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June 30, 2006

Give the devil her due

Fashion film is frothy fun

Fashion-conscious people will no doubt be flocking to see the fizzy new summertime flick The Devil Wears Prada, based on the best-selling lampoon of the fashion industry by Lauren Weisberger. In the film, Meryl Streep plays fictional fashion magazine doyenne Miranda Priestly--a terrifying ball-buster who steamrolls over underlings and colleagues alike and strikes paralyzing fear into all those who enter her orbit.

So you’d think that playing the uber-boss from hell—a woman who can wilt the steeliest of souls with a chilling one-liner or icily withering stare—would be a devilish delight for an actress. Yet Streep says that she was wary of fostering a close rapport with her cast-mates for fear that it would bleed over into her performance. After all, she knew that she’d have to bare her fangs and get back to scaring the bejesus out of everyone as soon as director David Frankel called “action.”

“Everybody said, ‘Oh, wasn’t it so much fun?’ No, it was not fun to be this person,” says the 57-year-old Hollywood icon. “I found that I couldn’t [participate in] all the fun on the set—which is the real reason that I love to make movies—because I thought that it would hurt the dynamic if I immediately went over and was joking with Emily [Blunt] and Anne [Hathaway] and Stanley [Tucci].”

“And they were always having a party over in the corner,” she says, with a laugh. “I just couldn’t join in. It was a lonely position that I staked out for myself. But I suppose it paid off, ultimately.”

Co-star Emily Blunt (of the British lesbian coming-of-age drama My Summer of Love) respected Streep’s reluctance to form intimate bonds with her fellow cast members.

“It wasn’t like she had this cement wall in front of her. She was an incredibly graceful and nice to everybody,” says Blunt. “But I think she did adopt a certain reserve on set in order to maintain this rather soulless person that she was playing. She’s incredibly committed—far more committed than the rest of us. We’re all a bunch of hams.”

Speaking to reporters at a press day for Prada in New York, Streep, wearing sunglasses and dressed casually in a floral print blouse, is friendly and engaging, punctuating her answers with frequent bursts of laughter—the polar opposite of the frosty, intimidating Miranda. And although she’s been nominated for a record 13 Oscars and is considered one of the greatest living actors on the planet—cause enough to give anyone a bloated ego—Streep is also regarded as one of the most genuine and down-to-earth women in Hollywood.

“You couldn’t meet anybody warmer or more lovely or more accepting and funny. She’s just a great person,” says co-star Anne Hathaway (Brokeback Mountain, The Princess Diaries).

Despite the gulf between her character and her own personality, Streep says that she can certainly relate to the challenges that Miranda faces as a woman trying to balance her family life with a demanding career in which she’s frequently in the spotlight. Streep has been married for 27 years to sculptor Don Gummer and has four children, ages 15 to 27.

“I’ve made all sorts of compromises every single day—sometimes whether to shower or not because you just don’t have time,” she says, with a laugh. “Miranda would not make that choice. But if you have a very thickly populated home life and then a career that’s demanding, something always comes up short. I’ve always felt kind of stretched to the max, but also very, very lucky and nourished by both things—my family and my career. But it’s always a struggle, and you always feel like you’re letting somebody down.”

Despite Streep’s reputation as one of the hardest-working and respected actresses in Hollywood, she insists that someone like Miranda has had to make far more difficult sacrifices to make it to the top of the heap and stay there, especially since the halls of power are still mostly dominated by men.

“I’m an extremely undisciplined person, and in many ways the polar opposite of [Miranda]. But I really understand her and admire some things about her and see the bind that she’s in as a woman,” says Streep. “But people have to make their own decisions about what they want from their lives and what will really make them happy and satisfied. And from Miranda’s point of view, she wants to excel on every level, and it’s really hard for her to do . . . So I was interested in making [her] a human being, as contradictory and messy as we all are.”

The film, based on Weisberger’s kiss-and-tell roman à clef, is centered around aspiring young journalist Andy Sachs (Hathaway), who lands a job at Runway magazine as Miranda’s latest assistant-cum-punching bag. With her J. Crew catalogue clothes and disdain for high fashion, Andy has a long way to go if she wants to use the position to open doors for her as a Serious Journalist.

With the help of Miranda’s very gay right-hand-man, Nigel (Stanley Tucci), Andy transforms herself from drab post-collegiate idealist to haute couture-wearing fashionista, to the dismay of Miranda’s style-obsessed first assistant, Emily (Blunt). But to win over her exacting boss, Andy will need a lot more than a sleek new haircut, a pair of stiletto Jimmy Choos and a hot Chanel number. Desperate to win Miranda’s approval, Andy realizes that she’s going to have to work harder than she ever has before. But as her personal life comes crashing down around her, she begins to question the sacrifices that the job—and Miranda—demands.

Although Weisberger’s 2003 novel was reportedly inspired by her time spent as an assistant to Vogue magazine editor Anna Wintour, Streep insists that doing an impersonation of the famous fashion icon did not interest her. “It’s much more fun for me to make the uber-boss out of my own pastiche of experience,” she says.

Unfortunately, says the actress, the list of powerful women on whom she could base the character is fairly slim. “So most of my models were of the male end of the species. And compared to the [men] that I know, the ones that I was thinking about, Miranda is so well-behaved. She is almost like a diplomat.”

Despite her character’s nerve-wracking presence, the cast praises Streep for her warmth and generosity off camera, even if they were constantly in awe of her towering talent on screen.

“She’s always at the center of her intentions and connected to the very truth of the character. And she doesn’t get distracted, [or] allow things to push her off,” says Hathaway. “As a young actor, that’s something you aspire to.”

“I don’t think she has a female equivalent, or any equivalent, really—whether female or male,” gushes Blunt. “There’s not anyone who has maintained the mystique that she has, who is as versatile and chameleon-like as she is, who is as respected as she is, and who has as many people around her going, ‘How does she do it?’ ‘What are her secrets?’ No one knows. So she’s fascinating to be around.”

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