Feature Story by Brad Balfour
Looking very Julia Child-like, actor Meryl Streep stepped up to the press conference table in a long grey dress cut to her mid-calf, wearing a string of pearls. Her ersatz partner Stanley Tucci -- who plays Child's husband, Paul, is clad in a dark sport coat and white open shirt.
At this event, timed to the original release of the film Julie & Julia, Streep was her usual effervescent self, while Tucci performed as the snarky comic counterpoint. They both seem to have enjoyed playing these characters so much so that it's no surprise that her starring role has led Streep to garner another Oscar nom.
Though Streep went on to get hosannas from her next movie It's Complicated -- another film in which the 60-year-old actress plays a vibrant woman who transcends the implication of her age -- and stop-motion The Fantastic Mr. Fox, it's the twists and turns provided by director Nora Ephron in J&J that makes the intertwined stories of seminal French chef Child and her blogger fan Julie Powell the best of the bunch.
The wife of a diplomat in 1949 Paris, Child wonders how to pass the time so she tries hat-making, bridge-playing, and cooking lessons at Cordon Bleu. Once she discovers her passion for food -- which eventually leads to her seminal book, Mastering the Art of French Cooking and a career that made her the first star televison chef during the '50s and '60s.
Then, in 2002, writer Powell (played by the endearing Amy Adams) -- about to turn 30 with an unpublished novel and working aimless jobs -- decides to cook her way through Child's book in a year and blog about it. With sympathetic, loving husbands in tow, The film undulates between these two stories of women both learning to cook and finding their own success through it.
The tireless Streep has approached her career with a similar passion that was unexpected at first. From her first film role ironically in a film titled Julia, Streep transfered her ample skills as a Yale Drama School trained actress, to film and has led her to be nominated for the Academy Award an astonishing 16 times, with two wins so far.
Q: Because Julia Child was such a character, was there the additional challenge of not doing an impersonation that might veer into parody -- Nora Ephron said that you did a Julia Child for her one night after Shakespeare in the Park...
MS: Well, I bet everybody in this room could do their version of Julia Child. To everybody that voice was so familiar and then how do we know whether we're doing her or Dan Aykroyd's version of her. Everyone can pull that "bon appetit" out of there. When Nora gave me the script, sometime over a year ago, I just thought that it was so, so beautifully written.
It was an opportunity to not impersonate Julia Child, but to do a couple of things. For me, embodying her or Julie Powell's idea of her which is what I'm doing – I'm doing an idealized version, but I was also doing an idealized version of my mother who had a similar joi de vivre -- an undeniable sense of how to enjoy her life.
Every room she walked into she made brighter. I mean, she was really something. I have a good deal of my father in me which is another kind of sensibility, but I really, all my life, wanted to be more like my mother. So this is my little homage to that spirit. That's more what I was doing than actually Julia Child.
Q: The romance between Julia and Paul is so dynamic; it's touching to see what you're doing.
ST: Well, it's pretend.
Q: How did you create tthis organic-feeling relationship; what research did you both do before stepping into their skins?
MS: Well, Stanley and I are often on opposite sides in a very famous Charades game every Christmas. We've been at each other's throats like married people for a really long time, many years [laughs].
We knew each other in that way and I just sort of am in love with him from afar anyway with the totality of the man, from his acting to directing work and in every way. So does everyone who knows him. He's just real treat to work with. It wasn't a tough job to imagine being in love with him.
ST: We have to go now. We are in a hotel after all. Thanks for coming [laughs].
For me it was easy, too. Probably most people in the world I, too, have been in love with Meryl Streep for many, many years. We'd done The Devil Wears Prada together which was really fun and we knew each other a bit socially before that so for me [doing this one] was awesome.
It was incredibly easy. You also make it easy because you're so comfortable. I'm always a little nervous when I start shooting and I was very nervous to play around with that.
MS: We're you nervous when we started?
ST: I was so nervous. I was. You made me feel so comfortable. It was nice.
MS: You know what Nora did -- she did what she called a costume test, but it was really sort of introducing us to our world. She took us up to the rooms which they built in the Paris apartment that she built in Queens, or wherever they were, and let us walk around in our clothes. In isolation, in your Winnebago, or whatever it is, you kind of have a hard time convincing yourself that you are who you say you are.
When you walk into this world and the light comes in a certain way and the landscape of Paris – a photograph but still – and here's the man of your dreams, it all came together before we had to actually [do it]. That was a big day.
ST: Yes, I remember. Those actual physical elements really helped a great deal.
Q: What would you have asked the people you played in this film if you had the chance?
ST: I'd like to ask them how they lived so long eating what they ate. I'm convinced that they both had two livers. I'd just be curious.
I can't say that I know what I would've asked them, but what I would've liked to have done is watch the interaction between the two of them in that little kitchen -- either in Paris or in Boston -- because to me that was the most interesting thing. When you see that kitchen, we recreated it in the film, it was so casual and really very intimate. I would've just liked to have watch that, watch them put together a meal. That would've been a great thing.
MS: I would agree. I would've loved to have heard Paul's voice. Julia's is so vivid and she left behind such an articulate trail of her journey in the book that she wrote with Alex [Prud'Homme] and in My Life In France and in her cook books. Her voice really comes through. I would've loved to have heard him because he was a great storyteller and his interests ranged across a wide variety of topics and I'm sure that he was sort of a really interesting person to hear.
Q: Julia Child went through so many challenges in the beginning of her career. What were some of the challenges that you both went through as you started out as actors?
MS: Well, my challenge was committing to acting, thinking that it was a serious enough thing to do with my life. What are you going to do with your one wild life? I just didn't think it was…I don't know. I thought it was sort of silly and vain, acting, even though it was the most fun that I had ever done. It remains that, ergo, it can't be good for me.
It was just deciding. I remember thinking the first time that someone said, "Well, what do you –" and I said, 'I'm a…I'm uh an actor." Then I had committed I realized, but it took a long time.
ST: I took it too seriously at first and it took me a long time to understand that you have to be serious about what you do but you mustn't take yourself seriously. That way you'll be happier and ultimately you'll be more successful. You'll be better at what you do.
I think the challenges for me at the beginning… Well, it was much easier after I lost my hair, to tell you the truth. I started to work constantly once I started to lose it. So I'm thinking about losing the hair on my whole body. That's disgusting.
MS: That's going to be repeated everywhere now and it's going to come back to haunt you [laughs].
Q: What were some of the best bonding experiences you had over food either on this movie or elsewhere.
MS: Well, we bonded. I mean, I knew Stanley, but I thought, "Well, I might as well invite him over for dinner." So he and Kate [his wife] came and I decided I'd make blanquette de veau and it was not quite done when he arrived and so he came in and completely took over in the kitchen.
ST: It's untrue.
MS: It's totally true.
ST: We tried to do it together, but we had too much wine. "Why are you doing that way?"
MS: "Is that what you're going to do?" "Seriously, I'm just asking [laughs]."
ST: "Why do you hold it that way?"
MS: "Can I just…" "It's okay." "I can show you an easier way." Boom. It was out of my hands. He's just a great chef and I'm a cook.
ST: You're very kind. It was a fun night, but we didn't eat until about 11 or so. My wife Kate came and said, "What time are we eating?" I said, "I think we'll be done cooking about eight." She goes, "We're not going to make that."
Q: What were your favorite food memories of either chefs and restaurants?
MS: Great, great tomatoes, but my mother was the I Hate To Cook cookbook by Peg Bracken. Do you remember that? No. Not in your family. I remember when I was 10 going up to a little girl's house up the street and she and her mother were sitting at the table and they were doing something to tennis balls and I said, "What are you doing?" They said, "Making mash potatoes." I said, "What do you mean? Mash potatoes come in a box."
They were potatoes. They were peeling potatoes and I had never seen a real potato. So my mother's motto was, "If it's not done in 20 minutes it's not dinner." She had a lot that she wanted to do and cooking wasn't one of those things.
My food memories, I mean I think Julia Child really did change the whole [thing]. I recently found my knitting book at the bottom of knitting bag from 1967. It wasn't a knitting book. It was a magazine that had some knitting patterns in it and it was called Women's Day from 1967. It was filled with recipes and food ads and it's all Delmonte canned peas, Delmonte canned corn, Delmonte peas and corn, green beans and all the recipes are, like, take ground meat and put artificial mashed potatoes, layer it, top it off with tomato sauce out of a jar, put it in the oven and presto it's dinner. This is how we ate. People forget. Julia changed the way that people thought about cooking. It was great.
Q: if you had the opportunity what chef would you like to have over and what would you like them to cook for you?
MS: Dan Barber [from Blue Hill].
Q: What would you have him make for you?
MS: Anything that was fresh up there.
Q: And Stanley -- you were there at The James Beard Awards -- everybody was there that night -- who would you have picked?
ST: My grandmother, but she wasn't there. She was an extraordinary cook. There that night... There were so many of them, but Mario Batali I think in a lot of ways…Yeah, Mario.
Q: Did you do your own Julia imitation?
ST: No. I never did. I would've been fired.
Q: Meryl, you said that you had a hard time committing to acting. What were some of the other things you were taking seriously at that time?
MS: Well, when I was in drama school I was obsessed with Jonathan Schell's book Fate of the Earth. I've always been interested in environmental issues and I still am. That seems to me be worthwhile work, but over time I understood, just what I think from other people's work, we need art as much as we need good works. You need it like food. You need it for inspiration to keep going on the days that your low. We need each other in that way.
So I've reconciled myself to the fact that you can make a contribution. I've even reconciled myself to the fact that even my children might choose this profession. They seem to be, and now that's okay. Really I was pushing the sciences but it's just not going to happen.
Q: Meryl, how hard or easy has it been to stay focused with all the success you've had in recent years?
MS: You know what, I didn't think about it. I really didn't think about either sustaining my career or my voice. I haven't really thought about it. I'm like every other actor, I've been unemployed more than I've been working because of the nature of what we do. We just have a lot of downtime even though it seems like you're working, working, working.
So I've never gotten used to either working or being out of work. It's a very uncertain life and there are only a few people that would sign up to be married to someone else doing that. My husband is an artist and he understands that, the vagaries of the job. I just take it as everyday is a miracle and I'm really glad that I'm still working and that people are not sick of me. Even I'm sick of me a little bit.
Q: You're now a box office star –- has that changed anything about the choices that you make now?
MS: I seem to have more choices in the last five years in the previous five years, maybe. I really don't know why that is, but part of me thinks it has to do with the fact that there are more women executives making decisions because everything starts with what gets made and where the money comes from. I'm sure that they've had more to do with that really than I have.
Q: How do you deal with all the accolades?
MS: Well, fortunately, the blogospshere supplies you with the other side of all the accolades [laughs]. Just sign on and get humble.