Stephen Colbert makes a mean martini, as Meryl Streep discovered Saturday night. The Oscar winner joined the Late Show for a two-hour-long conversation in front of a capacity crowd at the New Jersey Performing Arts Center in Newark, New Jersey, for Colberts annual Montclair Film fundraiser. (The organization was co-founded by his wife, Evelyn.)
Chatting over drinks mixed by Colbert himself at an onstage bar, Streep, tackled a variety of topics, including working-class wages, the expectations society puts on women, and how actors possess a certain skill thats critical in todays turbulent political climate.
“Actors are natural empaths. Its part of the job description, like—can you type 90 words a minute? Can you empathize, can you feel what this person feels?” Streep said.
“We all stop imagining, so quickly in life, what its like to be other people,” she continued, adding that social media creates distance between us. “But empathy is the thing that will save us, if we will be saved.”
“What is like to see a president who is so indifferent to empathy?” Colbert asked.
“Im scared by him, by his possibility,” said Streep, who was personally attacked by Donald Trump on Twitter after delivering a fiery speech decrying the then-president-elect and his campaign at the 2017 Golden Globe Awards. “And I do empathize with him. I cant 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.”
Streeps own empathy drove her to famously cheer on Patricia Arquette from the audience of the 2015 Oscars, when Arquette used her platform to argue for fair wages.
“I was thinking about waitresses. There is no other job in the country where you can pay someone $2 per hour, except waitresses. . . because they get tips, supposedly,” she said when the topic arose. “Some are good, some are bad, and some of them work in shitty places where people cant give them anything other than what the hamburger costs.”
“I was a waiter who knew I could get a scholarship to a good college,” she continued. “I learned the most from the women who were waiters.”
Colbert avoided the trap of going through Streeps career project by project, instead keeping their conversation focused on her early life and her approach to acting. The two compared their experiences relating to a live audience, and how performing in a traditional play differs from pure comedy.
“They connect to different things each night in a play,” Streep said. “Youre plugged into the audience, and what they feel and what they need. You read it in the silences. You get it in the laughs. And sometimes youre wrong about how it went over, because people digest things differently.”
For Colberts part, “I know that the audience is there for me because I feel the laughter. But I also feel a current of energy between the laughs. The valleys arent particularly deep. It can be quiet, but I know its there.”
“When you feel it drop, what do you do?” Streep asked.
“When its gone, and the energy is out of the room and theyre no longer relating to me as I would like them to? You have to get looser. You have to relax. You have to not tense up. Because the urge is to over steer—then youre lost. Youre not feeling them at all. Youre only feeling your grip on the wheel,” he replied.
Streep concurred, recalling her first professional role in a 1975 Lincoln Centre production of Trelawney of the Wells. On opening night, in front of the critics, a glass prop broke during a scene. Her nerves instantly vanished.
“We carried on with the play the way we had in rehearsal, the way we had in previews. We talked and listened, because a real thing had happened on stage,” she said.
With such a substantial body of work comes the risk of repeating choices Streep made for past characters. The actress said that shes continually looking for new inspiration.
“I look for people in my life who I think are interesting. Maybe men. Im playing a woman, but I think of men whose instincts and movement in the world are like this character.”
One such male-inspired moment was her famous deadpan lament from The Devil Wears Prada: “Why is no one ready?”
“I was totally copying Mike Nichols there,” Streep said.
Streep has a long list of recent films she loves, including Bradley Coopers remake of A Star Is Born, which she praised as “so breezily shot, so self-assured.”
“Many actors who make the transition into directing give the actors too much air. They dont cut it as brutally as they need to. To them, the character is more important than the narrative,” she said. Cooper, however, is an exception.
Streep also cited The Rider, a “shockingly great” film from director Chloe Zhao; First Reformed, starring _Ethan Hawke; and the upcoming Laurel and Hardy biopic Stan & Ollie.
As for her own work, Streep said that she resists watching her early films—because they remind her of the low self-image she had at the time.
“Ill come upon a movie Im in, and Im very young and very beautiful. But I was so unhappy. I thought my nose was too big, I thought I was fat. Because these are things that people tell you,” she said.
But by the same token, Streep said shes purposely rejected Hollywoods expectations of how actresses should look.
“I could play older when I was young. I could play a man in Angels in America. I could screw around with how I looked,” she explained. “Which to me is a political act: to say its not always going to attract your lust or your interest, or anything to do with ingratiation.”
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