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Brigitte Lacombe / Trunck Archive
Brigitte Lacombe / Trunck Archive

'It's the difference between doing it pretty well and doing it great'

Cover story Meryl Streep is serving up accomplished fare in the film Julie & Julia as the TV chef who taught America how to cook.

For 30 years, Meryl Streep has brought characters of great depth to the big screen. John Hiscock meets the Oscar winner as she serves up accomplished fare in the film Julie & Julia as the TV chef who taught America how to cook. Meryl Streep is fondly remembering every detail of the surprise dinner her three daughters cooked for her 60th birthday back in June. She had been in a grumpy mood that day, she recalls, because she had been called in to work even though she had asked for the day off on her special day. "I was really mad and in a bad mood and I came home at 10 at night and my daughters had got together and made an extraordinary meal," she says proudly. "It really touched me and made me so happy because I can't usually get them to load the dishwasher.

"The menu was roast pork with stuffing and a beet salad and an amazing cake with layers of fresh cream and strawberries, raspberries, blackberries and blueberries." Food and menus are at the forefront of Meryl Streep's mind at the moment because of her latest film, Julie & Julia. The light-hearted story of the TV chef Julia Child and the writer-blogger Julie Powell, played by Amy Adams, has been well received in the US and opens in the UAE next month. In it, Streep portrays Child, the ungainly chef hailed as the woman who taught America how to cook. In an almost 40-year, award-filled career, Streep has created a pantheon of varied and memorable characters: the Polish Nazi camp survivor in Sophie's Choice, Karen Blixen in Out Of Africa, the day-dreaming housewife in The Bridges Of Madison County, career-driven Miranda in The Devil Wears Prada, the stern headmistress Sister Aloysius in Doubt and the singing, dancing Donna of Mamma Mia!

Lately, she is creating a stir with her Oscar-worthy performance as Child, whose long career began in the 1960s and, thanks to the film, is now captivating a new generation of food lovers. Bookstores have reported selling out of Child's books, and would-be foodies are signing up for French cooking classes in the thousands. The writer-director Nora Ephron adapted and interweaved two memoirs, Child's My Life In France and Powell's Julie & Julia, about Powell's attempt to cook her way through Child's seminal 1961 cookbook, Mastering The Art Of French Cooking - 524 recipes in 365 days - and chronicle her efforts in a blog. The film alternates between Child and her husband's life in France, and, 50 years later, Powell's life in a New York apartment with her husband. It portrays the respective couples' passions for their partners and for food, while exploring the lives of two women who found fame and fulfilment by cooking and writing about it. Although it is a film about two chefs, it also dramatises the notion that determination, creativity and passion can change a life, and also help produce memorable dishes. Streep and Adams are excellent, and it is refreshing to watch a movie about two women that is not a romantic comedy.

"When you talk about passion, Julia Child didn't just have it for her husband or cooking: she had a passion for living," Streep says. "What was compelling about her was her joie de vivre and her unwillingness to be bogged down in negativity. She loved being alive, and that's inspirational in itself. It's about partnerships and how you can support each other in good times and bad." Streep has mixed feelings about the pioneering chef. On the one hand, she is full of admiration for Child's indefatigable enthusiasm and determination; but in her own dealings with Child, who died in 2004 at the age of 91, she found her to be stubborn and dismissive and was disappointed to discover Child was a pawn of big business. Child was the first American woman to study at Paris's famous Cordon Bleu cooking school, and the popularity of her Mastering The Art Of French Cooking led to a TV show and a cooking career that made her a household name. She steered eaters away from canned, frozen and processed foods, and promoted ones that were fresh and flavourful. She did not, however, always practise what she preached. Twenty years ago, when Streep was working with a group called Mothers and Others, which she formed to try to get organic agriculture into supermarkets, she contacted Child to enlist her support.

"She was very resistant and she brushed us off quite brusquely," she recalled. "She sent word back that she didn't have anything to say on the subject, and she really resisted making a connection between the high-fat diet of a heavily laden Cordon Bleu-influenced cuisine and cholesterol levels. I remember being so disappointed that she was in the thrall of something called the American Council for Science and Health, which was a front organisation for agro-businesses and petrochemical businesses. "They seduced Julia into giving them money, so she was on the other side for a while. Eventually I think she came around, though." Streep is the first to admit she is far from being a wonderful cook. But she knows her way around a kitchen a lot better since portraying Child. Roasting the perfect chicken, browning meat properly... even cleaning garlic and onion from the fingers are all things she says she learned while filming Julie & Julia. "There was a whole kitchen set up at the studio and I practised my cooking there," says Streep. "I could justify it because it was part of my job. I've been cooking roast chicken for 30 years, but I'd been doing it wrong, and Julia Child has a recipe that is absolutely foolproof. It's the difference between doing it pretty well and doing it great. But to cook well takes practice, and to be honest, I feel much more confident about my acting skills than my cooking skills. I like very simple things. A perfect roast chicken with a salad and a glass of Sancerre is my idea of heaven." Ephron cast Streep, an old friend, after running into her at a Shakespeare In The Park performance in New York. Streep asked what she was working on, Ephron told her and Streep immediately went into her Child impression: "Bon appétit!" Ephron sent her the script and, as Streep recalls: "It was absolutely beautiful. Julia's approach to her day was one of energy and appetite and a blanket determination not to let troubles get you down. It's a great quality and she really had it. "I saw her cooking shows when I was a kid. She was a pioneer because she was one of the first women on television who wasn't an entertainer and she was already 50 years old, with her personality indelibly created by her own life experience. There was no focus group telling her how to dress and look, and her generous nature was what drew people to her." Streep, wearing a black-belted red Prada dress, was talking in a Beverly Hills hotel suite during a promotional trip to Los Angeles from the East Coast, where she and her family divide their time between Manhattan and Connecticut. Ever the professional, she was happy to talk of both her own life and Child's. On the surface the two women have little in common: Child stood an awkward and clumsy 188cm, while Streep is an elegant 168cm, but the actress feels a link with the untiring cook through her mother. "My mother only had one cookbook and it was called The I Hate To Cook Book, and she used to say, 'If it's not done in 20 minutes, it's not dinner'," she says.

"I remember when I was 10 years old going to a neighbour's house and she and her mother were sitting at the kitchen table with what looked like tennis balls, and I asked what they were doing, and she told me they were making mashed potatoes, and I said, 'What do you mean? Mashed potatoes come in a box', because in my house, they did. "That was the world Julia Child broke into. She transformed cooking for regular people. "But even if my mother wasn't a good cook, she had a similar joie de vivre and an undeniable sense of how to enjoy her life, so this is my homage to her spirit." Although she channels Child's delightfully dotty mannerisms and odd, high-pitched voice, Streep insists she was not impersonating the chef. "I'm playing Julia as Julie's idea of what she was like, so I'm not really 'doing' Julia Child," she says. "While I felt a responsibility to her memory and the legacy of the work she did, I didn't feel I was replicating her because I don't presume to know what she was like. That's my rationalisation - my 'out' - because I thought that even if I made a big, glaring mistake with her I'm really only a figment of someone else's imagination." One of the leading actresses of her generation, 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 a high society friend of Jane Fonda's Lillian Hellman. She reinforced her ability to play characters of exceptional depth with her portrayal of Linda and her fraught relationships with two Vietnam War soldiers in The Deer Hunter. She began her first serious romance with one of the film's co-stars, John Cazale, and, a few months later, watched him slowly die of bone cancer.

She met the sculptor Don Gummer, who was asked by Streep's brother Harry to do some work on her Manhattan loft six months later, and they fell in love and married in September 1978. They have a 30-year-old son, Henry, and three daughters, the actress Mamie Gummer, 26, Grace, 22, and Louisa, 18. Streep earned an Emmy for her role as a German woman trying to save her Jewish husband from the Nazis in the television series Holocaust (1978) and won rave reviews and her first best actress Oscar for Kramer vs. Kramer, the 1979 film in which she played a woman who leaves her husband and son only to return to claim the child in a messy divorce case. Her second Oscar win was for the 1982 film Sophie's Choice, and she has notched a record 15 nominations, with another one likely for Julie & Julia. Curiously, she cannot remember wanting a career as an actress. "When I was a kid I wanted to be a princess and marry Prince Charles," she says. "When I met him, I told him that and said I was sorry it didn't work out." She pauses and laughs: "But I'm not really sorry. "I always wanted to have a family because I knew that was something that was very important, but I never had ambitions to be an actor or anything like that. "It's been a very weird journey in a way because I never had to decide what I was going to be when I grew up because I got to be all sorts of different people and I continue to be able to do that. An actor is somebody who never really settles on anything and I'm really grateful for that fact because I think I would have been unhappy if I had to sit at a computer terminal 50 weeks a year. I really do." She has an instinctive gift for picking up the accent of the person she is talking to, whether she intends to or not. "I have a sort of sponge for an ear, and it's very hard for me not to talk like the person I'm talking to," she says. "My kids always make fun of me. When I'm on the phone they can tell if I'm talking to someone who has an accent because I start to talk that way, too. They say, 'Mom, was that a Jamaican operator?' because I'm unconsciously talking with an Island lilt. I can't help it. It's not a good thing, but it's a thing that I have."

Streep is still putting her gift to good use and is working as hard, if not harder, than she ever did. She has had little time for cooking at home because she went straight from Mamma Mia! to Doubt to Julie & Julia, has provided the voice of Mrs Fox for the animated adventure-comedy The Fantastic Mr Fox, and has just finished a romantic comedy with Steve Martin and Alec Baldwin, It's Complicated. When she does cook, however, she has the appreciative support of her husband. "He's amazing because he just likes everything I make," she says. "Even when it doesn't turn out well he's so appreciative, and there's nothing better than when you are a little disappointed in what you've tried and he doesn't notice that it didn't turn out so good. "But I don't make excuses. That's another thing Julia taught me: Don't apologise, because it always make it taste worse. If they didn't notice it was bad, shut up." Then, breaking into a high-pitched Julia Child laugh: "Bon appétit!" Julie & Julia opens in the UAE on October 8.

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