Meryl Streep on Character

As a movie buff and husband to a self-professed “foodie,” it hasn’t gone without notice that Meryl Streep and Amy Adams star in the upcoming film, Julie & Julia — a comedy in which Streep portrays the eccentric Julia Child.

Streep was recently interviewed in the August 7 edition of Entertainment Weekly. This exchange had me nodding my head in recognition and agreement:

EW: Julia Child had such a joyous personality that a friend of hers once compared her to a Christmas tree. How did it feel to play someone so in love with life?

STREEP: Well, for me, it was a way of paying homage to my mother, who was born with a joie de vivre. I honestly was thinking about Mary Streep, not Julia Child, most of the time.

I think that’s a great insight into the creative process. Not only for actors, but for writers as well. Somehow you have to, it seems to me, personalize the process. Make some kind of personal connection to the material. I’m not saying that’s where Streep’s creative process ended — obviously there was research and video and wardrobe and more that all contributed to her transformation into character — but rather where it began.

To describe a character in a story (he could be anyone, a murderer, a college professor, etc.) you might think about the man who walks his dog down your street every evening. His erect posture, the dignified tilt of his chin, the shape of his glasses. Or it could be some mannerism, the way his fingers go to his chin when he listens, his long slow exaggerated heel-to-toe strides, whatever, that helps you get inside this new character. I often like thinking of characters in terms of animals: a sparrow, a doberman, a duck. Those images lead to physical characteristics, mannerisms. A character might snarl or waddle or flutter, and those outward descriptions help define (or contradict!) inner character.

I’ve never thought of a character as a Christmas tree, but I can see how that could work. But even then, there is so much personal history that comes into it, and so many sorts of trees to consider, each with its own associations and meanings:

Writing Bystander, for example, I remembered a specific kid in Junior High, and kept him in my mind all the while. He inspired me, and I used some of his physical characteristics as a starting point. At the same time, I didn’t feel restrained by this, or limited, and gradually my fictional character became someone else entirely. Or, that is, wholly himself. To describe Griffin Connelly’s father, I drew upon the memory of another friend’s father, thought of his fierce hulking presence, white t-shirt on the sofa, beer cans on the table, and how it felt to me when I visited that stifled house as a 13, 14-year-old boy. When it came to the missing figure of Eric’s dad — a presence strongly felt in spite of, or because of, his absence — I thought deeply (and felt deeply) about my own brother. His mental illness. His suffering. How it affected his own children. And in doing so, a world of emotion (and imaginings) welled up inside me. Without those personal connections, I don’t think I could have written anything, or made those characters ring true. By that I mean they become characters that stand for themselves, steady and self-contained, not just faint duplicates of a real thing, but a real thing in and of itself. To me or even, amazingly, to you.

How does Meryl Streep, perhaps the greatest actress of her generation, fill the role of a specific historical character? She thinks of her mom! And in doing so, it frees her up. It’s the key that opens the box. And I think, Yes, exactly. That’s how it often works for me.

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GRAMMAR NOTE: Here’s a handy mnemonic for remembering the difference between affect and effect. First, affect is generally used as a verb; effect tends to be a noun, a result. The memory trick: “The arrows affected Aardvark. The effect was eye-popping.” Hat tip to the blog, Grammar Girl: Quick and Dirty Tips for Better Writing.

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