PHILADELPHIA — In “The Iron Lady,” Meryl Streep IS Margaret Thatcher. Not only does the actress — renowned for her command of accents — get the combative cadences of the former British prime minister just right, she nails the gestures, the comportment, too.
Certain to be nominated for a best-actress Oscar, Streep’s performance — like her Julia Child, her Lindy Chamberlain (“the dingo ate my baby”) — goes beyond mimicry to become art. Streep transforms.
How exactly does she do it?
“Meryl’s powers of observation — they’re off the charts,” says Tovah Feldshuh, a four-time Tony Award nominee now appearing as Madame Rose in “Gypsy” at the Bristol Riverside Theatre in Bristol, Pa. Feldshuh has played real-life figures Sarah Bernhardt, Katharine Hepburn, Diana Vreeland and Golda Meir. She says research is key, but then you must “imbibe the virtues and flaws of that person, and discover the ‘why.’”
As for Streep’s Thatcher, Feldshuh says to look at the actress’ lips. “That’s not the way Meryl holds her mouth. ... Just compare her physical aspect as Julia Child to her Margaret Thatcher — it’s about ‘beingness.’ ... This is an extraordinary ability, an ability that those of us who aspire to be transformational actors want.”
Historian John Campbell, whose Thatcher biography served as the source for “The Iron Lady” screenplay, was awed by Streep’s work. The film, directed by Phyllida Lloyd, tracks Thatcher in old age — a widow, afflicted with dementia — and flashes back to key points in her life.
“As a British person who lived through Thatcher’s prime ministership, it is uncanny to see and hear her voice emerge from Meryl Streep,” he says. “And her performance as the old lady looking back is quite remarkable. Anyone who has relatives with dementia and who has witnessed that confusedness, but also that sort of struggle to pull oneself together — to say, I will not be crazy — I think what she does is extraordinarily moving.”
Director Lloyd says the actress did not use a dialect coach. But Streep pored over Thatcher recordings.
“The audiotapes were the most revelatory, because they showed this vast capacity ... to speak sentence after sentence and never allow an interviewer to interrupt,” Lloyd says. “The key to her will and ego, to the momentum of her thinking, was in the voice.”
Streep is not the only thespian on the awards watch thanks to a portrayal of a real-life figure. Leonardo DiCaprio, like Streep, is among the acting nominees for the 49th Golden Globes, to be broadcast Sunday on NBC. His turn as J. Edgar Hoover in Clint Eastwood’s “J. Edgar” spans decades in the controversial FBI chief’s life.
Likewise, Michelle Williams, who bravely assays sex symbol Marilyn Monroe in “My Week With Marilyn,” is a Golden Globes nominee, and all three stars are likely to find themselves in the Academy Awards race when nominations are announced Jan. 24.
When it comes to dialects and vocal inflections, it’s not about imitation but assimilation, says David Alan Stern, associate head of the department of dramatic arts at the University of Connecticut.
Stern, who received his doctorate at Temple University, has coached Forest Whitaker, Lynn Redgrave, Julia Roberts, Sally Field and others over the years.
“Challenge No. 1 for any actor doing an accent is not to make a performance about creating the speech pattern,” Stern says, “but to make the accent the only speech vehicle that the character has — this is simply the way the character talks.
“And that’s very easy for some actors, and extraordinarily difficult for others. There are the actors who are chameleons — their entire physical and vocal being changes with every character they play, people like Meryl Streep.
“And there are the people who are always channeling the reality of a particular character’s situation through their own bodies, their own voices — like Jimmy Stewart, Jack Nicholson.”
Rodney Hicks, set to star as Haywood Patterson in the Philadelphia Theatre Company’s “The Scottsboro Boys” (opening Jan. 20), immersed himself in the transcripts of the 1931 civil rights trial, read the script frontward and back, and consumed Patterson’s autobiography.
“Basically, you find out everything you can about the person you’re portraying,” explains Hicks, “and then you find the similarities within who you are as a person, things that you’ve been through. ...
“And then you ask yourself, what traits can I bring out to make it a fully three-dimensionalized character? So that there’s nothing that I’m mimicking, really. ... I can just embody.”