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How Meryl Streep Prepared to Play the President in ‘Don’t Look Up’

Streep had a hand in devising Orlean’s fashion sensibility, which she said communicated something essential about the character: “So what if she’s 70 years old and dresses like she’s 35?” she explained. “No one told her you can’t be 35 forever.” That meant attire modeled after TV news anchors who, Streep said, “tend to pick these broad swaths of bright, happy colors to put on themselves — no prints, no polka dots or plaids or, God forbid, florals. None of the things that other people wear. Just these power suits and pencil skirts.” It also called for a specific hair regimen: “When I was in high school, you’d set your hair in rollers, then take it out and brush it 100 times,” Streep said. “This is the kind of hair where you take it out of rollers and just leave it like that — the longer the better. And then those are sprayed and crisped and the ends curl out in weird ways. And that’s a thing. It has always escaped me why this was good. So I thought, well, I’m going to try to that — God knows I won’t do it in my real life.”

All that advance planning may still not fully prepare you for the demands of the presidency, as Streep discovered on her first day of shooting. She had spent several weeks in isolation, as screen actors have been required to do during the pandemic. Then, on the appointed day, she said, “I bundled up in my big down coat, put the dog in the back of my car, drove through a snowstorm to Worcester, Mass., and got out at a stadium and parked.” Once there, Streep said, “They tried to turn me away at several points to get into the set. I said no, I’m in it.” After getting into hair, makeup and costume, Streep took to the stage where she saw her face on a Jumbotron and heard the delayed echo of her voice as she spoke to a crowd of several hundred extras. “And I just lost it,” she said. “I thought, well, I clearly have to retire. I can’t do this. I actually can’t do this. It was really a crisis of confidence.” Needless to say, Streep did find her bearings, but, she said, “it took a while.”

As he did on his movies like “Step Brothers” and “Anchorman: The Legend of Ron Burgundy,” McKay allowed for some improvisation in “Don’t Look Up,” and the director said Streep had a talent for extemporaneous dialogue and reactions. “Her character is almost never bothered by horrible things that people say to her or how horrible she is,” McKay said. “She has an utter shamelessness that could almost be misconstrued as confidence.”

Streep — who had just completed “Let Them All Talk,” a Steven Soderbergh movie with entirely improvised dialogue, before filming “Don’t Look Up” — isn’t immediately thought of as an ad-libber. But she enjoys the process and admires colleagues who can expertly riff. “Actors get a raw deal,” she said. “People think they’re dopey. But most of the good actors I know are really, really smart — I haven’t seen their math SATs, but I don’t care. Being able to pull that brilliance out of the air, really, it’s a form of writing. It’s an amazing thing when people are good at it.”

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