Here she goes again
Meryl Streep will never forget 4 July 2008. That was the day the movie Mamma Mia had its gala premiere in Stockholm. Outside the Rival movie theater, Streep started a spontaneous dance with ABBA members Annifrid Lyngstad and Agnetha Fältskog. At the party afterwards, she climbed onto a table and sang, to the great delight of the other guests – she had a fabulous time.
“Mamma Mia simply runs and runs and runs. And it’s given me an entirely new generation of fans,” the delighted 69-year-old says.
Even though it’s long been said that there wouldn’t be a sequel – or prequel perhaps in this case – it’s now time for the premiere of Mamma Mia: Here We Go Again. This time Streep isn’t the female lead though – instead, she’s part of the framing device that provides a backwards look at how her character (now played by Lily James from Downton Abbey) meets the three young men, one of whom becomes the father to her daughter. Stellan Skarsgård, Colin Firth and Pierce Brosnan also feature in the new movie, although their characters are also played by younger actors in the backwards look.
“I’ve got a smaller role this time, but it’s great fun to get to act opposite Cher again. We haven’t worked together since we made Silkwood,” Streep says.
A few weeks before the Swedish premiere of Mamma Mia, I was in Greece to watch it and to interview Meryl Streep and the rest of the people behind the movie. We were all in agreement that it ought to be a massive hit with audiences, while Streep was equally convinced that Skarsgård shouldn’t be pursuing a career in music anytime soon.
“I love Stellan, but singing? That’s something he should probably avoid in the future,” she laughed as we sat in the sun by a beach house with waves breaking in the background.
At the premiere at the Rival movie theater a few weeks later, I sat three seats away from her and could see with my own eyes how she was totally absorbed, even though she’d seen the movie several times before. She has talked about how she saw Mamma Mia The Musical in New York and how she and her daughters then danced down Broadway.
Now, ten years later, I can’t resist asking her whether Skarsgård’s singing voice had got any better in the meantime. She laughs.
“No, if anything it’s gotten even worse!”
We talk about the first Mamma Mia and about what it was that made it such a hit with audiences worldwide.
“It confirms what I knew when I joined the project – that it was an audience movie, a movie for audiences that much of Hollywood looks down on. It was a movie for people who don’t go and watch films that often, and its success simply confirmed what we all know deep down – that if we give the public the movies they want to see, they’ll come. That was confirmation of this. Mamma Mia may be full of joie de vivre – but working on it was surprisingly tough. At the end of each day’s filming, I was absolutely exhausted. I then had to spend an hour washing off my fake suntan and then spend half an hour washing the bath tub. I then collapsed with exhaustion and suddenly it was the next day.”
ABBA’s Benny Andersson described Streep as “a diamond,” adding that she sings even better now than she did in the first movie.
“She’s wonderful. She’s enthusiastic and intelligent and pays tremendous attention to detail. Whatever she does is good and that is entirely down to her alone. She grabs every opportunity to do things well. Quite simply, she’s a super person and someone who hopefully hasn’t been affected by her success.”
Stellan Skarsgård also has his say via an email:
“Meryl is perhaps the most technically skilled movie actor I’ve ever worked with, but she manages to hide her technique via her playfulness and incredible presence in the moment. Added to which, she’s also a very intelligent and generous co-worker who is a pleasure to spend time with. If Benny likens her to a diamond, maybe this is a reflection of her professional brilliance. I see her more as a Morcilla from Burgos (a traditional Spanish blood sausage) – full of blood and rich in nuances.”
When I speak with Andersson it’s March and he’s sitting in his studio in Stockholm working on the music for the movie. Two songs from the previous movie are included – otherwise it’s other ABBA songs, mostly less well-known numbers which are woven into the story in the same way as the songs were in the first movie.
With her three Oscars and 18 other nominations, Streep has written herself into the history books. You would think she ought to feel confident of always being offered work, but according to the actress herself, that isn’t always the case.
“I never take anything for granted. Like all my colleagues in my age group, I’m always worried about not getting new roles. And I’m just as happy and surprised every time I get an offer. I’ve seen far too many cases of colleagues in the 40–50 age group whose careers have suddenly come to an end.”
“I don’t go actively looking for roles. Many actors do this, but I’ve never been one of them. And I’ve never had my own production company. When I was younger and could have had one I was far too busy looking after my children and working at the same time. I’ve always just had an assistant. That’s enough. So I let jobs come to me, and so far, it’s worked well. What’s important for me is that the roles are well written, that I think I will have fun during the shooting and that I will be working with fun people. And I’m still just as surprised when a movie I made does well, and that audiences have not started to become tired of me.”
Over the years, I’ve met Streep some 15 times. The lasting impression is always that she’s a delightfully appealing personality (a feeling confirmed by the people who work with her). She has an incredibly infectious smile, she tosses her hair a bit, fiddles with her glasses and when she laughs, she also laughs with her eyes (unlike many of her fellow actors whose eyes remain stone cold). And her modesty, when it comes to herself, is not an act – you can see she means what she says.
‘I never take anything for granted...I’m always worried about not getting new roles’
Streep’s daughters are following in her footsteps and she even had the opportunity to work alongside her own offspring Mamie in the movie Rikki and the Flash.
“I didn’t think of us as mother and daughter. We were two professional actors who were working together.”
“Except once or twice I probably thought, ‘You’re doing this scene really well, girl,’” Streep says with a laugh.
Over the decades the actress has portrayed a string of strong women onscreen, often real people such as Anna Wintour in The Devil Wears Prada and Margaret Thatcher in The Iron Lady. She says:
“All the women I have had the privilege of taking over their soul, they are all equally important to me. And I always take the same approach when preparing for them. I look for the specific woman inside myself, I quickly decide what she’s like, I research her background, I research her life, her financial situation, her circumstances. Then I come to the set and I know that I know her and how she is. Even if you don’t notice this in the story, she is fully formed. All the reasons why she is who she is can be found in her background.”
One of Streep’s favorite hobbies is knitting – there are countless tales of how during shooting, she persuades the other female actors to take up knitting to pass the time during all the breaks – and she tells the story of how this hobby once led to a nostalgic trip back in time, and not in a positive sense.
“I found a women’s magazine from the 1970s at the bottom of my knitting basket. I showed it to my daughters. On page two there was an advert that said, ‘Lady: the only career where you can earn as much as a man.’ A few pages later was an ad that said, ‘If you want to do something other than looking after your children and household: become an author – and believe us, your husband need never know a thing.’ Times have changed.”
Streep has never hesitated in making her voice heard (she has always been hard on Donald Trump, who responded by calling her “overrated”) and she has been very active in the #metoo movement. I ask her to comment on this, now that some time has passed since it started.
“I think people put higher demands on women. A man can make a big mistake, he apologizes and can do the same thing again the next day. A woman can’t do that, higher demands are placed on her. This may disappear one day perhaps, but it’s not done so yet.”
“In the case of the #metoo movement, it’s easy to attack us in the movie industry. We can seem ditzy and there are sides of our industry that are foolish and that make it easy to mock us. We’re an easy target. But now, when loads of other groups have also spoken out, we’ve become a powerful alliance.”
When it comes to the discussion of the #metoo movement, comparing a flirtation with an assault, she is adamant. “Flirting must always be OK. But what this is about, can’t be difficult for a man to understand. If a straight man is standing on a subway train and another man comes up and presses his erection against him, that’s an assault. That’s not flirting.”
Published: July 2, 2018