“That’s called upstaging,” said Meryl Streep at NJPAC in Newark, Dec. 1. While being interviewed by Stephen Colbert, in a fundraiser for Montclair Film, the “Late Night With Stephen Colbert” host moved to a table located behind her and mixed martinis for both of them, with some purposely excessive theatrical flourishes. The focus remained on him until he came back to his seat.
Rest assured, though, that except for this one funny moment, Colbert made sure — like any good interviewer — that the focus was on her, and not on him. He has done these kinds of events before, with Jon Stewart, John Oliver, Steve Carell and Samantha Bee. (A Montclair resident, he is on the advisory board of Montclair Film, and his wife Evelyn is the president of its board of trustees.) But this was an extended interview with a woman who, in his words, “has been called the great living actor, the greatest actor of our generation.” And he wasn’t going to pass up the opportunity to delve deeply into her experiences as an actor, her approach to her craft, and the unique path that has led her to the lofty place in the acting world that she occupies, today.
And so this was, mostly, a very serious interview — with some occasional comic bantering, of course, and a strong sense of bonding between the two participants. But still, a very serious, focused thing. And the mood remained the same throughout the question-and-answer session that followed the talk.
In one of the evening’s most interesting moments, Streep — who had, a few moments earlier, discussed playing British prime minister Margaret Thatcher in the 2011 film, “The Iron Lady” — rejected the notion that an actor “becomes” the character she is playing, then goes back to being herself.
“No, no, no,” said Streep, who grew up in Bernardsville and other New Jersey towns. “You pull up a thing that exists in you, that also exists in this character. So you’re not letting go of anything, at the end of the day, just ’cause you don’t talk like that or wear that wig. The thing you pull up from the bottom of your fundament … is the same thing. You’re not jettisoning anything. You don’t have anything but what you already know. And the audience that empathizes with you, that understands something about Margaret Thatcher that they didn’t understand before … it’s because they have that, too.”
Streep also talked about current films, including “Mary Poppins Returns,” in which she has a small part (the movie comes out Dec. 19), and “A Star Is Born,” which she loved. Other favorites of hers, of films released this year, have included “The Rider” and the upcoming “Stan & Ollie.”
She also praised “First Reformed,” directed by Paul Schrader and starring Ethan Hawke. “It’s so ambitious, and so sere and simple and pure; it’s a great movie,” she said.
She talked a lot, throughout the evening, about her early years as an actor, and the very different world that young actors are living in today.
“When I entered the entertainment business … it was a different time,” she said. “Everything’s been changed by social media.
“I recently talked to a very wonderful casting director, and he said that he was casting the second iteration of ‘Spring Awakening,’ which is a very young cast, and that they had been asked not to see anybody who didn’t have more than 5,000 followers on their Twitter site. … In my day, the way you would break in (to acting) is to be seen in a play. You’d do anything. You’d wait on tables, sleep on the floor of your friend’s apartment. Now, apparently, if you want to be in a play, you, I guess, do something on YouTube that makes people want to look at you. This is a world that I don’t understand.
“My best advice, though, for people who love it and want to do it, is to just find other people that you think are doing good work, and that you admire. And to gravitate towards them, and do anything: Pass out programs, do anything in their theater. But if you find the person who’s doing work that you love, and that you admire, and that feels important … go to the source.”
Not surprisingly, since Colbert and Streep are both outspoken critics of President Trump (and have been insulted by him), the conversation occasionally touched on politics.
At one point, they talked about how politicians, like actors, need to empathize with people, but that Trump seems, to use Colbert’s phrase, “indifferent to the idea of empathy.”
“I’m scared by it, by his possibility,” Streep said. “And I do empathize with him. I can’t imagine what his 3 a.m. is like. … There’s a gathering storm. Everybody feels it. He feels it.
“His children are in jeopardy. … I think, if my children were in jeopardy, I would do anything, anything, to get them out … So we should be afraid.”
Montclair Film presents various programs and screening, year-round, as well as the annual Montclair Film Festival, whose 2019 edition takes place May 3-12.
Montclair Film has also announced its next fundraiser: “The Glitter Ball,” billed as “A Dancefloor Celebration of Soul + R&B + Funk” featuring the band The Loser’s Lounge, with guests Patrick Wilson and Warren Zanes, March 2 at the Wellmont Theater in Montclair.
For information and updates, visit montclairfilm.org.