Meryl Streep on Why She's Finally Playing a Witch
At 40, the iconic actress said 'no' to such roles. At 65, she felt the time was right.
Witch-wise, Into the Woods represents a change of heart for Meryl Streep.
The three-time Oscar winner was offered three witch parts within a year of turning 40 and turned them all down.
"Our culture is pretty youth-obsessed, especially people that pass 40," says Streep, who has not named the roles she was offered (two good guesses; the parts ultimately played by Anjelica Huston in The Witches and Bette Midler in Hocus Pocus). "I was not offered any female adventurers, or love interests, or heroes or demons. I was offered witches because I was ‘old’ at 40.”
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But, at 65, she finally said "yes" to exploring her inner witch in Into the Woods, the Stephen Sondheim musical hit that earned more than $100 million in its first three weeks in theaters. Streep was nominated for a Golden Globe as Best Supporting Actress for her role, showing up at this week's ceremony looking glamorous and relaxed, despite not winning (she lost to Patricia Arquette in Boyhood). The witch role also garnered her a record-breaking 19th Oscar nomination, for Best Supporting Actress. (She broke her own record for Oscar nods.)
In numerous interviews promoting the film, Streep talked about why now was the right time to take a witch role in the film that has a Sondheim lyric urging listeners to pay attention to witches, even if they seem to be frightening, because "witches can be right."
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Here are our eight favorite Streep quotes on witches and aging:
On why she takes issue with witch depiction in pop culture: “I just have had a political sort of reaction against the concept of old women being demonized and age being this horrifying, scary thing. I just didn’t like that. I didn’t like it when I was a little girl. I don’t like it now."
On why male movie decisonmakers have defaulted to witch characters: "Once women passed childbearing age they could only be seen as grotesque on some level."
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On how her youth-obsessed character in Into the Woods might resonate in Hollywood: “They think if they look great, they'll be lovable."
On how a witch role seemed different at 65 than at 40: "Before that, I had been playing interesting parts. I just thought that it was emblematic of what Hollywood thought of women who pass a certain age: that now they are old crones. It made me mad, so I didn't want to do that or play into it. Now, it's age-appropriate. I am an old crone, I'm 65 and I'm thrilled I get the chance to play such a ... big, challenging musical part."
On what her overprotective mother character (her daughter is Rapunzel) tells us about parents: "The issues that the Witch has, the idea that people do very bad things for sometimes very good reasons, felt very resonant. She loves, above everything, this little blossom of a girl that she never dreamed she would have ... She wants to protect her from all the bad things in the world, and that's something that every parent understands, to the extreme.”
On the message her character has for both young and old: "There's an awful balance in everything, and that's what we live with, (but) you don't know that when you're young and aiming for something that you imagine is there. It reminds me of all those surveys [for] young people across the country that say, 'What do you want to do when you are older? What's your goal?' And the goal is to be famous — not what they're going to do, not what they're going to achieve, not the quality of their output or what they're going to be. It's 'famous,' and that's what you should really be careful of wishing. It's extremely compassionate, this piece, in its understanding of how we all aim at things. Whether they're good things or bad things, we strive for them, and at a cost, sometimes."
On the visual joke she and her hairdresser built into her interpretation of the Witch (her hair takes on an azure hue when — spoiler alert — she is transformed into a youthful beauty): "It's a play on that idea that old ladies used to have a blue rinse."
On feeling comfortable in a witch role because Hollywood has improved: "Things have changed since (she was offered three witch roles in one year). That was 25 years ago. Now there’s so much more interesting stuff available.”
And, with three Meryl Streep movies hitting theaters in the coming year, who's going to deny that the acting legend continues to cast a spell?
Chris Hewitt is a movie and theater critic who has written for MSNBC.com, Today.com and The History Channel magazine as well as Next Avenue and whose reviews have run in newspapers across the country.