Meryl Streep Acting Advice
If you’re like me, you probably hear the name ‘Meryl Streep’ and instantly fall to your knees, bow up and down in grovelling praise, all the while passionately wailing: “We’re not worthy! We’re not worthy!” You also don’t need me to justify her status as one of the most acclaimed and accomplished actors in the world today, or why her masterful career is so inspiring to those of us aspiring artists. So I shall let our High-Priestess speak for herself… Here are some of Streep’s quotes on acting and a few fun facts you may not have known about her illustrious journey to success.
Streep on THE ACTOR’S JOURNEY…
“I never imagined in my wildest dreams that I would be successful… The fear is always there with actors that you will never work again. That goes with the territory. You have that fear on the second job, third job, fourth job. You have it all the way down the line… I never thought it was going to happen for me. You can’t if you’re an actor. Some people do, I guess. Some go in and say: ‘I’m going to be a star!’ And they are. But for all those people who say that, I bet there are hundreds of thousands of those who say that and are still struggling. 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 that I can justify myself. But I’m just happy that things have happened this way.”
INTERVIEWER: “How are actors different than the rest of us?”
“Well they live a zen life… It’s very uncertain. All lives are uncertain, but actors know it because you’re unemployed so often. And you live so intensely in the moments that you are working that when you come back to earth and look around and that balloon has gone and there’s no other one on the horizon – you live WHERE YOU ARE. I think actors live EXACTLY where they are. The really good ones. And that’s why they SEEM kind of crazy… but I think it’s an authentic way to live.”
FUN FACT! For years Streep worked as a waitress in a hotel, and even used to busk on the streets for money. Her first on screen acting debut was opposite Jane Fonda in 1977’s ‘Julia’, where she played a small role in a flashback sequence. She was so disappointed to be mostly edited out or out of performative context that the whole ordeal had her questioning whether she should give up the industry entirely. “No more movies,” she said. “I’m done with this business.”
STREEP DEBUNKS THE IMPORTANCE OF AESTHETICS IN ACTING…
“I just think that everybody has everything already in them. You have everything in you… And to Directors I want to say: I hate those meetings where you just go in and sit down – they just want to have a look at you. Well, then that’s all they’re gonna get – a look at you. And a ‘look at you’ is nothing. It’s nothing! You’ve got to imagine and see people’s work, because people’s work is where you’ll find whether they CAN do this thing – CAN open you up to the hidden world of a character – to the stuff that is NEVER explained, but… layers your appreciation of the story. Because that’s why we’re here. To serve this entire story.”
“… My advice: don’t waste so much time worrying about your skin or your weight. Develop what you do, what you put your hands on in the world.”
FUN FACT! After being noticed in a play, Meryl was given the opportunity to audition for the character of Dawn (eventually played by Jessica Lange) in the 1976 version of ‘King Kong’. However, when she arrived at the casting, the Director, in Italian, called her an “ugly thing”. Streep understood the language and even replied in Italian, “I’m sorry I’m not beautiful enough to be in King Kong!” She has since called the experience “very sobering as a young girl.”
Streep on WHAT IS ACTING?
INTERVIEWER: “Is what you do an art, is it a craft, or is it a job?”
STREEP: “You mean, is it highfalutin, mid-falutin, or a paycheque? I don’t know… Sometimes when I watch other people do it, it’s like beyond an art, it’s like making music… At it’s best it’s like flying. And it’s great. It’s great! And that’s the part I wouldn’t give up, and that’s the part I WON’T give up. Even though I love my children and being home and doing what they need me to do, I certainly need to express myself.”
“One of the most important keys to acting is curiosity. I am curious to the point of being nosy. What that means is you want to devour lives. You’re eager to put on their shoes and wear their clothes and have them become a part of you. All people contain mystery, and when you act, you want to plumb that mystery until everything is known to you… I’m curious about people. That’s the essence of my acting. I’m interested in what it would be like to be you.”
“Everybody is interesting. Everybody has something unexpected to offer and the job of acting is to pull it out of each other.”
FUN FACT! When she was 27, Streep saw Robert De Niro’s performance in ‘Taxi Driver’ and was inspired to say, “that’s the kind of actor I want to be when I grow up.” Little did she know that, only a few years later, Robert De Niro would see her on stage (in Chekov’s ‘The Cherry Orchid’) and cast her to play his girlfriend in ‘The Deer Hunter’. This role garnered Streep great critical acclaim and industry recognition as a film actor.
STREEP on GETTING INTO CHARACTER…
“Acting is not about being someone different. It’s about finding the similarity in what is apparently different and then finding myself in there.”
“All an actor has is their blind faith that they are who they say they are today, in any scene.”
RE: Playing her Academy Award nominated role of Sister Aloysius in the 2008 film adaptation of ‘Doubt’:
“Yes she is an unpleasant character, but for me the process is about being her and being in her life. And I imagine events in her life that might have affected her. Events that led her to marry early to get out of the house. Events that after her husband died led her to the convent. I look at the time in which she lived, this takes place in 1964, when for very smart, ambitious women there were very limited opportunities… I just imagined the whole context of where she exists and how she came to be here… And putting on the habit in the morning, layer upon layer it just sort of gets you back into the world, and it did the work of preparation for me, just the act of dressing.”
FUN FACT! For her Oscar winning role as Margaret Thatcher in 2011’s ‘The Iron Lady’, Streep worked with the props department to ensure that the contents of her handbag as a costume piece were as close to what the former English Prime Minister would have had in reality. This included fine details like, most notably, a hand written recipe for Chicken Veronique.
STREEP on LEARNING THROUGH ACTING…
“I think you learn more from the challenging things. Things that are tougher to do… What I learn every time is how to wrangle all the elements that make me love what I do, and make it happen effortlessly. And when that doesn’t come easily I don’t really have a bag of tricks to go to, or a method. I don’t. So I become unmoored. And part of that is a really good thing, because you have to reassemble… So it’s very good to start over blank and have to begin again.”
INTERVIEWER: “How important is listening?”
STREEP: “It’s everything, and it’s where you learn everything… I was applying to law school and was thinking: ‘Acting? Well… acting is a stupid way to make a living… it doesn’t do anything in the world…’ But I think it does… I think there’s a great worth in it and the worth is in listening to people who maybe don’t even exist, or who are voices in your past and, through you, come through the work and you can give them to other people. And I think that giving voice to characters that have no other voice, that’s the great worth of what we do… Because so much of acting is vanity… I mean, this feels so great to come out here and sit here and have everybody clap, but the REAL thing that makes me feel so good is when I know I’ve said something for a SOUL… When I’ve presented a SOUL.”
FUN FACT! Her first stage performance was at 12 years old when she sang French opera, which she studied at the time, but quit soon after saying, “I was 13. I didn’t like opera. Ew. I liked cheerleading and boys… But I loved singing. I loved it. And I did have a very good coloratura.” After completing a Bachelor of Arts at Vassar College, she almost went to Law School, but slept through her alarm and missed the enrolment interview. Taking this as a sign, she went on to study at the Yale School of Drama where she received her Master of Fine Arts at 26 years old.
STREEP on THE POWER OF EMPATHY…
“I’ve thought a lot about the power of empathy. In my work, it’s the current that connects me and my actual pulse to a fictional character, in a made up story. It allows me to feel pretend feelings and sorrows and imagined pain. And my nervous system is sympathetically wired and it conducts that current to you sitting in the movie theatre… so that we all feel that it is happening to us at the same time. It is a very mysterious and valuable resource of the human species… We cry at sad movies… We see a news story that enrages us and we write letters through tears, our hearts pounding… I used to wonder why human beings developed these inconvenient and embarrassing responses, this sniffling, choking, wet obstruction… Seriously, I thought, why and how did we evolve with this weak and useless passion in tact within the deep heart’s core…? Empathy is the engine that powers all the best in us. It is what civilises us. It is what connects us…”
“Empathy is at the heart of the actors art. Or as Leonard Cohen says: ‘Pay attention to the cracks, because that’s where the light gets in’…”
FUN FACT! Early in her career, Streep received a letter from Bette Davis, in which Davis called Meryl her successor as the premier American actress. Later in her career, Streep, herself, was no stranger to writing letters of praise either. She was apparently so fan-girl-level impressed by the Broadway production of ‘Mamma Mia’ that she wrote a letter to thank and applaud them for their work. The letter was passed onto the Producers, which gave them the courage to ask her to take on the lead role in the film adaptation years later.
STREEP on TAKING HER ADVICE…
“I think your self emerges more clearly over time… I think that you find your own way… In the end, it’s what feels right to you. Not what your mother told you. Not what some actress told you. Not what anybody else told you but the still, small voice… The minute you start caring about what other people think, is the minute you stop being yourself…”
“True freedom is understanding that we have a choice in who and what we allow to have power over us…”
Well, you said it, Meryl! Thank you for everything.
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