TERRY GROSS, HOST:
This is FRESH AIR. I'm Terry Gross. Meryl Streep sings really badly in her new film, "Florence Foster Jenkins." And I mean that as a compliment because the role she's playing is based on the life of an heiress and socialite who devoted her life to music, a philanthropist and as a 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).
GROSS: OK. Well, 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 pianist who wins the audition to be her accompanist and 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, private 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.
GROSS: 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...
STREEP: ...There is some liberation in the freedom of being totally alone and really going for it. You know, I did hear a recording. I believe it was Irving Berlin playing and singing along to his own music. And the piano playing was wonderful. The singing, however, (laughter) was not. It was circling the notes that we knew presumably were in his head.
But they didn't - he wasn't hitting the pitches. I mean, it was sort of amazing. He meandered around the pitches but he wasn't - and I kept thinking, but he's such a genius. He must know what it should sound like. And so maybe - maybe this was part of Florence's inability to hear herself. Maybe - or there could be because she had physical challenges that involved tinnitus, you know, this thing in your ear where you - because she was ill. 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 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...
STREEP: ...To be in...
GROSS: She fully committed.
STREEP: ...The whole thing. Yeah, she fully committed, yes.
GROSS: Yeah. I mean, she was wearing these incredible costumes. I don't know how true the clothes you were wearing to what she wore, but, like, you're wearing this, like, feathered white gowns with, like, crowns and other headpieces with almost, like, chandeliers hanging from them (laughter)...
STREEP: We were...
GROSS: ...I mean, really elaborate.
STREEP: We were restrained. We were restrained in our choices of costuming compared to what she did.
STREEP: She - famously at Carnegie Hall, she sang this one song called "Los Clavelitos" written by Cosme McMoon, who was part Mexican. And...
GROSS: This was her pianist...
GROSS: ...The person...
STREEP: And she...
GROSS: ...That Simon Helberg plays.
STREEP: Yes, and her pianist, her accompanist, played by Simon Helberg in our film. And she sang this song which is - rangy is a good way to explain it. But it's - and she did a little dance, and she was dressed as a flamenco dancer and with a - very elaborate Spanish combs in her hair. And she had a big basket of roses. And during the aria, she just continually threw maybe four dozen roses into the audience. And the house came down and clapped and clapped and clapped. People shouted and hooted and said, you know, brava, brava, encore. So she ran down into the audience, gathered up all the roses, put them back in the basket and did it again. That was...
STREEP: I so wanted that to be in the movie, but we had to draw the line somewhere.
GROSS: One thing I don't need advice about is how to sing badly. Nevertheless...
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.
We sang and played live every day. It was - it must have been hell for the editor because I wildly varied the time signatures and the tempi, but it made it much more alive. And the only problem we had was cracking up, Simon and I. It was a little bit of a problem (laughter).
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?
GROSS: Nevertheless, I want more of a diagnosis of what (laughter) - what she did wrong and how you tried to...
STREEP: Oh, well, she would very...
GROSS: ...Achieve that yourself.
STREEP: There was nothing consistent about it. She wasn't always a halftone under the note. Sometimes she'd be dead on it and the particular sort of fluty sound of her voice - and it's - you know, we always aim for a rounded tone when we're singing. And she was totally unconcerned with that. She was concerned with (singing) being right on the thing and just absolutely getting it right...
And then she'd go off. And when she'd go off, you can see her gathering the reins, pulling the horse's back and launching bravely into the next part, even if she forgets the words. So sometimes she'd just kind of chew on the little syllables until she got back into it.
It reminded me of hearing a kid singing and then they forget the words or they never really learned the words with blah, blah, blah (ph) go through the parts that they don't really understand. There were moments of that, and then there were moments where she was absolutely dead accurate.
In some parts of the "Queen Of The Night," the most difficult passages, you can almost feel the celebration in the fact that she achieved each one of these notes. She had an F above high C, which is stratospheric, and I never could get above an E-flat. So I actually couldn't sing as well as Florence Foster Jenkins.
GROSS: Well, reaching that note is not the mark of what good singing is.
STREEP: (Laughter) No, no, no, it's not.
GROSS: It's purely technical.
STREEP: But it's - it's - I don't know. I didn't parse it that way. I mean, I actually didn't approach it to replicate exactly what she did. We operated in the spirit of where she gobbled.
STREEP: Yeah, that's the word.
GROSS: If you're just joining us, my guest is Meryl Streep, and she stars in the new movie "Florence Foster Jenkins." Let's take a short break. Then we'll talk some more. This is FRESH AIR.
(SOUNDBITE OF MUSIC)
GROSS: This is FRESH AIR. If you're just joining us, my guest is Meryl Streep. She stars in the new film "Florence Foster Jenkins," and it's based on the actual life of Florence Foster Jenkins, who committed her life to music. But she was really just an awful singer, like totally off-key and all kinds of problems. But she developed this kind of cult following in part because people found her hilarious when she sang.
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.
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)
STREEP: That's enough, really.
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.
GROSS: Living in that delusion (laughter).
STREEP: I did. Yeah.
GROSS: Well, you sounded really good as her.
GROSS: So the coloratura part - you sound like a squeak toy on some of that.
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: 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. And then I really regretted it because once we'd exhausted the aria - I mean, I'd done it, like, four or five times for them - all the arias of the concert.
Then they turned around on me. And I was - I sounded like Kermit, you know? It was really - my voice was raw. And - but we pulled it together. And I really regretted that we had the live performance - that Stephen insisted on that - because it's more ragged than it should be.
GROSS: My guest is Meryl Streep. She stars in the new film "Florence Foster Jenkins." After we take a short break, we'll talk about roles in which she sang really well. And we'll hear a couple of those songs. I'm Terry Gross, and this is FRESH AIR.
(SOUNDBITE OF MUSIC)
GROSS: This is FRESH AIR. I'm Terry Gross, back with Meryl Streep. She stars in the new movie "Florence Foster Jenkins," which is set in the mid-1940s and is based on the life of the heiress and socialite who thought of herself as a gifted singer of arias and art song but was wildly off-key and screechy. Streep is hilarious singing in the film.
But if you know Streep's other movies, you know she can sing really well. Now that we've heard you sing in this really wildly, off-key, weird kind of way, let's hear some serious singing (laughter). So you were in the screen adaptation of the Stephen Sondheim musical "Into The Woods." And you played the Witch. And the story in this is - basically, it's a mash-up of several fairytales including "Red Riding Hood," "Rapunzel," "Cinderella," "Jack And The Beanstalk." And you play a witch, a beautiful woman who, because of a spell, was turned into a witch and so on.
And this is a song that you sing in it. And it's a very Sondheim song in the sense that the intervals are odd in a way that Sondheim intervals are unusual. The syncopations are unusual in his unusual way. So it takes a lot of talent to sing this. So here's Meryl Streep from the soundtrack of the Stephen Sondheim musical "Into The Woods."
(SOUNDBITE OF SONG, "LAST MIDNIGHT")
STREEP: (Singing) It's the last midnight. It's the last wish. It's the last midnight. Soon it will boom, squish. Told a little lie, stole a little gold, broke a little vow. Did you? Had to get your prince. Had to get your cow. Had to get your wish, doesn't matter how. Anyway, it doesn't matter now.
It's the last midnight. It's the boom, splat. Nothing but a vast midnight. Everybody smashed flat. Nothing we can do. Not exactly true. We could always give her the boy. No, of course, what really matters is the blame, someone you can blame. Fine, if that's the thing you enjoy, placing the blame. If that's the aim, give me the blame. Just give me the boy.
UNIDENTIFIED PEOPLE: No.
UNIDENTIFIED MAN: No.
UNIDENTIFIED WOMAN: No.
STREEP: (Singing) You're so nice. You're not good. You're not bad. You're just nice. I'm not good. I'm not nice. I'm just right. I'm the witch. You're the world. I'm a hitch. I'm what no one believes. I'm the...
GROSS: Meryl Streep from the soundtrack of the Stephen Sondheim musical "Into The Woods." Did Stephen Sondheim work with you at all on that?
STREEP: A little bit. What he did was he wrote me a new song that we recorded but was taken out of the movie because of length. But he played it for me in his apartment and sang it to me. I mean, it's one of the great, most cherished memories of my life is just that little hallowed afternoon where he played this magical thing for me in it.
But in terms of the pre-recording on "Into The Woods," we did what I thought we were going to do on "Florence Foster Jenkins." We went into a recording studio - the whole cast - for two weeks before we started shooting. And we recorded the entire score. And then that was played on set. And we sang along to it so that we had the option of some parts of it being live.
And I was the first one up to sing. And I think it was - the first thing I sang was not "Last Midnight." It was "Stay With Me," which was a beautiful song but difficult. And I walked into the recording studio. And there he was sitting there with his little earphones on, going - preparing to (laughter) listen to me. And I had no idea he was even in the country. So I was overwhelmed.
But he was so attentive to what I was trying to do with the song. He heard, on each take, the little tiniest nuances of meaning, which I was playing around with. And I was nervous to be doing that because you don't improvise with Stephen Sondheim's music. And - but it was - there was one thing I think I had learned wrong. And he drew it to my attention. And I said, oh, God. I'm so sorry. He said, no, no, no. Keep it. I think it's better. It's better. No, it's better. (Laughter).
I don't know, maybe he was just trying to make me feel better. Probably that's what it was. But I felt so free. And I think he's our great composer...
GROSS: Oh, yeah.
STREEP: ...You know, for the musical theater.
GROSS: (Laughter) Yes.
STREEP: It was, like, you know, c'mon, I could die now.
GROSS: So what has the role of musicals been in your life as a performer and as someone who just likes to be in the audience watching them?
STREEP: (Laughter) Oh, well, that's where I first began was in musicals in high school. I was the - Marian the librarian when I was...
GROSS: In "The Music Man."
STREEP: ...A sophomore - in "The Music Man" at Bernards High School. And everybody stood up at the end, and I never - in my wildest dreams imagined that that might happen. And it was sort of an overwhelming feeling, and there - there it was. I was hooked.
But musicals, the great ones just pull you along. I was in one called "Happy End" on Broadway - Brecht, Kurt Weill music. And even on a Tuesday afternoon after a really rough weekend, I really didn't feel like doing the play, you'd hear the overture come up and it just sort of - your heart just lifts.
And I don't know, music has a pull. I use music even - to prepare, even when I'm not in a musical at all. Almost every film I've done, I've had a piece of music that I play obsessively that usually has nothing to do with the thing I'm in. But it's a way of pulling emotion into the center of your being and also obliterating all the extraneous noise.
GROSS: So was there a piece of music you used for "Florence Foster Jenkins" besides her songs?
STREEP: Oh, no. She was her own.
GROSS: She was her own.
STREEP: Yes, she was her own.
GROSS: What did you listen to for "Sophie's Choice?" That's such a bleak movie.
STREEP: I listened to one of the most sublime pieces of music - Jessye Norman, the first recording of Jessye Norman, the "Four Last Songs," over and over and over and over again.
GROSS: And she's an opera singer for anyone who doesn't know her.
STREEP: Yeah. But, I mean, I listened to "Songs Of The Auvergne," Frederica von Stade when I was making "The River Wild" (laughter).
GROSS: More opera or an art song...
STREEP: Yes, yes.
GROSS: Yeah. And you studied opera when you were, like, 13 or something. Did - is that what you wanted to do was sing opera? Like, why were you studying it?
STREEP: No, I was 13. I didn't know what I wanted to do. But I was in a concert in seventh grade, and someone was there and told my parents that they should - really was a shame not to train that voice. And my parents - I grew up in New Jersey, middle-class household, not a theatrical group.
But this man who was in the audience gave my mother a piece of paper, and on it was written a teacher's name. And he called the teacher in New York, and it was someone wonderful, Estelle Liebling. And I was 13, I guess. And I had my lesson right after Beverly Sills, and it was before she even made her debut. She was just coming from Brooklyn...
GROSS: You're kidding me (laughter).
GROSS: My God.
STREEP: And I listened at the door, and I thought, oh, she's pretty good.
GROSS: For anyone who doesn't know her, she's not only, like, a very famous soprano, she also became the head of the New York City Opera.
STREEP: Yeah. Yeah. Yeah, it was really fun, but I didn't really like opera. I liked cheerleading, you know, and boys and later smoking. So my opera career was cut short when I was 15. My dad got sick, and we couldn't afford the lessons, so I stopped and became a cheerleader and wrecked my voice. But I had it. You know, I had the little shreds of it and have pulled it up in later years. But...
GROSS: So did you aspire to some kind of musical career, either to be in a band or to be in musicals or have a cabaret act, do concerts?
STREEP: No, I've always had a pretty good understanding of how good or not good I am. I know the limits of - you know, I really - I am a good listener.
GROSS: How good are you as a singer?
STREEP: I'm a good listener. I'm a B, solid B.
GROSS: My guest is Meryl Streep. She stars in the new film "Florence Foster Jenkins." We'll talk more after a break. This is FRESH AIR.
(SOUNDBITE OF MUSIC)
GROSS: This is FRESH AIR. My guest is Meryl Streep. She stars in the new film "Florence Foster Jenkins," based on the life of a wealthy socialite who fancied herself a great singer, but was unintentionally hilarious. Streep is very convincing as an awful singer, but she's sung really well in other films.
I'm sure you've seen on the internet, there are several pages of just links to movies where you've sung, like in "Heartburn" when you were with Jack Nicholson. You're both eating pizza...
STREEP: Oh, yeah.
GROSS: ...And you just - he says, like, let's sing every song with baby in the title. So you sing all these songs with baby in the title. And then - I'm trying...
STREEP: Yeah, yeah.
GROSS: ...To remember what is on there. But they're all, you know, like, in "Silkwood," you sing a lullaby, I think. They're just all, like...
GROSS: ...Little bits and pieces where it's not a musical, but you happen to sing.
GROSS: So we all assume that that's because, oh, Meryl Streep can sing, so, like, let's work in just a little way...
GROSS: ...Where we get her to sing a little bit. Is that how it happens?
STREEP: No, if that were the case, they would have really had Cher sing in "Silkwood."
STREEP: More obviously. Yeah, no, I think it was just stuff that was in the script. You know, Nora Ephron and Alice Arlen wrote "Silkwood." And they wrote those things in. So I haven't really sung as myself any time, I don't think...
GROSS: Do you know who you are singing as yourself? Because I've only seen you sing in character and when you're...
STREEP: Yes, in character.
GROSS: ...When you're in, like, a rock musical, you know, "Ricki And The Flash," and...
GROSS: ...In "Postcards From The Edge," you're singing more - well, there's a country and western song. And then there's a more, you know...
STREEP: Oh, yeah, in "Postcards," yeah, yeah.
GROSS: Yeah. And then in "Prairie Home Companion," it's more like folk country...
STREEP: More country, yeah.
GROSS: So, like, I don't know - I don't have a sense of, like, if I said, and tonight, Meryl Streep in concert. I don't know what you'd sing or how you'd sound.
STREEP: Well, it would be a varied show. I don't know. I don't really... (vocalizing).
STREEP: I don't really...
GROSS: Is that a warmup exercise? (Laughter).
STREEP: I have a - yes, it's like...
STREEP: Well, one Christmas, I remember when I was 12, after the man came up at the Christmas concert and said, you really should get this girl some singing coaching, my mother decided to - in front of the whole family, the gathered family, including my formidable grandmother, Mammie (ph) - she said, Meryl, sang "O Holy Night" in French. And, Meryl, sing it now.
And I have never - if I ever have to play a person who is overcome with fear and terror, I go back to that moment because I hadn't had any trouble singing in the Christmas concert. But standing in the living room, in front of my whole family, all my, you know, annoying brothers and my cousins and everybody looking at me, I just went crazy. I just was, like, shaking. I remember shaking, everything shaking. And I thought, I don't like this feeling. And I don't like that feeling. So I think I'm not a natural performer. I think I'm an actor.
GROSS: Well, getting back to music, I want to play something else. And this is from "Postcards From The Edge" which was made in 1990, directed by the now late Mike Nichols...
GROSS: ...Based on a book by...
STREEP: By Carrie Fisher.
GROSS: By Carrie Fisher, yes. And it's kind of biographical. And so you've been in rehab, you're kind of trying to figure out your life, in this, your character. And your mother, who is modeled on Carrie Fisher's mother, Debbie Reynolds, is a singer and performer who was big in musicals in the '50s and '60s. You've been living with her. There's a party at her place, and you're asked to sing.
GROSS: So you go up to - I forget if it's a guitarist or pianist - and you start working it out...
STREEP: Yes, yes.
GROSS: ...With them. And the song is "You Don't Know Me." So here is Meryl Streep from "Postcards From The Edge." OK.
(SOUNDBITE OF FILM, "POSTCARDS FROM THE EDGE")
STREEP: (As Suzanne Vale) You know that? OK. (Singing) You give your hand to me - that Ray Charles tune - (singing) and then you say hello.
SCOTT FRANKEL: (As Pianist at Party) Yeah, I know it.
STREEP: (As Suzanne Vale) Yeah.
FRANKEL: (As Pianist at Party) Keep going.
STREEP: (As Suzanne Vale, singing) And I can hardly speak (laughter) sing. My heart is beating so, and anyone can tell - that's it. (Singing) You think you know me well.
UNIDENTIFIED ACTOR #1: (As character) What a sweet song.
STREEP: (As Suzanne Vale, singing) Well, you don't know me.
UNIDENTIFIED ACTOR #2: (As character) Singing it.
STREEP: (As Suzanne Vale, singing) No, you don't know the one who dreams of you at night, longs to kiss your lips, longs to hold you tight. To you, I'm just a friend, and that's all that I've ever been. But you don't know me.
I don't know the bridge (laughter).
GROSS: That's Meryl Streep singing in the film "Postcards From The Edge." Did you sing that as yourself? Like, how deep were you in character for that?
STREEP: No. I mean, well, it's funny that I spoke about my - that moment in my grandmother's house because it was very similar. Shirley MacLaine plays my mother. She makes me do this. And I've just gotten out of rehab. And my character's very tender and raw. And she kind of, more or less, forces me to get up in front of all these people and sing.
So that's - it's very deflected and sort of a lot of excuses built into singing something that actually means something. And still, it's almost this little tiny voice from somewhere deep inside. And then her mother gets up and sings Stephen Sondheim's "I'm Still Here"...
GROSS: (Laughter) That's right.
STREEP: ...And throws her legs up on the piano and the red, sequined dress. And it just blows her daughter out of the water once again.
So yes, it's singing in character. It's singing in character.
GROSS: I really like your performance in that. And I love the Ray Charles recording, and you're not copying him at all. You're trying to do it a completely different way. And I can see you kind of feeling, like, acting the lyrics as you sing them, like, trying to make it into a story.
STREEP: Yeah, yeah. It's a - oh, first it was great, great song.
GROSS: It's a great song, yes.
STREEP: Yeah. And the story is relatable.
GROSS: My guest is Meryl Streep. She stars in the new film "Florence Foster Jenkins." We'll talk more after a break. This is FRESH AIR.
(SOUNDBITE OF MUSIC)
GROSS: If you're just joining us, my guest is Meryl Streep. And she stars in the new movie "Florence Foster Jenkins" as somebody who sang quite shockingly badly but was very, very committed to a life in music. You know how you're saying earlier that when your family asked you to sing, you got, like, really nervous and scared when you're a kid?
GROSS: So when you're performing now, does that still happen? Or are you, like, over that? - 'cause...
STREEP: It still happens. It still happens just before. Sometimes, it happens. And sometimes, it doesn't. Now I think it happens more when I have to be Meryl Streep. And that - it just seems like too big of a thing for anybody to be. And so I get nervous, feeling I have to fill out the parameters of this Colossus or something (laughter), you know, in public appearances or something. But in performing...
GROSS: Like, fulfill impossible expectations?
STREEP: Yeah. Yes, exactly. But in acting, acting is - oh, it's just another kind of transport for me. It's a playground. I relate to Florence, I think, in that way.
GROSS: Florence Foster Jenkins?
STREEP: Yeah. There's a certain kind of abandon that I see in her that I chase as an actor. She seems to - without a self-editing muscle, she seems to really be enveloped in the joy of making music.
GROSS: But she seemed - from the movie, it just seems like her life was that persona. Like, she created this persona and lived it, you know, 24 hours a day.
GROSS: It wasn't a question of getting into character. She created a character, and that was it.
STREEP: Yes. And I think in the world in which she lived, there was a formal expectation of how to be. But she sort of bucked that. She really did what she wanted, except - was thwarted in other ways. You know, with the love of her life, there were complications. And there were complications with her health. But she did seem to launch on the optimistic side.
I don't think it's so subversive in the film - the way that Stephen Frears, the director and the writer, have located this. I mean, it was in wartime. But just how they have the press of really dark events coming in at the margins and how she flips past the massacre on the first page - and she goes quickly to read her review in the arts section. And that reminds me of me a little bit sometimes.
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: So there's a biography of you that I have not read called "Her Again: Becoming Meryl Streep" by Michael Schulman. My understanding is you didn't cooperate with this. He didn't interview you, but he interviewed a lot of other people. And I'm wondering, what do you do in a situation like that? Are you going to read the book? Have you read it? How does it feel to have a book about you that you chose not to participate in?
STREEP: No, I haven't read it, and I begged Michael - he's a perfectly nice man - not to write it because I find it's hard enough to come fresh to an audience with each subsequent - you know, if I were retired or dead, you know, he's welcome to excavate. But I just - I was so afraid he'd talk about how, you know, the - how the sausage is made or something. And it's so unhelpful to have people doing the exegesis of your work while you're still trying to do it.
I'm still trying to put one over on people, you know, and let them - have them believe, believe, that I'm Florence Foster Jenkins. And the more I become this thing - but there have been other, you know, books along the way, I guess. I don't know. That - I don't think we have any control anymore about anything, so...
STREEP: I know what I do and what it means to me and where its sources lie. And, yeah, that's mine. It still is mine. I have friends who read it and said, oh, he get so many things wrong (laughter).
GROSS: Oh, really? OK.
STREEP: But I think it was in good faith, you know, well-intentioned. I don't think he understood what I meant when I was saying this actually interferes with my life, my work. But maybe it doesn't. I don't know. Just felt intrusive.
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.
GROSS: Meryl Streep stars in the new movie "Florence Foster Jenkins." Tomorrow on FRESH AIR, my guest will be Rukmini Callimachi, who covers ISIS and al-Qaida for The New York Times. She'll tell us what she learned about ISIS from a German man who joined ISIS and trained in Syria before becoming disillusioned. He is now in a German prison. And we'll talk about interviewing women who had been kept by ISIS as sex slaves and how ISIS justifies it. I hope you'll join us.
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GROSS: FRESH AIR's executive producer is Danny Miller. Our technical director and engineer is Audrey Bentham. Our associate producer for online media is Molly Seavy-Nesper. Roberta Shorrock directs the show. I'm Terry Gross.
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