Acting luminary opens up about being ‘in love with gay people,’ the Snapchat conundrum and her beloved LGBT roles
By Chris Azzopardi | Photos Courtesy Paramount Pictures
Meryl Streep is laughing her signature laugh. You know it: Sometimes light and airy, sometimes a surge of boisterous euphoria that carries well into the next question – but always unmistakably Meryl.
Cinema’s grand dame cracks one of her warm, famous chortles during our recent interview, while entertaining the idea that her latest chameleonic role, as real-life opera diva Florence Foster Jenkins in the movie of the same name, could once again spur drag queens to emulate another one of her queer-loved characters. Then she laughs again as she fondly remembers locking lips with Allison Janney in 2002’s The Hours. Meanwhile, the mere mention of 1992’s Death Becomes Her has Meryl unleashing a hearty roar. Another laugh, too, when she ponders how sexting and Snapchat are related.
Gay audiences know this laugh because they know Meryl Streep. They also know her compassion for LGBT issues, both as an extension of her queer-inclusive acting repertoire and more explicitly, when, during her Golden Globe acceptance speech in 2004, she slammed then-president George W. Bush by condemning his anti-gay marriage stance. They’ve learned the art of shade from her sharp, searing tongue in The Devil Wears Prada, and they live for all the campy one-liners in Death Becomes Her. And during Angels in America, HBO’s 2003 watershed miniseries about the AIDS crisis, they wept.
Now, Streep, 67, sheds her skin once again to portray Jenkins, one of the worst singers in the world. In the poignant dramedy Florence Foster Jenkins from Stephen Frears, director of The Queen, the esteemed once-in-a-lifetime luminary plays a wannabe opera singer with a voice so hysterically appalling her loyal husband (Hugh Grant) bribes critics into letting her think she can sing.
Here, during this rare and revealing one-on-one conversation with Streep, the three-time Academy Award winner and record holder for most Oscar nominations discusses why she regards Angels in America as one of the most important LGBT-themed films she’s done and how she feels about gay men performing Meryl monologues. And looking ahead, is the biopic queen ready to consider her own story becoming a feature-length film in the future? Streep laughs at the very thought, of course, but she’s not kidding when she says, “I hope I fade into oblivion.”
You’ve given the gay community a breadth of greatness over the last four decades. When you look back at your gay roles, which has been the most important to you?
Oh, gosh. To me, I mean, Angels is such an important piece of history, and I felt really lucky to be part of that because I don’t think there was anything like it before. It really felt like being at the Democratic National Convention in the moment that Hillary shattered the glass ceiling – a big deal. The Hours was important too. And of course I got to kiss Allison Janney, which was a perk! (Laughs)
Don’t tell Emma Thompson, who famously tongue-kissed you and gave you an orgasm in Angels.
(Laughs) Yeah, right! (The Hours) was nothing like that!
I remember Emma talking about that kiss in an interview with The Hollywood Reporter. She’s very proud of it. She said she learned that “you have to use tongues even if you’re not a lesbian.”
Oh yeah, you really do. (Laughs)
When you look back at that moment, how does your take-away from that kissing scene compare to Emma’s?
It’s just, you can’t take the baby from the bathwater. You can’t. It’s just the whole thing of it – that (orgasm scene) was just like the culmination of it. But what (screenwriter Tony Kushner) was doing was for a really mainstream HBO audience at that point – just groundbreaking. That hadn’t been on television. Movies, yes. But not television. So it was very cool.
You discovered you were a gay icon in 2012, when you found out about Streep Tease – gay men taking on Meryl monologues in West Hollywood. Did you ever get a chance to see it?
I didn’t. We went immediately to London to shoot something else.
How do you feel about watching other people – gay men, for instance – do Meryl?
I love it when they do other people! (Laughs) I don’t know. I’m sure it would tickle me, but I’m just not – I don’t have a distance on myself yet that I probably should have. It’s like when my kids imitate me. I laugh but I kind of don’t like it. (Laughs)
Do they imitate you often?
Oh my god, yes. Endlessly. Especially when I answer the phone and they can tell that it’s (me pretending to be), like, a Jamaican operator or something, because I sort of start talking in the accent of the person I’m talking to. Oh, they’re merciless.
Do you feel a connection to the LGBT community?
I just can’t remember when LGBT people were not in my life. You know, gosh. My piano teachers when I was 11 and 12 were two gay men in a little town in New Jersey who had a collection of Mexican art and piñatas and silver lantern covers, and their house was wonderful, not like anybody else’s house in Berkeley Heights, New Jersey. And yeah, I came of age when everything was kind of opening up and that’s a good time, right like now.
This film harkens back to the ’40s when communities were kind of cloaked and undercover, and yet in Greenwich Village and just communities of people in the artistic world, they were always embracing of people, every kind. That freedom – very staid people were drawn to that world because of its imagination and exoticism and willingness to embrace life in a different way.
How do you think the message of Florence – doing something you love because you love it and not because of what other people think – will resonate with the LGBT community?
Well, to the extent that anybody tells you that you can’t be a certain way or you shouldn’t be a certain way. You know, I think the limits other people put on you are the least valuable. A child announces who they are and people who encourage them are the ones to be around… and you have to get rid of everybody else who doesn’t help! (Laughs) I feel that way about everything, but certainly LGBT audiences will understand that.
In 1979, when you played a lesbian in Manhattan, being LGBT wasn’t cool. Why did you take on a role that might’ve been deemed “too much” during that time period?
I didn’t think of it that way. I mean, I was coming to movies sort of sideways from the theater. I got an early movie and I thought, “Well, this is a one-off; they’ll never ask me again.” I was fine with that. I was happy in the theater. And in the theater I had lots of gay friends and my longtime collaborator Roy Helland is gay. I’ve grown up with gay people and been in love with gay people.
Oh no, not that kind!
I mean, I know women who’ve had gay boyfriends and gay husbands.
No, no. Well… not that I know of! (Laughs)
If you were to play another lesbian role, who would be your dream co-star?
Oh, well, someone younger, clearly. (Laughs)
But who? I mean, you and Sandra Bullock have already had practice making out at the 2010 Critics Choice Movie Awards.
Yeah! That was famous. But I don’t know! I can’t pick! There are so many. One thing I think is, there are so many young talented actresses and actors. I grew up in a time when people emerged – like, there were a handful of people. Now, there’s like 35, 40 people who are just beyond talented, and because of the opening up of long-form television and all the other platforms – webisodes and things like that – I think there are more opportunities for people to demonstrate their talent. There are so many talented people.
And streaming – I heard you say you’re learning about it.
Getting on that, yes. Not really. (Laughs) Somebody told me that I Snapchatted but I don’t know how to Snapchat and I thought it was the thing that you do when you’re sexting sort of and then you want it to be erased. I didn’t know what they were talking about!
It’s very confusing out there, Meryl. Stay in your bubble.
OK, fine! (Laughs)
Emily Blunt said she’s interested in doing another Devil Wears Prada if everybody else returns. Would you be interested in doing a sequel?
In theory. But the heart sinks until you read the script. It’s like, somebody said (they want a) Mamma Mia 2! and it just – ack! I thought, Gram-Mamma Mia!? Really? No. (Laughs) So it would depend on the script; the script is everything. If somebody has the imagination and wit to apply and has an interesting story, yeah, sure. But absent that, no.
Your gay fans wouldn’t mind, I’ll tell you that – as long there’s a solid script, of course.
No, I wouldn’t mind either if the script were good.
Your Death Becomes Her co-star Isabella Rossellini said that she didn’t know she was making what became a gay cult film until after some market research. When did you realize Death Becomes Her would become a gay cult classic?
I knew when I met the writer! (Laughs) When I met Martin (Donovan), I thought, “OK, here we go.” And then (when I sang) my first number, I thought, “Oh, all right, I’ll see this in a club somewhere.” I mean, with lines like, “Now a warning?!” – I mean, come on! It was so much fun, and it’s sort of a documentary on aging in Los Angeles now, it seems to me.
For years you’ve been playing real-life people: Julia Child, Margaret Thatcher, now Florence Foster Jenkins. If one day there’s a Meryl Streep biopic, what do you hope it captures about your life and career?
I hope that doesn’t happen! You know, I treasure my life and the fact that it’s not on Facebook, and I really love my solitude and privacy – all these old-fashioned concepts. In a job where I’m with hundreds of people all the time and going on these press things, I just really love to get away and not be in the chattering world. That’s really important to me. So, I hope I fade into oblivion.
We rode in from the airport and Roy – my hair and makeup guy – pointed out the Will Rogers museum here in LA that’s closing and I said, “Why?” He said because nobody knows who he was and nobody cares, and there was no more central figure in his time that could sort of translate the best of the wit and charm of his era. So, you know, then it’s over. He’s gone. Nobody cares.
And you’re OK with that happening to you?
Yeah, I’m fine with that! (Laughs) I seriously feel like you can only speak to your moment, and right now your work should reflect it. Your work has to just be important right now. And in 10 years if it looks obsolete or like you were overdoing it, that’s fine, because for that time you were.
Hugh Looks Like a Lady
A-list rom-com’er on his early gay films, gender-bending youth and advocating for open relationships
By Chris Azzopardi | Photos Courtesy Paramount Pictures
For more than 20 years as a leading man, rom-com vet Hugh Grant has been the object of many actresses’ (and, yes, even some actors’) affection. But get this: He’s also been an actress himself.
As a kid, the actor’s feminine features earned him numerous lady roles in plays he and his classmates performed at London’s all-male Wetherby School.
“This was a necessity,” he says of his gender-bending days. “It was dictated that some of us had to become little actresses and, yes, I was particularly moving as Brigitta von Trapp, one of the von Trapp daughters, in The Sound of Music.”
The role, he enthusiastically notes, entailed a full-on drag transformation, with your mom’s ’90s movie crush “in a white dress with a blue satin sash.”
You’re thinking: Is this really the same Hugh Grant who charmed Julia Roberts as a bookshop owner in 1999’s Notting Hill? Who was Sandra Bullock’s pompous boss-turned-lover in Two Weeks Notice? Who famously played Daniel Cleaver and swept Renée Zellweger off her feet in Bridget Jones’s Diary? Who danced down a set of stairs to The Pointer Sisters’ “Jump for My Love” in Love Actually and then won over Natalie (Martine McCutcheon) and everyone who wished they were Natalie? (Hey, that dance scene was epic.)
Yup, same Hugh. Because before becoming the lady’s man he was, well, the lady.
“In my teenage years, I was very girly,” Grant says, “I remember when I used to go on a French exchange in Paris and all the locals called me ‘mademoiselle’ because they thought I was a girl.”
Did his femininity ever call into question his sexuality?
He ponders before settling on a response. “No. They just thought I was a girl. I looked like a girl, let’s face it. I had long, very dodgy ’70s hair.”
Fast forward 40 years and “I look like a scrotum now,” he zings.
Yes, folks: Tell your mom that Hugh Grant thinks his face looks like a man’s genitals. When I assure him that his face is not scrotum-like, he replies in his dainty English accent, “Very well. Thank you for cheering me up.”
Whether he truly agrees is uncertain, but now 55, the actor’s self-proclaimed ball-sac face makes a welcome return to the big screen in Florence Foster Jenkins. The actor portrays shoddy actor St. Clair Bayfield, who lets his equally-untalented wife, the film’s eponymous Florence, a well-intentioned socialite, believe she can sing.
According to the Oscar-bound dramedy, which is loosely based on the real-life Jenkins, their marriage was open, and after tucking Jenkins into bed, Bayfield spent his nights getting frisky with a much younger woman.
“I think it’s certainly possible to love – to properly love – different people in different ways simultaneously,” he says. Suddenly realizing that statement is essentially a summary of his own romantic life, Grant unleashes a tickled laugh. “I’ve always been an advocate of that, and sometimes I think the only reason (director) Stephen Frears thought of me for this part was, he thought, ‘OK, who do I know who has a very unorthodox domestic life? Oh, Hugh.’”
I joke that the film, then, is a documentary. He snickers and playfully agrees. The film’s subversive nature, he adds, may “speak particularly to the LGBT community.”
The topic of open relationships – or any union that breaks tradition, really – is one Grant’s clearly interested in speaking about, so he gladly elaborates: “I felt like the script and the film was kind of a celebration of unorthodoxy and of the very strange shapes that we fall into in life, in ourselves and in our relationships. It’s all great as long it’s done with passion and love, and so yeah, I think that’s what the film is.”
He’s not done with his telling discourse, fortunately.
“I’ve never really understood why people should think men and women or men and men or women and women have to be in 40-year monogamous relationships and that that’s the natural state of human beings, because I’m pretty damn sure it isn’t,” Grant insists. “I think it’s just a social norm or the ghost of a religious norm being passed down, and I’m not entirely sure it’s a recipe for happiness.”
The same could be said about Maurice, Grant’s 1987 film that brought the actor closer to the queer community after he portrayed Clive, a repressed gay man living in early 20th-century England. As Grant puts it, “My character ends up married and smug with a mustache, but you can tell everything is being bottled up.”
To this day, the movie is held in high regard, mentioned alongside Torch Song Trilogy and My Own Private Idaho in Steven Paul Davies’ book Out at the Movies: A History of Gay Cinema as well as in Alonso Duralde’s 101 Must See Movies for Gay Men. For Grant, its legacy within the LGBT community is a revelation.
“I didn’t realize that it had that status!” he says, laughing. “But I’m very pleased that it does, and I’m sure that (the book’s author) E. M. Forster would be very pleased that it does. After all, it was a novel he wrote and kept under his bed for many years, and it was only published after his death because he was too nervous of the law to publish it during his lifetime. I think he’d be pleased that it’s struck a chord now.”
Several gay roles followed Maurice, including Grant’s turn as a gay director in the obscure backstage tragicomedy An Awfully Big Adventure, released a year after his big rom-com break in 1994’s Four Weddings and a Funeral. Earlier, in 1991’s TV movie Our Sons, the actor played Julie Andrews’ son James, the lover of an AIDS-stricken man.
Reflecting on his gay roles from the late ’80s to the early ’90s, a time when taking on such parts could be considered taboo, he says, “Maybe it was considered fractionally more daring to do that, but it didn’t feel daring to me.”
Though LGBT-themed narratives have thankfully evolved beyond AIDS as a death sentence (because it’s not) and forbidden love (because it doesn’t have to be), Grant contemplates whether an out gay actor could rule the same genre he did for over two decades. Is the world ready for a gay Grant?
“We’ve had straight men playing gay men in romantic situations, but I’m struggling to think of an out gay actor playing a straight relationship in a high-profile film,” the actor says.
Grant doesn’t come up with any names because they don’t exist. Yet, that is.
“Yeah,” he says, optimistically. “I’m sure it’s coming.”