert to what's happening. Otherwise you lose your ability to express yourself. That happens to people. They hole up in their house in the Hollywood hills because they're just fucking sick of being looked at and they can't remember what it's like to be out there and regular.'' 

 

Streep tried living in Hollywood for three years at the beginning of the Nineties but found it intolerable. “I was unmoored and didn't feel happy. There are no seasons in Los Angeles. I need to feel the fall and the quickening of the fall. I need a certain line of the mountain where it meets the sky - as Karen Blixen [whom Streep played in Out of Africa] wrote. 

 

“It's sort of exhausting, this self-congratulatory atmosphere in which the movie community lives. It's unbearable. We're not that important in the world but we certainly all think we are. . . I shouldn't talk about it, I mean I'm really grateful that my work is recognised. . . but boy, we've gotten a little bloated. It's so grand and the outfits are so incredible and the critique of how everybody looks and the desperation of people to make an impact, it really gets to me.'' 

 

The Italian waiter comes up and reels through the specials of the day. ''He has a lovely voice,'' she says as he leaves. “It makes you remember things, how people say things.'' 

 

She should know. The undisputed mistress of accents, Streep has mastered Polish American (Sophie's Choice, The Deer Hunter), English (Plenty), Victorian English (The French Lieutenant’s Woman), Italian American (Bridges of Madison County), Danish (Out of Africa), rural Irish (Dancing at Lughnasa) and Australian (A Cry in the Dark). 

 

She sighs when I mention the accents. “I think they should talk about everybody else that's doing it. There was a time when I was doing it more than other people, but now there's Susan Sarandon, Angelica Huston and Nicole Kidman. It doesn't follow them around like a caboose, but it's my caboose.''

In Music of the Heart, which opened in London last month, she speaks in her own voice - New York-stamped American - although, in conversation now, her voice is softer and she speaks thoughtfully, her words punctuated by pauses. Madonna was first cast in the lead role but dropped out just weeks before the film was to begin shooting. 

 

Strange, I say, that she ended up taking a role from Madonna when it was Madonna who played Evita a few years ago, a role originally promised to Streep. ‘’’Oh right,'' she says, as if this had not occurred to her. “It is weird that that came around but it is a pretty small town.'' At the time, there was a widely circulated quote that Streep was so upset that Madonna was going to do Evita that she said, “I could rip her throat out''. She roars with laughter when I repeat this to her. Did she say it as a joke? ''Absolutely. Who can convey this? Really, deeply, it didn't matter. . . I thought she did a great job with it.''

 

As well as her facility with accents, there are certain well known Streep mannerisms: the rubbing of her forehead as she considers a dilemma, a hand raised to toy with a strand of hair, and the slightly hysterical laugh of abandon, usually used to denote disbelief. All of them are on parade as we have lunch. “I’m completely unaware of my mannerisms,'' she says. “I don't think I'm self-analytical enough to the point of knowing what they are and if I did know I'd probably be disarmed and unable to do anything.'' 

 

Sidney Pollack, who directed Streep in Out of Africa, said of her acting skills: ''She can actually vanish into another person.'' Is that an exaggeration, I ask Streep, or does she forget herself? “I find that I'm so susceptible to emotion. In Sophie's Choice, I only read the scene once where she makes the choice [between which of her children is to be sent to the gas chamber] and I just never forgot it. I never wanted to read it again so I would play with the little girl [who played her daughter] in the camper until they said 'Go' . . . And in A Cry in the Dark [about Lindy Chamberlain, who was not believed when she said her baby had been stolen by dingoes], I felt I was defending my own turf, that I was wronged and there were certain things in her character that definitely are me: acting in defiance of what conventional wisdom is. I'll go to the other extreme. Just because someone wants me to be a certain way, I won't and that's loony. I'm sure that's why I was drawn to the material.'' 

 

She insists that there is no technique to her acting. “It’s instinct . . . Every time I go out, I think I've forgotten how to do it, but I never knew in the first place - so how could you forget what you never knew?'' 

 

Her bowl of pasta arrives and she goes into paroxysms over the white bean sauce. “I grew up in New Jersey in a little town with a lot of Italian immigrants and all the grandmothers would make this pasta fagioli: it was my favourite thing.'' 

 

Streep has several projects on the horizon, including a film with Michael Douglas, to be called Still Life. It is, she says, ''an unflinching look at a long marriage. I play Michael's date''. 

 

Her own 21-year marriage is unusually solid for the acting profession. Previously, she only had one boyfriend, the actor John Cazale, who died of bone cancer in 1978 and whom she nursed until his death. In the past she has spoken openly about the anguish of those days, something she now bitterly regrets. “I should never have talked about that. If I have any advice for young actresses, I would say you don't have to tell anybody anything. Everything's for sale and for what? To promote a movie? Gee, these are the things that are most precious to you.'' 

 

It is her children, she says, who suffer most from their mother's fame and loathe it when she is recognised. ''They're really mean to people and I say you just can't do that.'' 

 

Last year, she and her husband took their children on a road trip around Europe in a Volkswagen van to give them a taste of ''normal'' life. ''We got cheap tickets and went off the beaten path. No A-list restaurants or A-list anything. My children have gotten used to travelling under the auspices of Universal Pictures or something and they're very used to having anything they want. 'Why can't we have room service now?' I got worried when my littlest was saying I’ll have the escargot please'. For breakfast!'' 

 

Despite all her success and the stability of her home life, Streep says she finds it hard to be content. Her mother, she says, has always had a real gift for happiness, as does her eldest daughter, Mamie. ' t skipped me and went right into my daughter. I enjoy my life, but I do have my brooding. I'm much more of a worrier. 

 

Acting, she says, is what keeps her sane. “If I didn't have acting, I'd probably have an ulcer. But I can put all my neuroses to good use. It saved a lot of money on therapy. I even get paid for it.'' 

as published in The Sunday Telegraph on February 27 2000

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