21 and Counting: Meryl Streep continues to thrive in a record-breaking movie career

Movies Features

She is recognized as America's greatest living actress. But more than once during her long and distinguished career, Meryl Streep, now 69, thought it was coming to an end.

After filming Heartburn when she was 38, she says she remembers telling husband Don Gummer, “Well, it's over.” But, she adds, "Then we kicked the can down the road a little further."

Streep insists, "When I was 45, I should have been washed up, but then I did The Bridges of Madison County. The studio wanted someone aged 35, but Clint Eastwood said, 'No, I want her.' That was a big deal."

She is still kicking the can further and further with ever-greater success, and in doing so has redefined what Hollywood views as the peak of a woman's acting career.

“She broke the glass ceiling of an older woman being a big star—it has never, never happened before,” the late Mike Nichols, who directed her in Silkwood, Postcards from the Edge, Heartburn and Angels in America, once said.

I have interviewed Meryl Streep several times, most recently after her return from London where she filmed roles in her two latest movies, Mamma Mia! Here We Go Again and Mary Poppins Returns.

Once, when we talked in New York, she had been up until three a.m. that day in Washington, DC, drinking with Robert De Niro and friends at the Kennedy Center, and looked as fresh as ever, with no sign of a hangover.

And every time she has been friendly, serene and elegant, with an appealing touch of motherliness about her.

For our most recent talk at the Four Seasons Hotel in Beverly Hills, her grey hair was tied on top of her head and she wore black-rimmed glasses and a black jacket over a floral-patterned dress. She sipped from a large café latte as she talked with the enthusiasm of a teenager about her reunion with Cher and the Mamma Mia! cast and crew.

"It was great that everybody was coming back," she says. "I was totally shocked. How long had it been? Ten years? Yes, ten years. It was great to see them all again and they all looked the same.

"It was the first time Cher and I had worked together in 35 years, so that was really fun. But I only had a small part in this version, so I'm not in it very much. I just did about a week." Then she adds with a smile: "But it was a very important week and it was great fun. I guess the others all got to go to a beautiful island in Croatia and I shot in a studio in Ealing or wherever we were."

In the Mary Poppins reboot, which stars Emily Blunt as the title character and is due for release in December, Streep gets to sing in her role as Topsy, Mary’s eccentric, enthusiastic cousin who exists in her own world of upside-downs and opposites.

"I've been given great, weird, interesting parts," Streep says. And unlike most actresses, she doesn't seek out material, doesn't buy books to make into films and doesn't curry favor with producers. She just waits to be asked.

On her way to an astonishing 21 Oscar nominations with three wins and 31 Golden Globe nominations and nine wins, in her near 50-year acting career Meryl Streep has created a vast pantheon of varied and memorable characters…among them the Polish Nazi camp survivor in Sophie’s Choice, Karen Blixen in Out of Africa, the daydreaming housewife in The Bridges of Madison County, career-driven Miranda in The Devil Wears Prada, the stern headmistress Sister Aloysius in Doubt, the singing, dancing Donna of Mamma Mia! and Katharine Graham, the determined boss of The Washington Post.

Her meticulousness is legendary and she is renowned for totally immersing herself in her roles, her painstaking research, chameleon-like skill at adopting foreign accents—she learned Polish for her role in Sophie’s Choice—and her gift for the broadest comedy as well as for serious parts.

She has an instinctive gift for picking up the accent of the person she is talking to, whether she intends to or not. “I have a sort of sponge for an ear and it’s very hard for me not to talk like the person I’m talking to,” she reveals. “My kids always made fun of me. When I was on the phone they could tell if I was talking to someone who had an accent, because I start to talk that way, too. They'd say, ‘Mom, was that a Jamaican operator?’ because I was unconsciously talking with an island lilt. I can’t help it. It’s not a good thing, but it’s a thing that I have.”

Whatever role she takes, she inhabits totally, although, she admits, it never gets any easier. “I don’t have a method I can identify with, although I wish I did because it would make it less painful,” she says. “I like to immerse myself completely in a role before we start and it’s hard, especially when you have a lot of work behind you that you have to get rid of and erase because you don’t want it bleeding into the new person you’re becoming.

“I feel defensive about every character I play and I defend them as if they’re my own, because for the time I embody them, they feel like me."

John Patrick Shanley, who wrote Doubt and directed her in the movie, said: "She's rigorous, stringent and challenging in her thinking... She asks questions of herself, of the character, of the scene, of the director. On one level she's just like a big, mischievous cat who sits in the corner and watches everyone and her tail twitches… She's a very interesting person to be around."

Throughout her career, Streep has been fearlessly outspoken, testifying to Congress about the dangers of pesticides, using her appearance at the Golden Globes to make a passionate speech devoted to a political  broadside at Donald Trump; and opening the floodgates by leading an increasingly vocal Hollywood chorus condemning the alleged sexual misconduct of producer Harvey Weinstein. She also has donated $1 million towards financing for the National Women's History Museum that she is trying to get built on a site near the National Mall in Washington, DC.

But she plays down her activism. "I don't want to be anywhere in front of anybody talking about anything," she tells me with a smile. "I am not brave at all. It's just not my thing.

"I think I just get incensed and we're all affected more by our emotional reactions to things than by our rational ones," she explains. "Our rational lives lead us to think about questions of policy and how certain ideals are being trampled on, but it's the emotional things that move us."

Then she smiles. "That's all I'll say about that."

It turns out that she does, however, have plenty more to say, particularly about the wave of sexual harassment scandals that have engulfed Hollywood and which she feels will have lasting effects on workplaces worldwide.

"I would hope it will affect not just Hollywood," she says. "It's not going to go away. It'll go right through every enterprise in America and around the world. It already has done—it's igniting a kind of bravery on the part of people who have just had it with the silence and being polite and keeping the status quo.

"The best outcome of all this, I think, will be in the structures—not just in the Oscars, but in the studios, in the agencies and the funding entities and the boardrooms of the larger holding parent companies of these studios. When that is broken open and when the boardrooms are comprised of half men and half women, then a lot of this stuff will be obviated and will go away. When your boss is a woman, it's a trickier thing."

Streep is pleased to see that her often-repeated call for better scripts and better roles for women is finally seeing results. “Things are changing a bit in the movie world, because now there are more women working on developing movies and there are also some female studio heads, which has shifted things and that’s good for all of us.”

She concedes that women's place in the world generally has changed over the last 50 years or so, although the changes are not happening fast enough for her satisfaction. "There have been momentous changes unlike any other period in history, and the fact it isn't proceeding quickly or effortlessly enough or without pain is not surprising. But it's a very exciting time."

Streep talks with an easy confidence honed over the years since she embarked on a professional acting career on the New York stage in 1971 in The Playboy of Seville. She became a regular at the New York Shakespeare Festival and in 1977 made an impact in her feature film debut, Julia, as the high-society friend of Jane Fonda’s Lillian Hellman.

She reinforced her ability to play characters of exceptional depth with her portrayal of Linda, the wife of a Vietnam War soldier in The Deer Hunter. She began her first serious romance with the film’s co-star John Cazale and, a few months later, suffered the agony of watching him slowly die of bone cancer.

Six months later, she met sculptor Don Gummer, who was asked by Streep’s brother Harry to do some work on her Manhattan loft; they fell in love and married in September 1978. They have a 38-year-old son, Harry, a musician, and three daughters, actresses Mamie and Grace Gummer, ages 34 and 32, and 28-year-old Louisa.

Although the children have all left home, they are frequent visitors to Streep and Gummer's homes in New York and Connecticut, even though the actress is often away: Her movies, her charitable work for women’s organizations and the demands on her time for publicity and promotional appearances keep her on the run.

"I travel so much for my work that my total joy is to have an uninterrupted month at home. That's just my greatest pleasure," she shares.

If that's so, then acting comes a very close second. She earned her first of three Emmy awards back in 1978 for her role as a German woman attempting to save her Jewish husband from the Nazis in the television series “Holocaust” and won raves and a Best Supporting Actress Oscar for 1979’s Kramer vs. Kramer, in which she played a woman who leaves her husband and son, only to return to claim the child in a messy divorce case.  Her second Oscar win was for 1982’s Sophie’s Choice and her third was for portraying Margaret Thatcher in 2011’s The Iron Lady.

Ironically, she cannot remember ever really wanting a career as an actress. “When I was a kid, I wanted to be a princess and marry Prince Charles,” she recalls. “When I met him, I told him that and said I was sorry it didn’t work out.” She pauses and laughs. “But I’m not really sorry.

“I always wanted to have a family because I knew that was something that was very important, but I never had ambitions to be an actor or anything like that. It’s been a very weird journey in a way—I never had to decide what I was going to be when I grew up, because I got to be all sorts of different people and I continue to be able to do that. An actor is somebody who never really settles on anything and I’m really grateful for that fact, because I think I would have been unhappy if I had to sit at a computer terminal 50 weeks a year. I really do.”