This is why Meryl Streep was the perfect choice for a role in Suffragette

As well as being a brilliant actor, Meryl Streep has long been blazing a trail for women. It makes her the perfect choice for a role in Suffragette, writes Shilpa Ganatra
This is why Meryl Streep was the perfect choice for a role in Suffragette

Hold a finger up high and pause to gauge the imminent change in the air.

Activism is at the forefront of 2015 as the likes of Patricia Arquette use their platform to call for equal pay for women; as Ireland’s historical vote for marriage equality progresses international laws externally, and propels Ireland’s abortion rights movement internally.

Perfect timing, then, for Suffragette, a historical drama about the women who fought to help secure the vote and more equality for women in early 20th Century Britain.

“Sometimes things are circular,” say Meryl Streep deliberately, with all the authority she’s earned in her four decades of acting, and Yale education before that.

“The fewer stories you see of civil rights and what they’ve achieved, the more you’ll be disheartened. You think it’s the way it always has been. So to make a film like this — it will circle the globe, it will encourage people that have very little hope, people whose lives look almost like the lives of those in 1913 in London. It’s a great encouragement.”

Carey Mulligan in Suffragette
Carey Mulligan in Suffragette

To hammer home the importance of the groundswell, the film focuses not on the upper class figurehead of the movement Emmeline Pankhurst (which gives Meryl Streep her cameo), but instead on Maud Watts (Carey Mulligan), a laundry lady who goes from ordinary to extraordinary through her fight for equality.

“Sometimes, history is written by the privileged class. The interesting thing about film is you can look deeply into lives that weren’t written about and imagine what they were like, knowing what we know about their conditions and how they suffered,” Streep says, explaining why this focus was the only right one.

“The way to connect with the modern audience is not to have people packed into corsets and to look alien, but to have girls that we more easily identify with. To me it’s an easier way into the story, to translate it like that.”

DOGGED BY CONTROVERSY

While Streep may be a bastion of the modern day campaign, she admits that she wasn’t overly familiar with the British suffragette movement until she was approached by the production team, a mostly-female crew who’d previously worked with her on the Margaret Thatcher biopic The Iron Lady.

“I knew a great deal of suffragettes in the US but not in Britain,” she says. “I didn’t know the condition of women here in 1915. I didn’t know that the marriage age was 12 — that was shocking. I didn’t know that once a woman was married she has no further claim to not only her name, but also any property she brought to the marriage. Her own children were not hers: she had no say on how they were raised, how they were educated or if they were educated, or if their 12-year-old was basically sold to be married off.

“My grandmother was alive then — she had a couple of children, and was not capable of voting. So I’m passionate about it, it means something to me, it feels recent.”

For all the intent behind the movie, it’s been dogged by controversy. A few hours after our interview, the premiere of Suffragette at London Film Festival was invaded by a group protesting against cuts in domestic violence budgets. The cast — also including Helena Bonham Carter and Anne-Marie Duff — were lambasted for wearing a T-shirt with an Emmeline Pankhurst quote, “I’d rather be a rebel than a slave”.

And then there was the f-word issue, with Meryl Streep waltzing around the question of whether she was a feminist by replying “I am a humanist”.

Given the call to stand up and be counted, does she care to elaborate? There’s no knee-jerk reaction. Streep, as we’ve come to expect, falls silent as she considers the question. And then with great care, communicates them as if each word were italicised.

“There’s a phrase in this film that says, ‘Deeds and not words’, and that’s where I stand on that. I let the actions of my life stand for what I am as a human being. Contend with that, not the words.”

REVERED FOR HER ROLES

At 66, Streep long forged a name in bringing incredible talent to rare roles where the actress isn’t a mere love interest. Even the exception that proves the rule, The Deer Hunter, earned the first of her 19 Oscar nominations and 23 Golden Globe nominations — the highest amount of any actor in both cases.

It’s an unwritten rule for Hollywood’s bright young things to acknowledge the path she created and the example she set. In fact, a little number-crunching from Slate magazine found she’s been officially thanked more often than God in Oscar speeches.

Like most revered actors, Meryl began her career in theatre. Her first taste of success was a Tony Award for A Memory of 27 Wagons Full of Cotton by Tennessee Williams, and even when fame beckoned after successes like Out of Africa and Kramer vs Kramer, she returned to her stage roots.

IRISH ROOTS

With the film adaption of Brian Friel’s Dancing at Lughnasa in 1998, she married the two acting forms.

“It’s such a great loss,” she says, playing tribute to the playwright, who passed away on 2 October 2.

“It made me think when a great playwright dies, it’s not just his his voice that’s lost — it’s all the people he ever met in his life, all the people he ever imagined out of those lives. Thank god we have this wonderful body of work.

“I did spend an evening with him, of which I have no memory,” she laughs. “It involved dancing.”

Since that fateful meeting, she’s discovered that her roots are from Co Donegal, where Brian Friel was recently laid to rest.

“My grandmother Mamie, her mother was Mary McFadden and her mother was Grace McFadden, nee Strain,” she explains.

“She had three children that she left in Ireland to come to the US. She was only 15-and-a-half years old leaving those children, but they were starving, and she’d given them all each to different families. She came [to the US], made a living as a coal miner in Pennsylvania.

“Her name was Strain, and the reason I know is because it’s a very strange name. They’re all in Ireland, in Donegal.”

Assuming that means we can lay claim to everything she’s done and ever will do, there’s much on the horizon about which to be excited.

With award season hopes firmly on Suffragette, her 2016 venture is Florence Foster Jenkins, a film about heiress who aims to become an opera singer, despite her lack of talent.

She’s also wrapping up her writer’s lab for women over 40, a demographic who are invisible to Hollywood execs.

So perhaps, to paraphrase Shakespeare, that which we call a feminist by any other name would smell as sweet.

Suffragette is in cinemas now

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