Legend mentors co-stars behind the scenes

It’s no secret that her contemporaries experienced love at first sight when they acted with Meryl Streep. A quick sampling of their admiration ranges from Jack Nicholson’s “Meryl, baby. Comes a time when you’re it. You’re the state of the art” to Kevin Kline’s “I can feel everything with Meryl because she offers everything to respond to.”

Even when an edge of competition entered their assessment, you could never mistake it for anything but the ultimate compliment, as when Cher compared Streep to “an acting machine in the same sense that a shark is a killing machine” or when Dustin Hoffman opined, “You’re in the ring with Sugar Ray Leonard and you gotta take care of yourself.”

But so much for the opinions of the now-mature baby boomer set.

What’s it like to act with Meryl Streep, movie icon, when you’re say, 23 years old, and you grew up never knowing a world without La Streep, who in addition to her twin Academy Awards has gone to the Oscar bat no fewer than 14 times, leaving such other femme legends as Katharine Hepburn (12 noms) and Bette Davis (10 noms) in the dust?

It comes as no surprise that today’s twentysomething actors grew up knowing not the classy Sturm und Drang stuff like “Silkwood” and “Cry in the Dark” but rather Streep Lite. Regardless, they liked what they saw:

“I wanted to be Meryl in ‘She-Devil’ when she breaks her nail!” says Anne Hathaway.

“I watched her in ‘Death Becomes Her,’ like, five times. She scared the shit out of me!” says Amanda Seyfried.

And Bryan Greenberg found Streep so amazing in “Defending Your Life” that “she made me want to die,” he recalls.

So how does such fawning idolatry translate on-set when they finally get to act with Meryl the marvelous?

“I would have gotten her coffee and done her dry cleaning. It would have been my pleasure,” says Hathaway, who played Streep’s headstrong assistant Andy in “The Devil Wears Prada.”

“Of course, Meryl never took it there,” adds Hathaway, referring to their offscreen relationship.

On the contrary, Streep actually stoops a bit to conquer the confidence of her much-younger co-stars.

Greenberg recalls being introduced to Streep at their first read-through for “Prime,” in which he played her 23-year-old son. “She put me at ease by saying her daughter really liked ‘One Tree Hill,’ and then she asked if I was nervous,” Greenberg says. He lied and said, “No. No, I’m good. I’m ready to go. Why? Are you nervous?”

“I’m frightened, terrified!” Streep told him.

For Greenberg, her admission qualified as an epiphany. In essence, let him know, “It’s such a hard business. The fear never goes away,” he says.

Obviously, Streep knows her iconic stature intimidates. Or, as her “Mamma Mia!” co-star puts it, “When you’re 21 years old and going into that, you don’t know what to expect,” says Seyfried. “But Meryl is so easygoing. You don’t expect that.”

Fortunately for Amy Adams, she got over the pleasant trauma of meeting her idol long before the cameras ever rolled on their project together.

“It was at a Vanity Fair Oscar party, about six months before I was cast in ‘Doubt,’ ” Adams remembers, “and I made a fool out of myself. I’m not starstruck often, and it’s safe to say I was starstruck meeting Meryl Streep. Suddenly, I was a 12-year-old who wanted to let her know how much I liked her. Meryl handled it very graciously.”

Over the years, many of Streep’s contemporaries have commented that she tends to extend her onscreen relationships to what’s going on offscreen. Nora Ephron remarked that Streep fostered a friendship with Cher on the “Silkwood” set. Shirley MacLaine experienced the opposite effect on “Postcards From the Edge” since their respective characters were estranged.

“I never got close to Meryl. I saw that wasn’t in the cards right away,” MacLaine said of playing Streep’s battle-ax mother. “We never had dinner, never even had lunch together. But, remember, she becomes the part, so you have to go along with the technique of how she works.”

Nowadays, it’s more likely the younger thesp who looks to offscreen replication to achieve the desired results onscreen.

“In ‘Doubt,’ I was playing someone who looked up to (Streep’s character) as an example and for guidance,” Adams says. “So, yes, it did very much mirror our relationship offscreen, but I didn’t feel it was a contrived relationship offscreen. It served the on-camera relationship.”

On “Prada,” Hathaway found that for Streep to replicate their onscreen relationship “would have required her going to a certain place of entitlement that Meryl inherently abhors.”

Yet, Streep made it clear to her co-star how she planned to approach her demanding-boss character, Miranda Priestley. “We weren’t chummy on the set. But never did she make me think it was because of something I did,” says Hathaway. “She told me, ‘This is the way I’m playing the character’ and not to take it personally. She was always Meryl in rehearsals — warm smile, nicknames, hugs, ‘what’s going on?’ But once she was Miranda, she didn’t care about those things, because Miranda didn’t care about those things.”

Although no kid at the time, Liev Schreiber (at age 37) played Streep’s son in “The Manchurian Candidate” remake. Fortunately, the political killing machine of a mom she essayed in that film could not be found offscreen, according to her co-star. “I was terrified most of the time, and she was my rock on that movie, which was a very masculine production that was fraught with scary energy,” he recalls. Between scenes, “we played crossword puzzles. Meryl just made it all seem like play. She’s definitely not the Method actor who wants to be called by her character’s name.”

Lindsay Lohan also found Streep “not very Method” on “A Prairie Home Companion.” “Meryl has an amazing ability to turn it off when they call ‘cut,’” Lohan recalls. Still, there was some replay offscreen of their onscreen mother/daughter relationship. “Meryl is a very maternal woman to begin with. She has daughters, so she knows what it’s like to have young girls around. She treated me as her own.”

At 58, Streep’s at an age as an actress where she plays mentors and moms, and if there’s any area that reflects that status it is in her improv techniques with the kids.

“The main thing I learned from her is she loves to improvise a little before a scene,” Greenberg says. “She will warm you up. With the camera rolling, we would just be talking, and she’d let go with those little character traits, and then we’d do the scene from there.”

“That’s exactly what she does. She leads you into it,” Lohan says of Streep’s method.

Improvisation also worked its way into “Prada,” but generally when the camera wasn’t on Streep. “Meryl would go off book to get my character where the character should be,” Hathaway says. “She could easily have gotten into her car and gone home when her performance was over. But off-camera Meryl was there trying to make me better. It was humbling that she cared so much about my performance.”

Ditto, says Lohan: “Offscreen, Meryl does what’s needed to bring out what’s necessary in a scene. I didn’t expect it from her to help me, but she did.”

For most actresses, their film careers as leading ladies are essentially over when they start to play somebody’s mom. But Streep, years ago, remarked that she looked forward to playing not only moms but grandmas. “As long as they are good grandmother roles,” she quickly added.

And no doubt she will make those roles good, if not great.

Schreiber pinpoints how Streep has made the transition: “She played demure sexuality, fragility and the paper-thin mask of a woman wounded in films like ‘Kramer vs. Kramer’ and ‘Sophie’s Choice.’ It was very sexy, and a lot of actors hang on to that thing that made them famous. But with Meryl, it has been different. She’s confident in what she can do; she’s not afraid to be ugly or old. She’s not afraid to grow.”

TIP SHEET

What: Film Society of Lincoln Center Annual Gala, honoring Meryl Streep

When: April 14, 7p.m.

Wh
ere:
Avery Fisher Hall, New York City

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