"I'm so grateful I was encouraged to be horrible"
Meryl Streep's eldest child followed her mother into acting. Now they are starring opposite each other in a new film. Julia Molony meets her
It's not the name that's the give-away, nor is it necessarily the face, though Mamie Gummer has certainly inherited something of her famous mother's sharp-featured, unconventional beauty.
But, in fact, it only really becomes blindingly obvious that she is Meryl Streep's daughter when you sit down with her in a quiet room, and witness her picking her way, smoothly, articulately through a conversation with a manner and poise that is familiar enough to be uncanny. Like Meryl, Mamie speaks at a low volume. The effect is to create a kind of pin-drop atmosphere, which lends weight and precision to everything she says. It's this brand of charisma-by-stealth, which proves, as much as anything, that she is her mother's daughter.
Second generation fame is a tricky beast. For proof, if common sense isn't proof enough, I refer you to the 1990 film Postcards from The Edge. Based on a semi-autobiographical novel by Carrie Fisher, Meryl Streep stars as a dysfunctional, neglected child of Hollywood - an actress who has struggled to forge her own identity growing up in the shadow of a narcissistic movie-star mother. Happily, Meryl and Mamie seem, as far as an outside observer can tell, to have little in common with that particular cautionary tale.
Still, it would be understandable if Mamie bristled a little whenever the M word is raised in conversation. Today, however, she is perfectly sanguine about it. And with good reason. Because in her new movie, Ricki and the Flash, she has clearly decided to address the issue of her parentage head on. Not only is Meryl her co-star in the film, but the pair also play mother and daughter. "At least in this instance, it's warranted," she says with a small smile, of having to face endless questions about forging her way as an actress with her mother's example to follow. "I'm going to get asked these questions, and have been, endlessly. But at least with this, it's apt. So I can say, 'fair enough. Good question. I will answer that and not resent it.'"
It was Meryl, in fact, who nominated her daughter for the part. "She has the pick of the litter, in terms of projects," Mamie says. "But I guess I was the pick of her litter for this one." The film is penned by Diablo Cody, the charismatic, Oscar-winning screenwriter behind the sleeper indie hit Juno. "It just felt like the right story, the right time, for us to do it," she says.
To those who might be tempted to cry nepotism, Mamie could cite her adult acting career of almost 10 years standing as a defence. Among other things, she's fronted a TV medical drama, Emily Owens, MD, and has no-shortage of critically-feted theatre work to her name. Now 32 years of age, she's not simply an ingenue who has swung a plum role through her connections. "I think that's also why it felt like time. It was alright," she says of the years of work she's put in. "And I was chuffed, certainly, that she (Meryl) clearly believed in me enough and had the trust. Because she loves me a lot, but she would never stake an entire film."
In Ricki and the Flash, the mother-daughter relationship portrayed by Gummer and Streep is the story's entire axis. Julie (played by Gummer) is a young woman in her early 30s who has plunged into depression following the breakdown of her marriage. After a suicide attempt, she returns to the home of her father and stepmother to recuperate. Her worried father (Kevin Klein) reaches out to his ex-wife Ricki (Streep), Julie's mother. She's an ageing rock-chick and front-woman of a cover band called The Flash, and has been estranged from the family since she left her husband and three children to pursue a rock 'n' roll life in LA.
The film is a sharply observed contemporary tale of the imperfect, gnarly, and intense ties which bind families, and the never-ending struggle for redemption that we act out through them. Though Meryl and Mamie might be worlds away from the characters they play, for the audience there's a special frisson of authenticity that comes from watching them perform as mother and daughter.
"We certainly didn't have to work too hard to establish a connection that I think is really palpable," Mamie says of working alongside her mother. "And hopefully that makes it kind of thrilling in a way, because there's an organic connection. In a way that neither of us are even aware of. It's just built in to the larger mechanism."
She enjoyed too, the chance to let rip. Her Julie is a wounded, furious, unkempt bundle of nerve-endings and disappointment. Gummer has herself been through a divorce, (she split from her actor husband Benjamin Walker in 2013 after two years of marriage) but says that her ability to plug into the mindset of someone in the midst of a severe life-crisis was the product of imagination, rather than experience.
"I just needed to use my imagination," she says. "It was really rewarding. And I was so grateful, honestly, to be encouraged to be so horrible." It was liberating, she says, "being allowed to be unclean. And just really raw. It's nice to have that kind of abandon."
Mamie, who is the eldest of Meryl's four children with the sculptor Don Gummer, made her debut early - she first appeared on screen at 20 months on her mother's lap, in the movie Heartburn. Even then she seemed a natural performer. "I was never a shy kid," she says. "I think I was actually pretty terrifying, I'm pretty bossy," she dead-pans. Still, it took some time and a bit of struggle, before she finally surrendered to the impulse to act. "I always loved doing it, but it was kind of a whole other thing to announce that it was what I was doing. It's not like other people, where it's like (she puts on a whispery) a ha. I want to be in the pictures'." Instead, her calling was more the inconvenient realisation that, "I really like doing this."
Ricki and the Flash is in cinemas now