Considering that Meryl Streep had just won the Oscar a little more than a week before, the Tokyo press coference for The Iron Lady, in which she portrays former British Prime Minister Margaret Thatcher, wasn’t as packed as one would have expected. It also wasn’t as long as one might have hoped: barely 25 minutes covering a grand total of six different questions, and since two of those were from media that are big enough to score individual interviews, it seemed like a wasted opportunity. Streep and her director, Phyllida Lloyd, had come a long way, and though I imagine the time limit was imposed for the star’s sake, I also imagine the only reason she came was to promote a film that needed all the help it could get, which isn’t to say The Iron Lady is a bad film or uninteresting; but, like most biopics of non-show biz personalities, it hasn’t exactly burned up box offices and the relatively late opening in Japan could rectify that somewhat since it’s so close to Streep’s Academy Award win, which many didn’t expect. (It should be noted that the p.c. was not unexpected. I received my invitation the afternoon of the Oscar ceremony.) But I wouldn’t count on it.
Entering to the strains of “Shall We Dance” from The King and I, which I vaguely recall from the movie was a favorite song of Margaret Thatcher’s, Streep and Lloyd struck a pleasing contrast. The American actress, wearing stylishly over-sized black-framed glasses, looked much more glamorous than she did the last time she was in Japan plugging Mamma Mia!, which Lloyd also directed but didn’t promote in person here. The director, with her Scandinavian features and sensible bob, looked like the wonky technician in comparison, and you could tell they were attuned to each other in a very natural way. It might have been interesting to hear them discuss frankly their views on the subject of their project, a “character” whom Streep described as being “both loved and reviled” in Great Britain “in equal measure.” The judiciousness of the remark would characterize the press conference in that neither woman betrayed any hint of her personal opinion of Margaret Thatcher. Given the even-handed coherence of the answers, this was obviously by design. How different from the Mamma Mia! press conference, where Streep riffed and joked and mostly exercised her theretofore unrecognized capacity for making fun of her straight-back image. Maybe it was just as calculated. I mean, anybody who takes Mamma Mia! seriously is a chump.
Streep said that “coming from the United States” she had her work cut out for her, but did she really? She’s Meryl fuckin’ Streep. Who else is up to playing ol’ Maggie? Apparently, a British comedy troupe predicted the casting as long ago as the late 80s, albeit in spoof form, but Streep had the last laugh, not so much because she won the Oscar but because she really did nail the part. The whole impersonation thing faded from consciousness during the scenes of Thatcher as an old woman, which captured situations no one but those closest to her would have been able to recognize. It was Streep’s ability to take what we know about Thatcher and extrapolate it into a portrait of old age that was remarkable for its inner integrity. This was a real human being with a past. It’s just that that past happened to belong to one of the most powerful figures of the late 20th century. As Streep explained, this was the challenge. “It was a large but very well-defined outline,” she said. “I had to fit myself into that and I also had to play her as an old woman during a part of her life that is not known to most people.”
As far as playing off Thatcher’s appeal as a rebel against her bedrock conservative values, Streep had it fairly easy. “She never let go of her femininity as a head of state,” she said. “The temptation [for her] might have been to lose those elements of her womanliness in order to appear more statesmanlike, or to fit into the club of men, and she didn’t do that. She loved her shoes, her handbags, her flouncy blouses. But at the same time there were elements of her femininity that she could not allow to be seen, her tears, her laughter, those displays of vulnerability. So, hence, the iron lady.” Lloyd’s sympathies were less studied, probably because she herself is British. “I liked the fact that she remembered where she came from,” she said. “She always remembered the most unimportant person in the room or in an entourage, and was always concerned about their well-being. So I think she had real empathy for what the ordinary person was feeling.” Well, ordinary Brits, perhaps. Wouldn’t want to imagine what she thought of ordinary Argentineans.
The questions weren’t particularly compelling, and all seemed to orbit around this theme of “challenge,” probably because whenever Streep takes on a role she always seems to approach it as if it were a title match (except, of course, Mamma Mia!). The Asahi Shimbun guy asked her about the “challenge” of playing a real life figure who was also still alive. “It was a real responsibility,” she answered, “and I’ve played some real people before. It’s an added responsibility to get things as accurate as possible, and to get as close to the truth of something you only can imagine. Public figures’, politicians’ lives are part of history, and as part of history we’re very interested in them and we read our own lives in the stories of theirs, so I felt it was not only appropriate but interesting with the viewpoint we took, which was not tracking the triumphant rise of a woman. It looks at her daily life today, and how those past decisions and the big life she lived impact on her now, how she assesses life as she gets older. I think it was unique and presented an opportunity for me to learn something about myself and my parents, their generation.”
The more practical challenge was the shoot itself, which apparently was constrained by the budget. Lloyd was straightforward about how these constraints made their job more difficult. The most difficult scenes were “shot in the first three days,” she said. “Because we had no time we had to put Meryl in the terrible position of doing these biggest challenges first. One of them was the scene in which Mrs. Thatcher is losing control of her cabinet, and I think I was very lucky to have somebody of Meryl’s imaginative power to be able to know how far she had to go, how close to the edge she had to go that early in the shoot. She had to anticipate that the film would need that level of crisis. I took it for granted she would and I was very lucky.” Streep added that this scene was shot “on the second day. The film is necessarily disjointed because it’s about her memory. At that point we were not sure how the whole thing would build and devolve. Also I didn’t know any of the actors who were meant to be her closest colleagues, so I had to imagine both the size of these relationships and their importance to Mrs. Thatcher, and her disregard for how momentous that turned out to be in her life, because it was her downfall. I should add that we had a man on set who had been in the room on the day this happened, and that was very helpful. All along the way we had the help of both Mrs. Thatcher’s adversaries and her very closest friends.”
One journalist knew how to butter up Streep, asking her about Roy Helland, the man who won the makeup Oscar and one of Streep’s closest colleagues for close to four decades. It managed to release her from the bond of having to talk diplomatically about Margaret Thatcher. “I like working with Roy,” she said. “We’ve worked together since my first play in New York City, when I was right out of drama school. I knew he had a special interest in making characters, and not all makeup people have the sort of interest. It’s been a great collaboration over the years, and a unique one in our business right now.” As for the job that Helland and his co-winner, prosthetics artist Mark Coulier, did on her, Streep said something that may have revealed more about her feelings for the woman she portrayed than anything else at the press conference. “I felt I saw someone I recognized,” she said. “As an old woman, I looked like my father, a combination of my father and Margaret Thatcher.” She laughed, as if the idea had just occurred to her.