Movies

Meryl Streep: I was reluctant to play Oscar-nominated role in ‘August: Osage County’

Because the performances of Meryl Streep and Julia Roberts are so intense in John Wells’ “August: Osage County,” it was a no-brainer that both received Oscar nods this year. But getting there wasn’t easy. Streep and several of her castmates talked to us about the grit and humor of “August: Osage County.”

First known as a Broadway play, “August: Osage County” provides a humorous look at a dysfunctional family in Oklahoma torn with heartache, addiction, and lost relationships. Streep exquisitely plays Violet, a strong-willed and contentious woman suffering from mouth cancer and addicted to narcotics. When her husband goes missing, Violet’s life unravels as she calls her sister and three daughters for support. The family has drifted apart over the years, but with their return to Violet’s home, old wounds are opened. But Streep admitted that she had reservations with the part.

“I initially resisted doing the part because…on so many levels — physically, mentally, spiritually, emotionally — Violet is enraged and/or in pain or drugged,” she said. “It wasn’t the most joyous experience from my point of view. It was hard to feel that way about everybody (hating everyone). Also, I was smoking non-stop which really makes you feel shitty.”

In trying to understand her character, Streep said, “One of the things that really interested me was where she was in any given point in the cycle of pain and pain relief. Where she was on her pain killers cycle… And since we were shooting out of order, I sort of had to map that in a way just so I would know what level of attention or inattention I could bring my fellow actors.”

Violet directed a lot of her anger at her eldest daughter Barbara, played by Julia Roberts. These characters have numerous verbal blows and even a physical fight. For Roberts, having to attack Streep, one of her idols, was bizarre.

“I always had to look her right in the eye before we parted ways [at the of the day] to make sure we are all good. We are kidding, right?” Roberts said while giving Streep an evil stare.

The secret to the authenticity of the family was the closeness of the full cast. Streep gave credit to the director John Wells (“The Company Men”) saying, “You don’t get a vote who is in your family, but John was like God, and you know he put this group of people together and thought, ‘Oh, this will get messy,’ and it was really masterfully done.”

As they were filming in Oklahoma, the cast stayed in an unoccupied apartment complex where they really made an effort to bond with one another by living together while on location.

“We actually became a family together,” said Margo Martindale, who plays Violet’s sister, Mattie Fae. “We actually watched television together, cooked together, ate together, laughed together, and worried about Hurricane Sandy together. It was an incredible experience that really made for the perfect environment for the ensemble of actors to do this beautiful screenplay.”

Streep mocked George Clooney, one of the film’s producers, saying, “It was my idea to live in the condo villages behind the Toyota dealership. Yes! George Clooney opted out of our living accommodations. Didn’t he now! He is so important.”

Besides the impeccable yet dark acting (hey, it warranted both Streep and Roberts Oscar nominations), John Wells and Pulitzer Prize winning writer Tracy Letts were concerned about the comedy of the film.

“It was very important to us to try to preserve the humor of the piece,” Letts said. “You know I always sort of felt that the secret to the success of ‘August: Osage County’ was the humor in it. It is quite often when plays are turned into films the humor is lost…if that happens with ‘August’ we’re dead because it would be impossible for an audience to watch if it were not for the humor. As long as you’re laughing, you’re listening.”

Wells also said he had apprehensions, saying, “That was a big fear when we first started to screen the film: Would anybody laugh?” Wells was so concerned about not losing the humor of the original play that he watched a video recording of it with the script in hand and highlighted every single laugh.

“In our cutting of our piece [the film], we only cut two parts that had laughs and saved every single laugh for that reason,” he said.

Streep waxed philosophical about the humor of movie saying, “There are times we come together with family and friends and have an experience that is not funny and possibly even painful while it is happening. But when we are able retell the story, we begin to notice that it becomes funny.  So it is in these moments that we realize that we have transformed our lives just by noticing it isn’t as painful as we once thought.”

The play version of “August: Osage County” won a Tony Award and a Pulitzer for its writer. Will Meryl Streep and Julia Roberts receive awards for their exceptional acting at tonight’s Academy Awards?

[Photo: Claire Folger/AP]

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