There are three stages of freak out you go through when you are told you are interviewing Meryl Streep, Tracey Ullman and Christine Baranski. The first is the squeeeeee moment where you squeal and dance and tell anybody that will listen, and some that don’t, that you are interviewing these amazing women. The second is when it dawns on you that you are about to interview legends and you research the crap out of everything just so you don’t seem dumb in front of them. Oh and you sweat, and cry, and wonder- what the hell am I doing?? The third happens when you look up, as they are walking into the room, you see them smile, suddenly you can just feel the awesomeness, and you know, this is going to be great.
The ladies walked in, and Tracey Ullman took a look at us and proclaimed, “I love the smell of estrogen in here!” Suddenly, it went from interview to conversation about just about everything: their friendship, motherhood and hearing Meryl curse. It was kind of epic. Read on and be prepared for some laughs.
It’s obvious you guys are friends; can you tell me how your friendships came to be?
Christine Baranski: Tracey and Meryl are old friends so you can start there.
Meryl Streep: I met [Tracey Ullman] when she was 21; we did a movie called “Plenty”. I was 31, and I thought I had just met my new best friend… I had no idea she was a pop star in England – she really was! Discovered by Paul McCartney, right?
Tracey Ullman: Yes, he was a mate, yes.
Meryl: You had a top ten hit… a couple of top ten hits.
Tracey: I did, I did. I was a one-hit-wonder here [in the US], MTV VJ, so… yeah! We got on great! Ended up in Tunisia. We broke down in the desert and flew back together and the plane – the flippin’ engine went and we thought we were gonna die. Roy [Helland] was with us.
Meryl: Yes, Roy was with us on the plane. The engine blew up over the Mediterranean.
Tracey: It was bad, yeah, it was bad.
Meryl: But, we stayed together, in spite of it all.
Tracey: Yeah, we stayed together. Had kids the same age.
Meryl: And Christine [Baranski] and I…
Christine: We were dynamos in Grease together, and on Mama Mia; we had to ‘research’ by being friends so we just hung out all the time, doing ‘research’. So, we had a lot of fun with all that ‘research’.
Meryl: We’ve known each other a hundred years.
Christine: We have! Because we’re theater babes and we’re Connecticut moms, our kids are roughly the same age, and all three of us had long marriages. Like shared, you know, parallel experiences, and it’s a trick being an actress and wife and mother and having that longevity – that’s a real achievement, in my opinion, that’s the greatest achievement. Not just a career, but holding your life together. Look at Meryl with four kids.
Meryl: It’s a tribute to our husbands.
Tracey: Yes, they were fantastic fathers.
Christine: Yes, and our sense of equilibrium, but – yeah! Girlfriends, it’s great! But then I met Tracey and it was like ‘Oh, wow!’
Meryl: We didn’t spend nearly enough time together on this movie because we were, you know, different scenes and plot lines. But, we did have one wonderful, long dinner in London. That was great.
Tracey: We had one elongated scene where we were all in it, where I got to shout at the Giant and it took like, 3 days and we all got really silly. Her [points to Meryl] in her big, platform shoes and she kept falling over.
Your characters are all like exaggerated versions of parenting methods gone wrong. Did any of you feel — or, even more interesting, did any of your kids feel or see some similarities, and you guys were like, “Oh my God, you’re right”?
Meryl: Yes. (laughs) I hold the girls a little too closely. Yes, perhaps.
Tracey: (singing) “Stay with me…”
Meryl: No, we’re beaten up by our children. Well, I really feel — I mean, just speaking for the group, I feel like so much has changed. Raising little kids now is so different from when our children were little kids. I think that’s part of why this film and its warnings and its overweening care of the mothers, it speaks to this time when it’s harder and harder to keep the world out. The worst parts of them out. To keep them in the little tower is impossible. People were worried about this film, that it maybe is too dark for kids. Kids know so much now. And they’re aware of so much, and yet they’re so resilient, and innately hopeful. That’s sort of what the film is.
Tracey: Would we have taken Mabel (Tracey’s daughter) and Grace (Meryl’s daughter) to see this? When they were like, six? They would have handled this.
Meryl: Are you kidding? You’d let them watch Cops.
Meryl: When they were seven. And Gracie came home and she said, “Oh.” And then she was imitating, you know, the people, and the crack addicts, getting pulled by their hair.
Tracey: What about downstairs at your house, watching those —
Meryl: No, never.
Tracey: Watching those Oscar screeners with Liam Neeson and the wife getting murdered and —
Meryl: No. No. [LAUGHTER]
Tracey: [Laughing] They would have liked it (Into The Woods).
Meryl: They would have loved it.
This is for all three of you. You’ve played a variety of drama, comedy, and wicked. What is your favorite role to play?
Meryl: There — I — I don’t even know if we — I don’t know if I think about it that way. I think each, each particular person you play deserves their own voice, and deserves their own place in the world, and they’re all about 5’6″ and a half, and they’re all about, you know, my weight and age that I play. But that’s — that’s the — that’s the through-line, but I feel like there are so many different women. So many different stories. And they each deserve their voice, you know, and their particular neuroses and needs and passions. So, I don’t — I don’t make a distinction — I mean, there are — you know, stupid stuff I’ve done that I [LAUGHTER] — I won’t say what. But, you know, and more cartoony sort of things. Um —
Tracey: Your empathy for Margaret Thatcher for extraordinary for me. Because, when you first said you were going to be Margaret Thatcher, and I’d grown up, you know, in the Eighties. And everyone was like me, you — it’s like, a real difficult, it’s like, “Oh. Not her!” But you saw her in a way, as a woman, and how she faced the world, and in a way that you — it was amazing to me.
Meryl: Well, I was just interested in an old lady. I like old ladies.
Tracey: Yes. [LAUGHTER] And that vulnerability. And that’s what it became — it was amazing, her vulnerability, and how we have our time. And that, you know, my initial reaction was “Margaret Thatcher! Ughhh!” You know?
Meryl: Yeah, but, you know, you’ve played evil people, but they’re fun.
Christine: Yeah. No, they are fun, but I think more to the point is the project that you’re in if you feel like it’s contributing, especially being, um, actresses who have an opportunity in our work to maybe move the culture forward, and show women in a deeper, more complicated way. I love that I’m playing somebody on television who is well-educated, she runs a law firm, she actually has a r — y’know, a relationship. She’s not the butt of a joke. She’s not an old crone. You know, there’s never a mention of menopause or — or any of these clichéd things that we have put on things after a certain age. I love that these are just non-issues, and she’s a woman who is in the world, dealing with a complicated moral topography in her personal and professional life. So being part of anything like that — and I think that this — this movie is transformative, and contributes good to the world, so I think that’s — that’s what would we look for —
Meryl: Increasingly, that’s what I think about. I mean, I’m — I have, I guess, for a long time, thought, each thing, is this helping? Or this hurting? What’s this doing? Because everything makes a mark on the culture. Everything you do, everything you do, every actress has a choice, you know? Even if you’re supporting a lot of kids, by yourself, you still have a choice, what you’re putting out into the world, and I think it matters.
Christine: Yeah. Are you reinforcing clichés, and — or are you breaking? Breaking boundaries with the work?
Last night you had mentioned that one of the things that kind of helped you find your character was coming up with designs. So, what else — for all three of you — what else helps you develop that character into your own, instead of being that exact character that was on Broadway or just to kind of create it as “you”?
Meryl: Well, for — for me, I feel like it — the part I played was so indelibly done on Broadway by Bernadette Peters. But it’s also been indelibly done by many, many kids, throughout the country, in their high schools, and in colleges. And it’s like any really good play, the part can morph to the shape of the person who is, you know, in there. And, so, I felt completely free, and also a failing memory helps me in this. [LAUGHTER] In this place, because I — I couldn’t have remembered. I would’ve stolen from Bernadette more, if I could remember the thing. So I — I felt free, too, and he — he made us feel that way, Rob Marshall, and certainly Sondheim said “Do what you want.” He also wrote me a — a song for this, and, um, that isn’t in the film, because it sort of halted the action, but it’ll be in the DVD extras. But when he — he sang this for me in a — in a — a private session, and I was so thrilled, and he gave me the sheet music at the end. I said, “Could — do you mind — if I — could — could I keep the sheet music?” And he said, “Sure.” I said, “Well, I hate to ask this, but would you — would you sign it?” And I did! And he said, “Yeah. I’d be glad to,” and he wrote: Don’t fuck it up. Wait- don’t put that in the mommy blog!
Don’t worry Stephen- she didn’t fuck it up!
Into The Woods opens Christmas Day and is rated PG.