In 1987, I went on location to upstate New York for the film Ironweed, which would be Oscar-nominated in 1988 against Rain Man. I knew that I would not be allowed to interview or shoot behind the scenes footage of Jack Nicholson. That left me with his co-star, Meryl Streep. I shot footage of Jack working, but no one knew because I had my cameraman turn his light off. Jack joked around with the TV crew and me as long as the camera was not running. Meryl Streep, on the other hand, let us shoot behind the scenes footage of her. The film’s unit publicist arranged Meryl’s interview and when the scheduled time came, we were set up and ready.
What a surprise when Meryl arrived with wet hair, glasses, and no make up. No one had told her that this was a video interview, not print. I told her, “This interview will last a long time, and I don’t think you want to look that way on video.” I left the film set with all the interviews except the one with the star of the film. When I came back to Los Angeles, I told the producers I did not have Meryl’s interview.
I was sent back to New York to interview Meryl Streep, where I picked up a crew and met her at a hotel on Madison Avenue. When I returned to do the interview, she was comfortable with me. Maybe it was because she saw me often during the three-week period on the film; maybe it was because I had been honest with her and said, “Please don’t do the interview with wet hair and no makeup and glasses.”
For our next interview, the studio provided Meryl with her personal hair and makeup person at the cost of $1,500. About a third of the way through the interview, she put her hand through her hair and got it all messed up, undoing the work of her expensive stylist. I kept my mouth shut because the interview was going really well. The same stylist, J. Roy Helland, won an Oscar in the Hair and Makeup category for turning Meryl into Margaret Thatcher in The Iron Lady. When he accepted his Oscar, he thanked Meryl for keeping him employed for over 30 years.
Meryl gave me a very revealing, hour-long interview about the woman she was, what made her tick, and what was important in her life. “I still get nervous, very nervous, when I have to audition,” she told me, which is probably not something she has to do anymore since she is considered one of the most talented and respected actresses of our time.
In addition to numerous other entertainment awards, she has been nominated for an Academy Award a record of seventeen times and has won three: Best Supporting Actress for Kramer vs. Kramer and Best Actress for Sophie’s Choice and for The Iron Lady. In her acceptance speech at the 2012 Oscars for playing Margret Thacher, she thanked Roy Helland and congratulated him on winning an Oscar. Kathrine Hepburn is the only actress to have won four Oscars and no other actress besides Meryl has won three.
Meryl became interested in acting at Vassar and then headed to the prestigious Yale School of Drama. “I decided to be an actress halfway through drama school. It was something that was hard to commit because I didn’t think it was a serious sort of way to spend a life. Or one that would help the world … But now I think my mind has changed about that. It is a valuable thing.”
It was one of those magical times when the star was comfortable enough to be candid. It surprised me when she said, “If I have to sing in front of people, I am just terrified,” though she had taken voice lessons for years. She sang in Ironweed and in a few of her other films, including Silkwood, Postcards from the Edge, and later in Mamma Mia.
She described perfectly how so many actors feel about their work and how they hate having to do interviews like this to promote their films: “I am much more comfortable enclosed in a world of fiction.”
“I had a lot of breaks early on,” Meryl, who is extremely shy, told me that when her entire drama class prepared and was invited to audition for Joe Papp’s Public Theater, “I was too nervous, I couldn’t go. But basically I didn’t want to be a part of that whole’ meat market.’ Competition makes me very nervous. The next day I went to the woman who arranged the auditions and said: ‘Give me a chance to read for it.’ And she did and I don’t know why. She was just a nice woman.” She got an audition with Joe Papp, who cast her in Trelawny of the Wells, which was her Broadway debut in Lincoln Center in 1975.
Since then, she has appeared in over fifty films, making her movie debut in Julia with Jane Fonda and Venessa Redgrave in 1977 and earning her first Oscar nomination in 1978 for The Deer Hunter. “ I know a lot of my success has to do with luck. I’ve also poured a lot of hard work into it, so I feel in some way, I can justify myself. I am just happy that life has happened this way.”
The most candid moment of tour interview was when she told me that she could not ask her housekeeper to remove the dust balls in the closet.
She has been married since 1978. “ The greatest break in my life is when I met Don Grummer. There is no question in my mind about that.” Meryl and her husband, a well-known sculptor, have four children, three girls and a boy. Her two oldest daughters, Mamie and Grace, are both actresses and look just like Meryl did when she first started her career.
I was in awe of this extraordinary woman, who was as kind and humble as she is talented. “I never imagined in my wildest dreams that I would be successful. The fear is always there for an actress that you will never work again. That goes with the territory, so each happy event as it has happened has been a surprise.”
After the interview, Meryl Streep told me that she would be leaving the country for A Cry in the Dark, which would put her in Australia when the publicity for Ironweed was to be released. I offered to make her a video of the sound bites used in the profile and send her a transcript. All she had to do was to strike out what she didn’t want used. She sent us back the edited transcript and went to Australia. As the release date of the film got closer, a consultant hired by the production company called me. I was told to turn over the entire Meryl Streep’s interview to be edited by the man who had hit on me for sex at Fox years earlier. The old boys’ network kept getting him jobs even though he lost his big position at Fox after being charged with sexual harassment by a woman at the studio and his career came tumbling down. I told him that I could only turn over the approved footage, nothing else. I even got my lawyer involved.
The end result was that I kept my word to Meryl Streep and he got the pleasure of threatening me with the famous Hollywood line: “You will never work in this town again.” It didn’t work this time either. I never had to turn over the interview footage, we edited the Meryl Streep profile, and I worked in Hollywood for another twenty years.
-Excerpts from “Nearly Famous: tales from the hollywood trenches”