Up close with Meryl Streep -- The ''Julie & Julia'' star talks about playing food icon Julia Child

By Missy Schwartz
Updated July 31, 2009 at 04:00 AM EDT

Actors often about how daunting it is to play a historical figure. The responsibility! The pressure! Not Meryl Streep. To play Julia Child in Julie & Julia — a comedy in which modern-day New Yorker Julie Powell (Amy Adams) imagines Child’s rise to gastronomic fame in 1950s France — Streep, 60, dove right in, finding creative liberty in Child’s exuberance and eccentricities. ”Sometimes the idiosyncratic people are the freest,” Streep says. ”They’ve decided who they are, and the hell with it! I felt some license to do whatever I wanted.”

On a recent July morning, Streep chatted about cooking up her latest performance.

EW: Julia Child had such a joyous personality that a friend of hers once compared her to a Christmas tree. How did it feel to play someone so in love with life?
Streep:Well, for me, it was a way of paying homage to my mother, who was born with a joie de vivre. I honestly was thinking about Mary Streep, not Julia Child, most of the time. I envied my mother that great quality of having a good time in any room she entered. I’m much more of a down-head. [Laughs, droops her head dramatically]

EW: Did you watch Julia Child’s TV show growing up?
Streep: Oh, yeah. It really did transform the food experience in America. I recently found a 1967 Woman’s Day magazine, and what women were putting on the table then was appalling. Ground beef with canned peas and then a layer of instant mashed potatoes, and you bake that with tomato sauce on top. That’s a dinner. And tuna casserole! We had it every week. Julia came to that with her no-nonsense sense of fun. It made these women go, ”Hmm! This could be fun and make everybody happy.”

EW: Your director, Nora Ephron, is an avowed foodie. Did she encourage everyone to eat on set?
Streep: Yeah, she brought in all these wonderful things from Susan Spungen, our resident chef. The crew was very happy — the happiest crew I’ve ever seen! And the most miserable actresses, because you know, we still have to be photographed. So thanks, Nora. [Laughs]

EW: Your costar Stanley Tucci said the two of you cooked a blanquette de veau together before shooting.
Streep: That’s a very nice way of putting it. I invited Stanley over and then he took over! He would say, ”Here, let me do that for you. Go have a drink.” He’s so bossy. [Laughs] And he’s a sensualist — he really understands taste and texture. He [worked on] a cookbook with his mother, Cucina & Famiglia. It’s fabulous.

EW: In the movie, Julie Powell looks to Julia Child as a mentor. Amy Adams said she felt similarly about you. Is it flattering to have actresses look up to you?
Streep Very, but it’s sort of inexplicable because I feel like I was in the right place at the right time, often. Part of why actresses look at my work is because of the longevity. Traditionally women are done at 40. I thought I was done at 40. And somehow, it’s gone on.

Meryl’s Favorite Food Movies
Talk about good taste! The actress thinks these hit the spot.

Tom Jones

Babette’s Feast

Like Water for Chocolate

Big Night