After winning the Golden Globe and BAFTA Best Actress awards for her portrayal of Margaret Thatcher in The Iron Lady, Meryl Streep is heading to the Academy Awards in what most see as a neck-and-neck race between her and SAG Best Actress winner Viola Davis for the Best Actress Oscar.
Of course, whether Streep wins the Oscar or not will not take anything away from her incredible portrayal of Thatcher. In an interview with NPR, Streep goes into detail on how she managed to embody the former Prime Minister, giving insight on how she approaches playing an iconic real-world figure.
In order to personify a real-life individual that she is playing on screen, Streep begins by focusing on the subject’s voice. Curiously, she describes the imitation of a person’s voice as her key to embodying the whole of the person, explaining, “That’s my way in, the very beginning, how to enter it. Very quickly in the process, I don’t think of voice as being separate from the way you hold your head or the way you sit or the way you put on lipstick. It’s all a piece of a person, and it’s all driven by conviction. All the physical manifestations — you need your way in.” Even if you had never watched any of Streep’s award-winning performances, from the interview alone you can determine that she is a masterful actress. For example, she talks extensively about studying Thatcher’s voice and how she recreated it for the movie, explaining, “[It] had to do with bringing out a word that you didn’t normally think was the most important word in the sentence. And she also had a way, like a railroad train, of taking a breath quite quietly and making a point in a way that you don’t realize that this point is going to be made through several examples, and there will not be a break in the speaking voice at any point, and if you think you’re going to interrupt her, you’re not going to have the opportunity, because she’s just got capacity.”
Nonetheless, Streep admits that it was a challenge for her to imitate Thatcher’s speaking style, confessing, “I needed much more breath than I have, after all of my expensive drama school training. I couldn’t keep up with her. … [She gave one speech when she was 65] that I couldn’t have done when I was 30 years old, fresh out of drama school. Just the breath. As an actor, you’re looking at it and going, ‘Just the breath.’ It’s fantastic.”
Of course, part of Streep’s ability isn’t just to recreate a voice but to physically transform herself into the character she portrays. Streep gives the lion’s share of credit to prosthetics designer Mark Coulier, whom she says is “interested, in the way I am, in changing the outside to get at something inside. I flew to London [for] three different tests, and it was all about taking away, taking away, taking away. Mark would carve a sculpture of me and then he’d add on, with clay, age. And then they’d cast it in a silicon thing, and I would wear it — and I would say, inevitably, ‘Less, less.’ So it’s kind of remarkable how little I’m wearing.”
Ultimately though, Streep isn’t aiming to convince the audience that she is the real-life person she is portraying — she’s trying to convince the other actors. She reveals, “It’s not about the audience. It’s all about fooling the other actors into believing who you say you are. That’s hard, when you walk on set, when it’s a big makeup job. And I take my entire performance from them, so if they don’t look at me and hate me appropriately or love me the way they’re supposed to … then I’m lost, I don’t have anything to go on.”