New Jersey native Meryl Streep came home for a frank, funny, fabulous conversation with Stephen Colbert at NJPAC Saturday night that covered everything from Streep’s beginnings, career and memes to body image, empathy and Donald Trump.
The event, a fundraiser for Montclair Film (Colbert’s wife Evelyn is president of the organization founded by Bob Feinberg), had Colbert and Streep seated in front of a packed house like old friends, talking, laughing and sipping martinis that Colbert crafted while on stage.
Gov. Phil Murphy introduced Colbert, saying “if the people’s republic of Montclair were a monarchy, he would be the king,” and described Streep as “the world’s greatest living actor.”
Colbert joked early on that perhaps the greatest honor Streep has ever been given was when she was called (speaking in President Donald Trump’s voice): “One of the most overrated actresses in Hollywood.”
Trump would come up again in conversation later, in the context of empathy.
Streep, speaking about acting, stressed how crucial it was to understand and empathize with the experience of others.
“We stop imagining so quickly in life, and we stop imagining what it’s like to be other people and it’s harder and harder I think, in the world in which we live where social media mediates in that encounter between people. It’s so much harder to empathize. I think that’s why we kind of have a real problem with empathy,” Streep said.
“What’s it like for you to see somebody who is the President of the United States who is the top politician who is indifferent to the idea of empathy? I’m not sure he knows what you mean when you say it,” Colbert asked.
“I’m scared. I’m scared by him — by his possibility. And I do empathize with him,” Streep said. “I can’t imagine what his 3 a.m. is like. His children are in jeopardy. I feel that. I think, ‘what if my children were in jeopardy? I would do anything — anything — to get them out of trouble.’ So we should be afraid.”
Streep was candid about how, early on as an actor, she couldn’t even imagine herself on the big screen.
“There was no way I was gonna be a film actor, never. That wasn’t even an option,” Streep remembers thinking, recalling how she had been told her nose was too big or that she wasn’t pretty enough.
“I’ve just seen “A Star is Born” and I so related to that…it’s so true,” said Streep of the remake with Lady Gaga, whose performance she praised along with Bradley Cooper.
Streep also recommended other new films — “The Rider” and “First Reformed” — and of course, “Mary Poppins Returns,” which Streep is in, alongside Emily Blunt and Lin Manuel Miranda.
“I don’t say this about all my movies, but this is not my movie, this is Emily Blunt and Lin Manuel Miranda’s movie. The movie is just great, it’s like a little tiny gift to America at Christmas.”
When it comes to watching her own movies, Streep takes a pass.
“I don’t even want to see them really. I’ll come upon a movie, and I’m in it, and I’m really young and very beautiful, and I’ll think, I was so unhappy, I thought my nose was too big, I thought I was fat, because these are the things that people tell you, in a review. And I’ll think, ‘What was I thinking?! She was gorgeous, back in the day.’ ”
Streep said when she does stumble upon one of her movies, it usually makes her focus more on remembering that time in her life and not on her performance.
“When people that are in the movies, watch movies, they don’t watch the movie, they’re thinking of all the stuff around it, the people that were there, their dress, the people that have died, people that are gone, the location, where they stayed, what the food was like,” Streep says. “When I see the movies on TV, I recognize them like a little portal into the past.”
In reminiscing about her film roles, Streep said she especially loved being able to play real-life people.
“Kathryn Graham, Margaret Thatcher, Karen Silkwood, Isaac Denison, these women are so much more than I could ever be. It’s just such an honor, even people I disagreed with, to step into shoes of people who were of such capacious mind, bravery, courage, and they left a mark on their world. I feel very lucky to have been a translator for their lives and what mattered to them.”
Colbert had fun looking at the memes Streep had inspired, including this one from “The Devil Wears Prada.”
“You’ve become a meme several times over,” said Colbert. There is a line that you say in The Devil Wears Prada…it’s sort of a throw away line playing Miranda Priestly..the line is “Why is no one ready?”
Colbert, after playing this clip from The Devil Wears Prada, said, “”Well I don’t work for you and that puts an ice chip in my heart.”
One of the most poignant moments of the evening came during the Q & A, when a woman, who had brain surgery last year, said she had looked to Streep as an inspiration and a role model to help her become herself again. She asked if Streep had a mantra or phrase to help her get out of bed in the morning, what would that be?
Streep, after telling the woman “I’m so glad you are well,” shared something her husband said to her, “that probably made me fall in love with him.”
“This is his mantra. Because he’s a sculptor, there’s no teamster picking him up in the morning to bring him to the set, there’s no time clock. There’s just the studio and the work. So I would say his mantra is ‘Start by starting.'”