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USA Today
Meryl Streep dresses down
July 2008

Miranda Priestly, the haughty harridan of The Devil Wears Prada, has been banished to the back of Meryl Streep's closet. As the formidable fashion editor herself would say, "That's all." This summer, the grande dame of American cinema opts for shabby, not chic, as an earthy dervish named Donna. The free-spirited hotel owner on a picturesque Greek isle collides head-on with her footloose past in Mamma Mia!, a sun-splashed movie version of the stage musical inspired by ABBA's greatest hits. It opens Friday. For Streep, denim blue is the new black. Not since Walter Brennan was a Real McCoy has a star gotten so much mileage out of a pair of overalls. "They were Greek workman's overalls," says Streep, in town for the first of several overseas premieres. "That is what they actually wear." Did she keep them as a souvenir? She laughs. "I think they made soup out of them." Consider those dungarees her answer to a superhero's costume. Streep, who persuaded blockbuster-season moviegoers to spend almost $125 million on 2006's Prada, is Mamma Mia's secret box-office weapon against the Joker-charged juggernaut known as The Dark Knight, which opens the same day. She must overcome not just the Caped Crusader but also more than a few cranky early reviews. The Telegraph here issued a typical gripe, declaring the film "a total shambles" that "sets the bar disappointingly low for actual quality." No one faults Streep, who gives it her best shot in an unabashedly populist entertainment. As Donna deals with the unexpected arrival of three ex-beaus, each the possible father of her bride-to-be daughter, she greets her character's gamut of emotions with a one-woman circus of physical feats, all the while warbling such ABBA classics as SOS and The Winner Takes It All.

Oscar's favorite actress, who just turned 59, scales a 40-foot goat house, tumbles through a roof, cries herself into a red-nosed stupor, slides down a banister, cannonballs into the sea and rocks out as a satin-jump-suited disco diva. That's before she lays all her love on Pierce Brosnan's potential baby-daddy architect, smooching him with gusto and spontaneously ripping off his drenched shirt. "Wouldn't that be your idea?" Steep says of her lusty ad-lib. "I felt I was doing it for all of America, for all the women. It's just one of the perks of the job. James Bond, come on." The former 007 has no complaints. "She is very kissable," Brosnan says. "She's lovely. My wife calls it legal cheating." As for the unexpected torn shirt? "Very clever on her behalf."

Streep usually suggests bits of business to better bring alive her characters. For Miranda Priestly, it was the frosty white hair. For Donna, it's that clutch of funky silver earrings surrounding her right ear. "At one point, when Donna took her shirt off, I wanted there to be tattoos all up and down," she says. "They convinced me that was too much. I wanted to wear her past on a body that was already middle-aged. I wanted to have a little road map where you are reading who she was. Women especially read all those clues really, really closely." One contribution no one will miss is the midair split while jumping on a bed during Dancing Queen. As Streep explains, "It was an opportunity to be, what's that line in Dancing Queen? To be 17 again, and be young and free. Everybody has that inside them." But not every AARP member could pull off such a stunt. Some have gone so far to suggest that digital trickery might be afoot. But, no, it's all Meryl. "I surprised myself," she says. "No, I don't do that every day and, frankly, if you asked me to do it now, I don't think I could. I didn't think about it. I just thought, 'I'm jumping on the bed. I wonder if I could do this still.' "And I did, you know." She and her castmates, including Julie Walters (Mrs. Weasley in the Harry Potter series) and two-time Tony winner Christine Baranski (TV's Cybill), look as if they are having a ball on screen. "We were," Streep assures, especially when the production moved from London's Pinewood Studios to the Greek islands of Skopelos and Skiathos. "There is absolutely no acting involved."

From 'Sophie' to 'Mamma'

Back in her Kramer vs. Kramer and Sophie's Choice days, the ultra-serious, Yale-trained Streep was declared an "automaton" by pull-no-punches critic Pauline Kael, one who acted only from the neck up. But in Mamma Mia!, Streep gets a total body workout, from the top of her messy blond head to the bottom of her sneaker-shod toes. And that was Streep's intent. "She said to us during our first meeting, 'I really am looking for something that will take 110% of my energy. Many films, they don't take all of my energy,' " says producer Judy Craymer, who originated the idea of turning ABBA songs into a musical. "She thought this would." Director Phyllida Lloyd, who also oversaw the London and Broadway productions, marvels at her star's zeal. "The other day in Greece, she did about 70 TV interviews in one day," she says. "She had some girlfriends with her, and when she came back, she said: 'What's happening now? What will we do?' They were wilting. She just has more in her tank."

That was evident at the film's world premiere, where a Mediterranean-blue carpet wound around a faux Greek village set up in Central London's Leicester Square. Dressed in a cinched-in scarlet Donna Karan coat dress, A-list-appropriate sunglasses and Louboutin heels, a stunning Streep spent close to an hour indulging autograph requests while never dropping her smile. As fit and fab as she is, however, the mother of four (ages 17 to 28) is at least 15 years too old to play the rebellious Donna. Lloyd considers the discrepancy a non-issue. "If you can have the greatest actress you can think of who also sings better than any actress you can think of, there are no excuses," she says of her first choice for the role. "What's your problem if you aren't trying to hunt her down? There is something eternally youthful about Meryl. I don't really think age was considered." Or as ABBA's Benny Andersson, who coached the actors and handled the soundtrack duties, says: "On stage, you can go for a singer who can act. In the film, you can't do that. You have to go for an actor who can sing." To him, Streep is "a miracle." Mamma Mia! is about many things - motherhood, fatherhood, marriage, friendship, hopes, regrets, forgiveness - but it is especially concerned with second chances. For Streep, it's her long-delayed opportunity to finally do a movie musical.

Don't cry for me

She has showed off her pipes in such non-musicals as 1990's Postcards From the Edge, 1992's Death Becomes Her and 2006's A Prairie Home Companion. But many a fan was crushed when her chance to do Evita back in the '80s fell through, and Madonna got to wail Don't Cry for Me, Argentina in the 1996 release. Supposedly, a disappointed Streep said in response: "I could rip her throat out. I can sing better than she can, if that counts for anything," a statement whose original source appears to be a 1991 New York Times article. "No, I didn't say it," she says. "That's one of those things you can never erase from whatever it is, the Internet. Why would I say that? I was out of the running by the time they got the movie together. It's a fabulous story, though. Oh, and I don't think I can sing better than her. And I certainly can't dance better." Streep took opera lessons when she was young, and she starred in Oklahoma!, The Music Man and as Daisy Mae in Li'l Abner in high school. "I thought I was going to be a music major at Vassar, but then I took Music Theory 101, which was the second-most-failed course," says Streep, who was done in by the math involved. "I decided I'd move on to the drama department, but I always loved singing." Even her first Broadway show was a musical: Kurt Weill and Bertolt Brecht's Happy End. "That's (she starts to sing) 'Surabaya Johnny. No one's meaner than you.' You know that song? Beautiful, beautiful music." But she says she hasn't been plotting to snag a movie musical since the genre made a comeback after the success of 2002's Chicago. "This came out of the blue and hit me in the forehead," says Streep, who wrote the Broadway cast of Mamma Mia! a mash note after seeing the show shortly after it opened in 2001. "I just couldn't believe they wanted me for this part." Why? "Well, I don't know. I'm not the first person I think of in this role. But I was thrilled." Next, Streep will be part of a different sisterhood in Doubt, based on the Tony-winning play set in the Bronx in 1964 about a nun who suspects a priest (Philip Seymour Hoffman) of abusing a student. "I just saw it before I left," she says of the Oscar-positioned December release, "and I'm really proud of it." Then there is next summer's Julie & Julia, Streep's reunion with Heartburn scribe Nora Ephron, in which she plays a young Julia Child, as seen through the eyes of a current-day blogger (Amy Adams) who cooks her way through the beloved chef's bible, Mastering the Art of French Cooking. "We just finished shooting last week in Paris," Streep says. Her prep: "I've been cooking my way through the French canon myself. I made tarte tartin - caramelized apples." Is her family benefiting from her culinary efforts? "I don't think they would say they are benefiting. They are all gaining weight. So did I." At least movie musicals are lower in calories. Would she do another? "You find me one, will you, please?"


Meryl Streep, no big surprise, gets bundles of praise from almost anyone associated with Mamma Mia! They love her - they do, they do, they do, they do, they do. And some do explain why:

ABBA's Bjorn Ulvaeus on hearing Meryl Streep sing his lyrics during the showstopper The Winner Takes It All. "Meryl brings such depth. To me, every word rings true. She is that person. What she's telling Pierce Brosnan at that moment is exactly her sentiments, which is so amazing. She is so one with the song."

Judy Craymer, Mamma Mia! producer and creator of the stage show. "Everyone was wanting to work with her. We were joking that we should have T-shirts made saying, 'We were here before Meryl.' It raised the bar to have her involved."

Christine Baranski, who plays Donna's pal, the thrice-divorced Tanya. "She's a consummate actress and everyone knows that, and supposedly goes in intimidated. But she is accessible as a woman and so wanted for the three of us to look like not just friends but old friends who had a history and were in a girl band and got drunk together. We just bonded on Day One."

Amanda Seyfried, who plays Donna's bride-to-be daughter, Sophie. "There is so much pressure because I was playing opposite her. I had a hard time trying to shove that away. The first thing she said to me was, 'Oh, we love you at our house.' Because of Karen (her ditzy high-schooler in Mean Girls). That is what she does. She takes herself off the pedestal and onto the normal ground we all walk on."

Phyllida Lloyd, Mamma Mia! director who also did the stage show. "She's a fantastic collaborator. She'll offer you 20 ways to do the scene. She is a gift for a director. I would walk over broken glass for her."

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