Meryl Streep on Meryl Streep--The acclaimed actress takes a critical look at her own brilliant career

By Mark Harris
Updated March 24, 2000 at 05:00 AM EST

”I think I was a strange child,” says Meryl Streep. ”I liked to imagine what I would look like when I was an old woman. So I took my mother’s eyebrow pencil and drew in the lines. I have this picture now, this little picture of this 10-year-old, huddled in a chair, with the saddest, sort of weathered face. It was really interesting that I liked doing that then. It wasn’t that I was sad — I was just getting into character.”

Meryl Streep has been getting into character ever since — more fulfillingly than any movie actress of our era. After 23 years and 27 feature films, she won her 12th Academy Award nomination this year for Music of the Heart, tying the record set by Katharine Hepburn. Yet when the actress, who married sculptor Don Gummer in 1978, looks back on her films, she’s more likely to mark them by the ages of her four children (20 to 8) than by the awards she’s won. EW asked her for the highlights:

Only four years out of Yale School of Drama, Streep, then 29, won her first Oscar nomination as the almost mute, abused woman who loves both Robert De Niro and Christopher Walken in Michael Cimino’s Vietnam drama.

Working with De Niro [helped]…he’s very interested in what happens in a scene as the camera rolls, after your instinct is that they should say ”Cut!” I was surprised at what a substantial part it was when I saw the movie. It was just seven pages, but it does have an impact. It’s in her neglect that you notice her.

Streep won raves in a tiny role as Woody Allen’s lesbian ex in Manhattan (1979) and then as a Louisiana lawyer having an affair with a married senator (Alan Alda) in 1979’s The Seduction of Joe Tynan. But it was her role as Dustin Hoffman’s troubled ex in Robert Benton’s emotional drama about a custody battle that won her a Best Supporting Actress Oscar.

I worked a week at the beginning and a week at the end. But [laughing] they talk about me disparagingly for two hours!

In 1979, nobody was talking about depression, but this woman probably thought about killing herself once or twice every day. I could understand the compulsion to leave and not want to take your little boy wherever you were going in order to get better. I didn’t think she was horrible — I read it and I was on her side.

The ending never felt like an ending to me. Everyone said, ”There! She gave the boy back!” And I thought, ”Yeah…that week.” You don’t know where the process of her getting herself back together would lead. And you just know when the boy became preadolescent, he’d say ”F— you, Dad! I’m gonna go live with Mom, a–hole!”

Streep’s first leading role came opposite Jeremy Irons in a hall-of-mirrors adaptation of John Fowles’ novel. She played two roles — the haunted mistress of a Victorian gentleman, and the modern-day actress playing her — and won her first Best Actress nomination.

I thought it was very interesting, but I must say, I could never attach to either of my characters. It was very disconcerting — I didn’t know who I was at any given moment. This movie…set me aside from myself. I didn’t know where the actress was manipulating the guy through her character. Everything was so conscious, and I don’t like to be conscious when I’m acting. I like to be unconscious, extremely unconscious.