Meryl Mesmerizes the Masses
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Meryl Mesmerizes the Masses

Photo courtesy of the Royal Ontario Museum.

Hot off the heels of another summer hit movie and likely Oscar-worthy role in Julie & Julia, Meryl Streep visited Toronto for an informal conversation chat with Globe and Mail journalist Johanna Schneller in the Royal Ontario Museum at a special event entitled “An Evening with Meryl Streep.” The evening is part of the series The Question of Celebrity, a lineup of public programming surrounding the museum’s newest exhibition, “Vanity Fair Portraits: Photographs 1913-2008.”
For a fifty-dollar, ticketed event that was sold out well before the majority of the public knew it was happening, several hundred fans clustered in seats a tad too intimately for an opportunity to hear the Hollywood icon “discuss celebrity life.” Streep’s visit was an advantageous result of the acclaimed opening of the Royal Conservatory of Music’s Koerner Hall—Streep and celebrated Canadian architect Marianne McKenna are old Yale friends and Meryl came to Toronto to see her latest work. McKenna sits on the museum’s Institute for Contemporary Culture board, and the rest you can chalk up to just shrewd planning.

While the dialogue, led by Schneller (a prodigious fan of Meryl Streep), never broke new ground or plunged into untouched depths, the result was still a fascinating tête-à-tête, which felt like being part of a live taping of Inside the Actor’s Studio, complete with oodles of great blast-from-the-past clips. Meryl Streep was a guest on that show fifteen years ago, and for the majority of last night’s session, she provided musings about her legendary career in film. She was completely open, relaxed, clever, self-deprecating, funny, and yet very serious about her craft. Ms. Streep denied any interview requests, and photography was strictly prohibited (the above photo is the only one that was released courtesy of the ROM), but we did manage to capture some highlights of the evening.
On the wave of consistently unique and meaty roles that she’s starred in since 2001’s Adaptation:
I’m sort of like the girl at the dance that waits to be asked, and anything that’s around in any particular year, if it’s sort of well written and weird and appeals to me for some sort of personal, political, emotional, off-the-wall reason, I’ll do it. [But] now there are [also] more women in decision-making positions who are able to green-light movies.
On loosening up actors who may be intimidated by her:
Usually what happens is that I forget my lines five minutes into the rehearsal, or I flub it. Like, I say, “Can you hand me the grass—I mean the glass,” or something. They go, “well she screwed up,” and they relax. I don’t do it on purpose. I’m not really trying, but it does relax people, because acting is messy.
On what it means for her to be a “blank slate,” which is commonly interpreted as intense method acting:
The thing that really kills me about my mythology is that I deeply prepare. I do, sometimes, for certain things that need it, but really the thing you want as an actor is to not feel loaded up in preparation. You want to feel sort of empty when you walk on the set. There are some times when you just take off, and you just don’t know what’s coming and you don’t look down and you don’t care…it’s sort of the great Zen thing about acting, because it only exists in that moment and they capture it on film and it’s thrown out there. And it exists as you experienced it and people get to feel along with you.
On marketing and celebrity:
That stuff is very wearing, but it’s part of the deal. I get that. It’s a very crowded marketplace and people need to get these things out [but] I just have never been comfortable using [my family] as little props to make me interesting or darling or whatever I’m supposed to be, so I haven’t really publicized them or have their picture taken with them. My performance is for sale; my life is not.
On Botox, and losing vanity while playing a character:
[Botox] limits you. If you do that then you can’t play so many different great parts, and also parts of your face don’t move. For an actor, that’s not the greatest thing. It’s like an interruption in the energy. [Early in my career], I remember [wondering] if I should get my nose done, just a little. Just to turn it up. I remember sleeping on my face in the pillow; maybe I did…for maybe a year. But I think we have a distorted image of ourselves, as women, as girls. It’s still about how we look, after we’ve come through so much. And yet, when I do these films I can’t tell you, that [regarding the Julia Child character]…I’ve never had people come up and love a character so much, and she was a woman with a big caboose, and she was not beautiful, and it doesn’t matter, because you loved her.
On not winning the Academy Award since Sophie’s Choice in 1982 after thirteen additional nominations:
I’m really, really good at losing now. I got it down…at this point I can honestly say it doesn’t matter to me if I win, because I understand the machinations of the whole thing. It really is just the actor’s branch that nominates you so if you get nominated it means that they like you. Then [the nominations] go out to the general…whoever the other people are.
On Johanna’s revelation to Meryl Streep that P. Diddy finds Meryl really sexy and his favourite movie starring her is The Bridges of Madison County (unfortunately we also had to find out P. Diddy’s guaranteed turn-on is porn and that he has a bible at his bedside table):
You just took my breath away. I’m trying to process all of the images.

All in all it was an ethereal, insightful evening from a fascinating woman who had the crowd eating out of the palm of her hand. The clear highlight of the evening was during the audience question-and-answer period, when a young fifteen-year-old girl named Sarah Smith, who travelled all the way from Nova Scotia with her mother, was granted an opportunity to ask Streep a question. Smith, who wants to be a movie producer, used her platform to ask Meryl for a hug. Arriving on stage, Streep exclaimed, “I’m glad you’re going to be a producer, because I plan to keep working.” She then suggested that the girl go to business school.
And that one moment encapsulated the entire experience of the evening. This is a woman with a record-breaking fifteen Oscar nominations who is still active in a career that spans more than thirty years. With many highs and only a few lows (we’re counting She-Devil in this category), she is in her prime at sixty and has become one of Hollywood’s most powerful women. Meryl Streep is currently redefining what it means to be a leading lady, while encouraging the next generation of female artists to do the same.
“I used to think that there was no through-line of the people that I’ve played…and yet over the years I’ve realized I am definitely drawn to difficult women,” she explains to a young woman asking if there were any similarities in the roles she chose. “I’m drawn to them in life and I’m drawn to them in fiction because I think I resemble them. I like the frailty because it feels real. It feels like life to me.”