The sound heard from across the Atlantic when Meryl Streep was cast as Margaret Thatcher in the biopic “The Iron Lady” was the collective twisting of knickers.
In a nation overflowing with accomplished actresses, including dames Judi Dench and Helen Mirren, there were grumbles about casting an American actress — even one as esteemed as Streep — in a quintessential British role.
But director Phyllida Lloyd had experienced phenomenal box office success the last time she and Streep teamed for “Momma Mia!” and the helmer wanted to re-create that magic. Lloyd acknowledges she was tackling an already controversial subject that could be compounded by casting Streep.
“Those feelings only lasted about five minutes because I felt that Meryl’s stature was critical,” Lloyd says. “Margaret Thatcher was a charismatic iconic superstar on both the national and international stage and we needed Meryl to tackle her.”
Thatcher was an outsider to her own Conservative party, coming from a humble background to become the first and only female U.K. prime minister, and Lloyd saw similarities between the pol and the actress.
“Thatcher had to work harder, reach higher and be more prepared than anyone else, much the way Meryl had to work so hard to create Margaret Thatcher,” Lloyd says.
Tension on the first day of shooting in front of the faux British Parliament was palatable.
“Here were 350 British actors looking at her, saying ‘Come on darling, let’s see what you can do.’ It (re-created) some of the tension when Thatcher herself stood up to speak,” Lloyd recalls. “Actors on the set said, ‘Close your eyes. Thatcher’s in the room.’?”
Before that moment, Lloyd says no one on the set will soon forget when Streep first arrived in character as the now 86-year-old Thatcher.
“Jowls just dropped,” Lloyd says. “It goes beyond impersonation. It’s not an exterior character she’s developing; it’s a matter of empathy at the deepest level. Somehow, she closes the gap between herself and the character so there’s no a gap to be found.”