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At first glance, they would seem the unlikeliest of couples. The classically beautiful Meryl Streep was her New Jersey high school's homecoming queen and always compassionate and willing. Tommy Lee Jones, in contrast, came from rural Texas, where even in youth, his face seemed to mirror his hardscrabble environment, carved with lines like a peach pit. Equally harsh is his taciturn demeanor.
Strange bedfellows unless you ask director David Frankel (The Devil Wears Prada), who cast Streep and Jones as the leads in his film, Hope Springs, a portrait of a midlife couple grasping to regain their sexual passion. "Tommy's an extraordinary actor first, but he's also sexy," says Frankel. "It was important to have someone play opposite Meryl whom she found really sexy, so you could imagine a sexual history between them that had died."
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In fact, Streep, 63, and Jones, 65, have more in common than it appears. Both possess sharp literary intellects. (During our photo shoot, Jones, a Harvard grad, cracks up when his wife offers a line about Southern literature from novelist Pat Conroy, and Streep, who got her M.F.A. from the Yale School of Drama, makes reference to the Roman poet Lucretius.) They claim four Oscars between them but cite their offspring as their proudest accomplishment. Married for 34 years to sculptor Don Gummer, Streep has four children, ages 21 to 32. Jones, wed to third wife Dawn since 2001, has a son, age 29, and daughter, 20, from his second marriage.
Now real-life empty nesters, Streep and Jones drew from experience for their roles in Hope Springs, in which 60-somethings Kay (Streep) and Arnold (Jones) sleep in separate bedrooms. That is until Kay decides to reignite the flame between them and drags her uninterested husband to an intensive marital-therapy week with Dr. Bernie Feld (played straight by Steve Carell). The film, with jaw-dropping directness in risqué sex scenes, follows Kay and Arnold as they attempt to reconnect. It was a daring undertaking for two mature actors, but Streep and Jones were undaunted. "The issues about sex are delicate yet universal," says Frankel. "Nobody thinks they're having enough sex — that goes for teenagers and people in their 70s. This movie is about intimacy, and Meryl and Tommy were excited to confront that. There was no squeamishness on their part."
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There is, however, a bit of squeamishness on my part when I sit down with the actors to discuss sex after 60. To loosen things up, I offer them some wine. "No, thank you," Streep demurs.
"Sure!" bellows Jones, to which Streep responds coyly, "OK, then I'll have some, too." Wineglasses in hand, we begin.
This is a little intimidating! I'm sitting down with Meryl Streep and Tommy Lee Jones to talk about sex.
Meryl Streep: Is that what this is about?
Well, sort of. The movie is like no other movie I've seen — so real. When you first read the script, what was your reaction?
Tommy Lee Jones: I thought it would be a lot of fun.
MS: This script was on one of those lists in Hollywood — the 40 best unproduced movies of the decade, or something. And you read it and understood (a) why it was good and (b) why nobody wanted to do it. [Laughs.] So that got me. I like things that seem like they have a problem. I also thought that built into it was something really funny but lodged in something very real. And that interested me.
Did anyone advise either of you to do it or not to do it?
MS: Nobody can tell us anything. [Laughs.]
TLJ: I didn't get any advice one way or the other, but it was clear that, at long last, I had a chance to work with Meryl, so there was no question in my mind that I wanted to do it.
What about your spouses? Did you show the script to them and say, "What do you think?"
TLJ: Oh, yeah. My wife loved the screenplay and loved the idea of me doing it.
MS: I think a lot of people will be interested in this, people not just of our age but of any age, really. Young people, too.
Would you take your kids to see it?
TLJ: Of course. It's funny.
And you would be OK with the bedroom scenes?
MS: Yeah. I think it's — you know, it's love.
TLJ: My daughter's a second-year acting student, and it's fun to share these things — although my kids are very tough critics.
MS: Your kids are always your toughest critics!
Did you identify with the characters you play?
MS: I believed my gal. I believed who she was, and I felt like I knew her and loved her. I just could see the world through her eyes.
Tommy, what about your guy, Arnold? Did you identify with him?
TLJ: No. I'm not like that at all, but I know people who are.
But, obviously, you understood a reluctance to talk about and confront the issue of sexual intimacy? Why is that so hard for people to do?
TLJ: I don't know. I've been living with my wife for 18 years. It hasn't been [an issue]. We get along fine. We like each other quite a lot.
MS: But I think life is long, and there are a lot of phases you go through as a human being. You live through all sorts of stuff when you're in a long marriage: real highs and lows, and things that strain — and solidify — your relationship. Often it's hard to see each other new each day, and sometimes it's good to encourage that.