Mommy Turn: Meryl Streep’s ‘August: Osage County’

Meryl Streep in ‘August: Osage County’/Image © Weinstein Co.

“Everything in my body didn‘t want to do it,” Meryl Streep says of her role as the booze- and pill-addled “August: Osage County” matriarch. “I really am not stupid and I recognize a great part, but in order to do it right, you know, it’s a very tricky part. It’s one thing to play a character of that size and vehemence on stage. Ewan McGregor’s character refers to it as ‘the shrill insanity of your mother.’”

After the insanity of junketing the film all day in New York, Streep pops up after an evening screening of the film in a private room for New York-based Academy voters. She’s wearing a crisp, black pantsuit with her purse’s gold and black braided strap across her chest like a beauty pageant sash. Her blonde hair is piled up into a loose bun and she’s nuzzled between her director, John Wells, and co-star Julianne Nicholson, who plays Ivy in the film, the middle daughter who stays on at home in Oklahoma to care for her parents.

And, in fact, this audience of Streep’s peers is exuding exactly that: care. In the months since a rushed cut of the film made its world premiere at September’s Toronto International Film Festival, Streep has had to endure a boss known for Napoleonic Oscar campaigns waffling on whether Streep’s forgone nomination should be supporting or lead and a co-star who, on those rare occasions she does appear in the same room as Streep to promote the film, praises her with all the zeal of a twenty-five-million-dollar paycheck Brutus.

Most gallingly, earlier in the day, the actress who plays eldest daughter Barbara appears in thick-framed “smart girl” vanity glasses as an almost counterpoint to Streep’s ever-present readers, which she famously asked to be passed forward from her table at last year’s Golden Globe Awards. But that’s behind her now and she settles in to address her peers in the wake of what is sure to be her eighteen nomination and odds-on her fourth win.

”You can’t underplay it,” Meryl says of Violet Weston, a woman who doesn’t let her mouth cancer get in the way of her smoking. “You’re sort of stuck with that size of horror, and it’s from inside out that you have to commit to it. There was a lot of smoking and bad posture and staying up late and drinking red wine with Margo,” she laughs. “And that all helped, you know.”

Margo is Margo Martindale, who plays her sister, Mattie Fae, and the two have obviously become quite fond of one another. “I looked at Meryl and thought, Isn’t that odd? She laughs just like me,” Martindale says of Streep’s uncanny ability as a mimic. “Well, that’s nothing I did,” she continues, “I laugh like that. We spent tons of time together, Meryl and me, just actually socializing and having fun, but the whole time she was actually working.”

Director John Wells built in that camaraderie as part of the production process.  “We cast for over six months,” Wells says. “First, the language is beautiful, and beautifully constructed, so the standard was finding actors who could stand in with that language and the difficulty of the material. Who was going to be the best actor for the part? We wanted to make sure everyone could stand in and do the work.”

“You get all these wonderful actors coming in and showing their interpretation,” Wells continues, “then I’d steal it.” This gets a rise out of the actors on stage, but also the actors in the house. Wells raises his hands to calm the changing tide. “I tell them,” he insists, “at least I’m honest about it.” Indeed, some of those actors even made it past auditions. Juliette Lewis replaced Andrea Riseborough when Riseborough dropped out due to scheduling conflicts.

“The great irony,” Lewis says, “is that I was playing the put-together gal focused on her appearance.” Lewis plays the preening youngest daughter, Karen, who drags her fiancé to her father’s funeral. “It’s not really something I naturally gravitate toward,” Lewis continues, “so I actually relished the fact that I was playing a girl who gets her hair done and has to leave the house with a lip on, as my mother used to say.”

“And I was trying to look sicker than I actually am,” Streep laughs. “But I don’t think about things that way. Every character I’ve ever played is about 5’6” and weighs about the same as me. But one of the things that interested me was the cycle of pain and pain relief she was in. She was on her painkillers in any given scene, and since we were shooting out of order, I had to map that just so I’d know what sort of attention or inattention I had to bring to my fellow actors because …”

Streep trails off and takes a long pause. You can feel the room hunch forward collectively and she looks weary, running a hand over her face, but continues. “As an actor, you’re supposed to want to go into that house of pain over and over again and it’s not something that’s fun. I resisted doing this part initially because of that. I just thought, Ugh. On so many levels: physically, mentally spiritually, emotionally, Violet is enraged. And in pain or drugged at any given time and so that was the main thing. I didn’t doubt that I would go and figure that out.”

She takes another pause, this one shorter, then says, “Blah, blah, blah. I don’t want to talk about this. I hate it, hate it, hate it!” Remarkably, she begins to tear up and there’s almost a gasp in the room. Her co-star, Chris Cooper, who’s worked with her before on “Adaptation,” rushes in to fill the void by cutting to the film’s centerpiece dinner scene, which took three days to film.

“It was Meryl at the head of the dinner table,” Cooper says. “We’re eye to eye and we’re thinking this might be a nice diner and she’s correcting the men immediately. It was an eighteen-page scene and we shot roughly six pages per day. And she kept everyone going. At each take, she gave something a little different to us. We look to stay fresh in response because we don’t know what’s coming at us. Meryl has the bulk of the lines and she keeps us on our toes. She gives us a comic take, a brutal take, a nasty take, a drug-addled take and then a combination of all that.”