In her long and celebrated career, it seems like Meryl Streep never met an accent she didn’t like — and master. We’ve heard her do Italian, Danish, Irish-American, Australian, Midwestern, Julia Child — a category in itself. In her latest film, The Iron Lady, Streep dons The King’s English in her buzz-worthy portrayal of the politically polarizing and historically unforgettable Margaret Thatcher.
What’s her secret? According to Streep, accents are the simple stuff. “You know, that’s like the easiest thing I do,” Streep said Tuesday night at a panel with Iron Lady director Phyllida Lloyd. “The kid part of it is copying a voice I’ve heard.”
That’s not to say the task is easy, but Streep said that when she dives into the mind and motivation of a character, the voice follows. “To capture how someone speaks is to capture them,” she said.
The panel, held at New York’s Directors Guild Theater following a screening of The Iron Lady, was streamed live online, allowing viewers as well as audience members the chance to submit questions to the film’s director and star. When Lloyd was asked how she felt approaching the project and the character of Thatcher, whose legacy is built on a firm resolve that left many detractors in it’s wake, she said a shot of terror shot through her. “My instinctive reaction was, Margaret Thatcher was one provocation and Meryl Streep was a second,” she said. “I froze and thought, ‘How will England take this combustion?’”
The reaction was, in the simplest term, mixed. She said backlash in England bypassed her choice of an American star — and the film altogether — and instead gravitated to partisan debates on the character of Thatcher herself. “They began to forget the film and tear each other to bits,” she said. “People are angry about the film who haven’t seen it.”
Ultimately, she said she directed the film in a way that avoids value-judgment on Thatcher’s politics, but instead tries to display “Margaret Thatcher as a human being, which is very hard for some people.”
For Streep, she said she was excited by the opportunity. Besides the physical transformation, Streep needed to get inside the mind of a person whose public opinions do not necessarily align with her own. The character was in a special class. “Margaret Thatcher and Ronald Reagan and everyone I disagree with,” Streep said.
Politics aside, Streep said that there is a lot about Thatcher that she relates to and respects: namely her lifelong struggle to make something of herself in a man’s world. “This really appealed to every feminist bone in my body,” she said. “There’s whole parts of my personality that completely dovetail.”
For the final question of the panel, an audience member asked Streep what she wants viewers to take away from the movie. Streep answered that she hopes people will leave the theater and when they see an elderly person on the street or subway, remember that an entire life of joy and sadness is contained behind the wrinkles. “There is almost nothing less interesting in our consumerist society than an old lady,” Streep said.
In lieu of a chronological telling of Thatcher’s life, The Iron Lady shows a three-day period late in the former prime minister’s life and tells her story through a series of flashback memories. In that way, Streep said, the film tells Margaret Thatcher’s history through her own eyes.
“There’s so many secrets in lives we’ve decided we know everything about,” Streep said. “This is three days in the life of this little old lady, who just happens to be the longest serving prime minister of the 20th century”
The Iron Lady opens in theaters December 30.