Meryl Streep: “It’s just so basic yet men roll their eyes when it comes to the mention of the word feminism”
TELLURIDE – This has been a year in which the top women in Hollywood are demanding equal rights in the form of equal pay and equal treatment in the film industry. It was Patricia Arquette who famously spoke out on behalf of giving greater voice to women in her Oscar acceptance speech in February and Meryl Streep was one of those actresses in the audience who was shouting out her support. For years Streep has been advocating on behalf of women in the film industry and she has tirelessly waged a war against the sexist and ageist bias against women.
That’s what makes the appearance of Meryl Streep in SUFFRAGETTE, playing the part of Emmeline Pankhurst, one of the fabled leaders of the British women’s voting rights movement in the early 20th century, such an inspired casting decision. Directed by Sarah Gavron, the film stars Carey Mulligan as Maud Watts, a composite character who is representative of the many pioneering women who fought to give British women the right to vote. In addition to Streep, other co-stars include Helena Bonham Carter, Anne-Marie Duff, and Ben Whishaw.
“I immediately said yes to the role,” Streep says. “Not only was it an honour to play a key leader of the British women’s voting rights movement, but this is the first movie to be made about that era and about the beginnings of the women’s civil rights movement in general. One hundred years later, women still don’t have equality and we’re still fighting for equal rights today.”
While shooting the film, there was a major crowd involving Streep during which she was supposed to give a speech as Pankhurst. Several hundred extras dressed in period costumes were kept waiting until a character – they weren’t told who it would be – was supposed to step onto a stage and address them. When it came time to shoot the scene, the crowd was shocked to see Meryl Streep – in the guise of Pankhurst – appear on the platform.
Without any prompting from the director or any other crew member to begin clapping at the arrival of Emmeline Pankhurst, the crowd erupted spontaneously into wild applause at the sight of Meryl Streep. “They actually used that take in the film,” recalled Carey Mulligan.
Streep was recently seen playing a faded rock star in Ricki and the Flash in which her eldest daughter, Mamie Gummer, also plays her daughter in the film. The 66-year-old Streep lives with her sculptor husband Donald Gummer in the Tribeca area of New York. In addition to Mamie, their daughter Grace Gummer, 29, is also pursuing an acting career and has appeared in Margin Call and Frances Ha. They also have a son, Henry, 35, who also contributed some music to Ricki and the Flash which his mother sings, and another daughter, Louisa, 24, who works as a model.
Q: Meryl, Suffragette addresses the beginnings of the women’s civil rights movement in England. Is it important that this kind of story gets told so it sensitises both men and women to the issue of equality between the sexes?
STREEP: I would like both men and women to see this movie as well as younger people because the issue of women’s rights is not a women’s issue, it’s an issue that should be of concern to men, too. We need to make men aware of the fact that the playing field is far from level and that they need to be open in their thinking to the fact that women deserve equal treatment under the law and that there should be no discrimination in the work place or in any other are of society.
It’s just so basic yet men roll their eyes when it comes to the mention of the word feminism because they don’t seem to understand or feel the kind of urgency that women have about issues regarding equality. So we have to get men to change their thinking, too.
Q: Did you know much about Emmeline Pankhurst before you started preparing for Suffragette?
STREEP: Not very much although I was aware in general terms about how British women fought to secure the right to vote. Women all over the world should be inspired by how bravely British women fought for their civil rights despite a lot of resentment and very harsh treatment from the authorities.
It was Pankhurst who decided that the time had come to stop being so polite and engage in breaking windows on Oxford street and other acts of disobedience and causing damage to property including defacing the greens on a British golf course that Parliamentarians played on.
Q: Pankhurst knew that the men were deliberately dragging their heels on the issues?
STREEP: British women had been waiting patiently for many decades for Parliament to give them the right to vote but nothing had happened. That’s when Pankhurst and others knew that they had to do something to attract attention and show the men in power that they wanted action.
Q: What did you think of Carey Mulligan’s performance?
STREEP: Carey Mulligan is sublime…She’s a very smart and she’s a very gifted actress. I have a small role but I was so impressed with her work and that of so many women who collaborated on this movie.
Q: Are you proud of having been able to play so many outstanding women whether actual historical figures or simply inspiring female characters over the years?
STREEP: I entered the business at the right time when attitudes were beginning to change and I was able to play in films like Kramer vs. Kramer where it was unusual to see a female character who had left her husband and son.
Then I played a lot of other women who were very independent and who had gone beyond the limits that are traditionally placed on women in society. At least I was able to make some contribution to changing attitudes about women and showing how we can lead dynamic and interesting lives. There were hardly any women working on film crews when I started out and even though things have gotten better there is still a lack of women writers and the industry as a whole is still dominated by men.
Q: Is acting more fun these days?
STREEP: I’ve always loved acting but I think the difference now is that I feel very liberated at my age because I feel I’m able to do almost anything. I would never have played a character like Ricki (in Ricki and the Flash) twenty years ago and I’ve never felt so uninhibited as I do now. (Laughs) I also enjoy playing characters my own age and not having to hide that fact. This job still makes me very happy and I hope it stays that way.
Q: Your daughter Mamie had a chance to play an important role alongside you in Ricki and the Flash. Was that a proud moment for you?
STREEP: I was very proud of Mamie and her performance. Mamie is a courageous and very sensitive actress and she has a great sense of humour and way of seeing the world.
Both Mamie and Grace have been very determined to make their own way as actresses even though they’ve had to work with the burden of having a famous actress mother which isn’t easy. I’m especially proud of how my daughters never let themselves feel intimidated or overwhelmed by their mother’s career or reputation.
Q: Did you try to discourage your daughters from following in your footsteps?
STREEP: I wanted them to follow their own dreams but I did ask them to have a plan B. They made their own way. Grace studied art history and Italian, for example. But I was more worried about how their lives would be possibly disrupted or made more complicated by the media attention that now follows every young actor. I never had to deal with that when I was their age.
Q: What is it about acting that you still get a kick out of it?
STREEP: It’s fascinating to be able to probe the life of another person and take yourself on another person’s journey. You’re also trying to get at the truth of another person and feel inspired by their lives and hopes and dreams. I always found that acting gave me so much confidence when I was starting out because as a young woman I often felt very misunderstood and I worried about the kind of impression people had of me. Acting has always been a great form of therapy for me because the more I try to understand the women I’m playing, the more I understand something about myself.
Q: You’re also an example of sorts to other women in that you’ve had a brilliant career while also raising four children?
STREEP: There are lots of women who have done just as much with fewer advantages than I’ve enjoyed. I will always admit that I was lucky that I married a good man because that made it so much easier to be able to work even though I would take my children on the set with me when they were very young. I was also careful to choose films that didn’t take me away from my family for more than two weeks at a time because I missed them terribly and I would be miserable without them.
But unless you’re doing films back to back, which I never did, you’re often spending much more time with your children than you would otherwise if you worked in an office and only had two weeks vacation every year.
Q: Did your mother inspire you to achieve great things in life?
STREEP: My mother told me that she always believed in me and that I could achieve anything I set my mind to, that there are no limits. She gave me the feeling that women can be everything if we really want it and work hard for it.