She has two Academy Awards and 13 Oscar nominations over an illustrious 30-year Hollywood career, but actress Meryl Streep says she still suffers from stage fright.
"As intrepid as actors are, and as long as a career may be, you still are terrified of walking in front of people," she told a news conference on Wednedsay in Brookline, Massachusetts, where she was to receive an award from the Coolidge Corner Theater, a film art house.
In her latest film, A Prairie Home Companion, Streep faced a live audience at the Fitzgerald Theater in St. Paul, Minnesota, singing country ballads on a radio show with her onscreen sister played by Lily Tomlin.
A day earlier, veteran director Robert Altman prepared her for the live performance by shooting in such a way that made Streep improvise, filming in long takes in high-definition digital video with three cameras running simultaneously.
If she forgot a line, she had to come up with something on the spot because Altman kept his cameras rolling.
"The most challenging thing was the very first day when I came to work, the director told me, 'We're down here in this basement and there are three cameras and there are 17 mirrors and we're going to shoot the first 10 pages,'" she said, referring to Altman's onstage use of mirrors for an edgy feel.
'It made us unafraid
It was a Sunday, and Streep said she expected three or four days of shooting. Altman had other plans. "He said, 'no, no, no we're going to shoot the first 10 pages today,'" she said.
"Lily and I just looked at each other. We couldn't remember what to say, so we just said whatever came into our minds," she said. "He kept us going and he was unafraid, and it made us unafraid and that led naturally to the next day which was out on the stage in front of everybody," she said.
By that time, Streep said, she had bonded with Tomlin and felt prepared for live acting.
A Prairie Home Companion, which also features Woody Harrelson, Tommy Lee Jones, Lindsay Lohan and Kevin Kline and opens in US theatres on June 9, tells the story of an old-fashioned radio show threatened with closure.
It was written by Garrison Keillor, real-life host of the titular program that is heard every week by millions of listeners around the world.
Keillor plays himself in the picture, which was shot in the Fitzgerald Theater that is home to the radio show.
The film, which was warmly received at the Berlin Film Festival in February, cuts from backstage, where characters reminisce about the good old days, play vinyl records, apply their makeup and even drop dead, to the stage where music - from country and folk to commercial jingles - dominates.
Streep and Tomlin wear their hearts on their sleeves when they perform, while Harrelson and his singing sidekick John C. Reilly, kick up a storm with their bawdy cowboy comedy act.
Kline imagines himself to be a private eye in the Raymond Chandler mold, while Virginia Madsen plays a mysterious angel.
Altman, who collected a lifetime achievement award at last month's Oscars for a body of work that includes MASH, Gosford Park and Nashville, said that at age 81 he still feels he has more movies to make.
He likened his creative process to making french fries.
"You get the water boiling, you get the potatoes and throw them in, whatever one comes to the top is the one I am going to do," he said. "I have not reached the stage where nothing came up."