Meryl Streep talks being a gay icon

Actress on 'Iron Lady,' working with lesbian director and Margaret Thatcher's politics

By Chris Azzopardi

Nothing can stand in the way of the almighty Meryl Streep - except on this particular afternoon. At a New York City hotel, in front of a room full of journalists from mainstream press, she braces herself for what could be the ultimate career challenge. The mission? Answer a "gay" question.

With mock surprise, Streep dramatically throws her arms up and whips back in her chair, pretending it's something she - Oscar winner, recent Kennedy Center honoree, the "devil" herself - isn't sure she can pull off.

"OK," she says, sarcastically, "let me get ready. All right, go."

And so we do, citing mentions of the fierce Margaret Thatcher, whom Streep doesn't just play but becomes in "The Iron Lady," as a gay icon. So, is she?

Streep deliberates, working out the answer in her head before she lets go of it: "You know, I... I don't know. I just recently found out that I am a gay icon. It's flattering, of course," she says, noting the all-male tribute "Streep Tease" in West Hollywood (of which she says, "I haven't gotten the nerve to go"). "But I think (Margaret) stirs very strong feelings even today, 20 years after leaving power. And she remains divisive. The film will enter a landscape of a world where she continues to cause controversy. I can't answer the question about whether she's a gay icon. That's a difficult one for me."

Look at that: something Meryl Streep can't do. The recent Golden Globe winner for Best Actress in a Drama, for "Iron Lady," is supposed to be the Queen of Can, the thespian superwoman who can effortlessly slip into character: head-turner in "Death Becomes Her," doubtful nun, Julia Child (she's so remarkable, in fact, that she can work those chameleon skills within just one movie, as she did with 2003's "Angels in America").

She's such a persona-transcendent pro that when she's sitting right in front of you, you're asking yourself: Is that really Meryl Streep? At this point, even Meryl Streep doesn't look like Meryl Streep. Heck, after being so outside herself, does Meryl Streep even know Meryl Streep?

She's the rare actress who never plays herself in a movie. "Iron Lady," then, is a made-for-Meryl movie, from the prosthetics that afford an uncanny transformation into Britain's first female prime minister to the heart that she finds among all that, well, iron.

"The biggest challenge for me was accomplishing the long lines of thought that she would launch into without taking a breath," Streep recalls. "Even with all the drama school that I've had, I had a lot of trouble managing that. Just the galvanizing energy and the drive and the capacity to follow through with a conviction all the way through to the end of your breath until you can't go any further," she says, breathlessly in character, "and not to let anybody interrupt!

"It was masterful the way she could manage these interviews." She lets out a hearty laugh. "I'm taking notes on that."

Thatcher was a strident figure of polarizing effect, a loved-and-hated political icon admired not necessarily for her ideas but for the way she was able to execute them - in the face of class and gender prejudice.

"The array of obstacles that stood before her in England at that time were enormous," Streep notes, "and I think she did a service for our team (women) by getting there - even though you might not agree with the politics. Her determination, her stamina, her courage to take it on. Anybody that stands up and is willing to be a leader, who is as prepared as she was and as smart as she was, is admirable on a certain level, because you really sacrifice a great deal. All of our public figures do."

The film spans three days in Thatcher's post prime, well into her 80s, after dementia wipes out her memories and she tries to capture whichever ones she has left. For as political-minded as she was, the film isn't very political at all. And it wasn't meant to be.

"All of us understood what we were wanting from this piece," Streep says. "It was not going to be chronicling Margaret Thatcher's political life; it would be a particular look back through her own eyes at selected memories - not in chronological order, but in a jumble of memory, regret, glory days. It would all be a part of a reckoning."

The film is facing intense scrutiny for breezing past the political turmoil that Thatcher stirred and, instead, focusing on her personal life. "We have come under criticism for portraying someone who is frail and in delicate health," Streep admits. "Some people have said it's shameful to portray this part of a life, but if you think that debility, delicacy and dementia are shameful, if you think that the ebbing end of life is something that should be shut away - if you think that people need to be defended from that, from those images - then yes, it is a shameful thing. But I don't think that. We are naturally interested in our leaders, and we tell stories about ourselves through the stories of important people."

Out director Phyllida Lloyd elaborates: "We thought of the film as something of a 'King Lear' for girls, a Shakespearean story - not a political story. So, in that sense, we spoke to a number of Margaret Thatcher's closest associates, who described her story in Shakespearean and operatic terms. I'd worked in opera a lot and to me, this did have some of the elements of a tragic opera. The movie is a combination of the political world and pure imagination. It's two very distinctive worlds."

This isn't the first time Streep and Lloyd have bridged two worlds. 2008's "Mamma Mia!" united the actress' singing and dancing, with Lloyd directing.

"I think it's always easier the second time working together," the filmmaker admits. "In fact, you should start with the second time."

Looking at her, pretending to be offended, Streep laughs: "What do you mean?"

"I loved working with her... the first time," the actress razzes. "We had shorthand (on 'Iron Lady'), and we had to - because we had $14 million to shoot a movie that takes place over the course of six decades. And that's basically no money. That's less than a 10th of what 'Hugo' cost."

She hands it to Lloyd for strongly conveying her vision prior to shooting, which allowed Streep a sense of security in knowing just how to find Thatcher's mind, body and spirit.

"I'm playing a Margaret Thatcher no one has seen or really knows, and we can't know - it's an imagined journey that we were taking - so I felt a lot of freedom. I did," Streep says. "I felt completely free, and that's a testament to the director."

But it wasn't all Lloyd. Though she's never met Margaret Thatcher, Streep wore the prime minister's many hats, learning that the woman wasn't a slacker and that her father saw Thatcher as the man of the house. "He discovered, of his two daughters, one was uncommonly bright and uncommonly curious, and maybe this could be his boy," she says. "That's what I think. She fulfills a promise, and he infused in her the courage to get up and out. She had a lot of promise, and she wanted to live up to it."

When did Streep realize the same for herself?

"I never really decided. I'm still ambivalent." She laughs at the notion. "But no, being an actor lets me be a million different things, so I don't have to decide."

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