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Meryl Streep walks in Margaret Thatcher's shoes

The actress and her 'Iron Lady' director, Phyllida Lloyd, dish on the former British prime minister and women's roles in politics and filmmaking.

December 25, 2011|By Rebecca Keegan, Los Angeles Times
  • Director Phyllida Lloyd, left, and actress Meryl Streep at the Waldorf Astoria hotel in New York City.
Director Phyllida Lloyd, left, and actress Meryl Streep at the Waldorf… (Jay L. Clendenin, Los Angeles…)

Reporting from New York — — Meryl Streep shuffles down a London street wearing a kerchief, a drab beige overcoat and enough prosthetic wrinkles to pass as an octogenarian in the opening scene of her new movie about former British Prime Minister Margaret Thatcher, "The Iron Lady." For Streep, shooting the sequence provided a jarring taste of a specific kind of invisibility.

"There is no more dismissible figure on the street than an old woman," Streep said over a mid-December lunch with her "Iron Lady" director, Phyllida Lloyd, in a cavernous suite at New York's Waldorf-Astoria hotel. "I would search for people's eyes, and I would look people full in the face, and they would assiduously avert their gaze. It was really interesting. You represent everything that is terrifying."

At 62, Streep is as visible as she's ever been in her more than 30-year movie career — "The Iron Lady," which opens in Los Angeles on Friday, looks likely to earn her a record 17th Oscar nomination for acting; President Obama, Secretary of State Hillary Rodham Clinton and Clint Eastwood just feted the actress at the Kennedy Center in Washington, D.C.; she even appears, wind-swept and rosy-cheeked, on the front of January's issue of Vogue, the oldest cover subject in the fashion magazine's history.

"The Iron Lady" is Streep's second pairing with Lloyd: The 54-year-old British theater director's first film was the 2008 musical "Mamma Mia!," which grossed $600 million worldwide and is Streep's biggest box office hit. Star and director are a study in contrasting temperaments: Streep is warm, breezy and quick to laugh — "There you go, babe," she says, slicing a piece of red velvet cake to share. "Another day in the Waldorf Towers. Somebody's gotta do it." Lloyd is reserved, with a dry wit and a keen understanding of her leading lady's needs — each day on set as Streep's age makeup was removed, the director hand-delivered her a British delicacy: a cold, canned gin and tonic.

"The Iron Lady" unfolds as a series of reminiscences by the aging Thatcher as she attempts to sort the belongings of her deceased husband, Denis (Jim Broadbent). Welsh newcomer Alexandra Roach plays Thatcher as the young Margaret Roberts — a grocer's daughter with political aspirations that are audacious both for her class and her gender. Streep picks up the role for the last 40 years, as Thatcher rises in England's Conservative Party, raises twins, becomes the first woman elected head of a government in the West and presides over a series of divisive policy decisions, including privatizing Britain's public utilities, adopting a hard line against hunger-striking members of the Irish Republican Army and forging a strong alliance with President Ronald Reagan.

A 2008 memoir by Thatcher's daughter, Carol, "A Swim-On Part in the Goldfish Bowl," helped inspire "The Iron Lady's" partly fictionalized screenplay by Abi Morgan. In 2009, Morgan sent her script to Lloyd and European production company Pathé, where casting discussions quickly turned to Streep. Lloyd says she initially worried that casting an American actress might inflame British audiences but was convinced by a key quality that Streep and the former prime minister share: "Thatcher was extremely charismatic," Lloyd says. "We needed someone who could match her charm."

Much of the movie's action unfolds through the use of news footage from Thatcher's tenure in the 1980s, a period of economic hardship, civil unrest and terrorist attacks, all of which may feel remarkably current to American audiences living through the financial crisis, Occupy Wall Street protests and the fight against Al Qaeda.

Carol Thatcher's book was criticized by many of her mothers' contemporaries for revealing details of the once-powerful leader's encroaching dementia, a critique that also dogged the film after early screenings for some of Thatcher's inner circle in Britain in August. "I didn't come here to see a film about granny going mad," one anonymous attendee told the British newspaper the Daily Mail, while the Daily Telegraph called the movie "disgraceful." Capturing a life in its wane, however, was precisely what had interested Streep, and subsequent reviews from film critics have largely praised her portrayal of Thatcher both at the confident peak of her potency and during her vulnerable decline.

"We've come under fire for trespassing on an old lady's fragility," Streep said. "In England, people say, 'Oh, it's shameful when she can't defend herself.' Defend herself from what? That someone is less of a human being because they've reached the end of their lives when things unravel?... I got very angry when I heard that criticism, that we can't touch this because that should be behind closed doors. No, honestly, that's life."

"The Iron Lady" will be released in Britain on Jan. 6. Now 86 and house-bound after a series of strokes, Thatcher is still a political lightning rod there, more than 20 years after she resigned from office.

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