The actress reflects on her acclaimed role as Miranda Priestly in The Devil Wears Prada
In this film, as Miranda Priestly, you play a woman who we could really hate – because she is very devilish - but you bring humanity to the performance and she comes out of it very likeable.
What do you love and hate about your character, Miranda?
The Devil Wears Prada
I wish that she could take more deep enjoyment from her life. But maybe it's not in her physical, emotional, mental makeup to enjoy life in a certain way that I like to be in my life… One of the things that I admire about her, is her willingness to say directly what she wants and the expectation that it will come to her – this is not an attractive thing in a woman sometimes and people are very intolerant of it. But it interested me that she was someone who had so little time for the niceties that we add to our sentences in order to have them heard in the world. Like I just did (laughs). It interested me in my life when I would be meeting directors. It has always interested me. The fact that the same sentence with the same inflection can be said by a man, like, 'Get me this.' And if it was said the same way by a woman, 'Get me this,' it was harsh and unacceptable. And that just always fascinated me. I wanted to investigate all those things in this piece.
People are always intimidated by you in your real life – how do you deal with that? Everybody says you are their icon and they are always nervous to meet you.
I don't deal with it very well. I don't know how to deal with it. On every film set it's different…
Do you try to make them comfortable? Do you give them alcohol?
Oh yes. It's always important to lubricate! The whole myth thing is – I don't know. I don't feel it. I don't feel it in me. It just kind of bounces off. It doesn't have any residual effects, certainly, at home. It has nothing to do with me. In the work place, it can be a little bit of an interruption in the beginning. But quickly they see, the first day I forget my lines, everybody goes "Hmm….the greatest what?' And that happens a lot now (laughs)… Work is work.
Patricia Field said you lost weight during the shoot because they had to take in the clothes. So you were not immune to the pressures of the role?
No, I think that was just anxiety. There was a lot of anxiety in this character (pause). Everybody says, "Oh, wasn't it fun to play a villain"? No. It wasn't fun to be in this person's body. It just wasn't (laughs)…. Maybe I took it too much to heart - the pressures that she felt. But I felt that was plot. I read the script and I read that there was pressure to replace her. I know how replaceable middle aged women are in our society. I felt that. And it wasn't enjoyable to be her. Although, and as I say, it felt like wearing or putting on underwater gear. It was putting on this outfit every day for, I guess, a normal woman would be extremely enjoyable. For me, it was, I didn't enjoy it. It felt like a straight jacket.
Did you have to learn something specific to play her? An accent?
Walking a certain way?
No. That's how you walk in those platform shoes.
You said you wanted to investigate the difference in ambition and power between men and women. What's the result of your investigation. Miranda gets divorced because of her ambition and Andy resigns while her boyfriend gets a better job. So it seems that it's right for men but not for women. Also, was it your idea or the director's to convey power in Miranda by never raising your voice?
He let me do whatever I wanted with her – the voice and everything. But I think it's a danger to read these things a little too emblematically. This does not stand for every woman who has an important job. And this very specific marriage might have fallen apart for very specific reasons that are imbedded in it between two people that we don't' really concern ourselves with in the film. The film is not really interested in the nature of their relationship; we get the captionalised version of what the problem is. Not that it's probably not a problem. Because it is difficult for many men to have their wives make more money then they do or be higher on the corporate ladder than they find themselves. I think that is a problem.
Regarding the burdens of your iconic status in the industry. Do you think it's ironic that in a couple of films recently, both this one and The Manchurian Candidate, people were immediately seeing that you were actually playing other real life iconic women, such as Senator Clinton and Anna Wintour?
Yes, I think we reserve a special place in our hearts for women who dare to try and be powerful or occupy a special elevated place in society or be boss. I think we really don't like it. We really look hard at them. We look much harder at them than the millions of men who aspire to the same positions. And I can't figure that out. But it was really interesting to investigate with this piece. And honestly, you know everybody [says] "Well who were you looking at?" I wasn't looking at Anna Wintour. I never met her. I don't know anything about her. But the people that I've known in my life, in my business, where I encounter powerful people, are mostly men. That's probably where I got a lot of who that is. If you watch the movie and imagine that Miranda Priestly is a 6 ft 2 silver-haired gentlemen in a well cut suit, all the things that she says are much more palatable if they come from a baritone voice. The world isn't fair.
This film is realistic in its take on fashion magazines, compared to other movies. Did you know much about magazines before doing this movie. If your interest was-
I didn't know very much at all. And I certainly had no idea. What I learned about this sort of global branding and the larger corporate entities that underwrite a lot the fashion world, different fashion houses, the necessities of getting the advertisers and pleasing them. Where your ad is placed and how much that matters. But I didn't do deep deep deep research. I read Liz Tilberis' book, which is really a lot about ovarian cancer. And I read Diana Vreeland's memos, which are really fabulous. But probably not germane and current. But that's all the time I had.
There's a scene where you explain to Andy (Hathaway) about the business which was realistic and good. Normally films about the fashion industry are a caricature.
Good. It's nice to hear how it all filters down. To figure out how we're all sort of prey. And how it all filters down from a great creative designer and how the lines of responsibility and irresponsibility filter out. How the business works. And how people who hold themselves above the fashion business are still complicit to it and fall prey to it.
Since the movie says size 2 is the new 0. How do prevent your children to slip into pressure of getting into a 0. And to prevent them being taken over by the fashion industry and the pressure.
I just think this is all a big reaction to the fact that there are more women in medical school than there are men. That pretty soon, law school will be the same. And in business. I think this is all compensatory and we're all trying to make ourselves emaciated to pretend that we're disappearing as we emerge. And it's so frightening. That's what I think. I think that for girls – it's just really horrible to be 13. And it's really tough. It's much tougher then when I felt burdened by the images of Seventeen Magazine. And I really remember feeling, like "This isn't good". This isn't good for me to think that Twiggy is the thing that I should aspire to look like. But I felt maybe I should try to look like that… I think these things are very destructive.
What do you think of what's going on the Middle East?
(laughs). Oh my God. Well, I think that we pay much more attention to fashion and our hair and our skin and our foreheads and our abdominal muscles and our shoes, then we do to what's happening in the rest of the world. We willingly take that drug. It's bad. But as far as my prescription for peace in the Middle East? No, not today… But I do think if women, honestly, if women were running the world, there would be more investment in peace. Because basically, they don't want their children killed. Maybe I'm completely idealistic. But until we see women in equal places, I just think we're doomed. Because so much of it is territorial.
Anne Hathaway said she said she'd like you to rule the world
(laughs) Well, she's probably answered that question more gracefully than I did.
Could you compare the fashion industry as we see it in the movie to Hollywood as you know it?
Well, I don't really pretend to understand my own industry, so I really shouldn't speak to something I'm not even peripherally involved with. I don't know what the similarities are. Maybe in that they're both fashioned and dependent on a very fickle market… Nobody can figure out why people go the movies. Nobody can figure out why people decide that they'll crop their pants this year. Maybe it's in its volatility, it's similar. It's not like providing surgical appliances. You know, you sort of know how many people are going to need them each year. Movies and fashions you can't really prescribe… That's why there's such opportunity for interesting idiosyncratic visionary people to come forward and meteorically rise and plummet, because next year their vision doesn't work. .. These are very very big questions today.
What makes Anne Hathaway destined for great things? She said she was very nervous meeting you at your house and came over with a bottle of wine.
She knew. She knew how to get to me. Well, what is it? What is her singular appeal? First of all, we've seen her since she was an adolescent. And so she sort of emerged as this full flowered woman in front of us. And her beauty is breathtaking. That sort of walks ahead of her. And so people are going to forget what a good actress she is. Because that precedes her in this stunning way. The most overlooked performance of last year was her performance in Brokeback Mountain. It was beautiful. And this is quite different. She's just got an open-hearted, friendly appeal for someone so beautiful. I think that's part of what will be a strength for her. I don't know. She can do lots of things.
What was the particular challenge of this role?... What was the one thing you hadn't done before?
The challenge - a great deal of it, was not dissimilar to something I did very very early in my career which was Kramer vs. Kramer. Which was a character that the audience judges very harshly. Right off the bat, boom, they've decided. Bitch. And then, to find the humanity in there and what's the side that's hidden? What's the side you don't know about? What's the side you're not privileged to see? What's the side that gets hidden in the business [inaudible]. And so that was the challenge of it. To see if there was one. And to see if it had any place in a light hearted coming of age beauty romp. David Frankel and Aline Brosh McKenna, who wrote the screenplay, were of a similar mind. They were interested in the whole story, not the black and white. That was fun. That was the challenge. And in the 11th hour, to peel off one layer and see.