Behind the scenes with Meryl Streep

Meryl Streep
Meryl Streep Photo: Christina Murrey

Acting is, in and of itself, a strange act. Turning off one's own reality and emotions to channel and convincingly portray a character's reality and emotions, on cue, is kind of a remarkable feat and not something most people do -- or can do.

During a visit to the Department of Theatre and Dance at The University of Texas at Austin Nov. 5, actress Meryl Streep talked with students about performance, the art of acting and her prolific career in film.

"I remember when I was shooting 'The Deer Hunter,'" she said. "I was so mad because I was told from the beginning that I would be able to go home to attend my brother's wedding. That day I found myself in bed with Robert De Niro, by no choice of my own mind you. Oh, I was so angry. When I see myself during that part, to me, I just look mad."

But her audience sees something completely different. In front of the camera, Streep's uncanny ability to betray her own reality and project the emotions and reality of another person, another character is why she's considered one of the greatest living film actresses of our time.

Graduate acting students from the Department of Theatre and Dance had a once-in-a-lifetime conversation with the world-renowned actress over lunch at the University of Texas Club. Theatre and Dance Professor Fran Dorn called her friend and former college roommate to ask her if she would make a stop in Austin after leaving London, where she was working on a new film about Margaret Thatcher. Streep agreed and spent an afternoon talking with students about theatre, graduate school and how she became interested in theatre while attending Vassar College. Upon graduation she enrolled in the Yale School of Drama where she met Dorn and developed "a serial obsession with acting."

Actress Meryl Streep walks next to UT students
Meryl Streep talks theater with University of Texas at Austin M.F.A. students during her recent visit to campus. Photo: Christina Murrey

Master of Fine Arts (M.F.A.) acting student Christopher Reese recalled his exchange with Streep.

"As an actor, even though I'm up on stage and everything," he said. "I get nervous. I have insecurities. I told her how I push through my insecurities by remembering a quote by actress Judy Dench -- that an actor without insecurities would truly be lost. She thought the quote was brilliant and said 'I'm stealing that for the QandA actors steal everything.' And she did."

Streep also shared some practical words of wisdom with the MFA students: to pay off their student loans as soon as possible and to avoid credit card debt, and for the women in the class to not focus so much on appearance, shoes and their weight.

"While it's important for young actresses to be attractive -- it's not the most important thing," Streep said. "This obsession with perfection is destructive to a wide range of characters and it limits people."

During the QandA in Payne Theatre, Streep brought part of her conversation with Reese to a packed house of students, faculty and staff. When asked how she works through challenges, like nervous and insecure scene partners, she replied, "People are people. When I got really famous, people got scared to act with me and they would bring a shaky energy to the set. So when I work with people who are nervous, and I'm doing a scene with them, and I know my lines and baby, I know my lines I'll look at them and tell them, 'I forgot my lines' and they immediately relax."

Acting, Streep reminds us, is an art -- and it is an art of storytelling.

When asked by a theatre student about her most challenging role she replied, "The hardest thing to do is to do something when you don't feel it. You feel what's going on in your real life. And then you have to be funny when you're not feeling funny. You have to cry on the best day of your life. It's weird and hard to do what isn't really happening, and make it like it is. But we need actors. We need them to help us understand different emotions and realities. To console us. To let us know that we're not alone."