When Meryl Streep and director Phyllida Lloyd first collaborated, it was on the lively, entertaining musical adaptation of “Mamma Mia,” based on the Broadway hit told through the music of ABBA. The 2008 summer movie was an enormous success, earning nearly $610 million worldwide and several accolades including two Golden Globe nominations in the comedy/musical categories for Best Motion Picture and Streep’s rousing Best Actress performance.
Little did the two know, three years later they would be together on-set again, this time for a story that couldn’t be further from “Mamma Mia.” In Lloyd’s latest film, “The Iron Lady,” she directed Streep to another Golden Globe® nomination (Streep’s 26) – this time a win (her 8th) – and what will undoubtedly be her 17th Oscar® nomination portraying former British Prime Minister Margaret Thatcher. The role is, in every sense of the words, complex, provocative and challenging. In fact, Streep herself called this job “daunting.”
Naturally, one would think that Streep – given her history with Lloyd, not to mention the proven scope of her versatility and talent – would’ve been at the top of Lloyd’s list to play Thatcher. In fact, it wasn’t the case at all. “[Meryl was] suggested to me,” Lloyd admitted. But it’s evident from hearing the director speak about her leading lady that there really was no other option.
“[Casting Meryl] just seemed like a choice that was in scale with the idea of Margaret Thatcher. It seemed that you needed somebody of that magnitude to play somebody who had such a vast personality as Thatcher,” Lloyd said.
“The Iron Lady” chronicles Thatcher’s rise to power, from her younger, formative years (played by Alexandra Roach) when her path toward public service began, to her first election, her appointment to Secretary of State for Education and Science and her eventual election as Prime Minister, a title she held from May 1979 to November 1990.
It was around this time that Thatcher began to re-shape her image, head-to-toe, voice and all.
And that is where Lloyd says Streep made a connection with Thatcher. “Meryl was, she was the outsider playing the outsider. And Meryl was working on the voice; Margaret Thatcher was working on the voice. Meryl was working on the hair; Margaret Thatcher was working on the hair.”
It was all so convincing, even some who worked closely with and know Thatcher had a very positive reaction after seeing Streep’s transformation. “Some associates and her colleagues who saw it very early-on were just stunned by the way in which she captured an essence.” Others who worked on the film weren’t so easily fooled, Lloyd recalled, convinced they were seeing the real woman on-screen. ”And there are a couple people who said that, for the first minute or so of the film, all they could think was, ‘how did they get Margaret Thatcher to agree to be in this film?’”
It was scenes like those made so famous on C-SPAN of a rambunctious and opinionated Parliament where Streep was really put to the test. “She walked into the House of Commons seen in front of 350 men, you could feel the tension in the room, you felt Meryl’s will to command these people, these actors really. And these actors’ suspicion of her – ‘here she comes, the outsider, let’s see her do it’ – it was very, very exciting, very theatrical.”
“The Iron Lady” isn’t your typical biopic. Rather, the story is told through flashback – a device Lloyd described as a “really thrilling creative challenge” - as a much older Thatcher – suffering from dementia and mourning the loss of her husband, Dennis (played by Jim Broadbent), several years prior – is transported back to significant moments in life, both professional and personal.
“She’s trying to let go of her husband, she’s trying to make sense of her past,” Lloyd said. “She’s actually being ambushed by memories in a kind of non-linear order and only very specific parts of her political life, very few in a way. She remembers the Falklands War because her son rings her in the middle of the night and tells her he’s not coming home. And so she remembers this period in which she was dealing with boys who were not coming home…ever.”
A hotly debated figure to this day – “She’s the devil or she’s the saint,” Lloyd pointed out - Thatcher’s decisions as Prime Minister without question shaped her country, even the world in some cases, but “The Iron Lady” isn’t an examination of those choices, but instead how the politics shaped the person. “It is very consciously not a political film in terms of its analysis of her policy. It’s a film about the cost of power…power and loss of power,” Lloyd explained.
“In the present day, she feels very kind of marooned I think, she’s at odds with the 21st Century. She talks about, ‘it used to be about doing something, not being somebody.’ Yes, I think the cost of her career has been, in our story at least, has been gigantic on her family, her spouse, her colleagues and, some people would say, the wider world.”
And that is where Streep’s performance greatly succeeds, transcending the actions of the woman, spotlighting the emotional consequences. Portraying Thatcher over 40 years of her life, Streep had a lot to consider. “There’s so much of herself there…she’s exploring who she’ll be as an old lady.”
“Abi Morgan, who wrote the screenplay, Meryl and myself were all interested in the mental fragility of the old lady and the invisibility of old people generally,” Lloyd said. “Meryl [was asked] something about, what would you want people to take away from the film. And she said, ‘Well, I’d like people to see an old lady in the street and think, I wonder if she had a big life, and just to take a second look at an older person.’”