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Character building

With her casual display of craft and collegiality, Meryl Streep gives filmmaker Ben Younger a lesson in how to act -- and how to act.

October 23, 2005|Paul Lieberman | Times Staff Writer

New York — THIS is some of what went through Meryl Streep's mind as she prepared to play a shrink who discovers that one of her patients is dating her 23-year-old son: She would have to gain weight, because "the woman should be round and she should be motherly." She would have to wear nondescript clothes, because the therapist would "not care about labels." She would "be groomed well, but not pay too much attention each day to the outfit. The outfit is the last thing. She has to read the journals she has to get through."

She would care, however, about her jewelry, as "very specific compensation for getting older, not being able to get clothes that fit you and look nice anymore. So you wear a nice necklace, something that makes her cheerful in the mirror." Streep then pondered whether the necklaces she picked -- bulky, beady and artsy -- made sense for a therapist. "She should like to wear interesting jewelry so the patient has something to look at," Streep decided. "I know three shrinks who wear interesting jewelry, and I always thought, 'What's the idea behind it?' "

That led her to her daughter's old kindergarten teacher, who wore bright red lipstick when the natural look was in vogue. "She said, 'I always wear red lipstick because the children remember it years later.' They would draw pictures of her with a big red smile."

For The Record
Los Angeles Times Tuesday October 25, 2005 Home Edition Main News Part A Page 2 National Desk 1 inches; 36 words Type of Material: Correction
"A Prairie Home Companion" -- An article about Meryl Streep in Sunday's Calendar section called "A Prairie Home Companion" an NPR show. It is actually produced by Minnesota Public Radio and distributed by Public Media International.
For The Record
Los Angeles Times Sunday October 30, 2005 Home Edition Sunday Calendar Part E Page 2 Calendar Desk 1 inches; 34 words Type of Material: Correction
"A Prairie Home Companion" -- An article last Sunday about Meryl Streep called "A Prairie Home Companion" an NPR show. It is actually produced by Minnesota Public Radio and distributed by Public Media International.

Streep did all this thinking for a romantic comedy, "Prime," and she made other "character choices" too before shooting it, including picking a child's painting to hang on the woman's wall. But once the lights went on, she put her mind to rest, she said -- it was time then to "make a life," to become the Upper West Side therapist who encourages a 37-year-old WASP divorcee (played by Uma Thurman) to go for it with a sensitive man she's met until the facts dribble out that he's an artist and from Brooklyn and Jewish and much younger....

Then Streep's job is to react: to let her mouth droop, just not too much -- no mugging -- and to fiddle with those beads and do some business with a glass of water when this patient starts talking up her new beau's wonderful anatomy.

Streep sometimes advises other actors, when she dares tell them anything, "You're thinking too much." She says, "You just live there and you hear the news and you try to erase. You don't want any traces of the first sketch on your pad. You go back to Take 2. You've got to start at zero, blank. And it's a kind of exercise in being alive. In a moment. In the moment. To get back there."

And given that this is a comedy, she has to trust that "back there" will produce the immediate reward of such filmmaking, which is the laughter of the crew, even if it's suppressed, and then you hope the real audiences react the same way, just without the suppressing.

Streep, at 56, describes her role in moviemaking as "like the flea hitching a ride on the buffalo" or, to mix metaphors, "a little fish" or, more to the point, like the violinist who has to wait "until Beethoven writes something." She says she doesn't plot out her career, if she ever did. "I just can't do that. It's like planning, 'Now I'm going to have this kind of a child, then the next one will be a serious student, and the next one....' " She knows, after raising four children, "it doesn't work that way. You get what you get."

Not every film can be "Sophie's Choice" or "Angels in America," either, that's a given, but she's not one to sit home until Tony Kushner commits another act of genius.

"Actors have much lower aspirations," Streep says. "I think they want to keep working and have it be interesting and make a tiny communication to somebody, you know, make a connection. You look for a piece of material that will transport you in some way. But we're all human. I also like to hear people laugh." That's how she landed in the lap of one very fortunate Ben Younger.

An enviable debut

THE 32-year-old Brooklynite has the sort of bio that's the envy of any wannabe auteur. As a political science student at Queens College, he fell under the wing of a professor, Alan G. Hevesi, who served in the New York State Assembly, then was elected New York City comptroller and, more recently, state comptroller. Hevesi hired Younger as an aide, to write position papers, and by 20 he was running an Assembly campaign. But he quit to give film a try -- as a grip. He did that for almost four years while, naturally, he was writing a script, which became "Boiler Room," about Wall Street sales sharks; it was picked up by New Line and had Ben Affleck and Vin Diesel in it, and Younger got to direct it too. Not a bad debut in 2000.

But Younger said another script had been in the back of his mind, inspired by something that happened when he was 24. "I was dating a girl who was in therapy. And we were going down the elevator in her building and she was going to therapy, and I had this flash of an idea: What if she was going to see my mom?" recalled Younger, whose mother is a psychiatric social worker.

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