NEW YORK — At night after she finished the day's shooting of The Iron Lady in London, Meryl Streep would undergo a kind of ritual. Makeup artists painstakingly removed the prosthetics that enabled Streep to play the former British prime minister in her senescent 80s, and the actress unbent her dowager's body and returned to her upright, lighthearted self.
"I'd come home and lean against a doorjamb and stand up straight, you know, bend that way instead of this way," Streep said, throwing back her shoulders. "I was really living, eating, breathing Margaret Thatcher. Oh, it was such a great thing to be able to take it off at the end of the day."
Streep's enticement to age herself some 20 years on screen was to play the controversial British leader as neither a villainess nor a heroine, but as a lonely woman at the end of her life. It's a choice that has garnered the actress a 17th Oscar nomination, extending her lead as the most nominated performer in history.
But The Iron Lady has also earned Streep and director Phyllida Lloyd criticism in England for its unblinkingly intimate portrait of a divisive, larger-than-life figure. Thatcher, now 86 and in poor health, led Britain during a coal miners strike, the Falklands War and the dismantling of the Soviet Union. She is as sacred to some conservatives as she is reviled by their opponents.
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"The most transgressive thing we have done in this film is to imagine Margaret Thatcher — who is characterized in many quarters as a monster, a person who has trampled all that was great in Britain — to imagine her as human," Streep said. "That's the biggest transgression in our film, is to imagine her 360 (degrees), and to me that's just really interesting that that's a crime. But it's the artist's job to go there."
In an industry in which actresses of a certain age — Streep is 62 — are expected to fade away quietly, her career has only brightened. She collected eight of her Oscar nominations before turning 40 — and nine after. Her last film with Lloyd, 2008's Mamma Mia!, proved an older actress could be part of a box-office sensation, grossing more than $600 million worldwide. In 2009, the year Streep turned 60, she roasted chickens as Julia Child in Julie & Julia and teased Steve Martin and Alec Baldwin as an in-demand divorcée in It's Complicated.
The Iron Lady is a return to a more serious Streep. The film begins in a fictionalized version of the present day, in which the former leader is sorting the belongings of her deceased husband, Denis (Jim Broadbent). Denis keeps returning to her in hallucinations, and Thatcher begins reflecting on her life. Accidentally signing her maiden name to a book reminds Thatcher of her life as Margaret Roberts, a grocer's daughter living through World War II; a news report about a terrorist attack conjures memories of her clashes with the Irish Republican Army; a phone call from her son in the middle of the night triggers a memory of British families losing sons in the Falklands War.
"It's three days in an old lady's life, when she's decided to upend her life and move her husband's things out of her world," Streep said.
The actress, a married mother of four, related Thatcher's difficulty grieving to her own loss of her parents — Streep's mother, an artist, and father, a pharmaceutical executive, both died in the past decade.
"That sort of upheaval, it takes a while," Streep said. "It took me 10 years to move my parents' things. You do want to hold on."
The actress's own inquisitiveness is deep on the areas of aging, death and loss — another project she was contemplating before signing on to The Iron Lady was a movie about Elisabeth Kubler-Ross, the psychiatrist who pioneered the theory of the stages of grief.
"Is there a secret here? Is there a surprise embedded in the history of a human being?" Streep said. "How does time wear on us? To take the story of a very, very famous politician and imagine ourselves in that dark corridor at the end of our lives, how do you reckon with all the choices you've made? What does it feel like? Some people won't want to look at the dark corridor at the end. I'm interested in that."
If Streep is becoming more herself over the years, it's through constant reinvention on screen. After playing Thatcher, her next role is in the comedy Great Hope Springs. Streep and Tommy Lee Jones play a couple married 30 years who undergo an intense weekend of counseling by Steve Carell.
During the interview, Streep's longtime makeup artist, J. Roy Helland, entered the room to deliver her a slice of cake. Together with prosthetic makeup designer Mark Coulier, Helland helped in Streep's physical transformation for The Iron Lady. He has been with Streep on nearly every film or play she's done for 36 years. Asked the secret of their long partnership, Helland quipped, "forgetfulness."
"Think about it," Streep said. "It's 6 in the morning. A person puts their hands on your face for a couple of hours. You really have to like them. Certainly, you have to be not annoyed by them. But he's particularly gifted, and we have a good collaboration. In other words, he does what I say. Like Margaret Thatcher, I'm very patient provided I get my own way in the end."