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NPR Arts & Life

'It's A Playground': Meryl Streep On Acting With Abandon

DAVID BIANCULLI, HOST:

This is FRESH AIR. Meryl Streep sings really badly in her new film, "Florence Foster Jenkins." So badly, she's earned a record 20th Oscar nomination. Terry Gross spoke with her last August. The role Meryl Streep is playing is based on the life of an heiress and socialite who devoted her life to music as a philanthropist and performer. Florence Foster Jenkins' singing was wildly off-key, squeaky and screechy. But she mostly sang in front of audiences of sympathetic friends. When she ventured outside of that, she developed a cult following for being unintentionally hilarious. Here's a recording of the real Florence Foster Jenkins.

(SOUNDBITE OF SONG, "QUEEN OF THE NIGHT'S ARIA")

FLORENCE FOSTER JENKINS: (Singing, unintelligible).

BIANCULLI: So I think you get the idea. The movie "Florence Foster Jenkins" is set in New York in the mid-1940s. Hugh Grant plays Foster's common-law husband, a failed actor who has made a profession out of protecting her from her critics and from reality. He loves her but not in a husbandly way. Simon Helberg plays the musician who wins the audition to accompany her on piano and who is shocked when he first hears her sing. The movie was directed by Stephen Frears. Here's Meryl Streep, accompanied by Simon Helberg, in a scene from the film in which they're performing for a small audience.

(SOUNDBITE OF FILM, "FLORENCE FOSTER JENKINS")

MERYL STREEP: (Singing) Oh, noble sir. How far you err. You're really not discreet. Therefore, my advice is that you look twice when judging those you meet. My little white hands, so fine. Ha, ha, ha, ha, ha. My foot, with its contour divine. Ha, ha, ha, ha, ha. My speech so disarming, my waistline so slim and charming. No lady's meant to be full of so much grace, you see. No lady's meant to be full of so much grace, you see.

TERRY GROSS, HOST:

Meryl Streep, welcome back to FRESH AIR, and congratulations on the new film. You know, I first heard Florence Foster Jenkins years ago. And I always wondered, like, how is it possible that she actually thought she sang well? That's a question I assume you had to answer for yourself because you're living in her delusion that she's a wonderful singer. So how did you answer that for yourself?

STREEP: Well, I think we all think we sound really good in the shower, where there's that nice reverb...

GROSS: And the water is drowning you out (laughter).

STREEP: And the water is drowning you out and...

GROSS: (Laughter).

STREEP: ...There is some liberation in the freedom of being totally alone and really going for it. But who knows? Who knows what she heard? I do know that we have delusions about ourselves in what we sound like (laughter).

GROSS: But other people played along with it. Do you think that that's because she had money, that these were her friends and people who were the beneficiaries of her philanthropy so they were very ingratiating?

STREEP: Oh, certainly, there were people who cultivated friendships with her for the checks that they might receive. She had - she was extremely generous to arts organizations in the city, and she did underwrite Toscanini's many concerts in Carnegie Hall and other organizations for indigent musicians. She gave instruments to children. I mean, she - through many different charitable organizations.

On the other hand, there was something else, I think, compelling about the way that she attacked (laughter) the arias that she attempted. And she really had a big ambition. She tried the very most difficult pieces there are in the coloratura canon. So I think there had to be some other reason, and certainly in our film we take that position that there was something about the joy and the pure desire to give this thing that she so loved, this music, to people and for them to receive it. And that was something that drew people to her not just to laugh...

GROSS: She...

STREEP: ...But...

GROSS: ...She...

STREEP: ...To be in...

GROSS: She fully committed.

STREEP: ...The whole thing. Yeah.

GROSS: One thing I don't need advice about is how to sing badly. Nevertheless...

(LAUGHTER)

GROSS: ...I'm really interested in learning how you did it. First of all, I'd like to know, did you have to learn the songs for real before you could learn how to kind of butcher them?

STREEP: Oh, sure. Exactly. That's exactly it. And I was freaking out. I was making a rock 'n' roll movie and sort of grinding my voice into oblivion singing Tom Petty and everything and...

GROSS: This is while you were making "Ricki And The Flash?"

STREEP: While, yeah, making "Ricki And The Flash." So I was in that film with Audra McDonald, whom - you know, who I know a little bit. And she - I was whining about having to learn nine very difficult arias. She said, you have to go to Arthur Levy, Arthur Levy. First of all, he's my coach. He's divine. He understands bel canto singing and, two, he has a sense of humor (laughter). And it was great. He was - he taught me these arias straight.

You know, we - I learned to sing them as well as I possibly could. And then I screwed around with them. And that was - that really only started when Simon and I got together because even though we had been assured that we would record all the music first, which is what you normally do in a musical. You record first, and we went into Abbey Road Studios.

We recorded all nine of these songs in their entirety. And - because it makes it easier to edit if you have a consistent version that you sing to on set. And then we got to work the first day and Stephen said, let's do it live. Let's just go for it (laughter) and so we did.

GROSS: So you learned to sing the songs as well as you could before learning how to do them...

STREEP: Yes, yes.

GROSS: ...Really badly. Since you studied with a great teacher for this film and you took singing lessons when you were young - in your early teens, I think, you studied opera - so did all those lessons help you diagnose what Florence Foster Jenkins was doing wrong, enable you to hear what she was doing wrong well enough so that you could make those same things go wrong with your voice?

STREEP: You know, what pulled me to her was not so much where she went wrong as how much of it she got right. I mean, she came so close in moments that - and I think that's sort of what held the audience rapt attention was that she almost got there until the moment when it went wildly off the rails, do you know what I mean?

And so I could hear in the recordings of her voice her excitement (laughter) do you know what I mean? It was her breathlessness and her breathing in the absolute wrong places to achieve the note that she was so hopeful that she'd get at the end of a phrase. It was the specificity of where she went wrong married to the desire that you could hear in it and the will and the innocence. There's something just gorgeous in it that made it more of an acting thing than a technical thing, do you know what I mean? I mean, I actually didn't approach it to replicate exactly what she did. We operated in the spirit of where she gobbled.

GROSS: Right.

STREEP: Yeah, that's the word.

BIANCULLI: Meryl Streep speaking to Terry Gross last August. More after a break. This is FRESH AIR.

(SOUNDBITE OF BRANFORD MARSALIS QUARTET'S "CAROLINA SHOUT")

BIANCULLI: This is FRESH AIR. Let's return to Terry's conversation from last August with Meryl Streep. She's just received a record 20th Academy Award nomination for her role as famously untalented opera singer Florence Foster Jenkins in the 2016 movie of the same name.

(SOUNDBITE OF ARCHIVED BROADCAST)

GROSS: OK, so I want to play some of you singing the "Queen Of The Night Aria" from Mozart's "Magic Flute." But before we hear that, tell us why this aria is so important in...

STREEP: Tell children to leave the room.

(LAUGHTER)

STREEP: Oh, it's important because this was the end of a particularly harrowing part of her debut at Carnegie, at - which was also her farewell performance at Carnegie Hall. It comes after a particularly harrowing beginning, which she gets through. And there's something triumphant about how she lives and feels through this aria, the queen railing at heaven.

GROSS: So here is Meryl Streep as Florence Foster Jenkins from the soundtrack of the new film "Florence Foster Jenkins." Here you go.

(SOUNDBITE OF FILM, "FLORENCE FOSTER JENKINS")

STREEP: (As Florence Foster Jenkins, singing, unintelligible).

GROSS: Wow.

STREEP: That's enough, really.

(LAUGHTER)

GROSS: How does it feel when you listen back to it?

STREEP: Oh, it's - I mean, it's - I'm not really objective. By the end of the movie, I thought I sounded really good.

(LAUGHTER)

GROSS: Living in that delusion (laughter).

STREEP: I did. Yeah.

GROSS: Well, you sounded really good as her.

(LAUGHTER)

GROSS: So the coloratura part - you sound like a squeak toy on some of that.

(LAUGHTER)

GROSS: And I can't help but wonder - like, how did you protect your voice, singing improperly like that?

STREEP: I know. It's really - we had a screening in New York which Renee Fleming so kindly...

GROSS: (Laughter).

STREEP: ...Hosted.

GROSS: I'd like to have seen that. Yeah.

STREEP: (Laughter). And she said to me afterwards - she said, oh, my God. How many times did you have to sing "The Queen?" She said, nobody asks anyone to sing that more than twice a week. It's just absolutely impossible. I said, I sang it eight times on Monday. And then we turned around and sang it (laughter) eight times again on Tuesday because we only had the Hammersmith Apollo for two days to shoot this whole sequence. Oh. It was really fun, though. The most fun part was that I had convinced Stephen...

GROSS: Stephen Frears, the director.

STREEP: Stephen Frears, the director - because he was being very protective of my voice. And I said, yeah, but let's shoot the audience first because they don't know what they're going to hear. You know, they're all sort of 500 unsuspecting Londoners - came in all dressed up - the extras.

And they didn't know what they were going to hear. So we just sort of - Simon and I just gave them a concert. And they had five cameras on them. And all those reactions in the audience were just gold. They're just (laughter) exactly what you want.

GROSS: You know, I really enjoyed the film, and I think it's very funny, and it's so well-made, and the actors are so good. And I kept thinking, at the same time, there's a very dark story within this comedy. And I could see, like, the tragic version of the same story, where somebody is really deluded and does really believe that they're a great singer. And they're not, and people are kind of, like, laughing behind her back or just kind of appeasing her. Did you think about that, too?

STREEP: Well, I couldn't not think about it because I think it descends on her in that moment in Carnegie Hall where - and again, at the end where she reads the reviews that Bayfield has tossed in the bin. And I think being confronted with what you think might be there is, you know, it's like feeling a lump and you think, oh, that's just la, la, la, la, la, la, la, la. I'm not going to pay attention to that. But then it wants a moment you have to pay attention. Then it turns out to be something real.

But I think, you know, we can - I don't know. I'm in show business. I believe in illusion and delusions and (laughter) in holding aloft the bubble of a dream of some sort because, really, there are lots of reasons to look at the chasm. But art and music, these ineffables, they're just - they're the consolations of what human beings can create and make, and delight is accessible, you know, should you care to find it.

GROSS: Well, I want to thank you so much for talking with us today. Congratulations on your new film.

STREEP: Thank you.

GROSS: It's just a pleasure to have you back on the show.

STREEP: Thank you, Terry.

BIANCULLI: Meryl Streep speaking to Terry Gross last August. She's been nominated for an Oscar this year for her starring performance as an untalented opera singer in the movie "Florence Foster Jenkins."

(SOUNDBITE OF MUSIC)

BIANCULLI: On Monday's show, the demise of an all-American factory town. Brian Alexander takes us to Lancaster, Ohio, where Wall Street investors bought the plants and workers' lives changed.

BRIAN ALEXANDER: This is not the way they were told this system worked. And so it left them incredibly disillusioned.

BIANCULLI: Alexander tells us what happened and why many there supported Donald Trump. His book is called "Glass House." Hope you can join us. Our technical director and engineer is Audrey Bentham, with additional engineering support from Joyce Lieberman and Julian Herzfeld. For Terry Gross, I'm David Bianculli. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.