Home Blog

Originally published in The Star Tonight.
40 years ago, Meryl Streep couldn’t have known, when she joined college friends in having a laugh over a recording by a person dubbed the world’s worst opera singer, that she herself would one day replicate the sound she heard on that tape. She couldn’t have predicted she’d take on the role of a woman whose voice elicited astonishment from all who heard it – or that it would be just one of a number of memorable characters she’d take on in a career as one of this generation’s finest actors.
Back then, while studying at Yale School of Drama, the multiple Oscar-winning actress couldn’t have foreseen that the part of Florence Foster Jenkins, a wealthy socialite who had a passion but not the skill for singing, would be offered to her by British director Stephen Frears. “She’s not up there with Kanye,” jokes Streep, sitting in a London hotel, talking about how she came to know of Foster Jenkins. “But everybody that studied drama, certainly every music student, knows who she is. She’s sort of legend.”
Foster Jenkins, who found passion and purpose in music, achieved notoriety for singing in spite of her inability to carry the correct note, or pitch, or even tone, for that matter. The story of how she used her family money to put on shows in which she would sing for an audience, culminating in a sold-out performance at the hallowed Carnegie Hall in 1944, lives on in recordings made available to the public online. So, too, now in the movie Florence Foster Jenkins.

“I remember the first time I heard of her when I was in graduate school,” says Streep. “I was in a production of Midsummer Night’s Dream and it was accompanied by the (composer Henry) Percell music. One day, all the Yale School of Music students were gathered around a tape cassette player in the stage-pit, screaming with laughter. We all went over and said, ‘What is this?’ ”

“I remember the first time I heard of her when I was in graduate school,” says Streep. “I was in a production of Midsummer Night’s Dream and it was accompanied by the (composer Henry) Percell music. One day, all the Yale School of Music students were gathered around a tape cassette player in the stage-pit, screaming with laughter. We all went over and said, ‘What is this?’ ”
It was a time, Streep jokes, when her co-star in the film, Simon Helberg, wasn’t even a thought in his parents’ minds. The 36-year-old actor, who made his name known Howard Wolowitz on The Big Bang Theory, shares the screen with Streep in Florence Foster Jenkins, as the pianist brought in to accompany her. As Cosme McMoon, Helberg’s attitude towards Foster Jenkins mirrors that of the audience, as we switch between feeling incredulous and embarrassed for her to admiration for her unmitigated chutzpah.
Streep raves about the qualifications that made Helberg perfect for the role, which required him to play difficult piano scores. As director Frears explains: “Alexandre, [Desplat, the film’s French composer] said to me, ‘Get a pianist who can act, not just an actor who can pretend to play piano.’ A casting director in New York told me, ‘The person you want is Simon,’ and I went to meet him, and that was that.” The director filmed the concert and performances live – requiring a little more of his actors than usual.

“There’s a very short list of people who can do this,” adds Streep. “It’s very hard to find someone funny who could play that music, and play it live.”

“There’s a very short list of people who can do this,” adds Streep. “It’s very hard to find someone funny who could play that music, and play it live.”
In turn, Helberg is full of praise for Streep’s skill at being able to sing badly. “You have to be able to sing this stuff well before you can piss on it, systematically destroy it and wreck it,” he chuckles. “You have to know where the high ‘F’ is to dance around it, come up around it, and flirt with it. You can’t just flail and be wild with it. And then you’re singing in Russian and French too. Those are the hardest pieces of music ever.”
Streep, who studied opera during her youth and has sung in movie musicals like Mamma Mia and Into the Woods, says she doesn’t have the voice she once did – that “years of smoking and debauchery” have ruined it. Her preparation for Florence Foster Jenkins came hot on the heels of filming another movie that required her to sing, the rock-n-roll comedy drama Ricki and the Flash. “I was singing at the bottom of my voice, and my co-star in that movie, one of America’s best singers, the wonderful Audra Macdonald, gave me her teacher’s details. And I said to her, ‘Do you think he’d ever forgive you?’ His name is Alfred Levy, and he was a very good coach that I went to for a month, and broke his spirit!” she says, with a laugh.
Starring alongside Streep is Hugh Grant, who makes his return to the big screen in the kind of role he was once loved for in films like Four Weddings & a Funeral and About a Boy. As Foster Jenkins’ second husband and loyal life partner, St Clair Bayfield, Grant is charming and lovely, and provides a solid foil to Streep’s Foster Jenkins, who got syphilis from her first husband. “I had two jobs in this film,” says Streep. “One was to sing badly, the other was to love Hugh [Grant], and I’ve done that for years so that was the easy part.”
Frears offered Grant the role while he had been caught up in the Leveson Inquiry, set up to look into the practices of the British press. Grant liked the way the script played with audience expectations. “You’re not entirely comfortable as to what genre this is; there’s a little bit of laughing at her, and some laughing with, but you’re never quite sure,” he says.
For Grant, Foster’ Jenkin’s passion for singing is akin to his love of race-car driving. “I may not be good at it, but I look nice in my uniform,” he chuckles, smiling with those trademark dimples. For Helberg, it’s like his cooking. “I like eating,” he says. “But I’m a bad cook because I don’t have any patience to not eat the food while I’m making it!”
Streep, like Foster Jenkins, loves singing. “I’m really not that good anymore, and yet I continue to inflict it on others. I have a great respect for those who do it.” The chance to play another woman steadfast in her ways, as Streep has done in films like The Iron Lady and The Devil Wears Prada, extended this respect. “You could easily scoff at [Foster Jenkins] – she was silly in a way, an old woman, considered useless, rich, and ill – but to wake up every day, and to choose to look at this glass as half full and to say, ‘I’m going to drink it as deeply as I can, and to love as deeply as I can – the music, the man, the whole thing,’ is something to be admired. That’s what I loved about her.” It’s an admiration Streep couldn’t have known she’d come to have, all those years ago at Yale.

When you move a lot, you tend to downsize a lot. For me, there was no bigger downsize than coming from South Africa to the US. Somehow, with the help of a very meticulous friend, I squashed 29 years of life life into one big suitcase, one carry-on, a laptop bag and a handbag. But I have 11 boxes in storage at my friend’s house in Joburg that I still haven’t sent for – of things I collected in my life – books, CDs, photos, journals. My stuff. I often wonder if I should just tell her to get rid of them completely. But I can’t bear to part with them forever. There’s something about my collections that is part of my identity and I feel like if I were to throw the boxes away, I’d be throwing parts of myself away.
It’s thoughts like these that made me particularly interested in the latest exhibition at the New Museum called The Keeper. It’s to date, the museum’s biggest – the centrepiece is an exhibition itself, with 3 000 family-album photos of people posing with teddy bears. I never knew the word teddy bear came from Theodore Roosevelt. It’s an incredible thing to look into this collection, as is with many of the other collections on display – whether it’s Roger Caillois’ assortment of rare stones (I don’t think I can look at stones in the same way again) or Vanda Vieira-Schmidt’s 500 000 drawings stacked up, overflowing, on a table and chair (which made me wonder what a collection of  drafts done on a laptop would look like in visual form).

There’s something reassuring about physical things and making sense out of the world through grouping them. So, even though I don’t have space in my cupboard of an apartment for those 11 boxes, they were how I made sense of my world, for a while at least. So they’re an extension of me. I don’t have shelves filled with books anymore. No CDs showing you my music taste (or lack thereof!) Those collection of “things” that would tell you a little bit about me – there’s no physical space for them in my world anymore, so I just don’t have them. I don’t collect anything anymore – other than hotel pens and matchboxes. I would like to, but physical space is a commodity in NYC, so most things exist online. Instead of buying a collectible Mondo poster, I’ll put a picture of it on Tumblr.
But it’s just not the same.
The other night I walked into a guy friend’s apartment. I have never felt particularly attracted to him but running my fingers along his shelf filled with all the classic books I love, like Joan Didion’s The Year of Magical Thinking and Mandela’s Long Walk to Freedom, and seeing his Al Pacino and Scorsese collections, I started to feel a stirring inside. I felt like I saw more of him; who he was, beyond just what I’d gotten to know from running with him.
What are we without these collection of things? And what does it mean that they’ve become virtual now? Beyond just the spectacle of the sight of the actual collections within The Keeper – marvelling at the physical space they occupy – is the internal feelings they conjure. How they create testimony for some, such as in the case of Ydessa Hendeles’ The Teddy Bear Project, which preserves history that would have been erased, or create a sense of self for others, like Hilma af Klint’s suite of abstract paintings, which she kept hidden for decades after her death, her assertion that she once lived. What is the value in a collection? Or what value do we put into one?
The curator, Massimiliano Gioni says these kind of reflections and questions are part of the intention behind the exhibition. If you’re in New York, I urge you to take a walk around it, and contemplate your own collections, be they in boxes or not.
The Keeper is currently on at the New Museum.

I’m one of those people that stops to take photos when I’m running. I don’t do it as much as I used to when I first started running and would be amazed all the time by the sights I was seeing on foot for the first time. Now I take a lot of mental pictures and blow air-kisses to the things I like. But great pieces of street art in NYC usually make me stop to take a quick snap. So for this edition of The Rundown, I thought I’d take you through a route that hits some of my favourite pieces on the Lower East Side, starting at the legendary Bowery Mural.
Artists featured include, Nick Walker Art, Invader, Tristan Eaton, Danielle Mastrion Art,Dasic Fernández and Aron Belka Art.
Here’s the route:
artmap

Who you gonna call?
I’ve discovered that wearing my Ghostbusters jersey (or sweater, as Americans call it) and t-shirt are fast ways to getting people to smile at you. That, and shout out the phrase, “who you gonna call?”
This week’s episode of The Rundown is in honour of the original movie, and a throw-forward to the new one, starring Melissa McCarthy, Kristen Wiig, Leslie Jones and Kate McKinnon. I had actually been working on this route for a while – I thought of it last year and just didn’t have the time to put it together. Now that I’ve seen the new film and it’s being released this weekend, the time is right to bring it all together.

There’s been a lot of vitriol and negativity from certain corners of the Internet because the reboot exists with four women in roles once occupied by men. I’m not a huge fan of reboots, but I enjoyed this one – it was funny, I liked the homages it paid to the original and Kate McKinnon is a delight to behold on screen. Plus I’m excited for what the film will do for younger girls who go watch it and how excited it will make them to want to do cool things with their brains. This is one such article that articulates why it’s so important.
The original changed the game for its core creative team – director Ivan Reitman, Billy Murray, Dan Ackroyd and the late Harold Ramis. Over 30 years ago, when they were in their ’30s, it released, catapulting their brand of comedy into popular culture. I look forward to seeing more from McCarthy, Wiig, Jones and McKinnon (so much more from McKinnon!), and similarly, seeing them become more and more a part of pop culture.
Here is the route:

GhostbustersRoute

 

Like so many friendships made in our time, I first met Ray Hailes on Instagram. He was part of the week 2 group of runners who took part in Nike’s Montauk Project, a life-changing couple of days that a handful of New Yorkers got to experience in East Hampton.
I was part of week 3, the final week, and in the days and weeks preceding my trip, I’d seen posts featuring the hashtag, #MontaukProject, many of which came from Ray’s IG, along with others who’d been sharing pics of the epic training sessions, runs on the beach and latest Nike shoes they’d scored. Ray and I, along with the others who were lucky enough to attend, bonded over this experience that left such a great impact on us (so much so, he and his friend Eric got tattoos of the Montauk co-ordinates), knowing that we’d be forever changed by the insight and lessons learnt, rather than all the cool free stuff we got.
In this episode of The Rundown, Ray talks about how running shaped his early life in NYC, moving here ten years ago from Texas by way of Chicago. He talks about having sickle cell and how that impacts is running. Along the way, he takes me on a route that starts at the famous Brill Building, where many a hit song was recorded back in the day, (and still is home to studios and labels), to the place where he met his best friend and fellow Resident Runners co-founder, Eric Blevens, at West NYC.

For more on Ray and Resident Runners, visit their site, and join them on Thursday night runs – or one of their monthly taco runs!