She already netted yet another Golden Globe nod for her latest flick August: Osage County, based on Tracy Letts’ Tony-winning play, in which Streep plays a drug-addled matriarch who communes with her estranged loved ones following a death in the family. Surrounding her is a cast of A-list costars like Julia Roberts, Ewan McGregor, and Benedict Cumberbatch, but she manages to outshine them all, natch.
Queen Streep graced us with her presence and divulged a few details on her groundbreaking role — and, to tell us how she manages to find the humor amongst the tears.
Your character is kind of awful. What made you want to play her?
"John [Wells, the director] and I emailed a little bit in preparation for this and I would say one of the things that really interested me was where she was at any given point in the cycle of pain and pain relief — where she was on her painkiller cycle in any given scene. And, since we were shooting out of order, I sort of had to map that in a way, just so I’d know what level of attention or inattention I could bring to my fellow actors.
I think, as an actor, you’re supposed to want to go into the house of pain over and over and over again, but really, it’s not something that’s fun. And, I resisted doing the part initially, because of that. I just thought, ugh! Because, on so many levels — physically, mentally, spiritually, emotionally — Violet is enraged and/or in pain or drugged."
But, you did get to work with such outstanding costars.
"The thing about this piece is, and I wish Ewan and Benedict were here, because we were all absolutely integral to this thing working or not. Parts are singled out. Chris’ character, I felt, was someone he would — and did — imbue with his enormous humanity and compassion. And, I knew the audience would love him. And, I knew the audience would hate me in equal measure. It’s a balance. It’s a balance of all these characters that you’re aware of as you’re watching the play, you turn your eyes from one to the other, but it’s all effective.
Each other person — what you give, you get; what you get, you give. And, it only works if you’re together and we were so together. Julia — we have a speech where she’s got my back. I always, always felt like that, because she made me feel that way. So, I feel like we were very lucky to have each other in making this thing."
I know you’re a great admirer of Sam Shepard, who you get to work with here.
"One of the most upsetting scenes that we shot was really early on, and it was with Sam Shepard, a writer I really have always admired, and I've also admired him as an actor. To look at him close up and see his loathing of me, that was really hard because you get old. You look old. You’re old. And, you still think that maybe there’s a spark of love from this person who’s gone through everything. To look into his eyes and realize he’d rather be dead than looking at me. Oh, that was brutal. That sort of set the tone for my own dealing with his death and everything else afterwards."
The play had a lot of laughs, but most of them didn’t seem to make it to the movie.
"I was just trying to look sicker and thinner than I actually am. To me, one of the most excruciating funny pieces in this is the prayer, which is honestly, beautifully, and earnestly given to the best of his ability. And, it reminded me of church (when I used to go to church). Yeah, but you do want your laughs. And, every single one of these actors came to the reading with a copy of the original play in their back pocket, with their laughs, that had been cut. I spoke to the writers privately about things that I really didn’t want to lose. So, you have a sense of what’s going to get you the attention of people.
Otherwise, they’re going to want to kill themselves along with this family. It’s like you come together with your friends and you say, 'I had Thanksgiving, I have to tell you what my mother said. Oh, I can’t believe it!' And, you tell this story that was not funny when you were there, but in the telling, it’s fabulous. That’s how you transform your life, because if you can’t laugh, it’s hell."