Meryl Streep is known for portraying real-life characters in memorable films, though until now no one as commanding as Margaret Thatcher. John Hiscock meets the Oscar winner and finds that some, mainly her children, say she's a pretty formidable woman herself.
If Meryl Streep had her way, she'd have some time to herself.
"I would love to be alone. Just for five minutes," she says with a resigned smile. "It never happens and it would be great."
Even though her children are grown and she rarely makes more than one film a year, her acting, her charitable work for women's organisations and the demands on her time for publicity and promotional appearances keep her on the run.
And then there are the four children of her and her husband, the sculptor Don Gummer. Although they have all left home, she is still the doting mother they all turn to whenever they need anything. "It seems like I have thousands of children," she says, laughing. "I'm never alone."
Their 32-year-old son Henry, a musician, and three daughters - the actresses Mamie, 28, and Grace, 25, and the college student Louisa, 20 - all return home regularly.
"Even though they're grown up I'm always worried about them," Streep says. "They're always circling and coming home and moving back in as various things happen. It's not just them, but all their friends, too. There's never anything to eat in the house because they come in very late at night, take over and then disappear back into their lives. But I love it.
"It's kind of great and I really like this part of life. You wait so many years and wonder what they are going to be like when they grow up and pretty much they're like they were when they were 3 years old.
"But I'm nervous all the time," she adds. "I just put my youngest daughter on a plane to London - I think she's landing soon - and she lost her wallet." She shrugs, trying to put the problem out of her mind. "They need to learn these hard lessons."
When the children were growing up, she was the "bad cop" in the household while her husband was the "good cop". She says: "The kids always go to Daddy. The initials DTM were used in my house and for so long I didn't know what they meant. I've only just found out they stood for Don't Tell Mom."
It is unlikely that Streep, a veteran of more than 50 films with two Oscar wins (for Kramer vs Kramer and Sophie's Choice) and 16 nominations to her credit, will be alone any time soon: she is being widely tipped to win her third Oscar (she just won a Golden Globe) for her uncanny portrayal of Margaret Thatcher in The Iron Lady, which depicts the former British prime minister as a lonely, enfeebled old woman grappling with dementia and an unreliable memory, and uses flashbacks to touch on aspects of her political life from 1979 through to 1990.
Because the actress's politics are so different from Thatcher's, she thought long and hard when Phyllida Lloyd, who had directed her in Mamma Mia!, came to her with the script for The Iron Lady. Also, she knew there would be grumbles about an American actress being cast in a quintessentially British role when the UK has so many accomplished actresses.
"We talked about it a lot," she says. "Phyllida said she thought I was to play the part because I was an outsider and Margaret Thatcher was an outsider in her world and in her party. She was always where she didn't belong or wasn't wanted.
"I guess I'm as passionate about my work as she was and, like her, I don't want what I'm trying to do to be misconstrued, but I was not thrilled with her policies or her politics because my friends and I were all playing for the other team."
But is she an Iron Lady, too?
"No, I'm an ironing lady," she jokes. "But I can be strict at home, you betcha."
We are talking in a New York hotel where she has arrived from Washington, DC after a night out, she says, until 3am at the Kennedy Center with Robert De Niro and friends. She shows no signs of fatigue and, wearing a red Donna Karan cashmere turtleneck sweater, black slacks and black-rimmed glasses with her blonde hair neatly coiffed and a smooth, almost child-like complexion, she looks far younger than her 62 years.
"You know, when I was 10 years old I looked in the mirror and I counted 11 lines up here" - she points to her forehead - "and I still have 11 lines up there so I was an old woman then and I'm a young woman now."
Although she has been a star for more than 30 years, Streep says she has never been as nervous as she was on the day she met the rest of the cast of The Iron Lady.
"I walked into the rehearsal hall and there were 45 of the most wonderful British actors and they'd all done deep homework into the characters they were portraying, so I never felt more like I was from New Jersey than at that moment," she says with a laugh. "But they were really generous and gave me credibility and I'm very grateful to them."
The Iron Lady is told from the point of view of Lady Thatcher living in London several years after the death of her husband, Denis (played by Jim Broadbent and, in his younger years, Harry Lloyd). With extensive use of news clips, the film skips through the hobbling of the trade unions, the widespread protests, the Falklands conflict, poll tax riots, the miners' strike and the IRA bombings.
"It was difficult for me physically because I spend at least 40 per cent of the film as an old woman," says Streep. "We were on a tiny budget, we had very long days and there was no rest. Standing for 12 hours at a time was very painful and all I wanted was a great masseur."
Before filming began Streep spent months watching and listening to videos and broadcasts so she could get a sense of Thatcher's body language and voice. She also spoke with dozens of people who know her.
"We spoke to many, many people and it was interesting because everybody has an opinion of her," she says. "I talked to people who were very close to her and they were all very forthcoming about her strengths, her weakness, her frailties and the cruelty that was there and how she came to pay a price for it.
"We tried to get as close as we could to the truth but we don't concern ourselves with every single step in the chronological telling of Margaret Thatcher's life. We're concerned with three days at the end of an old woman's life and we're looking back at things and memories through her eyes, so when a siren blares in the street it reminds her of a specific time. This is a completely subjective look at Margaret Thatcher at the end of her life: the ebbing and diminishing of her power."
Thatcher herself has been incommunicado for some time amid leaks and speculation about her declining abilities.
One surprising thing Streep found during her research about Thatcher was: "She was head of the United Kingdom for eleven and a half years and did not have a cook," she says in amazement. "I have a cook. The last movie I made when I stopped making dinner was Sophie's Choice and that was a long time ago. She wanted to make dinner for Denis every night and even when it was take-out they would sit down and have it together.
"She had prodigious amounts of energy and would work late into the night and require all the cabinet ministers to be up there in the apartment with her. Denis would come in and say: 'You've got to feed these men' and she would go and whip up some horrible Welsh rarebit or something and give it to them."
Streep has donated her salary for The Iron Lady to the National Women's History Museum, one of several organisations devoted to improving the status of women in the world that she supports with both time and money. She also put two VIP tickets to the London premiere up for auction with the proceeds going to Women for Women International.
Streep has been fearlessly outspoken on the film industry's need for better scripts and better roles for women, something she is pleased to see finally materialising.
"Things are changing a little bit in the movie world because now there are more women working on developing movies, and there are also some female studio heads, which has shifted things and that's good for all of us," she says.
Streep talks with an easy confidence honed over the years since she embarked on a professional acting career on the New York stage in 1971 in The Playboy of Seville. She became a regular at the New York Shakespeare Festival and in 1977 made an impact in her feature film debut, Julia, as the high society friend of Jane Fonda's Lillian Hellman. She earned a Best Supporting Actress Oscar nomination for The Deer Hunter in 1978, won in that category for Kramer vs Kramer the next year, and won as Best Actress for Sophie's Choice in 1982. Then Silkwood, Out of Africa, Ironweed and A Cry in the Dark brought her an astounding four more Oscar nominations in only five years. Other films in which she delivered Oscar-nominated performances include Postcards from the Edge, Bridges of Madison County, The Devil Wears Prada, Doubt and Julie & Julia (for which she was on the M magazine cover in September 2009). Mamma Mia!, the 2008 screen musical in which she starred, grossed more than US$600 million (Dh2.2bn)worldwide.
She is renowned for immersing herself in her roles, her chameleon-like skill at adopting accents - she learnt Polish for her role in Sophie's Choice - and her gift for the broadest comedy as well as for serious parts.
"She broke the glass ceiling of an older woman being a big star - it has never, never happened before," says Mike Nichols, who directed her in Silkwood, Postcards from the Edge, Heartburn and Angels in America.
When Clint Eastwood cast her to star opposite him in The Bridges of Madison County, his reason was simple: "She's the greatest actress in the world," he said.
Streep has just completed the drama Great Hope Springs with Tommy Lee Jones and will soon begin filming the comedy Mommy and Me, which Tina Fey is writing for her.
As always, she thinks carefully before choosing a role and inhabits it totally - although, she says, it never gets any easier.
"I don't have a method I can identify with although I wish I did because it would make it less painful," she says. "I like to immerse myself completely in a role before we start and it's hard, especially when you have a lot of work behind you that you have to get rid of and erase because you don't want it bleeding into the new person you're becoming. As I did with Margaret Thatcher I feel defensive about every character I play and I defend them as if they're my own, because for the time I embody them, they feel like me."
Although Thatcher will loom large in her life until the Academy Awards in February - nominations will be announced on January 24 - Streep plans to take a holiday break with her husband for a couple of weeks.
"I'm not telling you where I'm going but hopefully it will be far away," she says with a laugh. "I want to get away, away, away."
The Iron Lady is scheduled to open in UAE cinemas on February 9.
The Streep file
BORN June 22, 1949, Summit, New Jersey
SCHOOLING Bernards High School, Bernardsville, New Jersey; Vassar College; Yale School of Drama
FAMILY Husband Don Gummer; son Henry, 32; daughters Mamie, 28; Grace, 25; Louisa, 20
FIRST JOB Part-time waitress
LAST BOOK READ Team of Rivals: The Political Genius of Abraham Lincoln by Doris Kearns Goodwin
LISTENING TO The Beatles
BIGGEST PROBLEM Time management
DISLIKES Having her picture taken
BIGGEST MYTH ABOUT HER "That I'm difficult"
BIGGEST TRAGEDY The death of her then-fiancé, John Cazale, of bone cancer in 1978
True to life
"I like to immerse myself completely in a role," says Meryl Streep. The Iron Lady marks the sixth film in which she plays a real-life person. The others:
SILKWOOD (1983) Streep won rave reviews in this Mike Nichols drama inspired by the true story of Karen Silkwood, who died in a suspicious car accident while investigating alleged wrongdoing at the nuclear plant in the US state of Oklahoma where she worked.
A CRY IN THE DARK (1988) This Australian film directed by Fred Schepisi, based on the 1985 book Evil Angels, chronicles the real disappearance of a nine-week-old baby girl from a campground, and her parents' fight to prove their innocence in her death. Streep plays the girl's mother, Lindy Chamberlain, and the film was released shortly after an appeals court exonerated the Chamberlains of all charges.
MUSIC OF THE HEART (1999) Streep plays the violinist and music teacher Roberta Guaspari in this film - the director Wes Cravens's only venture outside the horror/thriller genre - inspired by the true story of the Opus 118 Harlem School of Music and Small Wonders, a 1996 documentary about the New York school.
ADAPTATION (2002) Based on the non-fiction book The Orchid Thief, this Spike Jonze-directed comedy-drama tells the story of the US journalist Susan Orleans and the struggle to adapt her book for a film. Nicolas Cage co-stars in a dual role as the brothers Charlie and Donald Kaufman.
JULIE & JULIA (2009) Streep is spot-on in her duplication of the quirky voice and mannerisms of the famous chef and cookery book author Julia Child. She earned many accolades from critics and many acting nominations and awards.
In addition, Streep starred in Out of Africa (1985), Heartburn (1986) and Postcards from the Edge (1990), adapted from autobiographical novels by respectively, Isak Dinesen, Nora Ephron and Carrie Fisher. And her character in The Devil Wears Prada (2006), adapted from the autobiographical novel by Lauren Weisberger, was widely believed to have been based on the American Vogue editor Anna Wintour.