August 2, 2021

DCTRS

Damascus Center for Theoretical and Civil Rights Studies

Candice Bergen tackles Meryl Streep and improvised dialogue

Despite all the milestones Candice Bergen has experienced in her singular, decades-long career, there was an important first for the actress on the set of Steven Soderbergh’s freewheeling tragicomedy “Let Them All Talk.” While filming a confrontational scene with costar Meryl Streep, Bergen had an honest-to-goodness out-of-body experience.

“I was on the ceiling, and I was hoping it would be over,” Bergen, 74, said recently by phone. “It was the weirdest. She’s so nimble, Meryl, and so dexterous. She knows more about your character than you’ll ever imagine knowing. She was dancing rings around me. I just thought, I can’t do this! I don’t know what she’s doing! I don’t understand! I was just up [there] looking down and begging for Steven to say, ‘Cut.’ Afterward, I said to him very quietly, ‘Can you use any of that?’ He said, ‘I hope so.’”

Bergen might be unfailingly modest when talking about her considerable talents, yet there’s a clear consensus that even among a cast of proven heavy hitters, it’s Bergen who runs away with the new film. Shot in just 10 days and with entirely improvised dialogue, the story follows imperious, highly acclaimed author Alice (Streep) as she travels to Europe from New York aboard the Queen Mary 2 to accept a prestigious literary prize. Along with her nephew (Lucas Hedges), Alice invites her best friends from college, Dianne Wiest’s genial Susan and Bergen’s fiery Roberta, to accompany her, even though the trio haven’t spent time together in decades.

Over the course of the journey, old wounds are reopened — Roberta wants Alice to acknowledge that her most beloved bestseller is merely a thinly veiled retelling of events from Roberta’s own life and to understand the emotional damage she has inflicted by divulging details shared in confidence. “I thought it was such a weird, haunting movie,” Bergen said. “It had great life and thought.” (It’s also the rare Hollywood film that not only centers on the comic complexities of female friendships but also stars three women over the age of 70.)

Of course, playing bright, brassy women is hardly new territory for Bergen, whose breakthrough performance in Mike Nichols’ relationship dramedy “Carnal Knowledge” announced her as a major talent. She earned a supporting actress Oscar nomination for her performance as a woman torn between her marriage and her desire for a music career in 1979’s “Starting Over.”

For her starring turn in the groundbreaking television comedy “Murphy Brown,” as an outspoken broadcast journalist in substance abuse recovery, she won a total of five Emmy Awards — she reprised the indelible role in 2018 as part of a one-season reboot. She’s also enjoyed more recent supporting roles in big-screen comedies including “Miss Congeniality,” “Sex and the City” and Warren Beatty’s “Rules Don’t Apply.”

After meeting with Soderbergh about “Let Them All Talk,” Bergen received a character breakdown from short-story writer and Columbia University professor Deborah Eisenberg, who partnered with the director to pen sketches that would shape the contours of the film. Upon learning that Roberta was a Houston resident who, after a failed marriage to a wealthy man, spends her days “selling lingerie to morons,” Bergen chose to spend three days in the Lone Star State to get a better feel for the character’s background.

“I have a friend who lives in Austin, and I said, ‘I need to see an oil rig,’” Bergen said, noting that Roberta was the daughter of an oil rigger. “I wasn’t playing an oil rig, but I just felt somehow that I should see one. I spent three days in Austin, which was great. I went to the best barbecue place in the world and just hung around. I went to the university and bought lots of T-shirts, Longhorns and whatnot. I just am fascinated by Texas, by the scope of things, the vastness of everything.”

She also went shopping. “In Texas, there’s no such thing as going over the top — there’s no ceiling,” Bergen said. “I bought a pair of Valentino cowboy boots that cost a fortune, but they looked right for the character. Now I’m making them into planters.”

Filming took place on board the Queen Mary 2 in August of 2019 during an actual transatlantic crossing with real passengers on board. The stars improvised their way through the story, creating the relationship dynamics among the estranged friends as the ship headed from New York to Southampton. “You didn’t rehearse, and you didn’t run lines, because there were no lines — you were just thrown in the pool,” Bergen said.

“It was all so fast that you didn’t really have any time to worry too much, and the ship was so exciting and so glamorous,” she added. “It was interesting how easy it was. I just loved the character. I loved that her name was Roberta. I loved that it wasn’t some bland name, and I loved that Meryl called me Bert. It was all just heaven to me.”