Meryl Streep loves to tell the story about how one learns to be king. It dates to her days at Yale Drama School, when the instructor asked the students how to portray a monarch. "And everybody said, 'Oh you are assertive,' and people would say, 'Oh you speak in a slightly deeper voice.' And the teacher said, 'Wrong. The way to be king is to have everybody in the room quiet when you come in.' The atmosphere changes. It's all up to everybody else to make you king. I thought that was really powerful information."
It's hard not to think of that story after one meets Streep, perhaps the reigning queen of American movies, who in the last several years has had an unexpected career renaissance -- at 59 -- playing women who make the DNA of those who encounter her flutter and mutate. It's a rare achievement. In modern Hollywood, only Robert De Niro and Clint Eastwood have had comparable return engagements with audience affection, and they're not actresses, who are routinely considered washed up at 40.
Now, after almost 30 years of being perennially more admired than beloved, the double Oscar winner has been defiantly connecting with the masses, first with her turn as the malevolent but unexpectedly vulnerable fashionatrix in "The Devil Wears Prada," and then as the single mother singing "Dancing Queen" in the ABBA musical "Mamma Mia!," which has so far raked in close to $600 million worldwide.
Her summer slot for 2009 has already been claimed by the much-buzzed-about "Julie & Julia," a Nora Ephron film that blends the tale of a young temp secretary's (Amy Adams) obsession with chef Julia Child (Streep) with the actual story of Child's years spent in Paris in the '40s and '50s. Streep thinks of her incarnation of Child as a homage to her own mother, who died in 2001 but was much like Child -- "these outsize women, for some reason, who have decided who they are early on, and they're fine with it, and that comfort with who they are makes everybody else comfortable and they're able to live an existence with their energy. It's energy and light. The room really lit up when she came in. And Julia had that. She really did."
The Hollywood circuit
It's hard to imagine that Streep doesn't also have this -- when she wants it, which is not always, given the rapacious attention paid to movie stars these days.
A recent afternoon found her squashed between round-table interviews and photo sessions for "Doubt," her new film premiering Dec. 12, about the 1964 mano a mano between a nun (Streep) and a popular priest (Philip Seymour Hoffman) she suspects of molesting a student, though there is no direct evidence.
Streep at first seems slightly daunted by the process of perma-sell that has descended on cinema, particularly Oscar-bait films like "Doubt," which require their actors to not only personally sell their wares to the public but to practically every guild and academy member in America. Still, she quickly rallies, drawing on reservoirs of compassion, intelligence, strategic self-deprecation and a certain insouciant giddiness.
She is dressed in jeans, an oversize olive shirt, with large wooden beads, which she fingers repeatedly when she's not brushing her blond wispy hair behind her ears. Large glasses perch on her nose but can't quite obscure her luminous complexion, the fine points of her famed cheekbones and the faintest of smile lines around her eyes. She does not appear to be in some death-knell battle against nature, gravity and food.
Mostly, Streep, who lives in Connecticut and New York, seems gleeful about her professional resurgence, which she says was completely unexpected, and she's not quite sure how it actually happened. "I don't make anything happen. I sit at home and wait for the phone to ring. Really," she says. "Why these opportunities are coming up has less to do with me than all the things I don't understand about how decisions are made here."
Still, she notes that three of the last four movies she has made (including her upcoming untitled Nancy Meyers film) were directed by women, and "The Devil Wears Prada" and "Mamma Mia!" were championed by women movie executives and women producers. President of production "Donna Langley was our champion at Universal for 'Mamma Mia!' Nobody wanted to make that," says Streep. "The smart guys banked on 'Hellboy' to carry them throughout the year. The 'Mamma Mia!' wagon is pulling all those movies that didn't have any problem getting made. Our budget would have fit in the props budget of 'Hellboy.' "
In the case of "Prada," the filmmakers had to convince Fox Co-Chairman Tom Rothman, whom Streep has known for at least 30 years; he was the adolescent younger brother of a friend of hers. She does a killer imitation of Rothman's nasally voice: "I . . . I . . . I . . . I don't get it. I'm going to say it right now: Go ahead, make the movie, but it's not my thing."