Walks With the Devil
by Brad Balfour
If there was one film from last summer that carried weight beyond the season’s froth it was The Devil Wears Prada. A snarky but loving stab at the fashion world and Vogue‘s editor in specific, the real secret to the film’s success was Meryl Streep’s propulsive portrayal of the Fashion Witch. Streep made Prada come alive. If only for her performance the film did something more than slip into an over-the-top cartoon of the fashion community’s general irrelevance.
So of course Streep deserves this Oscar nomination as Best Actress for her portrayal, but it’s not like she hasn’t been nominated before – she was nominated for the Oscar an astonishing fourteen times. Born Mary Louise Streep in 1949, this New Jerseyan aspired to be an opera singer. From Vassar to the Yale School of Drama, she was nominated for her first Oscar for her role in The Deer Hunter (1978) and went on to win the Academy Award for her performances in Kramer vs. Kramer (1979) and Sophie’s Choice (1982). Thought by many to be her generation’s greatest actress, she continues to tackle challenging roles from the smallest indies to the huge Hollywood tentpoles.
Though the film is called The Devil Wears Prada, but you seem to play her not as a devil or a witch. What’s your interpretation of Miranda Priestley?
Thank you for saying that she wasn’t things that a lot of people still think she is. I was just interested in making a human being as contradictory and messy as we all are. I think she is an exacting, highly disciplined, demanding, ambitious person who doesn’t take the time for all the nice social lubricants that help make the work place gratifying and fun. So she’s not as good at it as many women are.
Miranda makes a speech at the end of the movie about being the person that everybody wants to be. How did that hit you personally?
I think there is a level of career that demands a certain thing that not everybody wants to give. People have to make their own decisions about what they want from their lives and what really will make them happy and satisfied. From Miranda’s point of view, she wants to excel on every level and it’s really hard.
Have you ever had to make those decisions?
No, show business has been really, really good to me because I can work and take a lot of time off. I’m an extremely undisciplined person and in many ways, the polar opposite of the character I play. But I really understand her, admire some things about her, and see the bind that she is in as a woman.
Did you put together this character from a mix of people?
Unfortunately, we don’t have enough women in power or at least, I don’t know them to copy. Most of my models for this character were male. Compared to some of the people I know, Miranda is so well behaved. She’s almost like a diplomat compared to some people who are very, very powerful in our business.
I know the book was based on an assistant’s view of Anna Wintour, but it didn’t interest me to do a documentary on Anna Wintour and I don’t know anything about her. I only met her at the first benefit auction screening and we were introduced at the very beginning. She’s been a good sport about it but I think she’s been told that I don’t resemble her. It’s much more fun to make the über boss out of my own pastiche of experience.
Do you have any protégés you have become proud of?
I’ve always had people who are so wildly overqualified for the tasks I set them, and I’ve had the most wonderful people. Very, very lucky. One of them has gone off to great things and I’m very proud of her: Emily Sklar. She used to be my assistant and now she’s a literary agent. She’s really, really smart. I don’t claim any credit.
Both you and Anne have a background in theater. Did you give her any advice?
I didn’t give her any advice. I think she can delight us for years and years in lots of different things. But her beauty is so stunning in this movie that when we were all watching the dailies, we were all like (gasps) because it is amazing. It’s a burden sometimes for actresses to work around that, but her own personality is so appealing and fresh, open and warm that I think she can have a unique career.
How hard was it to get out of character when the camera stopped?
Everyone asks “Oh, was it so much fun?” No, it wasn’t that much fun to be this person. I didn’t stay in character when they yelled “Cut!” But I also found it wouldn’t help the dynamic of the set if I immediately went over and was joking with Emily, Stanley, and Anne. They were always having a party in the corner. I just couldn’t join in and it was sort of a lonely position I staked out for myself. I suppose it paid off ultimately, but it just wasn’t that much fun.
How do you use the clothes to inform your character?
I’m a notorious pain-in-the-butt for any costume designer because I have so many opinions about how my people should present. I feel very strongly that we make decisions about what we’re giving to the world, what we’re withholding from the world by virtue of what we put on our bodies, and what we choose to say and not say. So, for me, clothes are character; they’re more interesting in those terms. I don’t follow fashion or understand the trends, but I understand more about marketing than I ever did after doing this movie.
So the clothes helped define Miranda?
These clothes cost so much money. One of the handbags is $12,000. There were many, many bags that were that expensive. A $4000 bag seems like a bargain so you readjust your whole way of thinking. It’s just insane. Pat Field had an amazing achievement putting this movie together because she had no money. Pat did it by relying on her many good relationships with designers and talking them into loaning us stuff. She went to archival things. That’s another word for “used.”
People were very, very generous in the fashion business. I had 60 some costumes and each one of them had to be coordinated with the shoes, the belt, the earrings, the jacket and everything perfectly tailored. It was really very laborious for me, because it was all condensed into one space of time. We had a volume of stuff we needed to achieve. We had two-and-a-half to three weeks to put it together.
How collaborative were you with Pat?
She just laid down and let me run over her. (laughs) She was very agreeable and exhausted. She had so much to do with so many people and so many women she needed to dress.
Was it your choice to use a lot of fur?
It was not my idea, I don’t think, to use a lot of fur. We don’t assign blame or credit in our collaborative process. (laugh) But it was fun. It makes its point.
What did you think about your hair in the film?
That was a decision made with Roy Helland, my hairdresser and a collaborator of many years. We knew we wanted to make a definite look, for a woman that doesn’t look like anybody else in New York. At the fashion shows, it’d be easy to spot her, so that anybody would look to see what Miranda thinks.
I’ve always admired this model named Carmen. Whenever they want an older model, Carmen is there. She’s got a big swoop of white hair and it appears to be real, natural hair. I also thought about Liz Taylor and a woman named Polly Mellon, a woman who works at Vogue. That kind of defiance in the face, when you’re just so over the top of everything, that you can just not dye your hair. I thought it was a great look so we went with it.
With the fashion industry already projecting a negative self-image attitude, did lines like “Size 6 is the new 14” affect you at all?
Yes, of course, I think about them every day. I have three daughters, and it affected me as a teenager so I have my ideas about all this. I think it’s highly destructive.
Is it going to keep going on this way?
I don’t know the answer. People want what they want. Sometimes you just have to walk in defiance of it and just be yourself.
This film could have been simple superficiality; you made it more than that – but have you ever regretted doing any particular film?
No. I haven’t made any that I think I’ve regretted, and if I have, then I’ve blocked them. But I’ve made all sorts of compromises every single day – sometimes whether to shower or not because you don’t have time! Miranda would NOT make that choice. If you have a very thickly populated home life and then a career that’s demanding, something always becomes a choice. I’ve always felt stretched to the max but also very, very lucky and nourished by both things – my family and my career. But it’s always a struggle and you always feel like you’re letting someone down.
Copyright ©2007 PopEntertainment.com. All rights reserved. Posted: February 23, 2007.
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