Meryl Streep Explains Why She Wanted to Sing So Badly in ‘Florence Foster Jenkins’

“Good writing helps, a wonderful director … and Hugh Grant as my love interest? Are you kidding? Sign me up,” the three-time Oscar winner tells TheWrap

Meryl Streep Florence Foster Jenkins

Meryl Streep has sung well in films like “A Prairie Home Companion,” “Postcards From the Edge,” “Into the Woods” and, I suppose, “Mamma Mia!” But her operatic warbling in Stephen Frears‘ “Florence Foster Jenkins” is something else entirely.

Playing a real-life society grand dame who sang with enormous enthusiasm but only the vaguest acquaintance with things like pitch, timing and tone, Streep’s Florence is monumentally awful but awfully entertaining; as Jason Solomons wrote in a review for TheWrap, “it is very hard to sing that awfully on purpose, and her twinkling commitment to the part is, as ever, a thing of wonder.”

Solomons called the movie “a fine, funny and moving film tribute to the efforts and passions of its titular heroine, a woman who lived out her dreams, at any price.” And director Stephen Frears, whose other films include “Philomena,” “Dangerous Liasons,” “High Fidelity” and “The Queen,” told TheWrap that the choice of leading lady was a no-brainer.

“I said, ‘Who do you want to be in it?’” he said. “They said Meryl. I said, ‘Fine by me.’ We sent it to Meryl and she said yes almost immediately.

“Some days things just work, and you wonder why it can’t always be like that.”

Frears said the production was easy, with Streep and Hugh Grant as a couple in mid-1940s New York and Simon Helberg as the young pianist roped into helping Florence achieve her dreams of singing in public.

“We did have a conversation about, ‘Should we use Florence’s real recordings, or will Meryl do it?’” the director recalled. “But it was obvious to me that we should have Meryl’s versions. And I remember hearing the real Florence after we made the film and thinking, ‘My God, Meryl was very, very close.’”

Frears also admitted that he asked Streep to sing more frequently than he should have – which the 19-time Oscar nominee (and three-time winner) admitted in her conversation with TheWrap.

You look at Florence and you see a woman who is at a level where nobody close to her would ever say, “Maybe you shouldn’t do this.” There are lots of people in public life like that …
Yeah, yeah, yeah. [Laughs.] It’s the danger of pre-eminence, right? That you don’t have people around who will tell you the truth. A cat may look at a king, but nobody else.

You’ve had enormous success. Do you have to guard against that yourself?
I have a built-in critical committee at home. If you have children, you will remain humble all your life. In fact, you will get more and more aware of how clueless you are about everything. It’s pointed out regularly.

Playing this part, was it important not just to sing poorly, but to sing poorly in exactly the same way that the real Florence sang poorly?
The job was not to copy her, but to rather get to capture the essence of her aspiration to sing. This is something I have in common with Florence, in that I have friends — Audra McDonald, Renée Fleming — and I know what real singers sound like. And I know the best that I can do.

So I thought, “I will learn these arias the best that I can possibly do them, and then screw around in the moment injecting Florence’s own style, the specificity of her tremulous joy and her desire.” Because that’s what’s in front of all the singing. It’s not good or bad. In fact, as we went on in the film, I lost all sense of when it was bad or good. I really did. I thought everything sounded pretty good. These are the delusions we have.

It wasn’t how bad she was, it was how close she came to being good that made it ultimately heartbreaking and horrible when she went off.

Were the performances in the movie all done live?
Yeah. And they promised me that that wouldn’t happen. Because it’s hard. Renée said to me, “Nobody sings [the Mozart aria] ‘The Queen of the Night’ more than twice a week.” You don’t do that. You warm up in order to sing it, but nobody sings that aria over and over.

And I sang it eight times on Monday, eight times on Tuesday and then half the day on Wednesday. And at the end, I was [shifts to low, croaking voice] like … this. They thought, “F—, what are we going to do now?” It even changed my speaking voice. I lost my voice.

So what did they do?
They gave me a day off. They made Hugh work. Finally.

Why not pre-record it?
That was the original plan, and the way they normally do this. It’s easier for cutting if you have a regular click track, so you can work the tempos. We were shooting with three cameras, so if you cut between things that don’t match, it gives the editor heartburn. And it’s very hard to cut.

So we went into Abbey Road, Simon [Helberg] and I, for a week, and we had a very, very jolly time. People came down to listen. I thought I would then come in, like I did on “Mamma Mia!” most of the time, and sing along to a track. You can sort of memorize what you did, timing wise, and hew as close to that as you possibly can. And then they can cut it.

But Stephen insisted. He said, “It sounds too good! You’re singing too well!” I said, “You’ve lost your mind.”

You can’t really tell this from the film, but I wonder: What did Florence think she sounded like?
You know, I heard a recording of, I think it was George Gershwin. [Pause.] No. Who wrote “White Christmas?”

Irving Berlin.
Irving Berlin. Playing and singing his own music. He’s singing along while he’s playing, and he’s so off-pitch. Now, presumably Irving Berlin knows what the notes should be. But somehow what’s in your head isn’t necessarily what you’re singing. And I think maybe that was part of it.

And also, the Salvarsan. Salvarsan is this combination of mercury and arsenic. It was a cure for syphilis in the ’20s, and she’d taken it for years and years and years. It might have affected many things about her cognitive abilities.

I don’t know what she heard. But for the purposes of our film, I imagined she thought it sounded like what you hear at the end of the movie, the voice of a younger girl.

At this stage in your career, what does it take to get you interested in a project? Are you looking for something different than you used to look for?
Oh my God, no. Anything. I mean, good writing helps. A wonderful director is an enticement beyond the beyond. And Hugh Grant as my love interest? Are you kidding? Sign me up.

And fun is the main thing. Life is too short not to have fun. Really, there’s no other thing, except maybe the theater and maybe making music, that you can do with other people that makes you feel so good while you’re doing it.

It’s work — they call it work because they pay you for it. But if they didn’t pay me, I’d do it. There’s nothing like it. It’s food to me. And this was like a little antidote to the poisonous atmosphere.

By which I assume you mean the presidential election …
Oh my God, yes. Exactly.