LOURDES GARCIA-NAVARRO, HOST:
Meryl Streep never wanted to play Ophelia. She wanted to play Hamlet. Strong women were always her strong suit. She's been a feminist for most of her life, and we know this from a new biography. NPR special correspondent Susan Stamberg says the book focuses on Streep's early years.
SUSAN STAMBERG, BYLINE: Biographer Michael Schulman did 80 interviews - friends and colleagues of Streep's, read articles, letters, commencement addresses she gave - but never interviewed her.
MICHAEL SCHULMAN: No, I did not.
STAMBERG: Didn't even try that hard, knowing how private she is.
SCHULMAN: What I did do was I sent her a letter very early on. I had started to talk to some of her old drama school classmates. And I realized, you know, I really don't want her to hear about this secondhand. I should just tell her who I am and what I'm about.
STAMBERG: Within a week, she sent an answer through her publicist expressing reservations about a biography. One line stood out.
SCHULMAN: Leave me to the thing I love. I love acting. But being called the greatest living actress, a designation not even my mother would sanction, is the opposite of good or valuable or useful. It is a curse for a working actor.
(SOUNDBITE OF FILM, "THE IRON LADY")
MERYL STREEP: (As Margaret Thatcher) The Falkland Islands belong to Britain, and I want them back.
STAMBERG: Meryl Streep won her most recent Oscar in 2012 for playing Margaret Thatcher in "Iron Lady." Biographer and New Yorker magazine arts editor Michael Schulman was inspired by her acceptance speech.
(SOUNDBITE OF ACADEMY AWARDS)
STREEP: When they called my name I had this feeling I could hear half of America going, oh, no, her again.
STAMBERG: The biography is called "Her Again," the subtitle, "Becoming Meryl Streep" - so the young Meryl. Her talent first spotted when she was just 12 - lovely singing voice, studied opera. But there were problems. She wasn't very popular.
SCHULMAN: She was kind of a bossy little bully sort of girl. She had scraggly, short hair, cat-eye glasses that made her look like a middle-aged secretary. She was completely unconcerned with how she looked and being liked.
STAMBERG: Two years later, that changed abruptly. A result of hard work and sheer willpower, she decided to be beautiful and popular. Leafing through women's magazines - Seventeen, Cosmo - for inspiration, she dyed her hair, got contact lenses, practiced girlish giggles and set her mind to becoming the queen bee of her high school in Bernardsville, N.J.
SCHULMAN: She joined the cheerleading squad. She was the lead in every musical. She would do the French club and Student Council and eventually, her senior year, she was elected homecoming queen, which was kind of the pinnacle. It was kind of like winning best actress of her high school.
STAMBERG: It was her first acting job. That uncanny ability to become someone else started in those teenage years and continued at Vassar, then Yale Drama School. Again, she got all the leads. Fellow students began to resent her, complain they were paying all this money but they never got the big parts. It bothered Streep.
SCHULMAN: She went to the dean and asked him, can you please get out of some of these? And he said, no. He said, you're too good. You have to be in every play.
STAMBERG: So Meryl Streep kept on transforming herself on stage at Yale in plays by Dostoevsky, Brecht, Strindberg, Shakespeare. Then came graduation.
SCHULMAN: On May 19, the class of 1975 marched into campus in caps and gowns. Within the sea of black, one woman stood out like a blaze of light. It was Meryl Streep in a bright white picnic dress. Viewed from the Connecticut sky, she must have looked like a diamond glistening in the muck. Once again, Meryl had done everyone one better. All the rest of the women in the class went, [expletive], why didn't I think of that?
STAMBERG: She was too much, too good, too talented. And biographer Michael Schulman hypothesizes that becoming Meryl Streep, she paid a price for that excellence. She became trapped by success.
SCHULMAN: Perfection is a kind of prison. This is part of her MO. Every ecosystem she enters, she rises to the top because of her skill. And once she gets to the top, she kind of looks around and thinks, oh, no, like, who? Me? Why?
STAMBERG: In Hollywood, Streep first rose to the top in the 1979 film "Kramer Vs. Kramer." She played a woman who leaves her husband and young son to find herself and then returns and wants the child back.
(SOUNDBITE OF FILM, "KRAMER VS. KRAMER")
STREEP: (As Joanna Kramer) I was his mommy for five and a half years. And Ted took over that role for 18 months. But I don't know how anybody can possibly believe that I have less of a stake in mothering that little boy. I'm his mother. I'm his mother.
STAMBERG: Streep won her first Oscar for that role. Biographer Michael Schulman tells a telling story.
SCHULMAN: So she wins the Oscar, and she gives a speech. She goes backstage and she went into the ladies' room. And as she was leaving the ladies' room, she heard someone say, hey, someone left an Oscar in here. And she realized that she had left her statuette on the bathroom floor.
STAMBERG: Meryl Streep has spent most of her 66 years being the best actor she could be, rather than merely a celebrity. The work has brought her celebrity in addition to the three Oscars. Number two was for the 1982 film "Sophie's Choice." She has had 19 Oscar nominations - more than any other actor. It's altogether likely that there will be more chances to say her again on Oscar nights to come. I'm Susan Stamberg, NPR News.
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