Meryl Streep sailed past journalists on the red carpet who pleaded for quotes at the New York premiere of her new film, Florence Foster Jenkins. But earlier in the day, where she held court at a press conference at the Ritz-Carlton Hotel, Streep was relaxed and talkative and joked with co-stars Hugh Grant, The Big Bang’s Simon Helberg (in a terrific breakout role) and director Stephen Frears (“The Queen”).
Streep plays the real-life 1940’s Manhattan socialite who had illusions of grandeur that she was a talented opera singer. Her loving but philandering husband, St. Clair (Grant), and her naïve but well-paid accompanist, Cosme (Helberg, who actually plays the piano) abetted her delusions because of her wealth, passion and kind-heartedness. Jenkins’ operatic screeching and obliviousness to the audience’s reaction is comical but also sad, and the complexity of that dynamic is what attracted Streep to a role which is sure to bring her a 20th Oscar nomination.
Following is banter from the press conference:
To Hugh Grant: Did you agree with what your character did, protecting her from critics? And what did you think of the character?
I liked him and admired him, actually, both in the script and then when I dug deeper and read his diaries here in Lincoln Center. He charmed me. He properly loved her and she loved him, and it was a very moving 35-year romance. Was there any element of self-interest for him? Probably yes, but I’m not even sure it’s conscious, subconscious. Because the fact is without her and her world, he was just an out-of-work actor with no family and sort of lost in the world. But it was definitely real love, and I think that, above all, is why he protected her from the truth.
To Meryl and Simon: Was it hard for the two of you to shoot the musical performances live?
Meryl: No, it was way, way, more fun, way more fun… It was (also) way more terrifying, especially in the Carnegie Hall sequence when we shot the audience first, just so we could get an honest surprise. But we set ourselves up to fail really big, big time, so it was like a concert with all these arias … So the audience reaction is really their reaction.
Simon: And our terror was real.
Meryl: It made us symbiotically, yes, attached. If I would race up deliberately to screw him up and then just kind of stop… He was amazing to be able to play and act at the same time. Astounding.
To Meryl: You have a beautiful voice. Was it difficult to sing so badly?
No. It wasn’t. I have a very clear understanding of what my voice is. It’s like a B voice, you know? Hovers between b-minus and b-plus. And I have great friends who are wonderful, wonderful singers, and I know I’ll never, ever be able to do that, but singing through a character is something I can do, and I liked finding what it was in Florence’s recordings, because there are recordings of her, that remain very popular, so she’s there for all to hear and it’s not just how bad it is, it’s how aspirant, how hopeful it is. And you hear her breathing, wrong, in the wrong places. It’s sort of, it lead me to understand her and her exuberance and her will to make it right.
To Meryl: Is there anything you’re not good at?
Lots of things. I can’t do a lot of things. I don’t like golf. I mean, I really don’t. I tend to like things that I can do right away. And if I can’t do it right away, I don’t like it. So skiing I really like because you can sort of get up on skis if you’re sort of coordinated and completely reckless you can, you know, lean forward and go. But with golf, no… I never hit the ball ever. And my husband kept saying, ‘You’re coming up on the ball,’ and I said, ‘I’m not coming up!’ And I would hunk down and just hit over the top of it, and it was always sitting there.
Hugh: I’d love to see you play golf. I’d love to see you be bad at golf. I’d like to see you be bad at something. It’d be very comforting.
How do you describe the kind of love St. Clair and Florence had? How do you brand that kind of love that they had?
Meryl: Well, I haven’t really been successful branding love. I think especially peering into other people’s relationships. It’s almost always not what you think it is from the outside, and I think it’s an accurate portrayal of realistic delusional love, okay? It’s realistic because it is what it is, and there is illusion in it that they both prop and keep aloft this little bubble of happiness. One of the genius things that Stephen did, is embedded in the film, is that it really – in the margins you feel the war. It just comes in every once in a while of some glaring headline about something horrible happening and so many analogies to now, figuring out what makes life worth living. And love and art, as far as I’m concerned, is right smack in the middle, so the compromises that people make to keep their happiness intact? I think it’s all in the service of good.
To Hugh and Simon: Obviously when this project came up, the presence of Ms. Streep, how could you resist it, but were there any nerves along the way? How do you calm these nerves?
Meryl: It goes away very quickly because I never can remember what I’m supposed to say. Thankfully, Hugh had all my lines down pat so he could tell me.
Hugh Grant: I did love it when you forgot your lines on the first day. I’ve never been happier really.
Meryl: I used to be really good and then people were really afraid of me but my memory is crap now.
Hugh: We had neighboring dressing rooms, and we could hear each other moaning with anxiety through the partition, pacing, yes (laughter).
Meryl: It was a big job, but it was a short shoot, so there wasn’t any fawning, sadly.
Hugh: But I became gradually aware that I should have been frightened of him. (He points to Simon.) Because I knew you were in a sitcom, but I didn’t realize how gigantic it was. And that, really, you’re probably the richest man I’ve ever met.
Simon: Be nice to me.
To Meryl: Any plans to do a play on Broadway, and what would you like to see on the stage?
I would like to see “Hamilton” with all the men’s parts cast as women. And all the women singing about whom they love cast as men. That would be revolutionary, truly revolutionary.
(As for going back on the stage.) I’d like to do something on stage but I don’t want to do a revival. I want to do something new, so I’m looking around.
To Meryl: How has Florence’s life affected you? When you’re in the kitchen or shower, do you find yourself belting out a song?
I used to but I was discouraged from that by my children who really don’t want to hear you sing anything. Once my daughter said to me, ‘Mom, you’re breathing.’ Oh, my God, it’s very humbling.