Berlin: Meryl Streep Talks Working With Clint Eastwood, Female Directors and Vanity

Meryl Streep at the Berlin Film
Peter Himsel for the Berlin Film Festival

Berlinale jury president Meryl Streep took time in between watching competition films to chat about her long career on Sunday as part of a Berlinale Talents event series.

In a casual and oftentimes humorous conversation with film historian and writer Peter Cowie, Streep spoke about working with leading directors, selecting parts, her ear for languages and the changing role of women in the film business.

Asked about working with Clint Eastwood in “The Bridges of Madison County,” Streep quipped that director Mike Nichols used to drill her about other directors she had worked with. “I’d say, ‘That’s like asking about the other boyfriends. Does he do it better than I do?’ They are all different.”

About Eastwood, Streep said, “He never says action. As director, I would sort of have to divine when he was starting to act. He would stroll from behind the camera into the kitchen and he would say, ‘OK.’ At first I didn’t know what ‘OK’ meant, but then I figured it out that it meant, ‘OK, start acting.’ He was seamless. He doesn’t play a wide range of characters — he looks like Clint Eastwood, he talks like Clint Eastwood — but he was fully committed as an actor. And then he’s so self denigrating about his own ability as an actor.”

Discussing her work with Nichols, with whom Streep made “Silkwood,” “Heartburn,” “Postcards from the Edge” and the TV series “Angels in America,” the actress said, “He was certainly one of the most important figures in my life, just as a friend.”

She added that she had worked with “so many wonderful directors, Sydney Pollack, Alan Pakula, Karel Reisz, people that are gone now. They have a special memory because I’ll never work with them again, so I feel something special there.”

Streep said she loves working with British director Phyllida Lloyd, with whom she made 2008’s “Mamma Mia” and 2011’s “The Iron Lady.” In working with Lloyd on those two pictures, Streep said she witnessed a change with regard to women working in the business.

On “Mamma Mia,” most of the crew was male and as British crews tend to call directors “governor,” they were initially unsure what to call Lloyd, Streep recalled. The next time around, however, women made up about half of the crew on “The Iron Lady.” “Behind the camera, gaffers, sound technicians were women. That was a big difference and I appreciated the changes that [Lloyd] put into play. That’s how the industry changes.”

Explaining her sweeping and eclectic range of work, the actress admitted that following her early career, she never expected to receive significant work after the age of 40.

“I always felt that my career was over starting at 38 years of age. I’m 66 now. Every year after that, I’d always say, I’d better take this because, you know. … In those days I had no reason to imagine that I would have a career past 40. You could work up to 40 and then you’d start playing hags and witches. It’s one of the reasons I didn’t play a witch until ‘Into the Woods’ — and I had been offered many. It was that trough that women fell into.” She pointed out that Bette Davis was around 40 when she made “All About Eve,” a film about the end of her career.

Streep garnered loud applause from the audience, mostly film professionals participating in the Berlinale Talents program, when she discussed her own appearance: “You can’t have a long career and play a lot of different characters, all at different ages, and maintain your magazine cover vanity, you just can’t. And it’s useless. And it’s stupid. It’s unartistic. And who cares?”