Meryl Streep and the stars of ‘Suffragette’ on feminism, family and fame

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With Suffragette about to hit the big screen, Cath Clarke talks to its leading ladies – Meryl Streep, Carey Mulligan, Anne-Marie Duff and Romola Garai – about feminism, Hollywood sexism and window-smashing

W hat do you think of when you think of suffragettes? Genteel ladies wearing sashes, big hats and marching arm-in-arm? A new film, Suffragette, is set to change that cosy impression forever. It’s a hundred years since the suffragettes fought to get women the vote but, unbelievably, this is the first film about their bitter struggle. After years of being ignored by the government, demeaned, in 1909 they got militant: smashing windows and blowing up postboxes.

Suffragette is an important film: tough and shocking. Written by Abi Morgan (The Iron Lady) and directed by Sarah Gavron (Brick Lane), this is the story of ordinary working-class women. Carey Mulligan is Maud, an East London laundress whose eyes are opened to the movement by her workmate Violet (Anne-Marie Duff). Romola Garai is their boss’s suffragette wife. Meryl Streep appears as the formidable Emmeline Pankhurst, rallying her troops.

Mrs P’s speech ends, ‘I’d rather be a rebel than a slave’. That idea of finding your voice, keeping your nerve and fighting the impulse to be a ‘good girl’ is powerful. It’s the perfect context, then, in which to speak with Mulligan, Streep, Garai and Duff, four women who tell us why the fight for equality isn’t over and why the suffragettes were ‘bad-ass’ feminists.

Meryl Streep

What lesson did you learn from your mum and your grandmother?
My mother’s highest compliment: “You’re capable, Meryl. You are capable and you can do anything you set your mind to.” My grandmother, on the other hand, said: “Fools’ names and fools’ faces always appear in public places.” Which was less helpful in the profession I chose!

What advice would you give your 18-year-old self?

Don’t waste time thinking about how much you weigh. It’s a self-destructive diversion from the fun of living.

What’s the best piece of advice you’ve been given?
From my husband who says: “Start by starting.”

How would you like to be remembered?
With love by my family.

What’s your biggest regret?
That my friendships suffered from lack of attention (unlike my mothers  long-lived attachments) in favour of the time taken up by my family, my career and civic concerns

What makes you angry?
Deliberate ignorance of global warming by the richest, best-educated people and institutions in the world, as if it will not profoundly impact on them, their privileged lives and their families.

Is being ladylike overrated?
I would say it is underrated. Grace, respect, reserve and empathetic listening are qualities sorely missing from the public discourse now.

What lesson could the suffragettes teach us today?
Don’t give up or give in in the face of patronising ridicule, amused disdain or being ignored.

Who inspires you?
Malala Yousafzai and her classmates in Pakistan.

Are you a feminist?
I am a humanist, I am for balance.

What’s the most annoying question women get asked that men don’t in interviews?
“You often play very strong women… Why do you choose…? Blah blah blah.” No man is ever asked, “You often play very strong men. Why?” It’s quite absurd.

What single thing would you change about the film industry to make it less sexist?

Men should look at the world as if something is wrong when their voices predominate. They should feel it. Something is wrong if half the participants at a decision making level are not women. Because our tastes are different, what we value is different. Not better, different.

If you could remake one film and replace it with a female lead, which film would it be?

[2001: A Space Odyssey,] HAL would be Siri.

Describe a suffragette in four words.

Courageous. Relentless. Righteous. Right.

Are you pissed knowing you get paid less than male colleagues?

Oh darlin’, why ever would you imagine that?

Carey Mulligan

What lesson did you learn from your grandmother?
Not to hit my brother.

What did you learn from your mum?
Compassion.

What’s the best piece of advice you’ve been given?
Don’t sweat the small shit.

Which women would you invite to your dream dinner party?

My grandmother when she was young, Amy Poehler, Malala Yousafzai, Angelina Jolie, queens Elizabeth I and II, Marion Cotillard, Patti Smith and Michelle Obama.

Who inspires you?
The carers who work at the home in which my grandmother lives. And the War Child volunteers who risk their lives protecting children from conflict.

Describe a suffragette in four words.

Bad-ass mother fucker.

Are you a feminist?
Yes.

What’s the most annoying question women get asked that men don’t in interviews?

Meryl Streep commented on this.Women are constantly asked why they’re drawn to ‘strong’ female characters. Men are never asked why they play ‘strong’ male characters.

Anne-Marie Duff

Do you have a motto you try to live by?
“What if I was someone who didn’t give a shit?”

What piece of advice would you give your 18-year-old self?
You’re not crazy. You will fall in love. You will be loved. You are beautiful. Get out there and enjoy yourself more.

Was there a point at which you realised that girls are treated differently from boys?
Yes. I can remember being in physics class and being made to feel like science belonged to the boys.

Which women would you invite to your dream dinner party?
Simone de Beauvoir, Kate Bush, Lena Dunham and Malala Yousafzai.

Who inspires you?

My son. He’s five and he inspires me to be braver.

How would you like to be remembered?

Daily. Hourly… With love.

What’s your biggest regret?

Breaking someone’s heart.

What could you not live without?

The two men in my life.

Whose windows would you most like to smash?

Performers of female genital mutilation.

Describe a suffragette in four words.

Passionate. Right. Heroic. Awesome.

What lesson could the suffragettes teach us today?
Fight even though you feel it’s an impossible battle. You can still win it.

Are you a feminist?
Yes, I am a feminist and proud to say I am.

What’s the most annoying question women get asked that men don’t in interviews?

“Are you worried about ageing?” It’s totally passive-aggressive, like: “You should be.” If I have to answer that question one more fucking time…

Are you pissed knowing you get paid less than male colleagues?

I’m not a big movie star, so this doesn’t affect me as much as it would Carey. It would if I was Jennifer Lawrence. If I’m the reason everyone’s coming to see this movie, damn right I’d be pissed off. Plain and simple, it’s not fair. Where’s the logic? Because they have a cock?

Does Hollywood need a suffragette movement?
There seems to be a lot of roaring by lionesses going on at the moment.And it needs the really big stars to do it, because those are the people with the power.

Romola Garai

Do you have a motto you try to live by?
I try to live by: “No fear. No Shame.” But if I’ve got through a day without ‘desperate to please’ being my motto, I’m happy.

What piece of advice would you give your 18-year-old self?

You’re 18. He’s 30. Keep walking.

What lesson did you learn from your mum and your grandmother?

My mum has always made time for reading and going to the theatre. So I was brought up in a house where it didn’t seem unusual for a woman to have interests outside of the family. I write – that’s just for me, and I feel guilty about it sometimes, but then I remember it’s important to do things purely for yourself.

Which women would you invite to your dream dinner party?
Actresses directing movies now. I’d invite Brit Marling and Lake Bell, and maybe Angelina could come for coffee… she’d be too busy!

How would you like to be remembered?

As a passionate person.

Whose windows would you most like to smash?

George Osborne’s. I’m so angry about austerity. I don’t buy it that there’s not enough money. It’s bollocks. I don’t believe we can’t afford the NHS.

What piece of advice would you give an 18-year-old boy for dealing with the opposite sex?

Cunnilingus is an essential component of intercourse for at least 20 minutes before you begin.

Describe a suffragette in four words.

Brave. Ambitious. Conviction. Suffering.

Are you a feminist?

Yes!

What single thing would you change about the film industry to make it less sexist?

We need more female directors. I think there should be quotas in film schools, or at least funds set aside.

What’s the most annoying question women get asked that men don’t in interviews?

“How do you juggle it all?” It’s really annoying, not because it’s irrelevant but because men don’t get asked it. I’d love to read an interview with a big, male Hollywood star that goes: “It took you seven months to film this movie. Where were your children? Were they in LA? Who was looking after them? You were away from them – that must’ve been hard.”

Are you pissed knowing you get paid less than male colleagues?

Yeah, it’s crazy. When you get to the level of Jennifer Lawrence being paid less than Bradley Cooper for American Hustle, that is crazy. The thing is, a lot of the studio executives are women and they don’t like it when women ask for more money.

Does Hollywood need a suffragette movement?

Yeah, it does!.

What lesson could the suffragettes teach us today?

Freedom isn’t given, it is taken.

Suffragette Opens Thu Nov 12.

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