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Good Listening

Meryl Streep speaks on the key to acting and its importance to life

By Robert Faires, Fri., Nov. 12, 2010

Streep chats up MFA Acting students Mykal Monroe (r) and Nickclette Izuegbu
Streep chats up MFA Acting students Mykal Monroe (r) and Nickclette Izuegbu
Photo courtesy of Christina Murrey

"I'm not really a religious person, but I believe in the work that I've chosen. That's my church," Meryl Streep told the crowd in the B. Iden Payne Theatre. "I always try really hard to do stuff right. I make myself work. When I get lazy, I think: 'You're in church. Straighten up and fly right.'"

The esteemed actor and recipient of more awards than the Union has states and territories spoke about her life and career to an audience of students, faculty, and guests at the University of Texas on Friday, Nov. 5. And what brought Ms. Streep to the Forty Acres? "Blackmail," she said wryly during a session with the media earlier that day. Fran Dorn knows too much about her college days, she claimed. That would be the Fran Dorn who heads the UT Department of Theatre & Dance's acting program and with whom Streep attended the Yale School of Drama in the early Seventies. Ever since she began teaching at UT 10 years ago, Dorn has been trying to get her old friend to pay a visit to Austin. This fall, Streep finally made the trip, and though she was in the Winship Drama Building for just a few hours, she shared her thoughts and experiences with the department's students with a generosity that will stay with them for a lifetime.

On the stage in the Payne, Streep passed on the opportunity to hold forth, preferring instead to field questions from the audience. Over the course of an hour, almost 20 students mastered their nerves and asked the distinguished artist something about herself. They wanted to know how she was at their age – which actors inspired her, if she was ever typecast, if she imagined herself as a successful actor. They wanted to know about her process – how she approaches a role and works through a character, how she handles the challenge of playing a character that people hate, how she deals with a fellow actor who holds back during a scene. She delivered each answer directly to the person asking the question, as if theirs was a private conversation without 400 other people listening in. Whether or not the question was one she'd been asked a thousand times before, Streep answered thoughtfully, giving responses that never sounded less than fresh and personal. She cited the actor Irene Worth as an inspiration, and while describing "the size of [Worth's] aspiration," how she was "unafraid of making something bigger than real," Streep summoned up a youthful admiration bordering on awe. She spoke of her own inadequacies, both when she was a student and throughout her career, and said the biggest challenge in acting is having "to do something when you don't feel it." Then, "every day is weird and hard because you're doing what isn't happening."

Whenever Streep spoke about acting in general terms, that conviction of her "church" gave the profession an air of nobility. Discussing the challenge of playing a figure that people hate, she said, "Actors can deliver the goods of a complicated personality and make us consider the humanity of people who are capable of monstrous acts." Asked if she had any advice for actors held back by fear, she acknowledged that "if you're signing up to be an artist, you're signing up for uncertainty." But then she managed to turn even that toward a noble calling, saying that "artists live the most authentic lives because they understand that life is uncertainty."

Throughout the afternoon, and in the half hour with the media as well, Streep consistently connected her art to life, emphasizing the importance of acting not as a vehicle for celebrity or fortune but as a necessary component of the human condition. And every actor should remember that. "You have to tell the story that you need to tell," she insisted. Your art "has to come from need and passion. I do believe in stories and value and our interest in each other." That sensibility was further confirmed in the brief exchange that Streep had with the Chronicle.

Austin Chronicle: When you were in school, was there a moment when something clicked and you thought: "I can do this. This is not just something I like doing. I could make a career out of this"?

Good Listening
Photo courtesy of Christina Murrey

Meryl Streep: I never thought I could make a career of it. You know, Fran, my friend who runs the M.F.A. program in acting, and I were talking about this. When we graduated from the Yale School of Drama in 1975, there were 16 theatres that were dark on Broadway. Boarded up. Nothing going in there. And I don't know about her, but I had big debts. [laughs] It wasn't a great time to be an actor. It's never a great time to be an actor. But it's always a great time to be an actor. Because, you know, you have something that people want and need. You express for people who can't speak. It's a necessary vice.

AC: [To another reporter, Streep spoke about the value of receiving a liberal arts education in college and how it had helped prepare her for living "a good life."] Following up on the idea of the liberal arts education that you had: How has that helped you as an actor? In the sense of having a broader view of the world?

MS: Well, that's it. If you're curious about things – I mean, I don't think you can really be an effective actor if you're not curious about people and events. And if you're interested in things, you want to go deeper and you want to know more. At least, the thing [that's always] ignited my own excitement about working is to know more about somebody: What made them do this? What in God's name went wrong? Even if you're constructing a secret story for yourself, to have the resources to go back in time and see history repeated over and over or to see human behavior repeat itself. I mean, sometimes we all think we just invented the reality in which we live, but everything's been seen, and the more you know about stuff, the more you can say, the more you have to say.

AC: When you're playing a scene with a younger actor, is there a different way that you connect with them?

MS: You mean by virtue of their age, because they're younger?

AC: Not so much their age as experience.

MS: Oh. No. Because it's just listening. Acting is just listening, so if you're really there with a person, you're picking up what they're about. It doesn't really matter. The inexperience is sometimes a good thing.

AC: Is there something that you learned about the business of being an actor after you left school that you wished someone had told you before you left school?

MS: Hmm. I think the power of optimism and understanding what kind of stamina it takes to be an actor. And I don't mean just physical stamina – spiritual, mental, character stamina. Because it's very hard to be rejected or have bad reviews, or if you do become successful, to feel the chattering about you in other ways. It's kind of weird. I think what I would say that I wish somebody had told me, although I knew it in my heart, is that you have to get your life right. You have to get your life right before you can get your art going. At least, for me as an actor, the things that really have mattered most are peripheral to my awards or the parts I've played, even though that's been very satisfying, my life is what matters.

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