Set in the time frame of the 2005 London train bombings, The Iron Lady tells a story about Margaret Thatcher from the view point of the Prime Minister in her elderly life, as she grapples with a fading memory of her family life and political career. The interplay between Margaret Thatcher and her husband Dennis (played by Jim Broadbent), gives the film a levity that balances the intensity of some of the political scenes. British actors Alexandra Roach and Harry Lloyd portray the younger versions of Margaret and Dennis, acting out a delightful courtship of a marriage that evolved out of shared values and a seriousness of purpose.
At the film’s press conference in New York, director Phyllida Lloyd, writer Abi Morgan, young Dennis actor Harry Lloyd, and the star herself Meryl Streep gave an interview to a room full of journalists. The group discussed how both the script and the rehearsal process reflected theatrical roots, the experience of depicting a person who is still living, and lots more. Streep is particularly candid, and offers a thoughtful response to those who have criticized the film. Hit the jump for the entire press conference.
I understand you spent about four or five hours a day for the makeup of Margaret Thatcher?
MERYL STREEP: No, no (laughs). We got it under two.
I wondered if you ever worried, though, with a character who is in so much makeup like that, if it will obscure your performance or conversely, be the performance?
STREEP: Interestingly in the process of developing the older Margaret, we ended up taking away, taking away, taking away…There were certain elements that the genius prosthetics designer Mark Coulier was able to achieve. He just, he created something that was tissue thin, so I felt very free. I felt like I was looking at a member of my family, if not me, and so it actually made acting easier.
This is a question for all of you: How did your background in theatre enhance your experience in this particular film?
PHYLLIDA LLOYD: We thought of the film as something of a “King Lear”, a Shakespearean story, not a political story. Also we spoke to a number of Margaret Thatcher’s close associates who described her, her story, in Shakespearean operatic terms. I’d worked in opera a lot and this did have some of the elements of a tragic opera, so yes it [my theatre background] was rather critical.
ABI MORGAN: I think the use of Dennis in a way like the Fool in Lear was obviously a theatrical device. I think the great thing about theatre, and if you start in theatre, is that it does build a confidence in poetic themes and ideas, so I suppose that was a very good starting point for the script for me, to thinking in a poetic way and allow that to affect the structure and the tone of the film.
STREEP: I think for me, to imagine myself in different ways comes from my beginnings in the theatre. People are more accepting when you go ‘apparently’, ‘wildly’ afield from who you are or where you were brought up. Otherwise, I would always play people from New Jersey, which…limits the career. So, yes, I felt like I had freedom to try to step in to these very small…tight….big shoes.
HARRY LLOYD: I think it really helped when we were putting it together, the way we rehearsed it was very much like a play. We had all the scenes and every scene we went through over at Pinewoods [studio], and Phyllida kept it very loose, as you do early on at rehearsals—you don’t try to pin it down, knowing you’ve got a long way to go. Often in films you’ve got to rehearse it within five minutes because you’ve got to shoot it. And we gave ourselves the time to play with it and so it was all very collaborative, and I think background theatre helps you work that way.
STREEP: (Laughs). Well, I got an inkling, I have an inkling of the size of the day that she fulfilled. I looked at her daily calendar and I tried to imagine that. You know I’m a mother and I worked in spurts throughout my career, so I’d work for four or five months and then not. So I was home a lot. And I tried to imagine eleven and a half years of this—you know she was unhappy if there were ten minutes of free time in her day. That was wasted—wasted time. And so I imagined trying to be in the lives of your children to the degree that I tried to be in their lives and I think it would have been very difficult.
Meryl, you said you admired the fact that Margaret Thatcher knew how to lead and was unafraid to lead, yet that seems to be so hard for more women than men in politics. Can you comment on that?
STREEP: Well, I’m in awe of all the things that were a raid against her succeeding— to get to the top of her party, and then to lead the country, and to be longest serving prime minister in the 20th century. The array of obstacles that stood before her in England at the time were enormous, and I think she did a service for our team by getting there. Even if you might not agree with the politics (laughs). Just the fact of her determination, her stamina, her courage, to take it on. I think anybody willing to be a leader—prepared as she was and smart as she was—is admirable on a certain level because you really sacrifice a great deal. All of our public figures do.
For Harry and Meryl, obviously you didn’t interact with your older or younger parts on the screen. Did you have interaction behind the scenes discussing your characters, and Phyllida could you describe how you directed them with their old and young counterparts?
H. LLOYD: Well we had a lovely few days rehearsing, and there was a lovely day which I found really helpful, when we had to take lots and lots of photos to [set] dress the house, so we had to pretend to get married and to be on honeymoon. So there was a day where me and Jim [Broadbent], Meryl and Alex [Alexandra Roach] were all wearing different costumes, and just for little moments, capturing little moments. And seeing Jim in character for the first time and recognizing things that I had seen in Dennis, and that he had picked up on [as well], it was very different than just talking to someone about how they’re going to do it—which are always pretty fatuous conversations because actors don’t normally even know what they’re doing (laughs)—to able to observe it and see some common ground in what we had and what was different about it, that was the most useful day in terms of me and Jim.
STREEP: For me, to see Harry and Alex—on that same day you danced through the dining room while Jim and I were dancing—I was completely overcome. I just broke down (laughs). Because it was like actually seeing your life flash before your eyes. I mean, I had been so immersed in my age and debility and then to see this glorious couple come through and free… and that music! Phyllida played it right through and they did the whole thing. You only see a flash of it in the picture. It did anchor something emotional for me that was important, very important. And then of course when I saw the movie I completely fell in love with Harry Lloyd, and could see why she did too (laughs)!
P. LLOYD: Yes, it was an interesting process choosing someone to play the young Margaret Thatcher, and if any of you were there [at the premiere] last night, you saw Alexandra [Roach] looks nothing like Meryl whatsoever. We gravitated towards her because she had a very particular spirit—a kind of seriousness of purpose. She was just on another level. We did a lot of early prosthetics tests to try to build the old lady and to work on the hair and makeup and costume for Margaret the Prime Minister. And we had the two ladies [Meryl and Alexandra] sitting next to each other and it was very uncomplicated. We didn’t do much psychologizing. Alex watched Meryl a lot and it was just sort of about being in the presence of each other which seemed to communicate.
My question for Meryl is, what do you think was the turning point for Margaret Thatcher in terms of her decision to lead a life of a politician, and what was the turning point for you to decide to pursue acting?
STREEP: Well, I’m sure that Margaret Thatcher was forged within her family, in a family of two girls at a time when sons were favored, and a man that had no sons had no ambition really—no place to put his ambition really. Her father was the mayor of Grantham [England], very engaged politically, but also he was a Lay Methodist minister, and he preached and he liked to be up front speaking. And he discovered of his two daughters that he had one who was uncommonly bright, and uncommonly curious, and maybe… ‘this could be his boy’. That’s what I think. But I could be completely wrong. But I think that in that time, it was a disappointment to have a family with two girls, and it remains that way in many parts of the world. So, we can understand this. It’s not that alien a landscape… Although…I can’t imagine it! Yes, I think she fulfilled a promise and she was uncommonly curious, had a prodigious appetite for learning and for doing things right. And he [her father] infused in her the courage to get up and out, I suppose. Not only was she the first female Prime Minister, but she’s also the first chemist to be elected prime minister. She took her degree at Oxford in chemistry, and then took the law boards. Yes, I think she had a lot of promise and she wanted to live up to it.
What was the turning point for you when you decided?
STREEP: For me, I never really decided (laughs). I’m still….ambivelent (laughs). But no, being an actor lets me be a million different things, so I don’t have to decide.
What kind of research did you do?
STREEP: I did observe lots of newsreel, footage of her, and the biggest challenge for me was just accomplishing the long lines of thought that she would launch into without taking a breath. Even with all the drama school I’ve had, I had a lot of trouble managing that, matching to it. And that has something to do with who she was as a person, just the galvanizing energy, the drive, the capacity to follow through with a conviction all the way to the end of your breath until you can’t go any further—and NOT to let anybody interrupt (laughs). It was masterful the way that she could manage these interviews…I’m taking notes on that.
MORGAN: I think when you write about a political leader, obviously she was surrounded by great correspondents, journalists, ministers. But I wanted the [recorded material of her life] not to plague me or paralyze me, because ultimately I think it’s a creative process, and so you’re trying to almost feel the imprint of her life rather than actually mirror it. So a lot of the time I’d be reading and reading and then I’d just put it down, and see what settled, see which of the events resonated and stayed with me.
LLOYD: I mean the movie is a combination of very, very heavily politically fact-checked [events] by people who were present in some of those scenes that we showed in the political world, and then the work of pure imagination on Abi’s part. So it’s two very distinctive worlds.
How do you play a character who is still alive who might one day see the film, as opposed to playing Julia Child? Is it a different approach?
STREEP: Yes. I did not meet her. I did see her once at my daughter’s university at Northwestern. We went to see her lecture. That made an indelible impression on me, in about 2001, 2002 I can’t remember. But the question as to the special responsibility to playing someone who lives and potentially could see this, we have come under criticism for portraying a person who is frail, and in delicate health. Some people have said, you know, it’s ‘shameful’ to portray this part of a life. But the corollary thought to that is: if you think that debility, delicacy, dementia is 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—those images—then yes. If you think then that it’s a shameful thing. But I don’t think that. I mean I have had experience with people with dementia. I understand it, and I think it’s natural. We are naturally interested in our leaders and we tell stories about ourselves through the stories of ‘important people’. I mean, going back to Lear, and deciding questions of existence through Hamlet. We’re not talking about Hamlet’s politics or whether Lear was a good leader. We’re talking about the loss of power, because it’s interesting.
P. LLOYD: I think it’s always easier the second time to work together. In fact, you should start with the second time (laughs).
STREEP: What do you mean?! (Laughs). I loved working with her the first time, but yes, we had a short-hand and we had to, because we had fourteen million dollars to shoot a movie that takes place over the course of six decades, right? Something like that. That’s basically no money. Less than a tenth of what Hugo cost. So ten movies of the scale of Margaret Thatcher.
P. LLOYD: So you can’t spend time missing the point with each other.
STREEP: We did discuss things on the run. All of us understood, through a process of about a year before we began shooting, what we were wanting from this piece. That it was going to be not a docu-drama, not a chronicling of Margaret Thatcher’s political life, that it would be a very particular look-back through her own eyes, at selected memories—not in chronological order, in a jumble of memory, regret, glory days—that it would all be a part of a reckoning at the end, and so we had many discussions before we got on to the game field. And once we got on, we just went .
For Harry and Meryl, as actors, when you play a character like Margaret Thatcher, like Dennis, obviously people know they’re in the public record—they have a memory of them. Do you prefer playing real people or fictional characters where you can do more interpretation of that character?
H. LLOYD: It was my first time playing someone on screen who existed—not only existed, but existed within living memory of the people who might be watching it. So to begin with, that was absolutely terrifying because I thought “I’ve got the wrong shaped mouth, that thing he does! I can’t do it, it’s wrong.” And I’m trying to work out how Jim [Broadbent]’s doing it, so I felt I had lots of hoops to jump through. And as Abi was saying before, you have to take it all and then wait for some of the stuff to stay and then throw the rest all away. And what was great about playing him at the age I played him, I didn’t have to play the Dennis that people you see from the ITN news. I saw the Dennis and was interested in the Dennis people weren’t familiar with, and who there was no footage of. So I sort of felt I had the best of both worlds. I had a little bit more freedom than these guys did.
STREEP: Well, since in a good forty percent of the film I’m playing a Margaret Thatcher no one has seen or knows, and we can’t know—it’s an imagined journey that we were taking—I felt a lot of freedom. I did. I felt completely free, and that’s a testament to the director, and the strength of that vision—that we were taking three days in the life of an old lady, and using the turbulence of those days…the moving out of her husband’s things as a trigger to a lot of memories—disorientation and a feeling of being thrust back and forth between the past and the present.
The Iron Lady opens this weekend