That's Not Even Her Real Name: 70 Fascinating Facts About Meryl Streep

In honor of the most revered actor of her generation's birthday on June 22, we're looking back at Meryl Streep's career, one fascinating fact at a time.

By Billy Nilles Jun 22, 2022 4:00 AMTags
Watch: E! Looks Back at Meryl Streep in 1990!

What do you get for the actress who's been given the most award nominations of anyone in her industry, living or dead?

That's the question we all must ponder as we prepare to celebrate Meryl Streep's 73rd birthday on Wednesday, June 22. 

Yes, you read that right. The multi-hyphenate is continuing to celebrate more than seven decades around the sun, and we're all left to contemplate how best to fete a woman who's left us so powerfully entertained for almost all of those years. 

Is there any material object than can even begin to measure up to all she's given us on screens big and small throughout her storied career? We shudder to think about the pressure her husband and children must feel on this all-important day. 

So, rather than trying to express ourselves in trinkets and treasures, we thought we'd pay tribute to one of the finest actors to ever this earth by looking back at her life and career, one fascinating fact at a time.

Meryl Streep and Don Gummer Romance Rewind

For starters, did you know that Meryl isn't even her real name? You'll have to read on to find out what it actually is, but let's just say it's the only thing we hope she has in common with her Big Little Lies character and leave it at that.

1. She was born Mary Louise Streep on June 22, 1949 in Summit, New Jersey. She was named after her mother and grandmother, both named Mary, and her mother's best friend, Louise Buckman.

2. The name Meryl came from her father, who made it up. She was always called Meryl, never Mary Louise.

3. Her mother, Mary Wilkinson Streep, was a commercial artist and art editor.

4. Her father, Harry William Streep Jr., was a pharmaceutical executive.

5. Her maternal ancestor Lawrence Wilkinson was among the first Europeans to settle in Rhode Island.

6. She is the second cousin, seven times removed of William Penn, the founder of Pennsylvania, and records show that her family was among the first purchasers of land in the state.

7. After singing at a school recital at age 12, she began taking opera lessons from famed vocal coach Estelle Liebling. She quit after four years, later admitting that she was "singing something I didn't feel and understand. That was an important lesson—not to do that."

8. While attending Bernards High School, she was a cheerleader for the Mountaineers, and was named homecoming queen her senior year.

9. Despite appearing in several plays while in school, she was uninterested in theater until appearing in the play Miss Julie at Vassar College in 1969, which earned her attention on campus. Vassar drama professor Clinton J. Atkinson once noted, "I don't think anyone ever taught Meyl acting. She really taught herself."

10. She then pursued an MFA from the Yale School of Drama, where she appeared in over a dozen productions a year alongside classmate and friend Sigourney Weaver.

11. She once considered applying to law school, but slept in on the morning of her interview and took that as a sign it wasn't the right move for her.

12. Her first job after Yale in 1975 was at the Eugene O'Neill Theater Center's National Playwrights Conference, where she acted in five plays over six weeks.

13. She quickly moved to New York City, where she landed six roles in her first year there.

14. While appearing in Measure for Measure opposite future Law & Order star Sam Waterston that year, she met actor John Cazale and began a relationship.

15. Despite initially never considering film work, seeing Robert De Niro's performance in Taxi Driver in 1976 had a profound effect on her, prompting her to remark to herself, "That's the kind of actor I want to be when I grow up."

16. In 1976, she unsuccessfully auditioned for the lead role in famed film producer Dino De Laurentiis' remake of King Kong. As she stood before him, he turned to his son and said, in Italian, "This is so ugly. Why did you bring me this?" Streep understood Italian and responded to the man, telling him, "I'm very sorry that I'm not as beautiful as I should be, but, you know—this is it. This is what you get." The role of Dwan went, instead, to Jessica Lange in her first film role.

17. Streep received her first Tony nomination that same year for her work in a Broadway double bill of Tennessee Williams' 27 Wagons Full of Cotton and Arthur Miller's A Memory of Two Mondays. She lost Best Featured Actress in a Play to Shirley Knight.

18. She landed her first film role in 1977's Julia, starring Jane Fonda. Her small role, existing during a flashback sequence, was mostly edited out and what remained left Streep horrified: "I had a bad wig and they took the words from the scene I shot with Jane and put them in my mouth in a different scene. I thought, 'I've made a terrible mistake, not more movies. I hate this business.'"

19. After seeing her in a stage production of The Cherry Orchard, De Niro wanted her for his upcoming film The Deer Hunter. Cazale was also cast in the film and, as he'd been diagnosed with lung cancer, she took the role of the girlfriend to remain by his side for the duration of filming.

20. Her work in the 1978 miniseries Holocaust landed Streep her first Emmy Award, for Outstanding lead Actress in a Miniseries of Movie. 

21. Filming of Holocaust took Streep to Germany and Austria, while Cazale remained in New York. When she returned, she learned that his illness had progressed severely and she nursed him until his death on March 12, 1978.

22. Six months after Cazale's passing, she married sculptor Don Gummer.

23. The couple remain married and have welcomed four children into the world: son Henry Wolfe Gummer and daughters Mary Willa "Mamie" Gummer, Grace Jane Gummer (both actresses), and Louisa Jacobson Gummer, a model.

24. Streep has acted in projects with each of her actress daughters, appearing in Heartburn, Evening and Ricki and the Flash with Mamie and The House of the Spirits with Grace.

25. Streep has only worked with Woody Allen once, in Manhattan. Of the experience, she remarked that the controversial director refused to give her a complete script, only sharing with her the six pages that included her scenes, and refused to let her improvise a single word.

26. Streep felt her character in Kramer v. Kramer was "too evil" as initially written and insisted that the script be changed to make her appear more human. It eventually was.

27. Her work in the 1979 film netted her both the Golden Globe Award and Academy Award for Best Supporting Actress. She famously left her first Oscar in a bathroom after delivering her acceptance speech.

28. In 1980, she graced the cover of Newsweek with the headline, "A Star for the '80s."

29. She filmed her famous "choice" scene in Sophie's Choice, in which the titular character is ordered by an SS guard at Auschwizt to decide which of her children will be gassed and which will be sent to a labor camp, only once, refusing to do it again due to how painful and emotionally exhausting she found it.

30. Streep played her first non-fictional character in 1983's Silkwood, playing activist and nuclear whistleblower Karen Silkwood. Since that film, she's played seven more non-fictional characters.

31. Streep is the second of four consecutive Outstanding Supporting Actress Oscar winners with the initials "M.S.," beginning with Maggie Smith in 1978, followed by Streep in '79, Mary Steenburgen in '80, and Maureen Stapleton in '81.

32. She lobbied for the lead role in Oliver Stone's 1989 adaptation of Evita, but dropped out only two months prior to shooting. Initially, her decision to walk was blamed on exhaustion, but it was later revealed there was a dispute over her salary. The role would eventually be played by Madonna in 1996.

33. After starring in 1990's Postcards from the Edge, written by Carrie Fisher as an adaptation of her semi-autobiographical novel of the same name, Streep became godmother to Fisher's daughter Billie Lourd when she was born in 1992.

34. Streep was in early consideration for the iconic role of Ripley as the first Alien film was being cast. The role, of course, wound up going to her old Yale classmate Weaver. However, she was able to make a contribution of sorts to the character by the time Alien 3 was in production in 1992. As many of that film's special effects were being created in England after Weaver and the cast had returned home to the States, a prosthetic cast of Ripley's head was needed for some shots. Rather than fly Weaver back, a cast of Streep that had been made for some other project was still floating around the studio and was used by the filmmakers instead.

35. Streep has only lost out on five roles in her career: Dwan in King Kong, Michelle Straton in American Gigolo, Patsy Cline in Sweet Dreams, Miss Kenton in The Remains of the Day, and Elizabeth I in Elizabeth.

36. Due to her numerous allergies to cosmetics, special prosthetics were designed to age Streep 10 years to look 54 in the 1992 farce Death Becomes Her. She wasn't much fan of them, believing they made her look closer to 70.

37. After being replaced by Madonna in Evita, Streep returned the favor when the singer dropped out of Wes Craven's 1999 film Music of the Heart. As the role required her to play the violin, she spent two months training five to six hours a day.

38. When the role of Miranda Priestly in The Devil Wears Prada was initially offered to Streep, she felt the pay was insulting. The studio eventually doubled its offer to get her to sign on.

39. The decision to use the color "cerulean" in her iconic speech was made after screenwriter Aline Brosh McKenna sent Streep a list of shades of blue to choose from. Similarly, the pivotal moment where Miranda opens up to Anne Hathaway's Andy about her divorce was written into the film at Streep's insistence. 

40. Streep kept the sunglasses Miranda wore in the film and re-used them during the "Money Money Money" sequence in Mamma Mia!

41. Mamma Mia! has remained Streep's highest-grossing film to date, earning over $600 million worldwide.

42. The film also earned Streep her fifth Grammy nomination thanks to her contribution to the musical's soundtrack. She earned her first for 1986's The Velveteen Rabbit, nominated for Best Album for Children. She's yet to win one, however.

43. Her cover of "Mamma Mia" on the film's soundtrack made her a pop star in Portuguese for a time. The song peaked at No. 8 in the country in October of 2008.

44. In 2004, Streep was given the AFI Lifetime Achievement Award by the American Film Institute. She was only 55 years old.

45. In 2013, she took on Walt Disney when she referred to him at both "anti-Semitic" and a "gender bigot" at that year's National Board of Review Award. Her remarks rubbed former employees of Disney and The Walt Disney Family Museum the wrong way, understandably, but she still went on to star in to Disney films afterwards: 2014's Into the Woods and 2018's Mary Poppins Returns.

46. While many actors are name-checked in the Fame musical, only Streep has a song named after her. The production's second act features a number called "Think of Meryl Streep."

47. 2018's Mamma Mia! Here We Go Again marked the first time Streep appeared in a sequel to one of her films. And despite being front and center in the film's promotional materials, she's only in about 10 minutes of the film. 

48. While friend and former Silkwood co-star Cher was hired to play the mother to her character Donna in the sequel, Streep is actually only three years younger than the iconic singer.

49. For the film's flashbacks to Donna's young, Lily James was hired to play the character. And it turns out the casting wasn't too far off. She and Streep are distant relatives, reportedly ninth cousins, three times removed.

50. Mamma Mia! Here We Go Again gave Streep the biggest opening weekend of her career thus far.

51. Known for her ability to accurately imitate any accent, Streep was once asked in Belfast how she did it. She responded in a perfect Belfast accent, "I listen."

52. In 2014, she established two scholarships at the University of Massachusetts Lowell: the Meryl Streep Endowed Scholarship for English majors and the Joan Hertzberg Endowed Scholarship (named for her former roommate at Vassar) for math majors.

53. In 2015, Streep founded a screenwriting lab for female writers over 40 called the Writers Lab, to be run by New York Women in Film & Television.

54. Streep is only one of few actors to be nominated for acting by the Academy over five decades. Others include Laurence Olivier, Paul Newman, and Katherine Hepburn

55. The longest Streep has gone without an Oscar nomination is five years, between 1990's Postcards from the Edge and 1995's The Bridges of Madison County.

56. With 21 nominations, Streep holds the record for the most Oscar nominations of any actor.

57. Similarly, she is the most-nominated actor at the Golden Globes with an astonishing 29.

58. Streep is one if six actresses to have won an Academy Award while pregnant.

59. After landing the role of Margaret Thatcher on The Iron Lady, Streep donated her entire $1 million fee to the National Women's History Museum, which she is the spokesperson for.

60. Her Oscar win for that performance made her one of 18 actors to take home an Academy Award for playing someone who was still alive when the ceremony aired.

61. Despite not being a British citizen, Streep is tied as most-nominated actor at the BAFTAs, sharing the title with Dame Judi Dench.

62.In 2008, the Garden State-native was inducted into the New Jersey Hall of Fame.

63. in 2011, she received a Kennedy Center Honor.

64. Three years later, President Barack Obama bestowed upon her a Presidential Medal of Freedom.

65. And three years after that, she was honored with the Cecil B. DeMille Award at the Golden Globes.

66. Streep has been awarded an Honorary Doctor of Arts at Harvard, Middlebury College, Princeton, and Yale.

67. She has only served as producer once, on the 1997 TV movie ...First Do No Harm.

68. Early in her career, she received a letter from Bette Davis who told Streep that she felt the actress was her successor as America's premier female performer.

69. On the flip side, Katherine Hepburn wasn't such a fan. According to her biographer A. Scott Berg, Streep was her least favorite modern screen actress. "Click, click, click," she once jeered, referring to the wheels she believed she could see turning in Streep's head as she performed.

70. For her 60th birthday, Streep's husband and children reportedly gifted her with a toaster and a rocking chair.

A version of this story was first published on Saturday, June 22, 2019 at 5 a.m. PT.