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Adam McKay on His Stalker-y Meeting With Meryl Streep for ‘Don’t Look Up,’ and the Film’s Pre-COVID Prescience

Variety's Awards Circuit Podcast: Adam McKay marvels at how spot-on "Don't Look Up," written before the pandemic, really was.

5777909 11.02.2019 American director, screenwriter and producer Adam McKay smiles during a news conference for the film "Vice" during the 69th Berlinale International Film Festival, in Berlin, Germany. Ekaterina Chesnokova / Sputnik  via AP
Sputnik via AP

The first time Adam McKay met Meryl Streep to discuss “Don’t Look Up,” he was momentarily intimidated. But Streep quickly put him at ease — until McKay’s phone rang, and his ringtone was the theme from “The Deer Hunter.”

“It’s a stunning piece of music!” McKay says with a laugh, saying he was just looking for something beautiful for his phone. “But in that moment, I looked like the most sweaty, stalkerish fan ever.”

McKay details his meeting with Streep and putting together the cast of “Don’t Look Up” in this week’s Variety’s Awards Circuit podcast, listen below!

Streep is just one of the major stars in McKay’s latest film, which chronicles two low-level astronomers (played by Leonardo DiCaprio and Jennifer Lawrence) who try to warm the world of an incoming comet that will destroy Earth. They are met with obstruction from the President of the United States (Streep) and a greedy tech guru (Mark Rylance), indifference from the media (namely hosts played by Tyler Perry and Cate Blachett) and skepticism from the public. It’s a film that could not be timelier and yet manages to wrangle huge laughs from the darkest of timelines.

Even from his early days on “Saturday Night Live,” McKay has been using humor to tackle serious issues – one of his favorite early sketches was a fake commercial for “Old Glory,” a company providing insurance for the elderly against robots. At the time it aired in 1995, “SNL” it was unique for using a real celebrity (in this case, a warm and serious Sam Waterston) and playing it somewhat straight – so much so that it passes as a real commercial until the robots appear. (And even then, you can be forgiven for thinking it’s still real.)

That same year, McKay scripted one of his all-time favorite moments, “The Hulk Hogan Talk Show,” which opens with a loud, in-your-face theme song before cutting to a guest host (played by Will Ferrell) who tries to take the show in a more serious direction by interviewing a hostage survivor (played by host Anthony Edwards.) His tragic story is continually interrupted by wrestling segments and trivia, showing the dichotomy between what people should be learning about and what they want to see. “‘SNL’ is great for that,” McKay says. “Lorne wants the sketches to have a little bit of bite, to be calling stuff out while at the same time, hopefully, being funny.”

McKay’s last two films, “The Big Short” and “Vice,” also utilize humor to tell serious stories. But McKay says he’s not trying to use comedy as “camouflage”: “I’m a big believer that these subjects actually aren’t really medicine … these are really fascinating subjects that I think we’re told that they’re boring,” he says. “I think they’re sort of presented to us as like, ‘Don’t worry about the stock market. It’s a bunch of boring numbers.’ And then meanwhile, every third person loses their house. So I really believe this stuff is exciting. I really believe that the times that we’re living through right now, are both terrifying and really funny and absurd, and farcical.”

McKay also details the best note he ever got from a test screening – for his first film “Anchorman” – which he credits with helping make the movie a hit. And he talks about putting together the amazing cast of “Don’t Look Up,” which was actually written pre-pandemic and continues to prove more prescient every day.

Variety’s Awards Circuit podcast is hosted by Clayton Davis, Michael Schneider, Jazz Tangcay and Jenelle Riley and is your one-stop listen for lively conversations about the best in movies. Michael Schneider is the producer and Drew Griffith edits. Each week, “Awards Circuit” features interviews with top talent and creatives; discussions and debates about awards races and industry headlines; and much, much more. Subscribe via Apple Podcasts, Stitcher, Spotify or anywhere you download podcasts. New episodes post every week.