Meryl Streep: 'We're Still Not Telling Everybody's Story'

Meryl Streep has been nominated for an Academy Award 15 times, more than any other actor, but she says that awards shows in general run contrary to her belief that the quality of any artistic performance is "immeasurable."

"It's set up like an athletic event. These artistic things, these aesthetic judgments are not subject to 9.5, 9.3, 9.7, you know, flipping up the cards," Streep told "Nightline. "You respond to a piece of film or music or a poem out of your own experience. It's only as rich or troubled or complicated as that is, that you're going to have a connection to a performance."

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Streep echoed that sentiment in her acceptance speech at the Screen Actors Guild awards, where won the best actress award for her role in "Doubt."

"There is no such thing as best actress," she said.

Streep's first Academy Awards nomination was for "The Deer Hunter," and she won for "Kramer vs. Kramer" and "Sophie's Choice." She said she felt validated by those victories, but since 1982 -- that's 27 years -- she's gone home empty-handed, even for some remarkable and iconic performances in films such as "Silkwood," "Out of Africa" and "The Devil Wears Prada."

"There's a part of you that thinks every time you do the work as well as you hope you can do it, you get caught up in the thing," she said. "You just feel worse when you lose than you did before you got nominated. OK? I'll say that."


In "Doubt," Streep plays Sister Aloysius, an abrasive head nun at a Catholic school who is convinced that the parish priest -- played by Phillip Seymour Hoffman -- is abusing a boy in her school.

Streep said she liked playing the character "very much."

"I don't know if I like her, or think, you know, if I were a guy I'd like to date her or something," she joked. "She's just a difficult, prickly type of character and I like people like that. I like difficult people."

She likes playing tough characters "because their contradictions are so vivid and we're all so good at hiding ours. So in the course of a normal day, we all suppress what's hideous and the people that are interesting are sort of the ones who just let it hang out."

When asked about similarities between Sister Aloysius and Miranda Priestly, Streep's character in "The Devil Wears Prada," Streep said, "I see sort of a parallel in that women in power are still kind of terrifying to us. And so Sister Aloysius is terrifying because of her demeanor and so is Miranda Priestley. But we are uncomfortable still with women in power and we don't really know, still, I think. It's a complicated negotiation on the part of the person who has the authority and the people that she's bossing around."

Streep on Character Creation

When it comes to leadership, Streep said, "sometimes it's easier for people who are in authority to be authoritarian, because people know where you stand."

Streep said the success of powerful women like presidential candidate and now-Secretary of State Hillary Clinton and vice-presidential nominee Sarah Palin means that "we're on our way."

"I think we are just getting closer and closer as an evolving species to being able to accept this," she said. "But look around the world. ... Women are living as we were in this country in the 19th century in many, many, many parts of the world. They're bartered, they are property, they don't have the rights we have -- it's very difficult for us to understand all those things. But we do have a sense that for us, that's in the past."

Still, she said, "those vestigial things are in every negotiation I have with people in my business," she said. "Three of the nominated films this year have 26 men and one woman [in featured roles] -- 'Slumdog [Millionaire]' and 'Milk,' and 'Frost/Nixon.' You know, we accept it. It's not unusual. But we would go nuts if three of the nominated films had 26 women and one man. It would be a very, very unusual thing.

"We're still not telling everybody's story in our country and that's where we are," she said.

As for Sister Aloysius' story, Streep thinks her character loves the children in her school, despite her approach.

"I absolutely think that, insofar as she is letting those feelings engulf her, yes she does," she said. "But I think she holds things at a distance. Why? ... Because she's vulnerable to them."

Streep said she didn't want to give away too many of her characters' secrets, explaining that "when you make a character, when you inhabit somebody thoroughly, you feel like you know them and, in a way, sometimes I make up little things about their background that nobody knows, that aren't in the script, but that sort of fuel the ways that they manifest, the ways that they behave.

"I just think it's valuable to load yourself up with the ammunition of life, you know, with experience," she said. "Movie scripts are notoriously spare. It's not a novel ... so you have to sort of fill in the blanks for yourself, you have to write the interior story, and that's part of the fun of it."

No Such Thing as 'Greatest Actress'

Many older actresses' careers suffer, but not Streep's. The annual Oscar race more or less comes down to four nominees ... and whatever Streep did that year. Still, Streep downplays all the praise. The title "world's greatest actress," she said, is "completely meaningless."

"There is no such thing," she said. "There is no such entity."

And she added that she's constantly amazed by the work of her peers.

"I sit absolutely in the theater in awe of the work of people that I admire," she said. "I get inspiration -- I steal things from other people! You just get energized by seeing great work. I mean, that's what we do. And actors love to watch other actors work. You all like it, but we love it."

She praised the work of her co-star, Viola Davis, who was nominated for best supporting actress.

"She's just an amazing actress," she said, calling Davis' performance "titanic."

She's far from an old lady, but Streep says her mother is a good role model for what she hopes her life will be like someday.

"I'm just never gonna measure up; she was just something," she said. "But that's my goal. Part of the thing is she didn't work full time. And part of her gifts were the richness of her friendships, and that's really hard. It's not texting each other, it's face-to-face. You have to be in your friends' faces and in their lives. That's something that I think I've missed by working so hard and having so many thousands of kids."

But she doesn't regret paving the way for other female actors.

"There's just so many, many talented actors and actresses and I think there's more opportunity now for actresses," she said, "interesting work, complicated, demanding stuff than there maybe was 20 years ago."