She was once called "the greatest living actress" by Vanity Fair. Now Meryl Streep reveals what she loved so much about Big Little Lies that convinced her to join the second season.
Meryl Streep is quick to embrace the solidarity of silence that binds the women of Big Little Lies.
When whispers of her legendary storytelling over dinners off set reaches the ears of inquisitive journalists, gathered in Los Angeles to dig for their own secrets from the stellar cast, she is quick to shut any nefarious probing down.
"I don't know what you're talking about," she laughs, "what happens in Monterey, stays in Monterey."
Her playful teasing is in stark contrast to the character she plays in season two of the hit HBO drama series, co-starring Nicole Kidman, Reese Witherspoon, Zoe Kravitz, Laura Dern and Shailene Woodley.
As the grieving and suspicious mother of Perry Wright, doomed at the end of season one of the blockbuster murder mystery, Streep's character Mary Louise makes it her mission to expose what the women of Monterey are hiding about her son's death.
How the woman Vanity Fair once called "the greatest living actress" came to sign on for the female-driven project is not so much a secret, as the stuff of Hollywood legend — adding a new layer of brilliance and intrigue to the upcoming episodes.
When Sydney author Liane Moriaty sketched where she would take the story if producers, including Kidman and Witherspoon, wanted another season, she had done her own research on Streep and set about crafting a character with her in mind.
"We didn't know Mary Louise was Meryl's real name, but Liane knew and she wrote it and then said, 'I want Meryl Streep!'" Kidman recalls.
"Reese and I said, 'we can't get you Meryl!' but then I sent Meryl a text and when she responded after the Globes [when the show won six nominations and four awards], Reese and I were literally screaming on the phone with each other!'"
Streep, meanwhile, was already a fan of the show and proved a much easier target than her co-stars first thought.
"I loved this show. I was addicted to it. I thought it was an amazing exercise in what we know and what we don't know about people … about family, about friends, how it flirted with the mystery of things. What was unsaid, unshown, unknown was sort of the pull, the gravitational pull of the piece," Streep explains, adding "and it was so exciting."
"So, when I got the chance to join the crew, I though, 'yeah!' I wanted to do it, to be in that world. The world that was created was amazing."
Kidman, who was first to snap up the TV rights to Moriaty's bestseller, saw the story's potential beyond it being "a small drama about some mothers that have kids in kindegarten."
Her performance, in particular, earned praise for its brutal authenticity as Celeste, the abused wife of Perry, who must find the strength to save herself and their two sons from the violence.
When she discovers he was also the man who raped her friend, Jane (Woodley) and fathered her son, Ziggy (Iain Armitage), the dangerous complexities only grew.
The arrival of Streep as Perry's mother, will see the audience to explore how Perry became so damaged; and how his wife and mother can still bear so much love and devotion to him, even in death.
The confronting storylines sparked a global conversation about domestic violence, sexual power plays and the insidious nature of gossip and bullying.
Having marked her career by choosing projects of similar cultural influence, including Silkwood, Kramer v Kramer, and Sophie's Choice.
Streep argues "you smell that it's necessary" to take on such material.
"You really feel like it owns its place and you want to be … you want to contribute to it. You feel like you have something to say about it. This piece, for me, because I have four grown children, I'm playing someone who is dealing with whatever the deficits of her parenting were, and the mysteries in that, and how you can't go back in time and fix something. All those issues, that was interesting to me," she says.
"And it felt real, honest, honestly investigated. [Executive producer and screenwriter] David [E. Kelley] really understood that part. I felt like I had something to give to this piece."
Adding to her sensory process of choosing projects, she says: "I'm not sure if a piece doesn't meet its moment because there's an incipient awareness, or a readiness, or the nerve endings are open to explore these issues. That, I'm not sure of. [Big Little Lies] exploration of abuse and its provenance, where it comes from, why it continues, how people survive it, all those questions were in the air and this sort of … this piece fed something that was a hunger, that was a ready audience, I would say."
Turning 70 later this month, Streep has borne witness to many changes across the entertainment industry — especially the rise of female voices, whether that be actors, producers, even critics.
"For most of my life, all the critics were male, with a very few women," she recalls.
"In films, certainly, the important critics were often male. And, the preponderance of the taste then, of what people chose to review, what they chose to look at, that drove the generative part of what things were made, what things were green lit. Now, with women's voices more including — not anywhere near what they should be — people are understanding that this drives the market, actually. And it drive what's available. Now, television sort of has always been a women's medium, because at first it was trying to sell women things. They were at home watching commercials and so television was interested in what women wanted. Films were not. And now, it's kind of nicely integrated and on its way to being more responsive to half the sky."
Big Little Lies 2 premieres Monday on SoHo and Neon.