Eavesdropping on the Talk of a Lifetime with Meryl Streep and Michelle Obama

Power. Passions. Work. Mothers. And Sting. When Meryl Streep visited the White House for an intimate conversation with First Lady Michelle Obama, they dug deep into the topics that accomplished women talk, worry and wonder about. Read on

Meryl Streep and Michelle Obama
Photograph: David Slijper

One of Mrs. Obama’s initiatives involves mentoring young girls. Who were the female mentors in both of your lives? How did they inspire you?

MERYL STREEP: My mentor was my mother. She had no list of accomplishments behind her name, no awards or blah, blah, blah. My mother walked into a room and lit it up, and people were sad when she left. That, to me, is what really matters: who you touch and how. She was a mentor because she said to me, “Meryl, you’re capable. You can be anything.” She wasn’t saying, “You’re so great.” She was saying, “You can do whatever you put your mind to. If you’re lazy, you’re not going to get it done. But if you put your mind to it, you can do anything.” And I believed her. And she said it from the time I was little. And that made me arrogant [laughs].

MICHELLE OBAMA: It made you arrogant but capable. It’s so interesting, because what you say about your mom is a mirror image of what I think about mine. If I point to anything that makes me who I am, it’s that I have a whole lot of common sense. I’ve got a good mind and a good ability to read people and situations. A lot of that is because that’s who my mother is.

MS: But are you like her? Are you really like her?

MO: I’m probably more like her than I’d imagined. I see it now that we’re living together. Sometimes she does things that annoy me, and I’m like, Oh, I kind of do that, too [laughs]. My daughter just criticized me for that.

But she doesn’t think I’m like her because she doesn’t see herself as being as capable as she thinks I am. I always joke with her and say, “You raised me!” But she wasn’t taught to value that in herself. She is a highly capable woman. She doesn’t have degrees, but she can do anything she wants to do. And she raised us to do things [she was] afraid to do. So many women hold their kids tight because of their own fears. My mom pushed us out there. She doesn’t like to travel, but she said to my brother when he had a chance to play pro basketball in Europe, “Here’s a ticket. Get on the plane; you’re going to Paris.” She was able to understand that she shouldn’t pass on her fears to us. I try to emulate that for my kids: not suffocating them with my mess.

MS: I’m not like my mother, so that’s why her legacy sustains me. I’m much more of an introvert. I’m much more inclined to want to not say anything in public. When I have to be in the spotlight, I think to myself, Mary [Streep] could do it. It’s a good thing, to imagine yourself doing something you think you can’t. I do that every day, because basically, if I had my way, I’d just stay home and think about what I’m having for supper.

You both have daughters. What have you done to help them be strong in a world that can be tough on girls and treat them as less worthy?

MO: I talk to them a lot. One of the things my mom always said to me is, “You’re not raising children; you’re raising human beings,” so create an open line of communication as early as possible. Now that my kids [Malia, 17, and Sasha, 14] are teenagers, they can often go to their peers for advice. I try to remind them that I actually do know the answers and that I don’t want them getting their best advice from another 14-year-old. I never sit down and lecture them about self-confidence.

MS: They wouldn’t listen.

MO: You sneak those conversations in when you’re talking to them about their friendships, or about the challenges they faced in a game, or something that their dad said that made them mad. That’s when I find they’ll hear the messages most.

First published in the July/August 2015 issue

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