Meryl Streep talks Florence Foster Jenkins
When Simon Helberg met Meryl Streep, he saw something he didn't expect at all. Fear.
"I couldn't believe she was (scared)," says The Big Bang Theory actor, remembering the time they first met up to rehearse their parts in the new film Florence Foster Jenkins. "You don't think people like that get scared."
"But imagine if everyone was looking at you like they look at her, thinking 'ok you're the greatest actor we've ever had so what are you going to do this time?' That's a lot of pressure and I think it gets, sometimes, harder… more intense."
However there was an extra excuse for apprehension this time, explains Helberg: "It would be weird not to be nervous, especially about this sort of role".
Streep has triumphed in many acting challenges, but in Florence Foster Jenkins, she faced something new: being deliberately, hilariously terrible.
Florence was a real person, a socialite from New York in the 1940s who became convinced she could sing operatic arias, and because she gave so much money to the arts, nobody could bring themselves to tell her the truth.
But the truth was that what came out of her mouth was quite brilliant rubbish. Stop reading this and go hunt for it on YouTube. Or just wait for the movie, because Streep captures the optimistic disaster of it all, a Titanic failure of self-image as the passenger ship of her confidence hits the iceberg of absent talent, and goes down in a squawking mess.
The scenes where she blunders her way around Mozart, bumping into the notes and sending them flying, are comedy gold. But the message of the movie is that it was, in a way, mean to laugh at her.
Streep, friendly and graceful in a grey suit and white blouse, leans back in her seat as she considers the paradox.
"You know a laugh is provoked by something out of your control – so if we laugh it's legitimate," she says.
"But whether we laugh with venom and meanness? You're saying it's mean to laugh at her? I don't think people were laughing at her in a hostile way. I think they were taking pleasure in the trainwreck that were the arias she attempted.
"These were very ambitious pieces of music and I don't think what was hilarious was that she was consistently singing off-key. What's wonderful is what's wonderful in all of us. We try and try and try and it goes 'off', we can't make it.
"But it's the attempt that's wonderful. What's great is how close she comes."
Streep admits that she has, on occasion, not been entirely honest with friends or colleagues after a piece of work failed to … well, work.
"There's a very tender moment in an actor's life and it's when you're just offstage," she says. "You're extremely vulnerable, you're like an oyster without its shell. And whatever anybody says or doesn't say is resonant and it can affect you because you're wide open. … So it's a particular moment when all the diplomatic skills are brought to bear."
There is always something "wonderful" to find in even flawed art, Streep says – so she "chooses the good parts".
But the modern age has made it hard to avoid bad reviews. They seek you out. It makes her fear for her children – performers themselves.
"My apprehension about them entering this profession is now what the internet has brought us and some of the cost to your self-esteem that comes from that presence on social media," Streep says. "There's so many people just hovering over their (key)boards waiting to destroy other people and that's really hard.
Streep says she couldn't help but laugh on set a few times as she made terrible music.
"I don't have a great deal of control myself. I'm very bad at this, at not laughing. Part of the thing about being present as an actor is to be alive to the thing that's happening. And if the thing that's happening is funny you're on a dangerous line. Yes, you're concentrating on what you're doing but at the same time you're alive to the fact that it's ridiculous."
Helberg plays her accompanist, Cosme McMoon. Helberg is a TV comedy actor with some jazz piano chops who (as he tells it) bluffed his way into the role by making out that he was classically trained.
He says turning up to rehearse the music scenes with Streep is a memory that makes him nervous just to recall.
"She was so lovely," he says. "(She took) all that pressure and tension out of the room, pops it, it's all disarming human being right there. She knows you're nervous because she probably meets a lot of people that are like 'oohhh', you know and she takes that and throws it away and you're just there."
Florence Foster Jenkins (PG) opens in New Zealand cinemas on May 5.
- Fairfax Media Australia