The Magic Of Meryl

She has more Oscar nominations than any other actor, and she’s done it while staying true to herself. Now, at 66 and starring in the new film, Suffragette, Meryl Streep is enjoying the confidence that comes with age.

She is known for her absolute dedication to each and every role she plays, so when Meryl Streep was cast as Emmeline Pankhurst in the new, hotly anticipated British film, Suffragette, she was always going to do more than learn her lines and brush up her English accent. Sure enough, inspired by playing one of the most prominent figures in the British women’s suffrage movement, Meryl wrote to every US Congressman and Congresswoman, imploring them to enact a change to the Constitution that would prohibit discrimination against women and girls under the law.

‘I am writing to ask you to stand up for equality – for your mother, your daughter, your sister, your wife or yourself – by actively supporting the Equal Rights Amendment,’ she wrote. So, can Meryl Streep change the US Constitution to ban discrimination against women? Maybe she can.

Emmeline Pankhurst is certainly a fitting role for the Hollywood star who has picked up more than 150 acting awards so far, and has never been afraid to speak out about equality. Pankhurst co-founded the Women’s Social and Political Union in 1903, a militant organisation dedicated to ‘deeds not words’, and inspired other women to take action,
too. As a staunch campaigner for women’s rights, it was, perhaps, a part Meryl Streep simply couldn’t turn down.

More outspoken with age

The sheer variety of roles she’s taken on in her dazzling career of more than 40 years is certainly impressive – nobody could ever describe Meryl Streep as an actress who simply ‘plays herself’. Whether a traumatised Holocaust survivor (Sophie’s Choice), a diabolical magazine editor (The Devil Wears Prada) or, most recently, an early 20th-century feminist (Suffragette), Meryl pours her heart and soul into everything she does – and her mastery of accents (her English and Polish are impeccable) is legendary.

Getting older has, it seems, made her less afraid to speak her mind. In 2014, for example, she described Walt Disney as ‘anti-Semitic’ and a ‘gender bigot’, and then upset Left-leaning admirers by praising Margaret Thatcher for her ‘personal strength and grit’. About her four children, now grown up, she is equally forthright. ‘Lecturing is what I do with my children, not listening,’ she jokes. ‘My kids wouldn’t dare say to me they were bored. I’d kill them! How dare you! You have the gift of life. You’ve got to get out there and eat it!’

She’s certainly not ready to sit back or slow down. ‘The older I get, the more intense my appetite gets for living and for appreciating life,’ she says.

Professionally, Meryl doesn’t have much trouble securing interesting roles for herself. As the US comedienne Amy Poehler joked, ‘There are plenty of roles for mature women in Hollywood – as long as their name is Meryl Streep.’

And, typically, she is doing her bit to help other women in the business, funding a unique programme called The Writers Lab, which aims to support and mentor women screenwriters who are aged 40 or older.

She’s had experience of Hollywood’s double standards when it comes to casting women. She tells how, when she hit the grand old age of 40, she was promptly offered not one but three parts playing a witch. ‘Our culture is pretty youth obsessed. I wasn’t offered any female adventurers, or love interests, or heroes or demons,’ she recalls. ‘I was offered witches because I was “old” at 40. I thought I was washed up.’

Each day is a gift

Thankfully, she was wrong and, 26 years on, she’s still proving that it’s possible for older women to have fascinating, valuable and complex lives and for older actresses to continue working without having to wear a black cloak or jump on a broomstick.

‘The good thing about getting older is that, when they actually do cast you, it’s often something interesting,’ she explains. ‘Mamma Mia!, for example, is about people who are flawed and have made big mistakes, but so what?’

So why, then, given all she’s said about women on broomsticks, did she finally agree to play a witch in last year’s Disney musical, Into The Woods? ‘I felt it was time,’ she laughs. ‘It’s age appropriate. I am an old crone!’

She is comfortable being in her sixties, and like many women of her age, she looks back regretfully at her younger self and sees ‘this beautiful young woman who was anxious about whether she was too heavy or if her nose was too big’.

Does she feel she’s learnt anything worth sharing with the younger generation, bearing in mind she has three beautiful daughters who all look strikingly similar to the young Meryl Streep? ‘You have to embrace getting older,’ she says. ‘Life is precious, and when you’ve lost a lot of people, you realise each day is a gift.’ Wise words indeed.

Suffragette is in cinemas from 12 October 2015