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Meryl Streep on Playing Powerful Women

In an era when women’s rights are at the forefront of every industry, respected actors like Meryl Streep have an increasingly important role to play – both on the silver screen and off

Meryl Streep has a long and distinguished history playing remarkable women. From Julia Child in Julie & Julia to Margaret Thatcher in The Iron Lady, Streep displays an unrelenting passion for her craft in one compelling performance after another. According to the woman in question however, opportunities for such roles have come about partly by chance. 

“I’ve been fortunate to have been at the right place at the right time,” Streep, 68, begins, with typical understatement. “Early in my career I had the chance to play many pioneering women’s roles at a moment in Hollywood when those films were very popular and I’ve been able to carry that on” – she was celebrated for her portrayal of a Polish refugee in Sophie’s Choice and author Isak Dinesen in Out of Africa.

Streep’s modesty, regal bearing and – at times – foreboding presence have made her one of the greatest proponents of female empowerment on the silver screen: a statement that can be underpinned by 20 previous Oscar nominations (of which she won three), as well as a nomination for her role in the recent political drama The Post.

In the richly acclaimed press room biopic, she portrays Katharine Graham, the owner and publisher of The Washington Post, who in 1971 made the difficult decision to publish The Pentagon Papers: a classified government study exposing lies about American involvement in the Vietnam War. Yet her character wasn’t the typical imposing Streepian powerhouse. Graham was a wealthy Washington D.C. socialite who was obliged to take charge of her family-owned newspaper after the suicide of her husband.

Streep seamlessly captures Graham’s hesitant, non-confrontational nature while showing how she gradually rose to the challenge, giving her executive editor (Tom Hanks) the go-ahead to publish the secret documents. In doing so, she defies pressure from her all-male board of directors and legal threats from a Nixon administration that her newspaper would later help bring down during the Watergate scandal.

“Early in her life she was not the confident Katharine Graham, the woman that people came to know as the first female head of a Fortune 500 company,” Streep says. “She was someone very unsure of herself. She was the product of a time when women weren’t expected to do much outside the realm of good child-rearing and housekeeping.

“But look at how far we have come. At that time, she was in a unique position as a woman. Since then we’ve gone on to see so many more women take up countless positions in corporations and in government.”

Similarly, Streep has become a fervent champion of women’s rights and a leader of the equal pay movement in Hollywood, albeit not a role she initially intended to undertake. But whether on a film set or speaking in public, Streep takes on a sense of authority and mission. She traces this assertiveness to the influence of her mother and grandmother.

“My mother was someone I looked up to and loved very much. She had a dynamic personality and a positive, enthusiastic outlook on life that I often wished I could have had when I was a teenager or in my 20s,” says Streep. 

“She told me she always believed in me and that I could achieve anything I set my mind to… that there are no limits. She gave me the idea that women can be anything if we really want it and work hard for it.” 

“My mother told me she always believed in me and that I could achieve anything I set my mind to… that there are no limits"

In the late 70s through to the 80s, Streep made her name as one of Hollywood’s most accomplished and versatile actresses, leading films such as Kramer vs. Kramer and A Cry in the Dark. She rose to fame for her accents and stunning character portrayals in particular, but in the 90s switched to comedies such as Postcards from the Edge and Death Becomes Her – “at that point in my life they suited my own personality more, I think”. 

Streep began to withdraw from Hollywood towards the turn of the millennium, preferring to dedicate herself to her husband, sculptor Don Gummer, and their four children. Now, members of the brood have flown the nest and forged careers for themselves, unsurprisingly, in the arts: Mamie, 34, co-starred with Streep in Ricki and the Flash; Grace, 31, has appeared in films including Margin Call and Frances Ha; Henry, 38, is a musician; and her youngest daughter Louisa, 26, works as a model.

Over the course of nearly two decades, Streep and her family lived on a sprawling property in Connecticut where she could remain relatively anonymous and removed from the world of celebrity. She spent her days organising lunches with other mothers and participating in school events. “It was one of the happiest times in my life, my oasis. I took so much pleasure from watching over my children, being as much of a confidante as possible, and enjoying everything that came with helping them grow into independent young people.”

Recent years have seen a slew of box office hits and striking character studies, from The Devil Wears Prada in 2006 and Mamma Mia! in 2008, to an Oscar-winning portrayal of Margaret Thatcher in The Iron Lady in 2011. 

“It’s fascinating to be able to probe the life of another person and take yourself on a journey,” Streep says. “You’re trying to get at the truth and are feeling inspired by their lives… by their hopes and dreams. I always found that acting gave me so much confidence when I was starting out because as a young woman I often felt very misunderstood – I worried about the kind of impression people had of me.”

The role of women in film, especially those starting out, is an issue that has dominated our news pages since October last year, when The New York Times broke a story detailing allegations of sexual harassment against Harvey Weinstein. As the story continues to unfold, the Golden Globes in January saw actors wear black to show support for victims of sexual harassment and gender inequality in all industries. 

“The black dress movement is only the very start. Already we are seeing other versions of this rebellion, and that’s good and positive. Fashion can be utilised positively in much the same way as it can lead people to draw quick, careless and hurtful conclusions. There is so much power in that.”

“The black dress movement is only the very start. Already we are seeing other versions of this rebellion, and that’s good and positive"

Streep continues: “I think the older you get, the more attention builds for women in terms of what they wear and what they do. The scrutiny can be intense. And yet, looking good for me is much like acting – it has always been a great form of therapy, and we need to recognise this again and stop judging so casually.”

Asked if she has the energy to continue investing her time and creativity in the film industry, the reply is definitive. “Of course – how can I not? The more I try to understand the women I’m playing, the more I understand something about myself.

“I feel very proud to have been able to work in films where the women I’m portraying are very central to the story. We need to make more films that present women’s lives as authentically as possible, and tell more women’s stories, and this is a real point of investment for me going forward.”

Streep might once have been in the ‘right place at the right time’, but at this crucial time she’s undoubtedly the right person, too. 

The Post is in cinemas now