- The Washington Times - Wednesday, February 20, 2002

Oscar-winning actress Meryl Streep told a Smithsonian Associates audience Monday night that she studied drama in college "because you had to take something."

Her ambition as a child, she said, was to be a United Nations interpreter. She considered drama "frivolous."

"I remain ambivalent about the work I do," she said during a question-and-answer session conducted by Michael Kahn, artistic director of the Shakespeare Theatre and director of the Juilliard School's drama division in New York City.

The New Jersey-born Miss Streep, 52, who has garnered two Oscars and been nominated for 12 during her 25-year film career, shuns interviews and quietly values her life as the wife of sculptor Don Gummer and the mother of four children.

She shared some of her background and philosophy of acting during the session at George Washington University's Lisner Auditorium. Prompted by Mr. Kahn, the lissome blonde with the quick smile and merry wit told how, after her graduation from Vassar College and a single semester as one of only 60 women among 6,000 men at Dartmouth College, she lived in a hippie commune in Vermont and did plays in summer stock. Then, an "impresario took us to ski resorts in season. Chekhov for the skiers. By the second act totally lost," she said, throwing her head back in laughter and mimicking bone-tired athletes slumped over in a heap.

"It was fun, but I realized it wasn't serious. I wanted to go where people were serious about [acting]," she said. So she earned a master's degree from Yale Drama School and, after that, experienced immediate success in the highly competitive New York theater world with the late Joseph Papp, the highly acclaimed director of the Public Theater in New York, as her mentor.

On Monday night, Miss Streep disputed critics who have judged her performances as "too technical" lacking in warmth and conviction. Her approach to any role is instinctual, not analytical, she said.

"I like to think I am the opposite of technical. I only worked once with a voice coach and it was a disaster," Miss Streep said.

She does undergo strenuous preparation, however. She learned Polish at a Berlitz school for her 1982 Academy Award-winning role in "Sophie's Choice."

She knows a script is right for her when she can grasp the nature of the character immediately and, in the past anyway, she has been able to memorize lines on the spot.

Films took precedence over theater work as a way of maintaining any semblance of a family life, she said, since stage performances "happen at night and all weekend, the only time my children are available to me. It would mean not seeing them for six months."

The thrill of acting is "the ability to jump into another life completely different with one's own emotional equipment … I want to know what it is like to be everybody else," she said.

Asked what inner resources she draws upon, she said "it's a complete mystery to me. I don't know how these people arrive. Maybe a little multiple personality disorder. Maybe it's because I don't investigate it. I don't parse it."

Miss Streep's last commercial film was "Music of the Heart" released in 1999. Last spring she completed two movies, "The Hours" (based on the Pulitzer Prize-winning book by Michael Cunningham) and "Adaptation" (directed by Spike Jonze ), both to be released this year.

She took a few potshots at many of today's Hollywood films ("a lot of them are stupid"), the failure of society to take older women seriously and plastic surgery in general.

But she made a passionate statement about what she does: "We need art like food. I'm not religious but I think of my work this is so pretentious a bit like going to the altar. Like going to God. The weird thing about acting is you enter a state that really doesn't exist in your life, but it's where everything counts. I love it because I can jettison all my thoughts, just take an inchoate feeling and put it in a place with structure. You can't get ready for it, I believe. Acting is surrender. All you really have to do is listen."

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