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Meryl's Choice

Esteemed actress continues to pick right roles

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A lot of people marveled about the audacious originality of Being John Malkovich (1999), the first collaboration between director Spike Jonze and screenwriter Charlie Kaufman. Those who held the minority opinion that Malkovich was overly idiosyncratic for what was basically just a one-joke movie can now take comfort in knowing they're in good company: None other than Meryl Streep agrees with them.When Jonze and Kaufman approached the 12-time Oscar nominee (and two-time winner) about starring in their new film, the equally ponderous Adaptation (opening this Friday), the actress admits she felt some hesitation.

"On one level, I knew this was one of the best scripts I'd ever read. It was brave and ambitious, and I knew the movie would be very visually imaginative and inventive," recalls Streep, 53, during a recent interview in Los Angeles. "But at the same time, the tone of it was really important to me, because there were several ways you could've approached this material."

She pauses and continues. "Before I decided to do it, I needed to get a feeling from Spike and Charlie about whether they were taking the dry approach, which would be to hold the characters at arm's length, or whether they wanted me to do what it is that I do, which is to commit to the truth of the character. I wasn't interested in playing a game, in doing anything that smacked of self-consciousness or that was simply making fun of itself. While I thought that Being John Malkovich was an enjoyable movie, I never felt very connected to those characters, so I wanted to reassure myself that they were going to let me play this straight."

Adaptation is partly about a neurotic nebbish (played by Nicolas Cage), who's been assigned to adapt a best-selling novel, The Orchid Thief, for film, but it's also partly about the reporter Susan Orlean (Streep) and all the research that went into writing her book about John Laroche (Chris Cooper), the so-called Orchid Thief. Streep has further thoughts on the film's content. "It's about passion and the loss of passion, about being true to yourself, about the creative process and what it takes to get to something that's truthful and worthwhile. It's about how our worst nature undermines our best nature, and about how that sort of self-loathing is a necessary component in the artistic process."

Streep insists it was that last particular element which initially drew her to the script. With all due respect, though -- given her standing as one of the greatest actors of her generation -- what the hell would Meryl Streep know about self-loathing?

"Oh, I have those doubts all the time," the actress maintains, "all through the successes, and I dare say there isn't anyone who hasn't felt at one point or another that they're a fraud, or inadequate to the task they've been given, or that they're bogus or not good enough. There's no equation that says if you become successful, then everything's peachy from there on out. In a way, your challenges grow, and what's expected of you grows."

That Streep is as busy now as she has ever been may be a sign that things are improving in Hollywood for women "over a certain age." As she puts it: "It's still hard finding good scripts, because most writers don't write about women over 50, but it seems to be a very fertile time right now, mainly because I don't think anybody in Hollywood is as sure as they used to be about what will or won't be successful, which means there's a wider menu of films being made."

In addition to Adaptation, Streep currently co-stars in The Hours (opening January 17 in Charlotte).

"I'm very proud of both of these movies but it's just a fluke of scheduling that they both happen to be coming out at the same time," she states. "The Hours is this really beautiful story about three seemingly disconnected women, but we shot it almost like three separate little films, and I did my segment nearly two years ago."

Should either performance land her in the running for another Oscar come February, Streep will have officially broken Katharine Hepburn's record for the most nominations. The mention of it seems to embarrass her. "There's always been a certain dread I've associated with the Oscars, and I finally figured out why that is," the actress offers with a laugh. "It's because I think I've lost more Oscars than anybody else, too."

Does she have any personal favorites among her 30-odd films? Streep thinks long and hard. "I've heard actors say that's like playing favorites with your children, and in a way that's true. I'm lucky, because I have a lot of favorites. Most people talk about Sophie's Choice or Out of Africa, blah blah blah, but I guess I'm partial to the little orphan children who haven't been paid enough attention, the Ironweeds or the Plentys."

With all their respective buzz, neither Adaptation nor The Hours are likely candidates for the orphanage.

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