Meryl Streep Interview – DOUBT

     December 21, 2008





Written by Steve ‘Frosty’ Weintraub




Already playing in limited release and expanding on Christmas Day is John Patrick Shanley’s movie “Doubt”. The film stars Meryl Streep, Philip Seymour Hoffman, Amy Adams and Viola Davis and it’s based on his play with the same name. Here’s the synopsis:


It’s 1964, St. Nicholas in the Bronx. A vibrant, charismatic priest, Father Flynn (Philip Seymour Hoffman), is trying to upend the school’s strict customs, which have long been fiercely guarded by Sister Aloysius Beauvier (Meryl Streep), the iron-gloved Principal who believes in the power of fear and discipline. The winds of political change are sweeping through the country, and, indeed, the school has just accepted its first black student, Donald Miller. But when Sister James (Amy Adams), a hopeful innocent, shares with Sister Aloysius her suspicion that Father Flynn is paying too much personal attention to Donald, Sister Aloysius is galvanized to begin a crusade to both unearth the truth and expunge Flynn from the school. Now, without a shred of proof or evidence except her moral certainty, Sister Aloysius locks into a battle of wills with Father Flynn, a battle that threatens to tear apart the Church and school with devastating consequences.



As you might imagine with this cast, the acting is top notch across the board. In fact, it wouldn’t surprise me if a few of them get Oscar nods.



Anyway, I recently participated in roundtable interviews with most of the cast and the one below is with Meryl Streep. During our interview she talked about the super success of “Mamma Mia”, rehearsals, Oscar talk, the making of “Doubt”, and how she’s doing the new Nancy Meyer’s comedy with Alec Baldwin and Steve Martin.



In fact, she gave a pretty good description of the movie… “It’s a kind of a – it’s a comedy, but it has a little basis in something very real and a dilemma that people meet at a certain age. This is about a divorced couple. They have been divorced for ten years and they have three grown children in there 20s. The youngest is graduating from college. And he has moved on. He has gotten a young wife. And is embarking on his toddler marriage, new family and she hasn’t really had a boyfriend in a long time. And she just meets somebody interesting just before the graduation. She goes to the graduation, her ex-husband is there, they meet in the bar, they have a few drinks, they start dancing and he’s re-smitten. And it’s not clear if it is exacerbated by the presence of this other man in her life for the first time. And that’s what it’s about. And all the kids are very happy that everyone is together again, but it’s about ‘has the ship sailed at some point.’ When you have a big-shared history with somebody, but you have a big break, what do you retain from that? And is it possible to fall in love again. So, that’s what it’s about. It’s sweet. It’s cool.”


As always, you can either read the transcript below or listen to the audio by clicking here. Again, “Doubt” opens everywhere on Christmas Day.





Question: Are you surprised by the worldwide success of ‘Mamma Mia!’?



Meryl Streep: They were surprised over there in Universal City. I was not surprised.



Why were they surprised?



Meryl Streep: Why were they surprised? Exactly! Because they’re [whispers] all men! Not that there is anything wrong with it. It just puts certain blinders on, y’know what is going to be popular. Anyway. But it is very gratifying because it’s so hard to get enough financing. I mean the budget for that musical would have fit into the props budget for any ‘Matrix’ film or y’know ‘Hellboy.’ ‘Hellboy’! It so outdid ‘Hellboy’ at the box office. And you just can’t get them to understand this: it will pay you back. By the way, I am personally supporting Universal Pictures with that movie and all the other ‘Hellboy’ whatever else they put out this year. [Pause, rolls her eyes] ‘Wanted.’ (Laughs.)



Heard rumors they are trying to come up with a sequel for ‘Mamma Mia!’…



Meryl: Now! Now! Now!



Have you heard anything about that and what direction they might be going? And would you be interested?



Meryl: No. And of course. As long as they shoot it in the paleon then I’m right there.



It must be so satisfying to see a character in ‘Doubt’ who starts as one thing and ends as something completely different.



Meryl: Hmmm hmmm.



How do you track that journey?



Meryl: That’s the way we are. We make snap judgments about each other.



We are, but we don’t always see that in movie characters.



Meryl: No, no. And it’s great, because movie characters have become reductive, generally, and the more complicated and contradictory that they are, the more fun they are to play and to watch and to follow and to recognize as familiar, because we are complicated people. All of us. And we all have a lot going on and it’s very gratifying to contend with the complications of humanity and how mysterious the ways of men and women. And how, I mean it’s just so rich, this landscape of human beings and their conflict. I just think that’s great and I wish there were more opportunities. Usually it’s because you are adapting a play they say, ‘Oh, it’s just too talky, y’know? Just show me what are you doing.’ And there is something to that, the power of film. But there is also a power in this kind of paring away of everything except the encounter of human beings. It’s like Van Dyke. Just take everything away but the light and the faces and the hands. Everybody wearing black. It’s gorgeous.



Do you think about the other actors attached to a project? Or whether someone else might be better?



Meryl: In the initial stages when I am first considering doing something? Yeah. Definitely. And usually I’m wrong. (Laughs.) I make my suggestions and they go, ‘Yeah.’ (Laughs.) But I’ve been very – because I’m not a producer, I don’t get involved on that level. Y’know, I am surprised by the combination of elements in a film and it’s always really interesting. It’s always interesting. Everybody is interesting. Everybody has something unexpected to offer and the job of acting is to pull it out of each other.



Whatever you think of Sister Aloysius, one of the things that was interesting to me was the whole male/female thing going on was a time of change, but things started changing in the church around that time.



Meryl: Not that much.



But she was sort of a pioneer in terms of what she did. Maybe we can disagree with what she did, but she was taking on a system that traditionally…



Meryl: It’s like a military. It’s like jumping rank, going way up. You can’t do it.



Where did that come from? Where do you think it came from?



Meryl: Well, I heard John – this is – I love these Q&A’s where we all get together and everybody tells their secret. John Patrick Shanley said he’d always been very interested in women. He always felt like an outsider himself. He was born in this milieu – the alleyway, that you see at the beginning of the film is the alley he looked out as a little boy. He was an artistic soul. He felt different from others and he felt that…so he was interested in people who were outside the power structure. He was interested in women and the nuns and he loves women. So, he’s interested. That’s half the battle is seeing through the other person’s lens. And I was trying to explain to my daughters it’s 1964. In 1963, I graduated from 8th grade. In ’67 I graduated from High School and I was gonna go to college, but I would go to college with aim of meeting someone to get married to. And maybe have some little study something. The professions open to me, and I were smart, were teaching, nursing, hairdressing, show business. Not law school. Everybody read Sandra Day O’Connor. One person in a small class. It was a completely different world and it was not that long ago! To me. And now, my kid is applying to college this year and the enrollments in the California schools are 60/40 women to men. The whole thing has just changed and yet, not at the top. Not in the hierarchy of the church. You’ll never see a woman celebrate mass. There is no woman mullah. There is no woman Dali Lama. If for a day, they could put themselves in our shoes to know, it’s just different. So, that’s where Sister Aloysius sits as a career choice for smart, ambitious, self-directed person who has a vocation. Fells she wants to dedicate herself to making the world better. I met nuns who ran – I met one nun who is 96-years-old who ran the New York City school system in 1963. 70,000 kids in Brooklyn kids alone and she ran it. That’s like running a corporation. There wasn’t as woman anywhere in New Jersey where I was growing up running a business that size, but she had a gigantic responsibility and that was something, but she was still less. She was still subservient to her parish priest. And that’s an interesting power dynamic. I’m sure it feeds into whatever the antagonism is in this. How could it not?



Three-week rehearsal process on this film. Are you a big rehearsal person?



Meryl: I don’t have a ‘thing’ or a ‘way.’ Like everybody does it differently. Every director wants a different thing. Spike Jonze we’d just roll up to the set and he’d say, ‘O.K., let’s go.’ I liked that. That’s fun. That was on ‘Adaptation.’ But this was fun too and very valuable because we didn’t have a lot of time. It’s good to have rehearsal when they don’t give you money, because you need to condense the time. And each 10 minute scene, that big fight scene with Philip and I, we knew, just in terms of time we had three takes at it. Y’know? Or at least that’s what they told us. (Laughs.) I believed everything. Um, so, that was it was intense and good to have a really in depth rehearsal period. And that isn’t to say when we weren’t on the set stuff didn’t change. Stuff did change, because you get there and it’s real. It’s not taped on the floor. There’s the wall. Oh, you just walked through a wall. It wasn’t like that. It feels more…you’re surrounded by the actual world and the air is actually different and you walk in the church it’s just different, different. And having the kids around us, because we didn’t really rehearse with them. That raised the stakes in all of this.



Do you get tired of the Oscar talk? This movie has a lot of focus on you.



Meryl: Pffft. No, I don’t think is should be less. (Laughs.) You want me to say that, but no. I’m very gratified that people are responding to it. But I feel like it’s the whole thing in this one. It’s the whole thing. There isn’t one area of fat or indulgence or show-offy directorial flair. It’s just what the story needs. That’s all it is. And because it’s so tight, it just tightens as it goes. Beautifully plotted. And I am the recipient of praise for something John conceived. And we are all as good as that script.



When we are first introduced to your character she’s almost over-the-top comic. People are laughing in theater. Is it hard to turn that character into something real people sympathize with? Is that still hard at this point in your career?



Meryl: It’s tough, because this was a very specific thing at the beginning John wanted at the beginning. It was completely thought out, how he wanted it. He said, ‘You have to bend down and have your head like this and it has to turn like this and say, ‘Straighten up.’’ Y’know? So, I chafe against such intense direction. (Laughs.) ‘Oh, I gotta put my head down like this? And go like this?’ Oh, it drove me nuts. But his visual – he wanted to set an expectation and to make judgments about her very early on. He wanted to set that up and than complicate it. But he wanted it to be very uncomplicated in the beginning to make you trust your first instinct about who she is and what she is about. That was important to him.



In the scenes with the kids, did you do anything while the cameras weren’t rolling to stay in character to try and intimidate them at all?



Meryl: No, I didn’t need to do that. They were scared enough. I mean, the outfit, the whole thing. (Laughs.) No, they were great kids. Wonderful kids. Really interesting.



With the holidays coming up, do you know of any gifts you’re going to get?



Meryl: Um, no.



There are a lot of films prepping for next year, January through March. Do you know what you’re doing next?



Meryl: January through March, yes. I’m doing Nancy Meyer’s as yet untitled project with Alec Baldwin and Steve Martin.



Are you a fan of Alec’s work in ’30 Rock’?



Meryl: Yeah, I haven’t seen every episode, but I’m a fan.



What is your character like in Nancy’s movie?



Meryl: It’s a kind of a – it’s a comedy, but it has a little basis in something very real and a dilemma that people meet at a certain age. This is about a divorced couple. They have been divorced for ten years and they have three grown children in there 20s. The youngest is graduating from college. And he has moved on. He has gotten a young wife. And is embarking on his toddler marriage, new family and she hasn’t really had a boyfriend in a long time. And she just meets somebody interesting just before the graduation. She goes to the graduation, her ex-husband is there, they meet in the bar, they have a few drinks, they start dancing and he’s re-smitten. And it’s not clear if it is exacerbated by the presence of this other man in her life for the first time. And that’s what it’s about. And all the kids are very happy that everyone is together again, but it’s about ‘has the ship sailed at some point.’ When you have a big-shared history with somebody, but you have a big break, what do you retain from that? And is it possible to fall in love again. So, that’s what it’s about. It’s sweet. It’s cool.


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