Besides the joy of rising to the challenge of portraying one of the 20th century’s most recognizable figures, it was the woman at the heart of The Iron Lady that most compelled Meryl Streep (don't miss our Top 10 Meryl Streep movies) to play Margaret Thatcher. “When Phyllida (Lloyd, director) came and said, ‘I have a film that circles Margaret Thatcher’s life and issues around a woman leader like that,’ I was already, and immediately, interested. Because, there aren’t very many women leaders,” Streep said and laughed.
“There aren’t filmmakers who are interested in investigating what it meant to be a woman leader.”
Streep most identified with the U.K.’s first and only female Prime Minister’s ability to overcome adversity. “Margaret Thatcher really did break ground in that she showed a way that a woman could be a leader,” Streep said. “She didn’t have a problem with how to lead, so in a way men didn’t have a problem with following her.”
The Iron Lady (check out our review) is honestly without political commentary, which is surprising for a biography of a politico. Streep stressed that she and filmmakers were more interested in capturing the persona behind the politics. “We were more concerned with the toll that it takes on a person -- that kind of decision making when you’re a leader and the buck stops here,” Streep said. “What does it do to you as a human and how much stamina does it take?”
On the set of Iron Lady, Streep felt much as Thatcher must have the first time she walked the halls of power. It was a male-dominated set, reflective of what Thatcher experienced on her rise to be PM. “For me, as an actor, just walking into the first day of rehearsal was incredibly daunting because there were all these wonderful British actors. I think there were 40 or 45 of them, and I was the only woman in the room,” Streep said, smiling.
That fact further helped Streep capture the character of Thatcher and how The Iron Lady was able to ramrod her way into a boys’ club and make history. “I sort of had the feeling Margaret Thatcher must have had when she walked into the Conservative Party,” she said with a chuckle. “All those gents were so gracious to me and so welcoming in this territory where I really don’t belong as the interloper, the American. But, in a way I had courage to play Margaret Thatcher because she was an interloper in this Oxbridge-type party to which she marched undaunted. I thought, ‘Well if she can do it, I can do it.’”
Working with Jim Broadbent, who plays Maggie’s husband Denis, made the shoot all the more extraordinary. Streep felt his portrayal added a layer of substance to the film. “Jim Broadbent is so deeply funny and as an actor even in the most serious roles, he brings an antic quality in many of the things I’ve seen him do,” Streep said. “It’s a quality of tender humanity that’s very touching.”
Another performer on The Iron Lady set that Streep found inspiration in was the young actress charged with portraying Thatcher as a young woman. Leave it to the humorous Streep to find humor in the situation that must have been a daunting challenge for Alexandra Roach. “There was a lot of talk about how to get her beautiful upturn nose to look like mine,” she said and cackled loudly. “But, she was game and she was a lovely, lovely actress. I just think the relationship she had with Harry, who plays the young Denis, was really wonderful and the care they took with trying to make those young people have the flavor of the older ones, that was amazing.”
Having a female director helm a story about a woman who broke barriers was also an added plus for the two-time Oscar winner. “I have to hand it to Phyllida, who really made this happen in almost inexplicable ways. I don’t know how she did it. I think her greatest qualities as a director, there isn’t a department she doesn’t have absolutely the best attributes. She has great patience. She has great clarity of mind. She never veered from the film that we all had discussed years before making. She never veered from that vision,” Streep said.
She thinks what audiences will take away most from the cinematic Margaret Thatcher experience is actually a mixture of “very pressurized, important and tension-filled moments of her political life that have equal weight with moments in her personal life that had great reverberation for her as a human being.”