Meryl Streep: Even the Most Celebrated Battle Nerves

February 26, 2016

“Courage does not mean we are unafraid. Having courage and showing courage mean we face our fears. We are able to say, ‘I have fallen, but I will get up.‘” — Maya Angelou

Now 66 years old, legendary actress Meryl Streep has had among the most enviable acting careers. She makes her craft look natural and effortless, meaty roles have continuously poured in for her over the decades, and so have numerous prestigious awards. As onlookers, it’s easy to assume that she’s been blessed with talent, luck, and a bold, courageous soul. And indeed, it’s safe to assume her talent was present since the beginning, and she herself acknowledges that she was privy to a stream of good luck in the beginning. But talent and luck don’t necessarily go hand in hand with feeling confident. How self-assured has Streep felt throughout her career? According to Meryl, this was the more challenging aspect of her growth and success.

This interview is said to be from the time Streep performed as Helen Archer in the Great Depression drama, Ironweed. Meryl describes how she was enrolled in Yale School of Drama in 1975, and all the members of the class were scheduled to audition at an open casting call for theater in New York City. Streep recalls, “And I had a nervous stomach. I couldn’t go. But basically I knew that I just didn’t want to be in that whole, that whole meat market. Competition makes me very nervous….” After the deadline had passed, Streep collected herself and asked casting director and artistic producer at New York’s Public Theater, Rosemarie Tishler to read for a role; Tishler kindly granted the audition. This lead to another audition before Joseph Papp who hired her for a small role in Trelawny of the Wells opposite Mandy Patinkin and John Lithgow. This was Meryl’s Broadway debut. But what she does not describe about this second audition is that she showed up 90 minutes late due to a train delay. She found herself needing to audition before a highly impatient Papp, yet after performing before him, his mood immediately softened as he saw the potential of a great actress.

“I still get nervous–very nervous–if I have to audition,” Streep reveals in this clip. “If I have to sing in front of people, I’m just terrified. I’m much more comfortable enclosed in a world of fiction.” Despite this fear of singing, Meryl has gone on to sing in movies like Mama Mia, Into the Woods, and Ricki and the Flash. Even recently she has insisted she only can find the courage to sing in character. “Give me a character, and I’ll sing,” she says.

As confident as she “should” have felt about her talent and career, Streep has battled nerves throughout, yet has consistently mustered the courage to fight through them. “I never imagined in my wildest dreams that I would be successful. The fear is always there with actors that you’ll never work again. That goes with the territory. You have that fear with the second job, third job, fourth job. You have it all the way down the line,” she said.

Throughout the years, Streep has been interviewed many times. Here are a few more of her quotes about battling her nerves:

“Fear focuses the mind.”

“Fear is a good thing. Fear is your friend. Everything that destabilizes you can help you. They taught us that in drama school. If you’re comfortable, you’re not doing your job. Most actors are constitutionally insecure. It’s sort of necessary,” she once told Parade.

If you too find yourself battling nerves, don’t give into them. You never know what opportunity is just around the corner.