Meryl Streep rocks harder than ever in ‘Ricki and the Flash’

Jan Janssen, The Interview Feed

She’s become a Hollywood legend for playing great women, mastering accents and generally making her mark as the greatest actress on Earth. But now it seems that Meryl Streep is enjoying a second life as a musical performer.

Having sung in Postcards From the Edge and Ironweed, Streep again wowed critics and audiences alike with her singing in 2008’s hit musical, Mamma Mia! Last year, she displayed her vocal agility in Into the Woods, where she pushed her voice “beyond all my expectations.” Now she’s playing hard-rocking singer/guitarist in Ricki and the Flash, a feel-good comedy directed by Oscar-winning filmmaker Jonathan Demme. 

Streep stars as Ricki, a gifted musician who neglected her family to pursue rock ‘n’ roll stardom and returns home to attempt a belated reconciliation. Streep’s real-life daughter Mamie Gummer plays Ricki’s daughter Julie while Kevin Kline plays Pete, Ricki’s long-suffering ex-husband. Real-life rocker Rick Springfield and former Gossip Girl player Sebastian Stan also co-star. 

“This film was so much fun to make and I was so happy to work again with my former screen husband, Kevin Kline (in Sophie’s Choice),” Streep says. “Ricki is an old-school rocker who sings in bars and belts out songs of famous bands. I spent six months working on my guitar technique and I had such a great time doing covers of Bruce Springsteen and Tom Petty hits.” 

Now 65, Meryl Streep is in the middle of a career renaissance that began with her Oscar-nominated performance in The Devil Wears Prada in 2006 and continued with roles in Julie and Julia, The Iron Lady (which earned Streep her third Academy Award), and August: Osage County. Streep and her sculptor husband Donald Gummer live in the Tribeca area of New York. Two of their four children are actively pursuing acting careers: daughters Mamie (Side Effects) and Grace Gummer (Margin Call, Frances Ha).

At the April Women in the World Summit in New York, Streep had the following observation about how women have been historically short-changed in literature and film: “From the time we’re little girls, we read all of literature, you know, all of history. It’s really about boys, most of it. But I can feel more like Peter Pan than Tinkerbell. …I wanted to be Tom Sawyer, not Becky.” 

Ricki and the Flash opens in wide release on Aug. 7.

Meryl, would you say your singing career seems assured with films like Into the Woods and the upcoming Ricki and the Flash? (Laughs) I’m not so sure. But I’m trying hard to hold my own. It’s funny how things have worked out this way because my mother had ambitions of being a lounge singer and my father composed music and played the piano. I had a great singing teacher, Betsy Parrish, in graduate school and that’s where I understood a lot about how profoundly your emotions connect to your breathing and to music. She was a huge inspiration to me and enabled me to appreciate that singing and acting are very similar in that singing makes you reach into your deepest feelings. Singing is an extension of everything that you do when you’re acting. 

You also get to work with your daughter Mamie in Ricki and the Flash? That’s such a delight for me. I’m so proud of Mamie and of Grace, who were willing to follow in their mother’s profession despite all the pressure and attention that comes with being Meryl Streep’s daughters. They’re very strong-willed and determined young women. I only want them to be happy in life and I’m very supportive of their work because they made their decision knowing that they would always have to deal with that added burden. 

Although you’ve made your mark in the history of cinema for playing great women and historical figures, you changed gears later in your career and started doing comedies. And lately you’re been doing more musical and lighter roles? Doing serious drama was something that grew out of the fact that when I graduated from drama school, there were a lot of very good, very serious films being made and those were the best roles that were available or were being offered to me. I never did those kinds of serious roles in drama school but after I played in The Deer Hunter and Sophie’s Choice I was locked into playing very serious women and I never had a chance to do any comedies. I didn’t have a choice. But later on, when I was raising my children I became tired of only playing certain kinds of very dramatic roles and I wanted to play in lighter kinds of films. Now I’m simply amazed that I’ve been able to find so much work and play many different kinds of characters at an age when this industry tends to forget about women. I’m thrilled!

You’ve earned every honor and accolade that any actor could ever hope to win in the film business. Do you ever feel that you had to sacrifice too much of your family time for the sake of maintaining such a legendary career? I think there’s a bias against women when it comes to discussing the idea of making sacrifices. That question doesn’t arise when it comes to men — a man has always been seen as someone who works hard and has a full-time occupation. 

I think women should have the same opportunity and not have any stigma attached to them if they choose to pursue their careers. Life is all about making choices and I’m very happy with mine. I have had a wonderful time raising four children and I’ve also been lucky to have the support of a wonderful husband.

You did relax your workload when your children were teenagers, though? It started even before that. When my children were younger, I turned down any project that involved my having to be away from our home for long periods of time. That was just out of the question for me. I wanted to enjoy my life at home and I would only do a film which wouldn’t last longer than two months and where I would still fly back on weekends to be with my children.

Being with my husband and my children always brought me the greatest joy and happiness in life. I love acting, of course, but I had already achieved a lot of success by the time my children were growing up so I didn’t have the urgency I had to prove myself. I was also very exhausted by the grind of studio meetings and the pressure to keep finding the best films. It left me feeling miserable at times. So I decided to cut back and do different kinds of films. Also, when you reach 40, at least in my day, it was considered the beginning of the end of your career playing leads. So that was another factor.

What do you account for your career renaissance over the past decade or so? I don’t really know but I’m not complaining. I think that once my children were all grown up and didn’t need mommy to look after them anymore, it was the right moment to go back to work with as much passion and dedication as I ever had. Except maybe I don’t stress myself as much before every film!

What’s the secret of having a long and happy marriage, as in your case with Donald Gummer? We’re kind of the perfect odd couple. Don is a man of few words — I’m the one who keeps up a constant stream of chatter in the house. He listens very patiently and then goes back to his work. He also loves me as I am, eager and overactive, even at my age. He’s the definition of the introverted and introspective artist. I’m very expressive and more exuberant. We complement each other beautifully that way. 

Do you still get a kick out of acting? Yes. The best thing about it is when you’re playing a scene and you actually become your character and lose yourself in that moment. That’s when you know you’ve been successful at what you’ve worked very hard to accomplish in your profession. Those are the truly thrilling moments.