Meryl Streep at IU: 'I Thought I Was Too Ugly to Be an Actress'
Make it Dr. Meryl Streep. Critically acclaimed Oscar-winning actress Meryl Streep became Indiana University’s newest alumna when she accepted an honorary doctoral degree from the Bloomington school Wednesday afternoon in front of an enthusiastic sellout crowd of 3,200 at IU Auditorium in Bloomington.
The brief ceremony was all pomp and circumstance—Streep donned a velvet-trimmed IU cap and gown as a procession of four trumpeters welcomed her onstage, and she received a standing ovation when IU Cinema director Jon Vickers presented her with a red leather-bound Doctor of Humane Letters diploma.
Streep accepted the award for her work as a role model and humanitarian in the arenas of women’s rights and social justice. IU provost Lauren Robel spoke to the selection, saying Streep was an “inspiring choice,” nominated for her “generous spirit and utmost sincere concern for public good.”
IU president Michael McRobbie also cited her Indiana ties, calling her a “Hoosier by marriage.” Streep’s husband is sculptor Don Gummer, who graduated from Ben Davis High School and attended the Herron School of Art and Design at IUPUI. His metal installation pieces are on display in Indianapolis, Bloomington, and Evansville.
As part of the Jorgensen Guest Lecture Series, an interview-cum-lecture followed the ceremony. Streep spoke with Barbara Klinger, a professor in the College of Arts and Sciences’ Department of Communication and Culture, and the honoree answered questions sent in via Twitter before the event.
Seated in an armchair, Streep spoke first on the start of her acting career: “I think I was probably like every other girl who puts on a princess dress and expects everyone to pay full and total attention. And most of us grow out of that.”
As the audience erupted in laughter, Streep recalled her childhood when her mother took her to the United Nations in New York. There, she fell in love with the idea of becoming an interpreter. She went on to study language and humanities at Vassar College, dabbling in acting.
“I was always in plays, but I thought it was vain to be an actress,” Streep says. “Plus, I thought I was too ugly to be an actress. Glasses weren’t fabulous then.”
Fast forward: Streep attended Yale for a graduate degree in drama. Even then, she wasn’t sold on the idea of becoming an actress, signing up to take the law board exams in her third year. But she slept through the tests due to a late theater performance the night before. Says Streep, “The rest is history.”
“Many of my friends woke up at 3 years of age and said, ‘I have to be on stage,'” Streep says. “I never had that. I’ve always been an omnivore, interested in way too many things, but I found the one profession that fed all my appetites.”
On being over 50 in an industry that values the young:
“When I was 40, I was offered three witches in one summer. And I thought, “Okay, this is it. You turn 40, and oh my god.” The only reason I have a career at 64 is that I’ve had hits later in life. I’ve found that once certain movies are out, audiences aren’t so age-phobic. They were willing, and they were happy.”
On balancing being a mother and a professional:
“I’m done. [laughs] For a while, early in my career, I had a lot of international movies. And my son, he was seven—he had been to eight different schools by the time he was in the second grade. He looked at me in second grade and said, ‘I don’t want to be new anymore.’ Then we really tried to make decisions on locations that weren’t too far away, so that I was never away for two—or three at the absolute most—weeks.”
On advice for aspiring performers:
“For young women, I would say, don’t worry so much about your weight. Girls spend way too much time thinking about that, and there are better things. For young men, and women, too, what makes you different or weird, that’s your strength. Everyone tries to look a cookie-cutter kind of way and actually the people who look different are the ones who get picked up. I used to hate my nose. Now I don’t. It’s okay.”
On her fans, the so-called Streepers:
“I’m a little alarmed. I’m grateful that I’ve had a sort of renaissance of interest in my career. It’s wonderful, it really is. Celebrity has become a very odd thing in our culture. I don’t have a Twitter account but apparently I have five. But they’re not me. I’m not on Facebook, but yes, apparently, I am. They’re a little scary to me, but everyone needs a hobby.”
On upcoming roles:
“I’ve gotten two of the best scripts I’ve ever gotten this year, and I can’t wait.”
On the kind of pizza she ate at the Oscars:
“That’s a question for Don Gummer [her husband] … He ate my piece. And his own. … It was margherita. Boring.”
Streep will appear in three films in 2014: The Giver, Into the Woods, and The Homesman.