Oscar winner boosts new arts centre plan

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The most successful film actress in history came to Northern Ireland at the weekend to help out a Belfast theatre.

Meryl Streep was lending her support to the fundraising campaign for the new 16.5 million Metropolitan Arts Centre which will be built in the Cathedral Quarter.

Project director for the new centre Anne McReynolds made a personal approach to the world-renowned star through contacts in the film industry earlier this year.

Meryl was the special guest at a gala dinner on Saturday night, but it was earlier that day, appearing at the Old Museum Arts Centre (OMAC) in front of a select audience of 90, that she endeared herself to Ulster.

Over the course of an hour-long question-and-answer session she spoke openly about her illustrious career, her family and her hopes for the future.

But it was her good humoured approach which resonated with the audience.

When asked about how she managed to convey so many different dialects on screen, Meryl answered "I listen," in a perfect Northern Ireland accent.

With 14 Oscar nominations, and two wins, the 58-year-old is regarded by critics to be the greatest living film actress.

But her career – as well as being a star in her own right, she has worked with some of Hollywood's biggest names – was something she put down to good fortune.

"My career has been shot with luck, then there's hard work and curiosity," Meryl said.

"Curiosity is the most important, thing – I think you have to be curious about every facet of what you do, whatever it is that you do."

Despite her fairytale rise to fame, Meryl was honest about not always having a desire to be a star: "I didn't know I wanted to be an actor until my last year at drama in school," she said, "I wasn't born to be an actor and I didn't dream of doing it."

Yet she went quickly from the stage to the big screen, making her film debut in 1977 with Julia and quickly establishing herself as a heavyweight with movies such as The Deer Hunter and Kramer Vs Kramer.

"There isn't any formula, there's just trying to do everything that you do as well as you can – and enjoying it at the same time," she said.

"But the success of an actor has to do with the ineffable, you sense something about their spirit that's living in the moment."

The star came to Northern Ireland on a break from filming Mamma Mia, a big-screen adaptation of the musical based on the songs of Abba.

"It's fun, but then it should be fun, I'm working with some incredible leading men – Pierce Brosnan, Stellan Skarsgrd and Colin Firth – and I'm getting paid," she said with a laugh.

While it may seem a frivolous film for someone known for more serious roles, Meryl said: "To anyone who knows me well it's not a surprise that I took this part.

"I started out in musical theatre but then did lots of other things.

"In fact, I even looked down on musicals for a while, but I came home at the end.

"I really love singing and, well, maybe not dancing," she said.

Meryl added that the sheer diversity of roles in her 30-year film career – featuring in over 60 movies – was something that hadn't gone unnoticed.

"People have criticised me for playing characters who are from different countries and have different life experiences to me," she said.

"I read those criticisms and think 'should I just play a woman from New Jersey?' What would I do with all these people inside me?

"I also have a theory that we're not that different from each other – the core of humanity is something we all share."

She spoke about her notable films, including The Deer Hunter – "That film had an enormous impact because of the time when it appeared and the accuracy with which it described hometown life and the impact the Vietnam War had on that" – and Sophie's Choice – "it was great fun to make".

And she said that often the audiences experience of film was different from her own: "You see the film, and it lasts for two hours, but my experience of shooting it was four or five months long."

Meryl added that, by the same token, her recent hit The Devil Wears Prada – where she played fearsome magazine boss Miranda Priestly – wasn't that much fun to make.

"The character was always slightly annoyed by everyone and that level of detail was hard," she said.

But it's the highly emotive roles that Meryl is remembered for, and she said she normally followed her instinct when it came to choosing the characters she played.

"If the script doesn't appeal to me then anything else doesn't matter," she said, adding that who the director was or her potential co-stars wouldn't influence her decision.

"That's not to say I haven't had experiences where material comes my way, I say no and then the script transforms that material," she said.

"That happened with The Bridges of Madison County – Clint Eastwood called and asked if I was interested but the book didn't appeal to me, in the way it did to millions of other people.

"But the script was quite a different animal, it smelt like a movie and felt like a movie, so I had to change my mind."

Despite being a household name across the globe – with a reputation for being difficult to work with – Meryl was down-to-earth in Belfast.

"I don't know why I'm known for my meticulous attention to detail," she said with a smile.

Meryl is thought of as a perfectionist when it comes to her roles, and the planning she does for them.

"I get ready in my head, and once I'm in the thing I'm a real pain in the neck because I have very specific ideas about a character," she said.

"But I didn't go and read books about Donegal to prepare for Dancing at Lughnasa because I had a great-grandmother from there so it was in my DNA.

"Sometimes I think you can get so ready for stuff that you don't know how to be in it – and being in it is the most important thing for an actor."

She also said that acting was a tough profession for women when it comes to roles: "Your heart sinks when you realise that you're a girl and Shakespeare didn't write that much for you," she said, "it isn't fair".

But she said this was changing as more women become involved in decision making in the film industry.

The mother-of-four also talked about how she had worked her career around her children.

"I chose material around the school year, how close to them I would be and whether I'd be away for more than two weeks – not whether they would be embarrassed or not by the roles.

"It was about whether what I was doing was enhancing the world in which they were growing up.

"Once you have children you think about those things, it's not just me, me, me."

Now Meryl's children are following in their mother's footsteps and onto the big screen.

As for future ambitions, Meryl spoke of her desire to direct a film some day.

But she said acting wasn't like other careers where you could build up to a certain goal along a linear path.

"It's just not that kind of hierarchical climb – you just go from person, to person, to person," she said.

"Each one is interesting, I don't think there's a pinnacle of experience that would supersede everything that's gone before.

"They're just people, and I'm going to get to inhabit their lives, none are more important than the others – some are more erascable, some are more difficult to understand, some are difficult to translate, some are annoying, some are sad, some are funny."

Meryl came across as an intelligent, articulate and thoughtful actor, but what really resonated was the passion she had for her craft.

And it was this passion that had brought her to Northern Ireland.

"I believe in the strength and power of art to transform communities so I was happy to come here," she said.

"What Belfast is doing with the New MAC is very similar to something Joseph Papp was doing in New York city with public theatre – he created a centre for all kinds of voices to be heard.

"There were lots of niche theatres but Joseph had a big vision for the inclusivity in the theatre, that was his dream and he was my mentor. That theatre has thrived."

And she spoke of her desire to return to the stage.

"I stopped doing theatre for 20 years as a sacrifice for my home life because I couldn't be away from home when my children were there.

"It was a sacrifice which no-one at home appreciated," she joked.

Meryl has performed in a number of shows but added that she would like to return "properly" in the future when her youngest child, now 16, has left school.

The talk concluded with a standing ovation from the audience, where Meryl said: "I'm so happy to be here and supporting the New Mac."

Speaking afterwards, Arts Council chairman Rosemary Kelly said the visit of such a big star was significant for Northern Ireland.

"It's very important for the arts here," she said, "the rest of the world is beginning to see Northern Ireland in a different light, and we're attracting interest from other places for the right reasons."

She added that it was an entertaining event: "Not only was it fun, it was insightful as well – she thinks very deeply not just about acting but about life in general."

Deputy chair of the OMAC Joris Minne said the visit was "hugely exciting" adding that it would raise the profile of the New Mac, and give the theatre a fundraising boost as well.

He added that the arts had a major role to play in economic regeneration.

"The arts have always been a Cinderella industry, unless you reach the levels of Hollywood or the West End.

"But let's not forget that somewhere like OMAC creates that kind of work – Mikeybo and Me came out of here, Hurricane came out of here."

He added that it hadn't sunk in yet that someone of Meryl Streep's stature came to Belfast: "We're still pinching ourselves."