Meryl Streep and Tom Hanks Q&A: The Post is about defying power in dangerous times
Even if it costs you. Even if it means losing friends.
Meryl Streep and Tom Hanks. That seems like a duo we should’ve seen together onscreen already, right?
But The Post, which opened in limited release last month and expands nationwide Friday, marks their first collaboration — and, almost equally unbelievable, it’s Streep’s first time teaming with director Steven Spielberg.
The movie is about Washington Post publisher Katharine Graham and editor Ben Bradlee, who in 1971 had an infamous showdown with Richard Nixon’s White House as they fought to publish the Pentagon Papers, a top-secret report filled with disturbing revelations about America’s involvement in the still-raging war in Vietnam.
EW got the two Oscar winners together to talk about this tale of a free press under attack, the musical they almost made together (except Hanks can’t sing), and the good thing about taking a risk that leaves you anxious and scared …
ENTERTAINMENT WEEKLY: The Post asks a very important question these days: Who has final say over what we see and hear? A different owner and editor might have altered history.
MERYL STREEP: Yes, who controls the press? And it also shows how the press is just a collection of individuals. Each one of them makes a negotiation with what it’s going to cost them to tell the truth and go to bat for a difficult position. Ben, and certainly Katharine, had so much to lose in this very intense moment in time. That’s where your courage is found.
TOM HANKS: And your friendships are tested as well. When you’re going to take on the mantle of being a member of the fourth estate, it’s theoretical that you’re ready to take on the world. But technically you’re going to be threatening the basic connections you might have in your life.
How well did you know each other before teaming up on this movie?
STREEP: We knew each other through Nora [Ephron], right, Tom?
HANKS: Yeah, yes, through Nora and through Mike [Nichols]. Mike was always talking about you and we ended up friends as parts of a bigger group. It’s a West Coast/East Coast kind of thing. [Laughs]
Had you ever come close to working together before?
HANKS: I wasn’t a good enough singer to put myself in Mamma Mia! so that didn’t, that wasn’t going to work.
STREEP: He’s too young for me.
HANKS: Ah, hey, I have gray in my hair.
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I assume the chance to work with each other was part of the attraction of The Post, too?
STREEP: Oh, yes. I knew I would have fun but I really didn’t know how on-my-toes I’d have to be.
HANKS: Oh, please.
STREEP: He’s so smart and he’s so …
STREEP: You are! You were the natural leader of this movie, you really were.
HANKS: Well, I had to be Ben Bradlee.
STREEP: That was important. Yeah, that was Bradlee. But you have that, you have that ability.
The film came together very fast, didn’t it?
STREEP: Yes, I think I first read a script in February maybe, the very first script of Liz Hannah’s. Then Steven and Tom came on board, and [co-writer] Josh Singer, and they went ahead and worked on a revision to reflect some of the questions that Steven had brought to it, specifically about defining more clearly what the Pentagon Papers were for an audience that maybe is younger and doesn’t know. This new opening [set in Vietnam] show the flesh and blood cost of lives. So it’s not just about papers, it’s about people.
HANKS: I read it in February too, and as soon as I was done with it I said, “Shoot, I want to do this!” That means Steven essentially had March and April in order to get started because the first day of shooting was the first of May.
Was that speed because it felt timely, given the current White House’s hostility to the press?
HANKS: There always is and always will be the sort of give and take and criticism of average everyday politics. That’s part of the juju that [Washington, D.C.] runs on and certainly in the media. But putting a magnifying glass on the present day, we’re really talking about constitutional issues here. Trying to stop the publication of any newspaper is, you know, that’s taking on the First Amendment.
STREEP: It’s a constant fight. Lincoln jailed, I think he put a whole bunch of editors of newspapers in jail in Brooklyn, so it’s an ongoing fight, you know.
I expected the movie to show us Katharine Graham as the ultimate powerhouse publisher. But we see a very uncertain side of this groundbreaking woman. Was Katharine Graham a surprise to you, Meryl?
STREEP: She was. And her autobiography was just suffused with that kind of deep-seated insecurity about her worthiness to be in the position that she found herself in. Partly it was how she got there, the circumstances under which she took control of The Post. Her father owned it and passed it onto her husband, who killed himself, and so she was delivered into this position and had shaky knees. But she never lost that.
STREEP: Right into the time when we knew her in her 60’s, post-Watergate, when she was this formidable icon. She still had knocking knees. I don’t think she ever lost that shakiness. But then something great is called forth from you when much is expected. She became the head of the Post.
There’s a scene where she is on the phone with a dozen anxious and arguing men that really captured her sense of being overwhelmed before her strength emerges and she makes a critical choice.
STREEP: Yes, you’re feeling in the vortex and you’re in a whirlpool of events. All the voices coming from every extension in her house. It’s just like the furies screaming in her brain. That moment is going to ring so true for so many women who lived through that time when not much was expected of women outside the realm of their home.
HANKS: I think that scene’s amazing. Some people are saying, “You absolutely must not do this, it’s a disaster.” Somebody else is saying, “Well, I wouldn’t do it, I would vote not to do it.” And somebody else is saying, “Not only are you going to, if you don’t you’re not going to have a newspaper anymore, and everybody is going to quit!” Now, how does anybody face that moment? And that is a true thing that happened.
It must have helped that, even though they had a sometimes tense relationship, Bradlee and Graham basically liked and trusted each other.
HANKS: These scenes that were just Ben and Katharine, and they’re always talking with an inter-knowledge of each other that’s beyond the circumstance, it’s beyond the stakes. It comes from this other reliance and faith and hope they both have in each other and…
STREEP: The remarkable thing too is that they were colleagues at the highest level of their business, and they had a working love. They loved the work, and they loved each other in a way that wasn’t romantic. You never, ever see a successful working relationship onscreen that doesn’t, in some way, have some romance in it. This was almost like a template for what’s possible for people. Their relationship and the respect that underlay it was really wonderful and exemplary.
But the relationship was not always easy, and we see some of that, too. Did Ben really snap at her when she offered editorial advice?
HANKS: “Get your finger out of my eye!” The way Sally Quinn [Bradlee’s widow] explained it: when he said it, he was actually much more angry.
STREEP: Yeah, and it hurt her feelings. She was his boss and this was a little piece that he tended to forget. In that time it was a really transitional time for women. There weren’t women bosses, and men were not used to it and they chaffed a little bit under that. She had to have strategies for how to manage the egos. Women who watch this will recognize the tactics you have to use to manage it all.
Meryl, did you feel at all like Katharine coming into this movie? Tom and Steven had worked together so many times before. It’s a mostly male cast. The crew has all worked together before …
STREEP: Yeah, that was good. That helped me, that feeling of … that insecurity, you know? I could certainly use it in my work and I could use that feeling of being outside-the-club a little bit. I mean, they didn’t make me feel that way at all. But it did feel intimidating and, believe me, when you walk into the newsroom and it’s all men it … [Laughs] I’ve played some different parts that emphasized this, like the Margaret Thatcher movie talked about these same issues.
I’m guessing Steven was a little intimidated to work with the great Meryl Streep, too.
STREEP: Oh, no. He told me he had wanted to work together for a long time and that made me feel great because I always wanted to work with him. And I never knew really how just free he is as a director on set. It’s like a great jazz improvisation.
HANKS: Yeah, it truly is.
HANKS: And it’s fast. It’s fast. It’s always improving. It’s always getting better. You’re always going for something. Everybody plays their instruments extremely well. There is a reason he assembled the band.
Those nerves we talked about with Katharine, those knocking knees … Steven told me before that he is deeply anxious when he begins a new project. He says, “I always have shpilkes.” So those nerves and uncertainty can sometimes be good, right?
STREEP: Oh, we totally bonded over that, yes. Do you feel that, Tom? You don’t seem like you feel that.
HANKS: Oh, it’s all a horror. It’s a horror show until you get done with the third day and then you say, “Okay, I feel like we’re all making a movie.” Whatever we do on any given day is going to live for the rest of our lives. So we’re going to have this as the record of what our union and what our efforts were. But if you start worrying about that, my God, you’ll never get anything done. You won’t even come to work in the morning.
STREEP: That’s right. But it was exciting to come to work. I love that about Steven, that he says, “I love being a giddy kid with you.”