Meryl Streep is an undisputed legend by anyone’s measure. The actress is singular in her talents, with a resume that would knock anyone’s socks off. From Kramer vs. Kramer to Sophie’s Choice to Out of Africa and beyond, Streep has starred in some of the most critically-acclaimed films and shows that have ever graced the screen. If there’s a more gifted thespian out there, we’re not aware of it.
But just like us mere mortals, Streep, too, has an origin story that sounds like it could be anyone’s. According to The Guardian, Streep was born and raised in New Jersey with her father, a human resources manager for pharmaceutical company Merck & Co., and her mother, an artist. Who knew that such a humble start in life would lead to Streep becoming the icon that she is today?
As Streep has moved through her career in Hollywood, she’s evolved from that precocious Jersey girl into a bona fide movie star and into her final form: the queen of the screen. Read on to learn everything we found about Meryl Streep’s stunning transformation.
Meryl Streep started acting when she was 6 years old
As Meryl Streep tells it, she was drawn to acting from a very young age. "I remember very clearly my own first conscious attempt at acting," she recalled in a commencement speech at Barnard College. "I was 6, placing my mother’s half slip over my head in preparation to play the Virgin Mary in our living room." She added that the experience made her feel "quieted, holy," even though it was only for her parents and siblings.
Streep’s talent was apparently visible out of the gate, as her family members were all impressed with her performance. Additionally, Streep’s mother encouraged her at every turn, telling her how fantastic and capable she was. "She was saying, ‘You can do whatever you put your mind to. If you’re lazy, you’re not going to get it done. But if you put your mind to it, you can do anything.’ And I believed her." Clearly, Mom was onto something, because Streep’s confidence started building from that day forward.
As a teenager, Meryl Streep "liked cheerleading and boys"
In addition to discovering her love of acting when she was a child, Meryl Streep also discovered that she enjoyed singing. However, she wasn’t exactly into the opera lessons she was taking when she was 13 years old. "I liked cheerleading and boys," she explained in an interview with NPR. "That was what I was interested in, and Barbra Streisand, The Beatles and Bob Dylan." That sounds like a typical teenager, that’s for sure.
Even though Streep wasn’t hoping to become an opera star, she was active in her high school drama club. This included a production of The Music Man, which she’d also seen on Broadway. Those experiences rendered Streep enamored of music. "But I loved singing," she continued. "I loved it. And I did have a very good coloratura." She added that her voice was "very high and light and free," but that she doesn’t sound like that anymore.
Streep would also sing along to records, as "it was a way for me to get out the feeling in the song, and the feelings in high school that … I had no other way of expressing," she added.
Meryl Streep crafted her image in high school
While Meryl Streep had a happy and loving childhood by all accounts, that didn’t spare her from the awkwardness and challenges that come with adolescence. So how did she navigate those difficult and uncharted waters? By doing what she knew. "In high school, another form of acting took hold of me," she revealed in a commencement speech at Barnard College. "I wanted to learn how to be appealing, so I studied the character I imagined that I wanted to be, that of the generically pretty high school girl." To that end, Streep turned to fashion magazines for guidance, doing her best to look and act in a manner that people liked.
That drive to fit in caused Streep to wear certain makeup, straighten and bleach her hair, and ask her mother for the fashion that was in style. She even changed the way she laughed and tempered her personality to be more agreeable. "Opinions were not attractive," she remembered learning. "I recognized early on that that wasn’t attractive on a date." Oh, the struggle is real for us all, Meryl.
College helped Meryl Streep’s true personality shine
Fortunately for fans of Meryl Streep, she survived high school and lived to tell about it. In fact, by the time she got to college, Streep had a revelation about herself that changed her for the better. "I wasn’t aware of designing myself in high school," she explained in a chat with NPR. "But when I got to [college at] Vassar, all of that fell away, because it was just girls and it was the early ’70s." What a nice change that had to be!
If you imagine that was a liberating experience for Streep, you’d be absolutely correct. "I felt free," she continued. "A thing emerged, which was my actual personality and my actual voice … and I realized that I was funny, and allowed to be … loud, and obnoxious."
Streep added that the attitude of the moment was also a factor in her transformation, as the women’s liberation movement was kicking into high gear. "It was the classic consciousness-raising time when people were earnestly talking about ‘What’s a woman? What’s our role in the world?’" she added. We love to hear about it.
Here’s how Meryl Streep got her big break
After graduating from Vassar College in 1975, Meryl Streep headed to graduate school at the Yale School of Drama. There, she completed a three-year program with a small, mostly-male class. "I had a ball, but it was really hard," she told the Hartford Courant.
Upon completing the program, Streep headed to Broadway (via Biography), where she started appearing in stage productions. Shortly thereafter, Streep was cast in The Deer Hunter, alongside Robert De Niro and Christopher Walken. And though her role was fairly minor, she made a real impact, as noted by author Karina Longworth. "[Streep] made a case for female empowerment by playing a woman to whom empowerment was a foreign concept — a normal lady from an average American small town, for whom subservience was the only thing she knew," she wrote in her book Meryl Streep: Anatomy of an Actor.
Of course, Streep was nominated for her first Oscar for her work and went on to become a bona fide star.
Meryl Streep had an intense and tragic first love
One of the most defining events in Meryl Streep’s young life was when she met and fell for renowned actor John Cazale. The pair were introduced while working on a production of Measure for Measure in Central Park, and, as legend tells it, fell head-over-heels in love almost instantly. "He wasn’t like anybody I’d ever met," Streep revealed (via the New York Post). "It was the specificity of him, and his sort of humanity and his curiosity about people, his compassion."
Streep and Cazale were local legends, beloved and even envied by their peers. However, tragedy struck just a year later, when Cazale was diagnosed with lung cancer — the terminal kind. And while Streep wanted to be with Cazale every minute to help him fight, for two-and-a-half months she was shooting on location across the ocean. "I was going crazy," she continued. "John was sick, and I wanted to be with him."
After that, Streep flew home and stayed with Cazale for five months, until his untimely death on March 12, 1978. May his memory be a blessing.
After her partner’s death, Meryl Streep found enduring love
Shakespeare wasn’t lying when he wrote that "the course of true love never did run smooth." Such was the case for a grieving Meryl Streep in 1978. According to Her Again: Becoming Meryl Streep (via People), the devastated actress retreated to Canada to process the loss of John Cazale. But upon her return to New York City, Streep found herself thrown out of her apartment. In order to pack up, she summoned help from her brother, who brought a friend with him: artist Don Gummer.
It didn’t take long for Streep and Gummer to start writing letters to each other during a period when Gummer was traveling. Upon his return, the two had started to fall for each other, so Streep moved into his home — and stayed. Six months later, she and Gummer were married.
While plenty of the people in Streep’s life were concerned about the speed of her relationship with Gummer, the two are still married today, all these years later. Hey, when you know, you know.
Meryl Streep had a shock on the set of an early film
While Meryl Streep was already a working actress with some impressive credits under her belt by 1979, that was the year she landed her first starring role in a major motion picture: She played opposite Dustin Hoffman in the iconic film Kramer vs. Kramer. The film was a smashing success that swept the Oscars and earned Streep her first Academy Award for best actress (via IMDb).
However, the film is not without its enduring controversy. That’s mainly because Hoffman took the liberty of slapping Streep across the face at full bore, without her consent. "This was my first movie, and it was my first take in my first movie, and he just slapped me," she revealed in an interview with The New York Times. "And you see it in the movie. It was overstepping."
There were also reports that Hoffman groped Streep, though a representative for the actress said that’s not quite right. "There was an offense and it is something for which Dustin apologized," they told E!. "And Meryl accepted that."
Meryl Streep rose to the top of the acting industry
On the heels of the success of Kramer vs. Kramer, Meryl Streep was catapulted into silver screen success; she became one of the most in-demand actresses in the history of Hollywood (via IMDb). She stunned in classics like The French Lieutenant’s Woman and Sophie’s Choice, made people laugh in Death Becomes Her and Defending Your Life, made us cry in The Bridges of Madison County and The Hours, and stole our hearts in The Devil Wears Prada and Julie & Julia.
That’s not all either, as Streep went on to star in even more great movies, like The Iron Lady, Florence Foster Jenkins, and The Post; she also wowed audiences and critics alike in the HBO hit Big Little Lies. Oh, and don’t forget how fun she was in the Mamma Mia! films and how compelling she was in Little Women. Streep is, indeed, singular in her success, and there’s no doubt that she’s at the top of the food chain, all these decades later.
Meryl Streep always knew she wanted a family
While Meryl Streep was busy taking over Hollywood and becoming a legend in the making, she also took the time to start a family with her husband, Don Gummer. "I think I was wired for family," she explained to People. "You know how they say people are wired for religion, or wired for this or that? I always knew I would like to, if I could find the right person, have a family."
Indeed, Streep did find the right person, as she and her husband have four children: Henry, Mary Willa (Mamie), Grace, and Louisa Gummer. "Parenting is really expertise on the fly," she continued. "You make it up as you go along. I back Don up. He is my backup." Streep added that although she’s raised four happy and healthy children, she’s "not writing the book on parenting by any means." Maybe celebrities really are just like us after all?
When Meryl Streep turned 40, her casting choices changed
One thing that’s evident about Meryl Streep is that she has staying power; she’s been in the entertainment industry for over four decades and seemingly never has problems getting cast. However, there were a few moments along the way that even Streep fell prey to Hollywood’s ageism. "I remember when I turned 40, I was offered, within one year, three different witch roles. To play three different witches in three different contexts," she revealed in a chat with NPR. "It was almost like the world was saying or the studios were saying, ‘We don’t know what to do with you.’"
Fortunately for Streep, female actors, and women in general, she was able to break down the barriers and continue securing high-profile and complex roles in film and television. "That really has changed, not completely, not for everybody, but for me it has changed," Streep continued. "Part of it has to do with… when I was a younger actress, [sex appeal] wasn’t the first thing about me."
In 2014, Meryl Streep was awarded the Presidential Medal of Freedom
If you had any doubt that Meryl Streep is a living legend, look no further. That’s because in 2014, then-President Barack Obama awarded Streep with the Presidential Medal of Freedom, one of the highest accolades in the United States (via Vanity Fair). On that November day, Streep was honored along with fellow icons Stevie Wonder, Tom Brokaw, and Ethel Kennedy.
Apparently, Obama, himself, is a pretty serious fan of Streep, as he completely fanboyed during the ceremony. "I love Meryl Streep," he gushed, as noted by White House reporter Jennifer Bendery in a tweet. "Her husband knows I love her. Michelle knows I love her. There’s nothing they can do about it."
Just like the rest of us, Obama can truly see that Streep is a versatile, gifted actress who’s unmatched in her abilities. "She’s done it all for her craft," he added.
No one has more Oscar nominations for acting than Meryl Streep
In addition to starring in some of the best films in Hollywood history and garnering the Presidential Medal of Honor, Meryl Streep has another record: She has received more Academy Award nominations for acting than anyone else in history, period. According to Variety, Streep has nabbed an impressive 21 Oscar nominations for her work in everything from Kramer vs. Kramer, Sophie’s Choice, and The Iron Lady, and she took home the trophy for those roles. Other nods included August: Osage County, Into the Woods, Florence Foster Jenkins, and The Post. That’s hardly an extensive list, but you get the idea.
Insofar as wins go, Streep has three to her name, which puts her in the ranks of peers like Jack Nicholson, Daniel Day-Lewis, Walter Brennan, and Ingrid Bergman. The only person who’s won more than that is acting great Katharine Hepburn, who took home four Oscar trophies (via Time).
Now heralded as the greatest living actress, Meryl Streep keeps herself humble
Meryl Streep has truly done it all, all the while embracing who she is and what she looks like. To that end, she’s leaned into the aging process and refuses to get cosmetic surgery like so many of her peers in Tinsel Town. "I just don’t get it," she proclaimed in an interview with Good Housekeeping. "You have to embrace getting older. Life is precious, and when you’ve lost a lot of people, you realize each day is a gift." Louder again for the people in the back, Meryl!
Additionally, given Streep’s insanely hyped reputation, it’s super wholesome knowing that she does her best to accommodate younger actors on set. "I try to have fun with that," she’s said, as shared by South China Morning Post. "I’ll forget my lines, I’ll turn in the wrong direction, or do something to shatter any illusions of perfection they might have of me. I want the other actors to think, ‘Maybe she’s not as good as we thought,’ and then they relax." As if we could love her any more.