Meryl Streep has embraced ageing to play a singing witch in a Sondheim musical. Nothing fazes the star, as Film Critic Tony Earnshaw discovers.
She turned them all down. Maybe it was something to do with hitting her forties – that decade dreaded by leading ladies who rightly know that they will be perceived differently by producers and peers.
Twenty-five years later she’s embraced playing a witch in the new film version of Stephen Sondheim’s Into the Woods, equally singing and cackling her way through a compendium of the great Grimm fairytales. What’s changed?
“Why this witch? Age appropriate,” comes the response from the 65-year-old triple Oscar winner.
“Also I’ve had a political reaction against the concept of witches – of old women being demonised and age being this horrifying, scary thing. I just didn’t like that. I didn’t like it when I was a little girl. I don’t like it now.”
Her comments come on the back of an interview with Russell Crowe in which he seemed to reignite the debate about older actresses losing out on juicy roles. Streep isn’t having any of that.
“I read all that he said and it has been misappropriated. He was talking about himself. The journalist asked him ‘Why don’t you do another Gladiator?’ and he said, ‘I’m too old. I’m playing parts that are appropriate to my age.’
“I agree with him. It’s good to live in the place where you are. Having said that this witch was created by a very, very young woman. It was easier to do that – to make the transformation because you can put old age on. It’s a lot harder to take it off. I thought it was now time and it wasn’t that time at 40.”
The witch Streep refers to is fellow actress Bernadette Peters, who created the role on Broadway in 1987. At the time she was a mere stripling of 28.
“I was much closer to 68,” quips Streep. “It’s the sign of a great part that it can morph and fit the sensibility of anybody. Any age. That’s the movies: they’re for any age, and every age.”
Having notched up 18 Academy Award nominations with wins for Kramer vs Kramer, Sophie’s Choice and The Iron Lady, Streep has been rightly lauded as the pre-eminent actress of her generation.
Yet Into the Woods and the witch offer an intriguing challenge: retaining sufficiently the Broadway element whilst rooting her acting in cinema. I ask Streep how she engineered her performance as a singing witch.
“Engineer?” she laughs, stretching out the last syllable of the word. “It’s a lot of maths skills, as you can imagine!”
The next minute is taken up with much mockery from Streep and co-stars Tracey Ullman and Emily Blunt.
An answer eventually comes.
“I knew going in that I’d have to really work on my lung capacity and my ability to expand the sound that I normally use when I’m yelling at people or singing. So I swam a mile a day in the summertime and it gave me a lot of breath. That was good.
“But also the great luxury of film and of this production is that if you go see Into the Woods in the theatre in a really, really good production you’ll pick up 95 per cent of the lyrics.
“Maybe. But not one word will you miss in this. [It boasts] a big sound and yet still has the intimacy. That’s unusual.
“You can imagine how badly this could have gone if it was just presented as in the Broadway way, but this has a little of everything and that’s good.”
Streep considers the movie to have “a Disney message”. She compares it to Bambi, the film “that marked my life as a seven-year-old”. Her 22-year-old daughter, seeing the devastation wreaked by the chopping down of Jack’s beanstalk, equated it with something much, much darker. My daughter doesn’t really like musicals. I showed her the film and she watched it very seriously.
“At the end she said, ‘I love everything about this movie and, after the world falls down there are these little things floating in the air, debris in the forest.
‘It reminded me of when we lived in New York and I was in fifth grade and 9/11 week happened.’
“That was her immediate association watching this film. And in Bambi the mother dies in the first five minutes. That’s an unhappy beginning. Yet life goes on.”
Unlike the majority of the film’s cast who auditioned for their various roles – except for Johnny Depp, who was invited to play the Big Bad Wolf in a performance modelled on 1940s Tex Avery cartoons – Streep was cast by director Rob Marshall.
But it was Stephen Sondheim who called Streep’s casting “a date with destiny”, pointing out that her surname is an anagram of Peters’.
Having landed the role of the witch she “was summoned” with Marshall to meet the composer in his New York penthouse.
She sounds nervous recalling the episode.
“He let us know that he’d written a new song for me,” she recalls. “I was very excited to hear that. I thought that they’d send the music or a recording of it or something but he wanted to play it for me and sing it for me himself.
“And he sounds like this” – she mimics his gravelly drawl in a spontaneous display of her knack for accents – “so it wasn’t a lot of help. I had to interpret it. But he did give me the feeling of what he wanted to convey. It was a great afternoon.
“I was really excited to be there and he sang this thing and at the end I said, ‘So, can you give me the sheet music?’ And he said, ‘Of course.’
“And I said, ‘Would you autograph it? Do you mind?’ He said, ‘Not at all’ and he wrote, ‘Don’t f*** it up! Steve.’”
• Into the Woods is on saturation release.