When Meryl Streep accepts a role, she acts the hell out of it—period.
That point was driven home for Michael Schulman backstage at The Public Theater in 2009. Streep had just appeared in a reading of “A Good Smoke” by Don Cummings, along with two of her four children, and the whole family was celebrating. Schulman was on assignment for the New Yorker’s Talk of the Town.
“There was one moment I’ll never forget, right at the beginning,” Schulman says. “She’s got a tray of glasses of white wine and is grandly handing them out. Then she’s trying to hand me this glass of white wine. I had my recorder and my notebook and my pen, and I said, ‘I’m sorry, I don’t have a free hand.’
“So she leans over,” he continues, “and she extends her hand, palm up. She puts the wine on her open palm and says, ‘Well, I’ll be your table. Everybody needs an end table.’ And I’m standing there, like, oh my god, Meryl Streep is my table!”
Her Again: Becoming Meryl Streep is an admiring, insightful account of how a homecoming queen from suburban New Jersey evolved into the “Iron Lady” of American acting, tackling roles both great and small with stunning aplomb. For her efforts, she has been nominated for 19 Academy Awards to date—the most of any actor, male or female, ever. (Katharine Hepburn and Jack Nicholson are tied for second place, with 12 apiece.).
“Superlatives stick to her like thumbtacks: she is a god among actors, able to disappear into any character, master any genre, and, Lord knows, nail any accent,” Schulman, who is now the theatre editor of Goings On About Town at the New Yorker, writes. Later, “Meryl Streep, the Iron Lady of acting: indomitable, unsinkable, inevitable.... But it wasn’t always so.”
So how did she get there? And can her kind of talent and skill be learned? These are the questions Schulman aims to answer in Her Again. The result is less exhaustive biography than origin story—inspired by the likes of Patti Smith’s Just Kids and Sam Wasson’s Fifth Avenue, Five A.M., on Audrey Hepburn, Schulman says.
“I’ve always been a huge, huge admirer of Meryl Streep, I do think she’s the great actress of her generation, and I was looking for a really good book to read about her,” he says. “What I found was how patchy the literature on her was. I was thinking about writing a book—and if there’s anyone I could spend two years talking about, it’s definitely her—but what really helped shape the idea and made it work for me was the decision that it would be an origin story, as opposed to soup-to-nuts.”
“I’m sure someone will write something like that one day, ‘Meryl Streep: An American Life,’ ” he says, “but, fortunately, the life story’s still being written.”
Schulman’s scope extends from childhood (born Mary Louise Streep on June 22, 1949, she was nicknamed “Meryl” before she could speak), through her education at Vassar College and Yale Drama School, swift success as a stage actress in New York, and her introduction to Hollywood. The book concludes with Kramer vs. Kramer, for which Streep received her second Oscar nomination and first win—and, in what may be the book’s most scandalous revelation, a slap across the face from her acting partner, Dustin Hoffman, during filming.
Richard Fischoff, the producer of Kramer vs. Kramer, told Schulman that Streep went “absolutely white” after Hoffman slapped her. “She had done her work and thought through the part—she didn’t need Dustin throwing shit at her. This was just like Allan Miller in her first year at Yale, pushing her to mine her own pain for Major Barbara. She wasn’t that kind of actress. Like Margaret Mead, she could get where she needed to go with imagination and empathy. And if Dustin wanted to use Method techniques like emotional recall, he should use them on himself. Not her.”
Schulman based Her Again on extensive research and more than 80 interviews of those, like Fischoff, who closely witnessed Streep’s rise. He did not speak with Streep herself—though she did respond, within one week, to the letter he wrote to notify her of the project.
“She’s very wary of overpraise,” Schulman says. “She had one line in [her response], which was, ‘Leave me to the thing I love. I love acting. But to be called the greatest living actress, a designation not even my mother would sanction, a thing that in our sports-mad world, where we need the best this or the greatest that, is the opposite of good or valuable or useful—it is a curse for a working actor.’ ”
“She wants to speak to people through her characters,” he explains. “She’s always worried that too much attention to who she is, to her backstory, will detract from that. But having studied her and her life story, I really feel the opposite. I appreciate her craft so much more, especially seeing how much she’s influenced by second-wave feminism—it helped me really appreciate why she shaped her career the way she has.”
Schulman sent her a finished copy of the book, though he has yet to receive a response.
“She’s busy being Meryl Streep—she has better things to do than nitpick over my book,” he says. “But I do hope she likes it.”
Megan Labrise writes “Field Notes” and features for Kirkus Reviews.