NEW YORK -- "A big chunk of meat" is how Meryl Streep describes the sprawling, combative dinner scene at the core of "August: Osage County."
In a career filled with sublime crescendos, it's a showstopper: a knockout feast of everything that has made Streep -- perhaps you've heard this before? -- the greatest American actress.
As Violet Weston in John Wells' adaptation of Tracy Letts' Pulitzer Prize-winning play, Streep is the pill-addled, venom-spewing matriarch of a large Oklahoma family who, after the funeral for her husband (Sam Shepard), fires all of her bitterness at her gathered family, from the head of the table. It's comic and caustic: "I'm just truth-tellin'," she says.
It's a tour de force that looks like fun for an actor, but what it actually took gets to the heart of Streep's considerable talent. The scene, 18 pages of dialogue (mostly of Violet), took nearly four days to shoot. As Wells' camera traveled around the table getting each individual performance (the ensemble includes Chris Cooper, Julia Roberts, Margo Martindale, Julianne Nicholson and Benedict Cumberbatch), Streep gave her full performance -- varying it slightly from take to take -- for each co-star.
"It just goes to the deepest part of what I believe about being an actor, that you have to bring it even when the camera's not on you," Streep said in a recent interview. "It was very hard to sustain 18 pages of ranting -- of seething and waiting and then pouncing and ranting. To maintain your fury. It's great the first couple times you do it, you feel fantastic. ... But by the 12th or 15th or 30th time I had done it, I was flagging.
"I looked at it almost like an Olympic (event): OK. Everybody says you're so good? Well, (expletive) show me! Do it for Benedict Cumberbatch! Do it for Abigail (Breslin) down there at the end! Because now the camera is finally turning around on them and they deserve every bit of it. But that's acting. It's just what it is."
What's left to say about Meryl Streep? Her ability to transform into a role, adopting a constellation of accents over the years, has long been celebrated. Some have questioned whether her technique isn't too good -- too controlled and calculated -- but the force of her personality always comes through, endearing audiences to both the actress and her characters.
There is, of course, the litany of awards: 17 Oscar nominations and three wins; eight Golden Globes from 28 nominations, including one last week for "Osage County." Most of her statuettes were accepted with eloquence, humility and an unapologetic mischievousness. When she won her third Oscar for playing Margaret Thatcher in "The Iron Lady" last year, she dismissed the assumed reaction of "Her? Again?" with an eye roll: "But anyway."
Her stature, she says, is "the narrative that accompanies me like a caboose," shorthand for "oh, you think you're so great."
"It's not anything that's valuable," Streep says. "Increasingly, it's more of an obstruction to be gotten through. I'm not sure there isn't a point of critical mass where it's hard to have that stuff go away in order to be seen fresh as a character that you've poured yourself into. I don't know. I just can't seem to stop because I really like working. I'm just an actor. That's all."
What most bothers her about her lofty reputation is that it can get in the way of working with other actors: "Sometimes people watch me while I'm in the scene with them, instead of being with me, which is a really disconcerting thing. It's not good."
Those who work with Streep say she works hard to make it look so easy. Wells said when he first met with Streep about nine months before shooting, she was already working on the character. When rehearsals started, she was off-book.
"In some ways she doesn't get fully credited with how talented she is because there's a little bit of a dismissive thing which is, `Oh, well, it's Meryl. You know it's going to be good,"' says Wells. "The assumption that you're always going to be terrific puts a tremendous additional burden on actually taking the risks that are necessary to continue what you're interested in doing as an artist."
Despite "the disgruntlement of some," Streep says, she insisted the cast live together in condos near the on-location set in Oklahoma to foster a familial connection. She and Martindale, who plays her sister, worked "late at night, over the big red" (wine) to make their gestures and speech similar.
The dinner scene, Martindale says, was "grueling" for Streep.
"She raised the bar so high that everybody was there 150 percent," says Martindale. "At the end of the film, she was exhausted. She was drained. She gave it her everything, I think. She does it with ease, or you think it's with ease."
Streep, though, denies any great preparation for Violet, a smoker with mouth cancer.
"You can't get ready to make a movie. A movie happens right in front of you," she says. "I've had sad and close contact with people who have cancer and are in pain, and I know quite a few drug addicts. And that's all I needed to know. I didn't do any prep in that way. But I'm old, so I come with a big bag."
Though Streep, 64, has spent much of the last decade making comedies ("Julie & Julia," "It's Complicated," "The Devil Wears Prada"), "Osage County" is a darker turn. Violet has a Midwest tenacity of having lived through the Depression and an abusive childhood. Streep, who grew up in New Jersey, drew partly from her own mother.
"There's a certain kind of impatience with the fact that they coddled their children and then got mad at them for being spoiled rotten," she says. "My mother would say, `You kids are spoiled rotten!"'
To describe Violet, she uses the phrase "shrill insanity," said by Ewan McGregor's academic character in the film.
"I found the experience of making the film much less hilarious because, like all things that are funny, they're rooted in real pain. Somehow, film brings that up close," Streep says. "She's somebody without any stops, no stops on anything -- particularly unattractive in a woman. It's a character I don't know if people will respond to. I have no idea."
Asked if Streep, who has four children with her husband, sculptor Don Gummer, didn't also identify as a mother with the generational divide in the Westons, she laughs and replies: "I have different resentments."
Streep has mostly remained on the East Coast, living between New York and northwest Connecticut. She chose family and nature (she has long been an advocate for organic food) over Hollywood, never setting up a production company to develop parts for herself.
"The progression of a career is COMPLETELY random of an actor," she says. "You're just completely dependent on what comes over the transom. You don't know. There's no strategizing in this business. And if there is, I wish I knew how to do it."
She exudes both city refinement (she's a particularly sharp conversationalist) and a country wildness (her erupting laugh is still one of her greatest assets). In 2010, she gave a memorable commencement address at Barnard College, telling its female students that when she was young, she "cultivated a softness" to please boys. She used that psychology for "The Deer Hunter" (one of her first big movies, an uncharacteristically simple girlfriend role), but not, it would seem, ever since.
At the suggestion that Streep -- an ever-changing portrait of female strength -- has filled a career countering that youthful yielding, she replies, "Wow, that's really true."
"Well, I have a job where I get to do a correction," she says. "Everything is a reaction to something, right?"