6 Life (and Performance) Lessons Meryl Streep Learned From Florence Foster Jenkins
Florence Foster Jenkins, a new film starring Meryl Streep, Hugh Grant, and The Big Bang Theory's Simon Helberg, is based on the real-life story of the eponymous Jenkins. A 1940s socialite who lived her dream of singing at Carnegie Hall — despite a glaring lack of the normally prerequisite skill — Jenkins' joie de vivre has captured the public's imagination for nearly a century. During production of the movie, Streep and her castmates learned a lesson or two, both from Jenkins herself and through the process of re-creating her singular existence. At a recent press event, Streep shared her newly acquired knowledge about how to live every day (and own every stage) a bit more like Florence would.
1. Remember that most mistakes have a silver lining.
Even the inimitable Jenkins was crushed to get a bad review. After all, no one likes to hear that they gave a bad performance. But from the perspective of history, it's clear that the aspiring singer's performance gaffes have had a positive impact. In the surviving recordings of Jenkins, Streep says she hears "not just how bad it is" but also "how aspirant, how hopeful it is."
Usually, Streep said, "I'm more in the Eeyore category than Pooh…and I think that doing this film helped me move toward a more optimistic frame of mind."
2. Live with abandon.
Florence Foster Jenkins would never let anyone dissuade her from living her dreams, not even her beloved and well-intentioned husband, St. Clair Bayfield, an attitude Streep thinks anyone can learn to share.
"I think that that kind of spirit can live in anybody," Streep insisted, "You can't buy out Carnegie Hall, but you can certainly sing in the kitchen and not give a damn if anybody doesn't want you to…She had a big dream and she was silly and she wore ridiculous clothes but she was happy and she enjoyed her life."
3. Be in the moment.
In the film, Jenkins never worries too much about the public's reactions to her performances — at least until they're over. And in creating the film, Streep and costar Simon Helberg learned the benefits of throwing caution to the wind and living life in the moment.
Referring to the scene in which Jenkins takes the Carnegie Hall stage, Streep recalls, "We did it all live and that made us very alive. Because it just, it changed each time." "We set ourselves up to fail really badly, big time," she continued. "It was more terrifying…but it was way more fun."
4. Hold onto childlike passion.
"Maybe it was because Florence was impaired in some way by her illness [syphilis]," Streep reflects, considering how Jenkins managed to keep hold of "unbridled access to fun and abandon and play."
"I think as children we have such rich fantasy lives and imaginative capacities and it just kind of gets beaten out of you — often by your little peers and the worries of early adolescence…, but I feel everything we can do not to suppress it is important."
5. Surround yourself with the right people.
When director Stephen Frears approached Streep about starring in Florence Foster Jenkins, she knew it would be a "yes" before even reading the script. "I said yes because Stephen said he had a project. And I've wanted to work with him forever," she remembers. "So he said, 'I've got a film for you.' And I said, 'OK, yes.'"
Likewise, Hugh Grant signed on because he knew he wanted to work with both Streep and Frears. "I was busy doing other things in life and then Stephen presented me with this script," he said. "So though I wasn't particularly immersed in show business at that point in my life, I felt I would be no kind of man if I said no."
6. Trust (the right) people:
"[Stephen] falls into the category of the silent director," explains Grant, "and oddly enough they have been some of the most eminent I've been lucky enough to be cast by." The actor continued, theorizing that once a director has assembled the right team, the trick is to believe in your cast. "I've found that the really good ones are very trusting," he went on.
"It's a sign of confidence," Streep agrees, "or recklessness…It is the confidence of great artists that they put together the ingredients for their stew and then they trust."