When you first see Meryl Streep in Florence Foster Jenkins, she is descending from the rafters of a stage, dressed as an angel and suspended in mid-air, beaming at the camera.
I honestly don’t know why every movie doesn’t begin this way.
“That was scary actually!” Streep says, throwing her head back and letting out one of those glorious, ebullient cackles that suddenly makes the Greatest Actress in History the most approachable person you’d ever met. Which I did. For 10 minutes.
I spent 10 minutes with Meryl Streep.
I have the water bottle she touched to prove it. “They’ve given me thousands of them,” she says, elongating the word “thousands” in that Streep-ian way as she fussily hands one to me and insists that I hydrate. Said water bottle is currently en route to being bronzed for posterity.
Streep isn’t descending from the rafters at this very moment, but the studio lights still erect behind her from the morning’s press junket have created something of a halo glowing around her head. An angel sitting in front of me. Still giggling. Still glorious.
She was suspended in the air like that for the better part of half a day, she says. It was alarming!
“You have all sorts of people very worried-looking on the side,” she remembers.
She channels their anxiety, looking up at the ceiling and nailing the terrified expression of a lowly production assistant realizing that the only human on earth who could’ve pulled off that Polish accent for Sophie’s Choice could, at any moment, come crashing down on stage.
“You’re like, if they’re worried, should I be worried?” she says, letting out that laugh again, adding 10 more years to my life with its powers.
Shooting the scene was like Pilates, she explains, requiring that she arch her back while sporting these big, heavy angel wings—and look delighted while doing it. “So, I did it…and then I had a very big martini afterwards.”
Florence Foster Jenkins, the angel in question, is Streep’s latest biopic triumph, and quite possibly the greatest stretch yet for the record-setting Oscar winner: a performer who is not talented.
Jenkins, of course, is much more than that. She might be one of the most fascinating real-life characters in New York City history. A socialite and fierce music enthusiast, Jenkins was an aspiring opera singer whose influence managed to carry her all the way to a sold-out 1944 recital at Carnegie Hall—all despite the fact that her voice sounded like a family of feral cats being boiled alive.
Her longtime companion, St. Clair Bayfield (played by a wonderful Hugh Grant in the film), managed to keep her terrible singing voice under wraps through a series of bribes. This remained secret even from Jenkins herself, who was oblivious to the dubiousness of her talents.
But following the very public Carnegie Hall performance the charade was up. After being mocked by critics, Jenkins died of a heart attack days later.
Streep’s performance of these musical numbers are a tour de force of bad singing, an acting feat notoriously difficult to pull off but which Streep does with extreme comic precision. But it’s not about the freedom in singing badly or even how hard it is to do so—Streep, by the way, meticulously learned all the arias—but about the irresistible feeling, the earnest gusto, that Jenkins projected. Even if she was a little flat.
“I don’t think our Florence was aiming so much at greatness,” she says. “When she said, ‘Music is my life,’ I think that’s true. She wanted to give the thing that she loved.”
Streep certainly gets that. This is a woman whose name is synonymous with greatness, after all.
“I didn’t go into acting to be great,” she says. “I just wanted to do the same thing [as Jenkins].”
She goes into a breathtaking explanation of the acting process: connection, communication, something about the air in the room. I’ve nearly lost myself entirely in her intense eye contact when she concludes, “The most exciting thing to me is making the thing. How it’s received is gravy.”
With the intellectual thought she gives to the art of acting, it must be a particularly resonant experience to play a performer, particularly one with the zeal of Florence Foster Jenkins.
“Have you ever been in a play?” she asks me.
In a panic I contemplate whether I should spend the rest of my ten minutes with Meryl Streep reliving the 2003 Calvert High School production of Guys and Dolls, in which my performance as Nathan Detroit was ruled “perfectly adequate.” Surely that’s what she was leading to with that question. But an answer inexplicably escapes before I can even summon the “Fugue for Tinhorns.”
“Yes,” I say. Profound.
“So you can probably right now hurl yourself back in time to the moments before you went out on stage,” she says.
She can. She does, for me right then and there. She uses the word “insipient” while doing so and I nod knowingly, as if I understand what the hell that word means. “It is what we live for,” she says. We. You, me, Florence Foster Jenkins: we are all now peers of Meryl Streep.
What struck Streep most about Florence Foster Jenkins, a woman who would be written off as a viral joke in today’s hate-culture were it not for her epically .GIF-able existence, is her spirit.
There’s a joy I’m sensing, I tell her. After watching Florence Foster Jenkins I wonder if she caught any of that from the singer’s spirit. Certainly, I saw it two weeks ago when she stood on stage at the Democratic National Convention in her star-spangled wrap dress and hooted like Howard Dean.
“I didn’t even know that I had screamed!” she says, laughing once again (to my delight).” I was just kind of surfing a wave, coming out in that audience, everyone on their feet, just about feeling this thing.”
That sweet little giggle that seems to play as a score to everything Meryl Streep says returns, but it doesn’t compare to when she adopts that intense—though still inviting—quiet. When she sort-of casually glances up and off to the side as she processes her own deeper feelings about something. When she’s about to get all Meryl Streep on you.
This happens and my soul nearly leaves my body.
“Really, 240 years of women only sort-of being citizens,” she begins. “But really only less than 100 years ago allowed to vote. Indentured in some way. And the correction—the correction—is being made in my lifetime, and I felt it.”
She starts telling a story about her grandmother, who at age 90 sat Streep down and told her about how she had three children before she was deemed capable of voting.
“She was one of the smartest people I knew, but she was kind of lesser, in the eyes of our republic,” she says. “And this correction has been made in our time, which is stunning. I just felt all of that. I felt my mother, my grandmother with me.”
Here we are, though, talking about Florence Foster Jenkins and the challenge of making the decision to use your voice. Especially when making the decision to share an opinion, a potentially polarizing political one, in a public sphere, do you feel more cautious about taking that so-called leap?
“Yeah,” she says, nodding. “I definitely feel more caution. Because I don’t think a broadly, boldly delineated public figure helps you as an actor to fit into people’s imagination as someone else. I think if you’re so three-dimensionally drawn—people know what you eat for breakfast, who you vote for—it’s harder for them, perceptually, to accept you as all the people I ask them to accept me as.”
Is there a “but?” There’s a “but.”
“But,” she continues, “in a moment where your country calls you and your conscience calls you—and this is an extraordinary time we’re living in—I don’t think anyone has the luxury to sit back and say, ‘I don’t want to get involved.’ You kind of have to.”
So she’s using her voice. She’s speaking for generations of women in her family. She’s speaking for the Democratic party. She’s speaking for those of us who wish that Clint Eastwood would get a grip.
“Good luck with that,” she says, when I bring up the giddy response to her statements about Eastwood’s support of Trump. “It’s not gonna make a difference.” She sighs: “He’s an extraordinary artist. And somehow I expect of an artist that they’ll have a better 360 of the world.”
Before we know it—for Streep no doubt relished every second of this exchange as I did—our ten minutes are over.
She’s great in the film I tell her as I head out, as if she doesn’t know. Does it get old to hear that? I wonder, does Meryl Streep, the greatest of them all, have a suggestion for taking a compliment? Lord knows she gets a lot of them.
“My mother says, ‘Say thank you. Look the person directly in the eye and say thank you.’ It’s hard when you’re 13 and it’s hard now,” she says, pausing and looking me directly in the eye. “But thank you.”