“What does it take to be the first female anything,” Meryl Streep asked, clad in an American flag blouse on the stage of the Democratic National Convention in Philadelphia last month. “It takes grit and it takes grace.”
She went on to pay homage to female “path breakers” like Deborah Sampson, the first woman to take a bullet for the country, disguised as a man in George Washington’s Continental Army; Sally Ride, the first American woman in space; and of course Hillary Clinton, the first woman nominated president by a major American political party.
Streep tells Variety that just before walking out to address the delegates, she fretted about her speech, whether she had prepared the proper words, whether she was doing all of this “right.” But backstage with stars like Alicia Keys and Elizabeth Banks, watching a video put together by Banks and Oscar-winning producer Bruce Cohen (“American Beauty”) featuring celebrities singing Rachel Platten’s rally cry “Fight Song,” she finally got out of her own head.
“All of a sudden I wasn’t thinking about me, me, me, my speech,” Streep says. “The whole moment just overtook me. I thought about my grandmother, who wasn’t allowed to vote — had three kids and wasn’t deemed capable. I mean, the smartest person I know. The whole thing was overwhelming. And when I went out I just felt what I felt. I did my Howard Dean scream!”
So when she hears that Clint Eastwood, with whom she collaborated on the 1995 film “The Bridges of Madison County,” recently said he would vote for Donald Trump over Clinton — even considering Eastwood’s conservative politics, she’s caught off guard.
“I didn’t know that,” Streep says, visibly surprised, choosing her words carefully. “I’ll have to speak to him. I’ll have to correct that! I’m shocked. I really am. Because he’s more — I would have thought he would be more sensitive than that.”
Streep rode into the convention early on a wave of uplift that hadn’t yet been tainted by on-the-floor protesting from Bernie Sanders supporters, but that sort of fervor hasn’t been lost on her this election cycle, on either side of the equation.
“When you get a lot of people in a group, it can go good or it can go bad in a way that [overrides] each individual person,” she says. “The aggregate of everybody’s emotion, it’s such a powerful thing. You can see it in the Trump rallies, where people I just know, in their living rooms, would be better people, are driven to the worst possibilities by the bloodlust in a crowd. It just gets ginned up and they’re outside of themselves. They’re behaving as a larger unit, not just themselves.”
She was recently reminded of this concept of emotions in numbers at a recent screening of her latest film, “Florence Foster Jenkins,” albeit on the positive side of the spectrum. A delightful look at the eponymous socialite and amateur soprano who was infamous in the early 20th Century for her poor singing ability, the film — directed by Stephen Frears — is effortlessly charming. And you can feel that charm ripple through the audience when you see it.
It’s a quality that owes plenty to Streep’s performance as Jenkins, a passionate artist who just didn’t have the capacity to excel, but who nevertheless inspired with her efforts. Streep is constantly asked whether singing badly was freeing or if it added to the degree of difficulty, but she insists it’s the wrong question.
“The last thing a really good director says to you is, ‘Be more lovely,’ to ask for the result,” she says. “So the result here is, ‘Sing badly.’ But I never thought about that. I thought about singing it as best as I could. I learned the arias. But it’s sort of like tennis. When you really want to play well and play hard, you’re really nervous, but you play worse, because you’re trying too hard. Her desire is what made her run out of breath.
“And by the way,” she continues, “she had an F above High C, which I don’t have. I mean the highest I can get to is E-flat. Seriously, it is a stratospheric — [Maria] Callas had trouble with an F above High C at moments in her career.”
What makes Jenkins’ aspiration so heartbreaking for Streep is how close the singer was to actually being great. But she feels Jenkins was able to transcend the gawking class because of her endearing effort.
“It’s not how bad she was, it’s how good she almost was that makes it delicious,” Streep says. “If she was just bad, you couldn’t listen to half a phrase. It’s like when my kids would do shows. You’re not judging them by how good they are. You’re seeing their seriousness and their desire and their commitment to the moment. That’s what’s hilarious, but you cannot laugh. And that’s the secret, I think, of how she drew these audiences. My friend Emma — maybe just because she’s my friend — Thompson told me after, ‘Call me crazy, but I wanted more singing!'”
Streep could be poised to break her own record with a 20th Oscar nomination for her performance in the film. Three of those nominations she won, for “Kramer vs. Kramer,” “Sophie’s Choice” and “The Iron Lady” — second only to Katharine Hepburn for the most Academy Awards among actors. Over the course of a 40-year career, she’s seemingly done it all. But is there anything she hasn’t accomplished yet that she’d like to?
“I don’t know,” she says instantly. “Because it’s like, how many women are there in the world? How many interesting stories are there? I don’t have a production company and I don’t go searching for material. I’m really interested in the collaborative thing. It’s what makes it scary, because you never know what it’s going to end up like. But you hope. You put yourself in the hands of the best people you can find and you’re completely dependent on the kindness of strangers and their commitment. It’s like this mutual delusion. It’s like Florence Foster Jenkins! You’re just holding this dream aloft.”
For now, though, the bigger dream for Streep is seeing through the history-making moment of electing a woman to the country’s highest office.
“We have a lot of work to do,” she says, before admitting that — despite the Clint Eastwoods out there — she expects a deep pragmatist streak in the American populace to push Clinton to victory with room to spare.
“If you’re an actor and all you do, all you’re interested in, are people and their contradictions and their possibilities, good and bad, you can feel what they say about appealing to the angels of our better nature,” she says. “I think there is a reckoning. People will go — or their wives will go — ‘You know what? This is crazy. It’s too tricky. We’re not going to gamble with our children’s future.'”