Meryl Streep is known for completely enveloping herself in her characters, capturing their nuances, speech patterns and personalities. In her films, she’s transformed herself into such disparate people as the chef Julia Child, the writer Susan Orlean and plutonium-plant worker Karen Silkwood, winning countless honors and awards along the way.
In her latest film, the biopic The Iron Lady, Streep once again fully inhabits a real-world figure — this time former British Prime Minister Margaret Thatcher. Her performance has already won her a Golden Globe and an Oscar nomination, and has earned rave reviews from critics, including Charles McGrath in The New York Times, who wrote that Streep “seems even more Thatcher-like than Mrs. Thatcher.”
As with all of her roles, Streep conducted extensive research about Thatcher’s life before filming began. She learned that Thatcher carried around notecards with quotations from Lincoln and Shakespeare, and that she took voice lessons to sound more confident in her speech patterns.
“I remember reading that Lawrence Olivier had something to do with arranging for her to have [voice lessons],” she tells Fresh Air’s Terry Gross. “He said he wouldn’t care to do it himself, but he steered her in the direction of a good vocal coach. And she did go, and it did help her and and was part of the Pygmalion process.”
Steep explains that Thatcher’s vocal coach didn’t reinvent her speech; he simply brought out a quality that the Tory leader already possessed.
“She already had whatever the stentorian tones [were] that she acquired over time — they were all lying in wait there, within her arsenal,” the actress says. “She had … a plummy kind of aspirant, upper-middle-class voice, and so what the voice coach did was enable her to expand her breath, deepen her voice, bring it to a place where men could listen to it in its most emphatic tones.”
Streep listened to tapes of Thatcher both before and after the voice lessons in order to capture the nuances of her speech. She focused, she says, on the way Thatcher paused and emphasized certain words to make her points.
“[It] had to do with bringing out a word that you didn’t normally think was the most important word in the sentence,” she says. “And she also had a way, like a railroad train, of taking a breath quite quietly and making a point in a way that you don’t realize that this point is going to be made through several examples, and there will not be a break in the speaking voice at any point, and if you think you’re going to interrupt her, you’re not going to have the opportunity, because she’s just got capacity. …”
It was a stunning quality, says Streep, and one that required a lot of vocal stamina.
“I needed much more breath than I have, after all of my expensive drama school training,” she says. “I couldn’t keep up with her. … [She gave one speech when she was 65] that I couldn’t have done when I was 30 years old, fresh out of drama school. Just the breath. As an actor, you’re looking at it and going, ‘Just the breath.’ It’s fantastic.”
To play Thatcher over the course of four decades, Streep also had to wear prosthetics to age her face and neck. She worked with prosthetics designer Mark Coulier and master hair and makeup artist Roy Helland, who bleached her hair in Sophie’s Choice, gave her a brown mullet for Silkwood and shaped her asymmetrical bob in The Devil Wears Prada.
Coulier is “interested, in the way I am, in changing the outside to get at something inside,” Streep says. “I flew to London [for] three different tests, and it was all about taking away, taking away, taking away. Mark would carve a sculpture of me and then he’d add on, with clay, age. And then they’d cast it in a silicon thing, and I would wear it — and I would say, inevitably, ‘Less, less.’ So it’s kind of remarkable how little I’m wearing.”
She says she wanted minimal makeup in part so that her face could remain expressive — and in part so the other actors on set would see her as Thatcher.
“It’s not about the audience,” she says. “It’s all about fooling the other actors into believing who you say you are. That’s hard, when you walk on set, when it’s a big makeup job. And I take my entire performance from them, so if they don’t look at me and hate me appropriately or love me the way they’re supposed to … then I’m lost, I don’t have anything to go on.”
In a 2010 commencement speech at Barnard College, Streep talked about what she has come to think of as her first role: being a popular girl at her high school. She detailed how she immersed herself in Vogue and Seventeen magazines, trying to imitate the hair and clothes of the popular girls at school. She also adjusted her temperament.
“Opinions took a back seat,” she says. “Opinions were not attractive. This is stuff I remember thinking when I was quite young. At my house … you learned to rise above the contending voices, but I recognized early on that that wasn’t attractive on a date.”
Streep calls her high-school performance “a form of acting for a purpose.”
“Now, I don’t think, [girls] don’t do that as much,” she says. “I have three daughters, and they’re all getting along in life on their own terms. And I don’t feel they make those accommodations quite in the way we did. But this was something people did.”
Streep says it’s only in retrospect that she thinks about her high-school years as “playing a role.”
“I wasn’t aware of designing myself in high school, but when I got to [college at] Vassar, all of that fell away, because it was just girls and it was the early ’70s and it was the classic consciousness-raising time when people were earnestly talking about ‘What’s a woman? What’s our role in the world? What is our capacity? What is holding us back?’ ”
“I felt free,” she says. “A thing emerged, which was my actual personality and my actual voice, I guess, and I realized that I was funny, and allowed to be — and allowed to be loud, and obnoxious — and I took full advantage of it. … It was an emergence.”