Dianne Wiest sits demurely, a bookshelf behind her, broadcasting from her computer. Meryl Streep leans against a white brick wall, her iPhone at arm’s length. Candice Bergen reclines on her couch, holding her iPad over her head. For his latest film Let Them All Talk, director Steven Soderbergh put the three acting legends on a ship and, well, let them all talk. So it only made sense for EW to do the same — albeit over Zoom, rather than at sea.
The ensuing conversation will mark their first extended discussion of the mysterious movie, which arrives on HBO Max in December. Scripted (sort of; more on that in a minute) by beloved short-story writer Deborah Eisenberg, Let Them All Talk stars Streep as an acclaimed novelist who’s summoned to the U.K. to receive an award. She invites two of her oldest friends (Bergen and Wiest) and her nephew (Lucas Hedges) to join her on a voyage aboard the Queen Mary 2 ocean liner, setting up a gabfest filled with reminiscence, regret, and repartee.
As it happens, that also describes EW’s roundtable with the actresses. But at first, they’re just giddy to see each other again, discussing vacation spots and the California wildfires before Bergen gets things back on track.
“You’re trying to get things started here,” she says with a chuckle. And so we do.
Read more from EW’s The Awardist, featuring exclusive interviews, analysis, and our podcast diving into all the highlights from the year’s best films.
ENTERTAINMENT WEEKLY: How did all of you come on board this movie, so to speak? Meryl, you were just coming off of another Soderbergh project, correct?
MERYL STREEP: Yes, which was The Laundromat. I had wanted to work with him for a really long time. I'm a big admirer of his work — it's so varied and adventurous, and you can't pin him down. He called me up about this, and I thought, “Yeah, this sounds great.” But I said, “I'm just off to have a reunion with my college roommates.” So he laughed, and he said, "Well, that's sort of what this is gonna be about." And then I told my friends, and they were all terrified. [Laughs]
DIANNE WIEST: [Soderbergh] called, and just like Meryl, I am such an admirer of his, and I couldn't quite believe I was talking to him. And then he said, “Meryl recommended you for this,” or “She would like to see if you would be interested in doing this.” I thanked her so much.
CANDICE BERGEN: Steven contacted me, and we met for lunch, and he barely had the words out of his mouth, and I [said], "Yes, yes. Whatever you want. I'm dying to, yes, yes." I think he's the most fearless filmmaker, and his intellect is so piercing. He was doing the camerawork, so you sort of watched his brain right behind the camera, spinning like a top. It was really interesting. And short. We barely shot two weeks, I think.
STREEP: Yeah. I told [Soderbergh] he was gonna ruin everything for every director, and every production designer, and everything else, because he made the movie for 25 cents — I know that's what I was paid. Then it was made in two weeks, and it was a free ride on the boat.
BERGEN: Which was heaven.
STREEP: Yes, but now every director is gonna say, "Well, Soderbergh did it in two weeks, and [with] no money."
WIEST: And no equipment. The only equipment was sound equipment. Steven held the camera in a wheelchair and just rolled along. None of the lights, and the trucks, all that stuff that goes into making movies, there's none of it. There was Steven and this new camera.
BERGEN: Yeah. Guerilla filmmaking. And no script!
WIEST: Well, I wasn't gonna mention that.
I was going to ask about the script, because the dialogue has such an improvised feel. Are you saying there wasn’t a script?
STREEP: Improvised feel? Well, yeah, it does, because it is. I mean, they would give us the outlines of a situation, and then we knew where we had to end up. But they didn't tell us how to get there.
BERGEN: They gave us the scenes and the synopses of the scenes. And then we filled them in, if we could.
STREEP: With talking.
BERGEN: A lot of talking.
How much were you all interacting with Deborah Eisenberg, then?
WIEST: She was always there. She was there all the time, and she was so generous, and you could ask her anything. She would tell you what might come up next, and remind you, because we shot in sequence, which was another incredible gift that Steven gave. But Debbie was there all the time, and she was wonderful.
STREEP: One night, the next day I was supposed to be giving a lecture, and the auditorium was going to be filled with real people. And there was no lecture in the script! I said, "Well, what is she gonna say about this author from another century?" And so overnight, [Eisenberg] produced this enormous bunch of ideas, and a biography. It was a very rich kind of Bible from which to draw. But it was terrifying every night, because you just had to get ready and think [of], you know, what you're gonna say.
So did the three of you spend much time talking about your characters' backstories and relationships?
WIEST: I don't remember us doing that. I think we were so caught up, or I was so caught up, in the absolute moment of what was going on.
BERGEN: Which was terrifying.
WIEST: It was absolutely terrifying. But everything was so heightened, and when Steven said, "Go," you could forget about the terror, because you really had to pay attention to what was going on if you were gonna make any sense at all. If you didn't pay attention, then you should keep your mouth shut. [Laughs]
STREEP: That would have been judicious, but we just kept talking.
WIEST: We kept talking. After all, what's the film called?
STREEP: But I think that [Soderbergh] liked all the ellipses, and he didn't want to know everything. He wanted there to be mysteries surrounding everybody's interior quest. That's the feeling I got. And so we didn't even discuss it amongst ourselves. We kept our cards close, so that it would be something that would unfold over time. And maybe we'd figure out what was going on by the end, but it wasn't laid out.
BERGEN: Debbie did write, for us, a character description. It was a few paragraphs, but it was so original and so rich. And the way she described the characters was so unusual, and sort of oblique.
STREEP: Yes, like a little novel itself. It was a very rich vein to draw from.
Candice and Meryl, your characters have this sort of fraught relationship throughout the movie. How did you go about developing and depicting that?
STREEP: Well, I can tell you how Candy did it, because she didn't even talk to me. I thought she didn't like me. I thought, "What did I do? What did I say to her?" I would say to Dianne, "What'd I say to her?" So I think there was a little of Method in there. Right, Candy?
BERGEN: [Laughs] I mean, there was, but no. We worked so fast, so there wasn't a lot of time to sit around and schmooze about work.
BERGEN: When it was over, I thought for a while that I had dreamt doing the movie. It was over so quickly.
STREEP: The other thing was, you go to bed, and you're just trying to remember what you did all day, because you're going to build on it the next day, and we were exhausted. You know, we'd get up in the morning, shower, put on our costume, which was really our clothes, our own clothes — and not my jewelry, sadly.
WIEST: Ooooh, that jewelry.
STREEP: Great earrings, not belonging to me. But we'd get up and then start shooting it. When I ate breakfast with Lucas in the morning, that's me eating breakfast with Lucas in the morning. That’s the way it was.
BERGEN: I don't think we ever went out to dinner together, because we worked 'til 10, and then I would order tomato soup from room service and go to sleep.
What was it like to shoot a movie while on an actual cruise?
WIEST: We had to dress up every night, because on the Queen Mary, if you go into the main room, you have to be formal. And it was wonderful. You never saw such a good-looking director and crew. The sound man was in tux, the boom man was in tux, Steven was in tux, the crew was all in tux.
BERGEN: The boat is very much a character in the movie. It was a magnificent ship. Truly, the most beautiful ship I've ever seen. And beautifully maintained. We’d come in late at night, and they were polishing the railings. Not a stone unturned.
What about the activities that your characters were doing, and the corners of the ship that you were exploring — was that something the crew and Steven figured out, or did you go according to what areas of the ship you all wanted to see?
STREEP: Well, I didn't explore the casino, if that's what you mean. Lucas went everywhere. I know he went scurrying around, he knew everything about the ship.
WIEST: Candy and I played games. I didn't want to do that, ’cause I'm so bad at games in real life. But [Soderbergh] was so generous; he didn't put the camera on the board, so you didn't see him do anything. It didn't matter. I could just say I won, or you won. But I think one of the reasons he had us play games is because there were all these nooks and crannies that you could put a game in, a little corner which was very private. And we had some very private discussions in those corners.
I'd like to talk about your characters a little bit more. Candice, this is a different character and a different mode for you than we’ve typically seen. How did it feel to take on material like this?
BERGEN: I loved the character. I thought that the character of Roberta was just larger than life. Her whole engine is about getting back at Meryl for ruining her life, and she wants remuneration. Debbie had written that she grew up dirt poor, and the only pet she had was a snake. I thought that was the best detail for Roberta. And her father was an oil rigger, so I went to Texas and I saw an oil rig, because, of course, I was working with these guys, so I thought, "I better prepare as much as I can."
Dianne, what was the background of your character like?
WIEST: I made up this job from stuff that I know about, which is working with women prisoners in California. I was trying to get [Bergen’s character] perhaps interested in moving to California and coming to stay with me, and then getting her interested in a job. I remember you saying that you loved animals. I said, "Well, I have a great vet. You could get an apprenticeship with the vet."
STREEP: Oh yeah, that’ll happen. [Laughs]
BERGEN: She had a threesome in college.
WIEST: Oh yeah, in college I was wild. Debbie wrote that. I don't know whether that's in the movie.
STREEP: It's all in there.
WIEST: I was very quiet about it. Nobody knew. Until I admitted it to Candy.
Meryl, how does playing, for lack of a better word, a regular person like this character differ from some of your more transformative roles?
STREEP: I didn't think she was so regular. I mean, to me, she was a rara avis. She's a really weird bird. A real intellectual, which I am not. People like that sort of intimidate me, and so it's great fun to imagine what it'd be like to have those standards of thought, and those aspirations, and to have a poetic soul, which I think she did, and the selfishness of real, true artists. People that don't have kids and concerns that pull them into the real world. People that have been able to just live in the sort of miasma of their own imagination and anxieties and terrors. That’s her, and at this particular moment of her life, especially so. Her regrets and her desires to figure things out — it's stuff you can relate to after 70, certainly, if you're lucky enough to get there.
Steven has a reputation for getting out of his actors' way. What was your interaction with him like during the shoot?
STREEP: A T-shirt he wore all the time on Laundromat said, "What would Mike do?" And Mike Nichols was his mentor; Mike was very interested in Steven early on, and talked about him before anybody knew anything about him. And he works a lot like [Nichols].
BERGEN: Yeah. I knew that Mike was his maestro, and his hero. The first day of shooting, [he wore] a black T-shirt with "A Mike Nichols film" [on it]. I was so moved to see that. But you asked how he related to us as actors. Not much. I mean, we were on our own.
WIEST: Complete freedom. I think because he is not beholden to any studio or any money people, he has complete freedom. And he generously gives the actor the same complete freedom, which is so wonderful. It's just like being able to breathe.
STREEP: Yes, it's another word for respect. He gives you the respect of the day, and you just do what you think should go in there. And that is like the way Mike worked. Sometimes I get frustrated when they don't say anything. But I figure, well, they'd say something if it was bad.
BERGEN: And then you're you, so there's that.
STREEP: Well, we all felt that, because Steven conceived, with Deborah, the story, and he shot every inch of the film himself, and after work every night he would edit the previous day's work.
BERGEN: We would be in the bar, drinking, and he'd be hunched in a corner of the bar with his iPad on his lap and earphones on, editing the day's footage. The guy never sleeps.
STREEP: While we were making it, I really felt like, "Poor Steven." [Laughs] “How he's gonna pull this all together into a thematic, cohesive whole” — I don't know how he did it.
BERGEN: But he seemed undaunted during the shooting.
STREEP: Yes, and then when I saw it, I thought, "Oh my God, it's as if we knew what we were doing." [Laughs] It really does all pull together to a theme. It’s like a very thick novel that moves very fast.
How do you all feel about returning to the conventional way of making projects now?
BERGEN: I think it'll be cumbersome. And restrictive.
WIEST: I was talking to the writer of this TV thing, and I said, "I just made this film with Steven Soderbergh and Meryl Streep and Candice Bergen. And you know what, we made up the dialogue. And it's wonderful because instead of thinking of your next line, you really have to respond, you really have to listen...” And I realized, after that was out of my mouth, I just axed her job. I felt badly. So I guess I don't feel too kindly about going back to anything. Except another Soderbergh.
STREEP: Well, yes, you would get very impatient with that line of dialogue that's in absolutely everything, which is, "Are you okay?" It’s just not good enough.
WIEST: The great stuff that we had is very hard to come by.
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