Mary Louise Streep or Meryl, as she's known, seems to collect an award with every appearance: Oscars, Emmys, an Obie, even a Grammy nomination. But the renowned theater and film actress is disarmingly modest during an October press conference in Rome for the opening of "Julie & Julia", in which she plays the late TV chef Julia Child.
Streep says she often fails, as an actor, a mother and as a woman. But she thinks that failure serves her art. "It's the human frailty that most interests me in my work. To discover what is not perfect." She adds with a laugh, "I am in search of the thing that is broken. Even in characters like [Julia Child, who] is a character that's very happy, a happy woman."
An early introduction to drama
Streep says her portrayal of Julia Child, for which she received her 16th Oscar nomination, is a tribute to her own mother, a commercial artist who had a similar joy for life.
Streep says her mother and father, who was a business executive, were funny and sad, weird and musical. They fought with each other for 60 years, giving her daily instruction in drama growing up in a wealthy borough of New Jersey.
Television movies also provided lessons. "I remember seeing Carole Lombard in something and running downstairs and telling my mother that this woman was so funny but she was so beautiful at the same time. The two things that I never knew could happen, you know. I remember that very clearly."
Streep has graced the stage and screen for more than three decades. She first took to the stage her sophomore year at Vassar College, when she landed the lead in "Miss Julie". Yale School of Drama followed and soon she was traveling the same path of many young actors that led to New York City.
A woman of many faces and voices
She made her professional debut in the New York Shakespeare Festival's 1975 staging of "Trelawny of the Wells", alongside other names that are well-known today, including John Lithgow, Mary Beth Hurt and Mandy Patinkin. That was followed by production after production that showed her versatility.
"I thought of myself as actor," Streep says. "I could play a man, I could play a woman, I could play an old fat person. I could play a young slim person. I thought of myself as malleable, as clay."
Soon she was shaping herself into film characters. The stunning 60-year-old has transformed herself with each role, from an elegant baroness in "Out of Africa" to an angry drunk in "Ironweed" to a lesbian in "Manhattan". She became a Polish concentration camp survivor in "Sophie's Choice", earning an Oscar and acclaim that continues for her ability to do accents.
Her first Oscar arrived for the 1979 custody battle film "Kramer vs. Kramer". Streep plays Joanna, a mother who chooses to give up custody of her son to her ex-husband, played by Dustin Hoffman. She re-wrote some of the dialogue, after pointing out to the director that Joanna was too evil.
She's never directed but jokes that many directors would say she has due to her obsessive involvement during filming.
Taking an active role in charitable causes
Streep is equally passionate about social issues. In the late 1980s, she and her Connecticut neighbors banded together to ensure that children had access to sustainably produced food that was not tainted by pesticides.
"We contacted Julia Child," Streep recalls, "thinking that she would be very sympathetic to our aims. And she was very cranky and unsympathetic as it turned out. At first. But then she changed her mind."
The group, called Mothers and Others, brought attention to children's environmental health for 10 years before becoming inactive. Streep has continued to support a wide range of causes, including children and hunger, human rights and the environment as well as fighting AIDS and animal abuse.
Last month, she lent her celebrity status to Haitian relief efforts. She revealed that the dress she wore at the Golden Globes award ceremony will be sold at a charity auction to raise money for victims of the disaster. Later, she joined Morgan Freeman, Julia Roberts and other stars to film a public service announcement. Streep also appeared in a TV campaign to aid Darfur in 2006.
An extraordinary ordinary woman
Decades of memorable characters prompted Streep's peers at the American Film Institute to give her a Life Achievement award a few years ago. Last year, she received a career award from the Rome Film Festival.
Film director Mike Nichols said of her, "Meryl's got to be one of those phenomena, like Garbo, that happen once in a generation."
Yet despite her success as an actress and her worldwide recognition, Streep remains modest and realistic. "I try to lead as ordinary a life as I can. You can't get spoiled if you do your own ironing."