Meryl Streep is an American treasure. For almost 40 years Streep has portrayed an astonishing array of characters in a career that I doubt will ever be matched by anyone in this century. She cut her own unique path from the theater through film and television. In 2011, in a record that is unsurpassed, she earned her seventeenth Academy Award nomination as Margaret Thatcher in the Iron Lady. In her latest incarnation she plays Violet Weston and we get an inside glimpse into her life.
August: Osage County tells the dark, hilarious and deeply touching story of the strong willed women of the Weston Family. The lives of all the family members have diverged until a family crisis brings them back together to the house in the Midwest they grew up in, and to the dysfunctional woman that raised them (Streep). The movie also includes Julia Roberts, Ewan McGregor, Chris Cooper, Sam Shepard, and the list goes on.
One of the movie’s gifted producers, Jean Doumanian, had previously taken the play to Broadway to win all kinds of awards and she ‘s achieved the same artistic integrity with adapting it to film. Here, I spoke with Meryl Streep about the film and more.
What do you look for in a character, like this very dark matriarchal figure?
Every character that I ever played is about 5’ 6” and weighs the same. I was trying to look thinner than I actually am. One of the most excruciating and funny scenes was the prayer. It reminded me of church. When I used to go to church, there was no laughter. The prayer is said by (actor) Chris Cooper and it’s played honestly, earnestly, beautifully given to the best of his ability as this character. You want your laughs coming from all these actors. First we went thru the play to see where the laughs were. You have a sense after reading the material of what’s going to buy you the attention. They want to kill themselves with the pain and their problems. So with making this movie, it’s like friends coming together after they have been with their family at thanksgiving and saying you are never going to believe what my mother said. You tell a story that was not funny but you were there. That’s how you transform your life if you can’t laugh about this stuff.
We know you prepare for these roles, we see it on the screen. This one’s a doozy! So what did you do with any challenges you faced?
John and I emailed a little in preparation. The hardest challenge was when we shot, figuring out where my character was in terms of pain and her pain relief as we shot out of sequence. Where she is on her pain pill cycle you know, in any given scene; I sort of had to map that. I had to remember as we were shooting out of order just so I knew what level of tension or attention to let my fellow actors have. As an actor I suppose you are supposed to go to the house of pain over and over again. On so many levels physically and mentally in this movie, Violet, my character, is either enraged or in pain. Drugged at any given time, to me that was amazing. The exploration of pain as an actor is not fun on so many levels and my character is spiritually and emotionally always in pain. Being drugged is the main thing this character goes through all the time. Humor is born out of pain. We all want to laugh. My character finds a mean underbelly in confrontation.
So the theme of this movie is really about people just experiencing different levels of pain?
The thing about this piece, we were all integral in making this thing work or not. Parts of the film are singled out with Chris’s character with his enormous humanity and passion and I just knew the audience would love him. I knew they would hate my character with equal measure. That is the story. It’s a balance of all these characters that you are aware of at any given scene and you keep turning your eyes just to follow each character. What you giveth you get. And what you get is what you giveth! There were some upsetting scenes I had with Sam Shepard who plays my husband. I had to explore seeing him close up with his loathing of my character. That was really hard. Hey, you get old, you look old and then you think about the person you are married to to see if there is still a spark of love from this marriage. But in this case her character looks at him and she’s knows he’d rather be dead. The way Sam was looking at me, that was real and that really set the tone for when my character has to deal with his death.
So anything else that stands out about filming this particular movie?
It’s a balance of all these characters and it worked when we were all together. We were lucky this worked the way it did. John Wells, the director, set up this movie so well. So take a look at the family. You don’t get to decide who’s in your family do you? I bring my point of view to it. It was during the election when it was really hard to have any real connection outside the set. We were all exchanging stories when we weren’t shooting. We ate alot, we watched TV, and followed the election and TV is weird out there where we shot.
What did you dislike having to do on this movie?
I had to smoke in this movie. It just made me feel sick, smoking non-stop, that makes you feel shitty. Being interviewed is always such an interesting process!
August: Osage County opens in theaters nationwide December 25, 2013, is directed by John Wells and stars Meryl Streep, Dermot Mulroney, and Julia Roberts.