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'Hope Springs' Interview: Tommy Lee Jones and Meryl Streep, on Sex Scenes and the Suburbs

Meryl Streep never disappoints (she has the mantel full of statuettes to prove it), and her latest role – as a frustrated suburban housewife seeking to reclaim the intimacy in her stale 31-year marriage – is no exception. As Kay Soames in Hope Springs, Streep has formidable help in her cohort – Tommy Lee Jones plays her curmudgeonly, stubborn husband Arnold. Rounding out the film’s heartfelt, humorous and surprisingly poignant on-screen trio is Steve Carell as Dr. Bernard Feld, a well-known couples therapist charged with guiding the Soames back into a bountiful marriage. Check out our exclusive interview with Carell.

Streep and Jones recently joined a small group of journalists in New York City to talk Hope Springs, and what it was like to film one of the movie’s more memorable sex scenes.

Q: The scenes with you two and Steve in his office were almost like one-act plays. Do you think the fact that David filmed you guys in long, uncut takes aided that?

Streep: Actors will often tell you their favorite thing is the first reading of a play. And then you spend the next three weeks trying to get back to, "Why was it so great that first day?" As you work on it more and more, some kind of magic goes away. But with those scenes…we didn't have any time to rehearse! So you're really watching it happen.

Q: This film is undoubtedly going to provoke conversation.

Streep: That would be good! Because it provoked stuff in me when I read it, and I thought, "Oooh - nobody's talking about any of this!" The little delicate stuff. The stuff you want to ask somebody you love, intimate things – it's really hard to put that on screen. People don't want to put it there. But it's funny because it's forbidden. It's funny and it's true.

Q: Do you think the film is going to connect with a younger audience?

Streep: Well Vanessa, who wrote it, weirdly - she's quite young - said she wrote it about herself. You know, I don't think it's age-specific, I think you can enter that zone of not knowing how to reach each other in an intimate relationship at any point.

Q: Kay and Arnold are really believable as so many middle-aged suburban couples. What are some of the quirks that you brought to your characters to ground them in reality? For example, Tommy Lee, during moments of distress, your glasses were crooked. Did you develop that?

Jones: [comically pushes glasses up and down on face] Yeah. Little things mean a lot, it's been said. Small details like that individualize a character. Clothes, eyeglasses, hair.

Streep: [to Jones] Everything you did was just perfect! Just, like, the way he wore his shirts and the way, just, the defeat in his posture. Every little thing carries a meaning. It was important to us that it feel real, that it feel authentic and earned.

Q: Even your voice is noticeably different in this film!

Streep: My voice is like my actual voice – usually [deepening her voice] I make it more important. [laughs]

Q: You both have an incredibly lived-in chemistry together. Did you know each other before?

Jones: We met in the '70s, and of course I've wanted to work with her since the day I first laid eyes on her!

Streep: I felt the same! It just never had worked out before this. So we came with a little banked up readiness and anticipation.

Q: Did you base your characters on people you know?

Jones: You find these characters on the street, people you know, it's part of your experience. It's a jigsaw puzzle.

Streep: The more specific you get to a character, the more it feels like everybody's life. Kay's life couldn't be further from my own, and yet it feels like my friends, a certain dilemma that you reach at a certain age that really is universal in a funny way. So how you solve it is up to you, but this is how they solved it.

Q: That intimate scenes between the two of you – particularly the one in the movie theater – are pretty vulnerable. Were they difficult to film?

Streep: People think that that's harder than the things on the couch, but frankly the things on the couch were sort of harder. The setup in the movie theater is essentially comic, heartbreaking, real. But it wasn't as hard as breaking the cement of your emotional resistance to admitting loneliness, or having something really pierce you that your husband says about you. That's sort of the harsher moment. The movie theater's kind of fun.

Jones: You're just trying to make it work. There's nothing particularly daunting about those sex scenes, or any sex scene. Think of a fight scene or anything dangerous – you're interested in the illusion of danger. You sure have no interest in the real thing. You can say the same thing about sex scenes. You're interested in the illusion of passion or the illusion of disappointment, the illusion of longing.

Q: It's kind of funny that Steve's character charges Kay and Arnold with intimacy exercises in the film, because I always wonder how actors create a rapport before and during filming. Do actors have their own version of intimacy exercises?

[both laugh]

Jones: No, but it's an idea though!

Streep: If you respect the person that you're working with – it doesn't hurt to be a little bit in awe of him. And that helps, because you feel like you have to really be attentive and at the top of your game, because you don't know what he's going to do.

Hope Springs opens Wednesday, August 8.

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