NEW YORK -- Of Meryl Streep's abundance of gifts, one stands out in particular: the ability to laugh at herself.
Her left hand is bandaged after an avocado-peeling accident that severed nerves and requires physical therapy. She still can't believe her kitchen debacle, the confluence of foolhardiness and the wrong knife.
"From now on, I'm changing everything. I learn something every day. I do. Six months to a year, it will take to heal," Streep says ruefully. "I shouldn't cross against the light, and that's when you get hit by the bike coming the wrong way. You know it. And you think, how can you tell your children anything when you're the idiot?"
That's not the word anyone would use to describe her. Streep is one of the most respected, revered actresses working today, and she won an Oscar, her third, this year for playing Margaret Thatcher in The Iron Lady. Yet Streep, effusive, funny and warm, sounds like a giddy drama school graduate when she talks about her day job. "Oh, my God. I can't believe they're still letting me do this!"
Not only is Hollywood still clamoring to hire her, but Streep, 63, keeps reinventing herself in an industry not exactly kind to actresses of a certain age. On Wednesday, she's Kay, a frustrated wife trying to inject passion and intimacy into her stagnant marriage in Hope Springs, to the chagrin and dismay of her gruff bully of a husband, Arnold (Tommy Lee Jones). The two sit down with a relationship therapist (Steve Carell) and wind up having a fumbling, stumbling courtship, conducted hesitantly after 31 years of togetherness. Yes, that's Streep having sweetly awkward sex scenes in a hotel room and a movie theater. And that's pretty much why she wanted to do the movie.
"It was something that to talk about frankly was anathema," she says. "Empathy centers have been turned off in our cultural life. As we get cruder or rougher or meaner, we have lost not the desire for intimacy, but certainly the way to talk about it. A kind of heartfelt thing is missing in a lot of popular movies. This has an obvious setup. But it was also very, very real and dealt with something verboten, something no one wants to talk about."
'Exactly what you'd imagine them to be'
Peeling back the layers and discovering Kay's repressed sexuality was a joy for Streep. "Honestly, even the most painful things are just gratifying. That's why actors live. That's what we look for. All the things people think are hard are not. Sitting around in a car waiting for a shot is hard."
Jones, meanwhile, appreciated just how uncomfortably honest the film felt. "It's unusual to see a screenplay that gives real life a chance to be funny and interesting and entertaining. This movie is about the things that people ordinarily go to the movies to get away from," says Jones, 65, who won a supporting-actor Oscar for The Fugitive in 1994.
Streep and Jones couldn't be more different during an afternoon conversation. He's gruffly civil, a man of very few words who answers precisely what you ask him and offers nothing more. He doesn't try to fill silence with prattle or small talk. Streep is voluble and charming, softening Jones' rougher edges by stepping in to round out his thoughts and provide context when needed.
He lives on a ranch in San Saba, Texas, "where I was born, where I'm registered to vote, and that's my home." Streep, who director David Frankel says "has no airs," drove herself to work every day from her home base in Connecticut, 75 miles each way. He says the two brought out the best in each other, as actors and as people.
"Her character just vibrates with desire to live again, and every day, Meryl showed up vibrating with energy," Frankel says. "She's truly like that all the time. She's so grateful to be here and so thrilled to be doing this for a living. The sense of appreciation and respect on the set was profound. She has a combination of power and intelligence and humor and a workhorse mentality.
"Tommy Lee added incredible compassion to Arnold. As an actor, he's prepared. He wants to get in, do the work and not complain, and be aware of what the movie needs. I thought he would be intimidating. He can be reserved, which is to most people intimidating. You have to work hard to engage him, and he is eager to share his passions, whether it's horse breeding or polo or interior design or art collecting."
Adds Carell, who imparted sex and relationship advice to the couple in the film: "They're exactly what you'd imagine them to be. She's warm and kind and personable and loves acting. She loves every moment of it. He is serious yet kind and generous. I found him to be a really great, inventive and surprising person. They seemed to get along great and play off each other effortlessly. They don't carry themselves with any more importance than anyone else."
Subject is 'a very ripe orchard'
So, did Streep bring anything of herself, as the longtime wife of sculptor Don Gummer and the mother of Henry, 32, Mamie, 29, Grace, 26, and Louisa, 21, to the role of Kay, a woman desperate to rekindle the romance with her husband?
"That's the most common question we're asked," Jones says.
Interjects Streep: "I don't know. But obviously I responded to this material right away. I'm not very self-analytical. I recognize something not just of me but of my friends and conversations, and thought that this was a very ripe orchard. It's going to be fun to shake this tree and see what happens.
"I'm sure there's a lot of me there. Of course, I did not see any parallels. I could really feel for her and the feeling of being trapped inside yourself and your own limitations and not knowing how to break out. Not knowing how to begin. That was very fertile ground for us as actors."
And for Jones, finally collaborating with Streep, whom he first met in the 1970s, proved to be one of those life experiences that leaves its mark.
"I have the bragging rights of having worked with Streep. I can say that I did it, and I may have the chance to do it again. Makes you feel like an adult. It's how I felt when I finally learned how to ride a bicycle or when I played my first game of real tackle football or when I got a driver's license. Yeah. I can think of others!" he says with a wink.
The Midwest connection
Jones is married to his third wife; he has a son and daughter from his second marriage. He plays polo. He devours books about Native Americans, specifically the Cherokee Nation, and is developing a film about the Nebraska homesteaders. And he takes a moment, courtesy of Streep's iPad, to share geographic information about Oklahoma, where Streep will soon start shooting the family drama August: Osage County, based on Tracy Letts' Pulitzer Prize-winning play. (Next for Jones: starring as Thaddeus Stevens in Steven Spielberg's Lincoln, out in November.)
"You're approaching Cherokee Country and Tenkiller Lake," he tells her of the shoot, which will take place in Bartlesville. Is Jones' San Saba ranch hit by drought again this year? Streep wants to know. "We're not on fire. We got rains through the spring. Our place is in awfully good shape. It's just north of Austin," he says.
Streep smiles when she's reminded of her concern last year that men wouldn't want to see The Iron Lady, a film about a combative, ambitious and unapologetic female politician. And now, here she is, playing a woman so desperate for affection that it's often disconcerting to watch her trying, and failing, to get it.
"When I saw it, I told Tommy that the screening I saw, it was the men who were laughing. That was gratifying to see. It's a change of pace. You just take things as they come," she says. "I don't have any control over the material that comes across the doorstep. It depends on serendipity."
But how invigorating that she still gets to immerse herself in unique worlds, and then can return to her regular East Coast life. "That's exactly right. Someone asked me this morning about my favorite getaway. I said, 'I like to go home.' It's such a luxury to be home."