Accused of insensitivity for portraying Lady Thatcher's dementia, Meryl Streep insists, I haven't betrayed Maggie
Meryl Streep had been working on the Margaret Thatcher movie The Iron Lady for only a couple of weeks when crunch time came on set.
In a few minutes, she would have to walk into the meticulously constructed replica of the House Of Commons and address hundreds of actors playing MPs for a scene set in 1982.
It was a key moment, because she was afraid they would all be deeply suspicious – and perhaps even resentful – of an American actress being cast as Britain’s first female Prime Minister and, arguably, the most iconic political figure of modern times.
In step: Meryl Streep as Thatcher dancing with Ronald Reagan, played by Reginald Green, at Reagan's inaugural ball in 1985
With the tension building — ‘you could almost reach out and touch it’, recalls director Phyllida Lloyd — Streep took her place at the Despatch Box and delivered her first lines.
Says Lloyd: ‘I’m sure she was thinking: “If I get this wrong, the game is up”,’ but, when all those hardened actors heard how she’d perfected Thatcher’s distinctive voice, any doubts they might have had about her ability were quashed.
‘When the actors on the Labour benches started booing her speech, we knew she’d convinced everyone. It was as if the real Mrs Thatcher was coming under fire.’
Adds Streep: ‘I have never felt more like an American from New Jersey than I did when I was surrounded by all those British actors. They all had their own thoughts about how Mrs Thatcher should be portrayed, and how dare I presume to know anything. But they were all very welcoming once we got under way.
Wearing a hat: Streep addresses the Commons, but never wore a hat in Parliament
‘I’d been nervous about playing a British person from the start — let alone someone as formidable as Lady Thatcher — but Phyllida put it into perspective for me.
‘She told me: “You are perfect for the part, simply because you are an outsider in Britain, and Margaret Thatcher was an outsider in her own political party.” And that’s right. She wasn’t part of their male world and had come to power entirely on her own merit.’
But Streep’s feelings as she prepared for that crucial scene were nothing compared to what she says she went through during the entire shoot. ‘I went into battle every day on this movie, at times I felt like a marine,’ she says.
‘I won’t deny it was tough and challenging — and highly emotional, too. This is a woman familiar the world over, and portraying her on screen, especially when her health is failing, requires both accuracy and sensitivity.
‘What I found toughest is the contrast between a woman with dementia and this tough female icon of yesteryear. It reduced me to tears.
In waiting: Streep as Thatcher seated beside the man who would replace her as Prime Minister, John Major, left, played by Robin Kermode
‘There’s a scene where the young Denis, [played by Harry Lloyd], and the young Margaret [Alexandra Roach] dance through the dining room while Jim Broadbent and I were also dancing, as mature versions of the same characters. I was overcome. I broke down; it was like seeing your own life flash before your eyes.
‘I’d been so immersed in Margaret’s age and debility, and then to see this glorious young couple come through made me feel emotional.’
She admits she was in awe of Lady Thatcher’s achievements. ‘There were so many obstacles in her way. Coming from a humble background and being a woman were just two of them.
‘Yet she became leader of her party, then of her country, and went on to become a world figure.
‘Even though you may not agree with her politics, just the fact of her determination, her stamina and her courage to take it on, deserves our admiration. I’ve never been thrilled by her brand of politics.
‘But I did cheer her on when she came to power, because I thought, if she could make the top in gender-biased class-ridden England, then it can happen in America, too — although we’re still waiting for our first female president.
‘I have never met Lady Thatcher, but I did see her once at my daughter’s university, Northwest, in the U.S., about ten years ago, when she delivered a lecture, and that made an indelible impression on me’.
Screen couple: Glamorous Meryl Streep at the premiere of the film, left, and her onscreen husband Jim Broadbent, right, who played Denis Thatcher
Meryl, 62, is already the proud possessor of two Oscars (for Kramer vs Kramer in 1979, and Sophie’s Choice in 1982 and 16 Academy Award nominations. She is widely expected to win her third for this film, as well as collecting some Golden Globe and Bafta awards along the way.
If she does, it will be a triumph of will and determination for the mother of four, who portrays Lady Thatcher both in her prime as the longest serving British prime minister of the 20th century and, as she is now, a woman suffering the onset of dementia and — according to the film at least — firmly believing that she is still living with her late husband Denis.
Meryl spent two hours every morning being turned into the present day, 86-year-old Baroness, by prosthetics expert Mark Coulier.
‘I was afraid that the effects needed would make Meryl look like something out of Harry Potter but, actually, they are amazing,’ says Phyllida Lloyd.
‘We did think we would need three actresses to play Lady Thatcher as the age span of her story is 40 years. It’s testament to the brilliance of the prosthetics that we needed only two.’
Adds Meryl: ‘A tissue-thin mask was created for me so I felt very free. Visually, I felt like I was looking at a member of my family, if not me, so it actually made acting easier.’
During her lengthy stint in make-up, Meryl would listen to speeches and interviews given by Mrs T at various stages of her life.
‘Meryl had no difficulty with the most familiar Thatcher voice, the one we know from conferences and Press interviews when she was in her prime,’ says Phyllida.
During lengthy stints in make-up, Meryl would listen to speeches and interviews given by Mrs T at various stages of her life
‘She even left me a message of her first attempt at capturing the voice, on Christmas Eve 2010, and, when I heard it, I stood open-mouthed, it was so good. She worked tirelessly to pull it off. ’
One of Streep’s key sources of reference was an interview that Mrs Thatcher gave to the BBC’s Robin Day, in which she hardly allowed him to get a word in edgeways for seven minutes.
‘She had amazing lung capacity, and I couldn’t work out how she could keep going without stopping for breath,’ says Meryl.
She topped up her own research by talking to people who had known Lady Thatcher personally, including Lord Kinnock.
‘Nobody was neutral. Everyone had a strong opinion about her, whether for or against,’ she says.
‘I heard about all her strengths and weaknesses. She did have a certain cruelty to her, and I think she paid the price for it, But I respected her passion.
‘She took a position and stood by it; that’s how I work, too.’
Both Meryl and Phyllida deny that the film is political or biased, in any way, towards or against Lady Thatcher and her politics.
The real thing: President Ronald Reagan dancing with Mrs Thatcher during his inaugural ball in 1984 at the White House
Says Phyllida: ‘It is simply not about her policies, it’s about power and the loss of power, the contemplation of old age and what it feels like to get old and to try and cope with life on your own.
‘Being asked about the politics in The Iron Lady is a bit like being asked: “Did you approve of King Lear’s politics” after you’ve watched or read King Lear. It’s rather missing the point. The film is about the way in which Mrs Thatcher’s powers – intellectually, politically, physically and mentally – diminish.
‘It’s also about universal issues, such as love, loss and loneliness, those that will affect most of us. It’s not about whether her politics were right or wrong.’
As for the accusation that it’s insensitive to make a film about a person in declining health, when they are still alive and aware of what is being said about them, Streep says she understands the concerns, but insists she has no qualms.
‘I think if a movie like this is done in the right way, it’s ok.
‘We don’t diminish her or her achievements in any way, and the fact that someone as strong and as empowering as Lady Thatcher can be affected by dementia underlines what we are saying all the way through the film – that she is human, mortal and vulnerable.
‘Dementia is a subject with which most of us – sadly – are familiar, through family and friends, and I don’t think it’s something we should shy away from featuring in a movie.
‘Some people have said that it’s shameful to portray this part of a life, that the ebbing end of life is something that should be shut away and that people need to be defended from the images of those suffering from dementia.
‘But I don’t think it’s shameful. I don’t see why it can‘t be shown.
‘I have had experience of people with dementia. Putting dementia on the screen like we are doing will hopefully create a debate about a condition that affects millions — perhaps billions — of people.
‘As for the tone of the movie, you could argue it is empathetic, even sympathetic, towards Margaret Thatcher. It shows a side of her many people will identify with. I wouldn’t want to show her in a way that is disrespectful, and that goes for everyone involved in the film — we were all agreed on that.’
'Whatever you think of Margaret Thatchers politics, she was a significant figure in the world for an appreciably long time,' says director Phyllida Lloyd
Adds Phyllida: ‘I know there are people who don’t think the movie should have been made, because of Lady Thatcher’s failing health, but her daughter, Carol, brought her condition into the public domain by writing a book which acknowledged that her mother’s mind was slipping.
‘That contrast between a politician who had such conviction in her beliefs and such a clear line of thought, but has reached a stage in her life where that certainty had started to fracture, was the starting point for Abi Morgan’s script for The Iron Lady.
‘And, whatever you think of Margaret Thatcher’s politics, she was a significant figure in the world for an appreciably long time.
‘I don’t think I appreciated how significant a figure she was until we released a photo of Meryl as Mrs Thatcher, and the useage was not only immense but global, with interest in places as far and varied as India and South America.
‘My only concern is that the movie may not speak to younger generations in the way it does to those who were around to vote at the time Mrs Thatcher was in power.
‘When we were auditioning actresses to play the young Mrs Thatcher — and we finally settled on Alexandra Roach, a wonderful actress — we met some women who had depressingly scant knowledge of her.
Double take: Streep transformed for her role as Margaret Thatcher, pictured here in 1997, will walk the red carpet tonight at the European premiere of The Iron Lady
‘One even said that she only knew about her, ahead of the audition, because she’d Googled her! It showed that there is a whole world, out there, that knows nothing about the Eighties.
‘I only hope The Iron Lady — in flashback, at least, when Mrs Thatcher recalls her time in power during that decade and brings to mind events such as the Falklands War and the miners’ strike — will be a form of enlightenment.’
Phyllida says she doesn’t expect Lady Thatcher herself to see the movie. ‘I doubt whether she will be that interested by it. Our understanding is that she does not watch dramatic portrayals of herself.
‘When one of the previous TV dramas about her was about to come on screen — either Margaret Thatcher: The Long Walk To Finchley, starring Andrea Riseborough, or Margaret with Lindsay Duncan — she was said to have remarked: “Ah, another programme.”
‘She was quite detached from those dramas and I suspect she might be quite detached from ours as well.’
The Iron Lady opens in cinemas today.
What a crying shame. Meryl Streep's brilliance as Mrs T can't save an ill-conceived film that distorts history
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Torment: Streep as Mrs Thatcher, with whiskey, shortly after the sinking of the Belgrano
Meryl Streep is bound to be among the
awards contenders for her uncannily accurate, Oscar-quality performance
as Margaret Thatcher.
But that doesn’t prevent this film from being jaw-droppingly misconceived.
times, I found myself silently mouthing the words our former Prime
Minister used about European expansionism: ‘No, no, NO’!
Director Phyllida Lloyd’s second film has all the economic and political sophistication of her first, Mamma Mia!
Franco-British picture is far from the hatchet job some were predicting
— it chooses to portray Thatcher as a plucky underdog defying a
male-dominated establishment — but it’s naive.
also bewilderingly single-minded about missing out everything that made
her a unique and formidable figure. But don’t take my word for it.
Here’s a question for you: which of the following five statements is
1. Thatcher inherited
a bankrupt economy in hock to the International Monetary Fund. Her
free-market policies left the British economy competitive in the world’s
empowering social policies include the sale of council houses to their
tenants, giving ordinary people a stake in a property-owning democracy.
Even the Labour Party dropped opposition to the scheme by 1992, because
they knew it was losing them votes.
Meryl Streep as Margaret Thatcher and Jim Broadbent as Denis Thatcher in 'The Iron Lady' Released January 6 2012
3. She argued so strongly against
involvement in the European Monetary Union and membership of the euro,
that her Cabinet colleagues conspired successfully to bring her down.
Her much-ridiculed prediction was that a single currency could not
accommodate industrial powerhouses such as Germany and backward
countries such as Greece.
She strongly believed that Germany remained an expansionist nation that
would use the euro to extend its power over the rest of Europe.
5. She is now senile and talks a great deal to the ghost of her long-dead husband Denis.
Alexandra Roach as young Margaret Thatcher
According to the new Thatcher biopic,
the first four statements — though accurate — are too insignificant to
merit inclusion in a 105-minute movie, while number five, though highly
dubious and of little significance, warrants more than half-an-hour of
The rest of
the movie consists of a gallop through some of the major events in her
life, without much attempt to analyse whether she was right or wrong:
the miners’ strike, the IRA bombing at Brighton, the Falklands
conflict.It’s hard to know what screenwriter Abi Morgan was thinking.
she felt spending so much time on Thatcher’s recent ill health would
engender sympathy. Or, perhaps she feels senility is divine retribution
for past crimes. It’s impossible to tell.
It’s too bad the film glides over Thatcher’s interest in chemistry and the law.
though Alexandra Roach is as the young Margaret, there’s no mention of
her career as a research chemist or her training to become a barrister.
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Jaw-droppingly misconceived: The film's adaptation of Thatcher was bewilderingly single-minded, missing out everything that made her a unique and formidable figure
As far as the movie is concerned, she went straight from Oxford into
politics. The fact she didn’t strikes me as central to her beliefs and
Among her qualities were a forensic attention to detail and a powerful
ability to argue a case. Of the supporting cast, Anthony Head stands out
with an accurate impersonation of Sir Geoffrey Howe.
Denis, though, is portrayed far too superficially by Jim Broadbent as a
genial buffoon, mostly loyal to his wife, except on one implausible
occasion when he turns on her for devoting too much time to politics,
and too little to her family.
The normally excellent Broadbent is lumbered with a caricature based, it would seem, on the Private Eye column Dear Bill.
There’s no room in the movie for Keith Joseph or Nicholas Ridley, two of
Mrs Thatcher’s most formidable intellectual mentors, or her most loyal
henchman, Norman Tebbit.
The men around her, with two exceptions — her adviser Airey Neave
(Julian Wadham) and strategist Gordon Reece (Roger Allam) — are depicted
as bumbling incompetents or jealous chauvinists.
That’s typical of the film’s distortions. It consistently, and
predictably, sacrifices complexity and depth in order to pretend that
Margaret Thatcher was something she never set out to be, a feminist
icon. That, of course, is not why she deserves commemoration. She
deserves to be studied because she was right about so many things, and
carried out her public duties despite hysterical abuse from most of the
political and media establishment.
Small wonder this is what interests these film-makers least.