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From Meryl To Margaret: Becoming 'The Iron Lady'

Originally published on Mon December 19, 2011 5:54 pm

Margaret Thatcher's policies as British prime minister earned her the nickname "The Iron Lady," and now that's also the title of a new film about her life.

Thatcher was famously tough on British labor unions, IRA hunger strikers, the Soviet Union and the war with Argentina over the Falkland Islands. So in the film, when visiting U.S. Secretary of State Alexander Haig questions Thatcher's knowledge of war, the then-prime minister's response is predictably unyielding.

"With all due respect, sir, I have done battle every single day of my life and many men have underestimated me before," says Thatcher, played by Meryl Streep. "This lot seem bound to do the same, but they will rue the day."

The Iron Lady sets itself apart from many other biopics in that it tells the story of a woman who is still alive and still a divisive figure. Phyllida Lloyd, the film's director, tells NPR's Melissa Block that she was moved to tell Thatcher's story because of how larger-than-life the former prime minister is.

"It's a sort of mythic story of somebody who came from [a] very humble background to somebody who became a global superstar and then was brought down, as she saw it, by the treachery of her colleagues," Lloyd says. "It's a sort of ... Shakespearean tale."

'The Magnitude Of Margaret Thatcher'

Lloyd chose Meryl Streep to fill the role of her larger-than-life character in part because of what the actress and Thatcher had in common.

"We wanted somebody of the magnitude of Margaret Thatcher," Lloyd says. "I think Meryl being the outsider [as an American playing a British role] was also something that really was immensely powerful when we were shooting the film."

Just as Thatcher had worked to perfect her persona — changing her voice, hair and costume — Streep worked to perfect her performance of Thatcher. The actress tells Block that the biggest challenge she faced was re-creating the might of Thatcher's speech.

"She had enormous reserves of stamina, will, determination. So how she said what she said was actually who she was," Streep says of the former prime minister. "There was a key in that."

Still, how she said what she said didn't exactly come naturally. Streep says first Thatcher worked on losing her Lincolnshire accent; then she had to lose the light, airy voice she had acquired at Oxford — a voice that tended to screech when raised. To accomplish all that, Thatcher started seeing a vocal coach.

Lloyd says, "She is supposed to have followed the gentleman who taught her exercises so assiduously that she ended up being pitched halfway between a woman and a man."

'A Moment Of Belief'

Lloyd's film relives real moments of Thatcher's life — moments that have translated into memories for the English people who witnessed them. Once such moment is the first speech Thatcher delivered as prime minister on the steps of No. 10 Downing St.

Paraphrasing St. Frances of Assisi, Thatcher told the crowd, "Where there is discord, may we bring harmony. Where there is error, may we bring truth. Where there is doubt, may we bring faith. And where there is despair, may we bring hope."

Streep gives that same speech in the film and she says being able to convincingly deliver those words has everything to do with actually feeling like the character — or feeling like someone else.

"There is a point in the process where I don't distinguish between whether I'm doing her or I'm being me. I feel like me and I sound like her," she says. "That's something that if I'm lucky happens early on in the process."

Streep says that for this film, she experienced that moment during her first rehearsal with Jim Broadbent, who plays Margaret's husband, Denis Thatcher.

"I said something trying out my way of speaking and he laughed. But he didn't laugh like he was laughing at the way I said it, he laughed as if Margaret surprised him. And it was just a moment of belief where I knew he believed me and I knew he sort of loved her in spite of how preposterous she sounded," Streep says. "And that was everything."

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Transcript

ROBERT SIEGEL, HOST:

From NPR News, this is ALL THINGS CONSIDERED. I'm Robert Siegel.

LYNN NEARY, HOST:

And I'm Lynn Neary.

Her policies as British prime minister earned her the nickname "the Iron Lady." And that's the title of the new movie about Margaret Thatcher, starring Meryl Streep in the title role. My co-host Melissa Block spoke with Streep about becoming Margaret Thatcher.

MELISSA BLOCK, HOST:

She was famously tough on British labor unions, tough on IRA hunger strikers, tough on the Soviet Union - and in this scene from the movie, tough on visiting U.S. Secretary of State Al Haig as she defends her intention to go to war with Argentina over the Falklands.

(SOUNDBITE OF MOVIE, "THE IRON LADY")

MERYL STREEP: (as Margaret Thatcher) We will stand on principle or we will not stand at all.

MATTHEW MARSH: (as Alexander Haig) But Margaret, with all due respect, when one has been to war...

STREEP: (as Margaret Thatcher) With all due respect, sir, I have done battle every single day of my life. And many men have underestimated me before. This lot seemed bound to do the same, but they will rue the day.

BLOCK: That's Meryl Streep as Margaret Thatcher in "The Iron Lady." And Meryl Streep joins me now from New York, along with the film's director, Phyllida Lloyd. Welcome to you both.

PHYLLIDA LLOYD: Thank you.

STREEP: Thank you very much.

BLOCK: This is, of course, a portrait of a woman who is still alive, very much a divisive figure in her time - and still. Phyllida Lloyd, why make a Margaret Thatcher movie and in particular, why choose the American actress sitting next to you to portray her?

LLOYD: Well, her life is larger than life. I mean, it's a sort of mythic story of somebody who came from - very humble background to somebody who became a global superstar and then was brought down, as she saw it, by the treachery of her colleagues. So it's a sort of - almost Shakespearean tale.

BLOCK: There would have been a lot of British actresses, of course, dying to have this part. You went with Meryl Streep.

LLOYD: How could one not?

(SOUNDBITE OF LAUGHTER)

LLOYD: You know, we just felt - we wanted somebody of the magnitude of Margaret Thatcher. I think Meryl being the outsider was also something that really, was immensely powerful when we were shooting the film; that Margaret Thatcher had to work really hard to become the person she was, to work on her voice and her hair and her costume. And in that way, Meryl was having to work that hard in order to slip off the tightrope in front of 350 British actors wanting to know whether she could it.

BLOCK: Interesting that note that Phyllida Lloyd raises there, which is that much as Margaret Thatcher had to create her persona - change her voice, become less screechy - you had to do similar work, Meryl Streep, to incorporate, to melt into Margaret Thatcher.

STREEP: Yes. I had to do a lot of work. But interestingly, to match to her stamina these mighty lines that she was able to utter, I've been to - I mean, I still, I think, owe my drama school money. I've been to so many schools for how to produce your voice and the sense of a line, and to keep the thought on one breath. And it took a lot of work.

She had enormous reserves of stamina, will, determination. So how she said what she said was actually who she was. Do you know what I mean? There was a key in that.

BLOCK: Interesting, though, because we do see in the movie Margaret Thatcher, early in her career, getting vocal coaching. It's sort of the "King's Speech" moment of the film. She was told she was too screechy. And you see very physical work that you're doing with a vocal coach to - what, to bring your voice down, to make it sound more from within?

(SOUNDBITE OF MOVIE, "THE IRON LADY")

UNIDENTIFIED MAN: (as Character) More, right up. More...

STREEP: (as Margaret Thatcher) More...

UNIDENTIFIED MAN: (as Character) More...

STREEP: (as Margaret Thatcher) More...

UNIDENTIFIED MAN: (as Character) Because this isn't really about the voice. It's about belief.

STREEP: Yes. I think she'd worked very hard to lose her local accent from Lincolnshire. And she'd gone to Oxford, and then (mimicking) she'd acquired a sort of a plummy voice, and it was quite light, and that's the way they spoke. And when it raised itself, it got very screechy.

(SOUNDBITE OF LAUGHTER)

STREEP: And so Gordon Reece, who was this advertising man, brought her to somebody at the National or...

LLOYD: RADA.

STREEP: RADA, but it was Olivier who sort of was involved in helping find this person.

(SOUNDBITE OF LAUGHTER)

BLOCK: Olivier?

STREEP: Yes.

BLOCK: You're talking about Sir Laurence Olivier.

STREEP: Yes.

LLOYD: And then sent her to RADA, and that she is supposed to have followed the gentleman who taught her exercises so assiduously that she ended up with her voice being pitched halfway between a woman and a man - because she copied his voice.

BLOCK: I'm talking with Meryl Streep and director Phyllida Lloyd about their new movie, "The Iron Lady."

I'd like to play some tape for you of the real Margaret Thatcher, from 1979. She's just arrived at 10 Downing Street. She's just become prime minister, and she's paraphrasing here from St. Francis of Assisi.

Where there is discord, may we bring harmony. Where there is error, may we bring truth. Where there is doubt, may we bring faith. And where there is despair, may we bring hope.

Meryl Streep, you delivered those same words in the film.

STREEP: Yes. Yes, indeed.

(SOUNDBITE OF MOVIE, "THE IRON LADY")

STREEP: (as Margaret Thatcher) Where there is discord, may we bring harmony. Where there is error, may we bring truth. Where there is doubt, may we bring faith. And where there is despair, may we bring hope.

BLOCK: Meryl Streep, when you take on a character like Margaret Thatcher, how do you walk that line between acting and mimicking - making, maybe, a character too close to the real person? Does that detract in some way? Do you need to abandon the real character to make it feel more like a performance?

STREEP: That whole question is just - confounds me because I don't think about things that way. I think that to accurately portray how someone moved through the world, how other people reacted to them, you have to get as close as you can to that perception, to the particular outlines of things that galled people, that drew them to her, that infuriated them. And that has to do with her manner and how she spoke, and how she stood and moved and looked at people. Do you know what I mean?

So getting it as close as we could to the truth of what she seemed like actually enables me to move closer to understanding what she felt like. And it's that encounter - feeling like someone else - that is mysterious. And there's a point in the process where - I mean, not to be all, you know, sort of weird about it...

(SOUNDBITE OF LAUGHTER)

STREEP: ...but there is a point in the process where I don't distinguish between whether I'm doing her or I'm being me. I feel like me, and I sound like her. So that's something that if I'm lucky, happens early on in the process.

And I can locate the moment it happened for me in the first rehearsal with Jim Broadbent.

BLOCK: Who plays your husband, Denis Thatcher.

STREEP: Yes, who plays Denis. And I said something, trying out my way of speaking, and he laughed. But he didn't laugh like he was laughing at the way I said it. He laughed as if Margaret surprised him. And it was just a moment of belief, where I knew he believed me. And I knew he sort of loved her in spite of how preposterous she sounded. And that was everything.

BLOCK: Well, Meryl Streep and Phyllida Lloyd, thank you so much for coming in.

STREEP: Thank you.

LLOYD: Thank you.

BLOCK: Phyllida Lloyd directed the new film "The Iron Lady," starring Meryl Streep. I'm Melissa Block. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.

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