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Talk show host Stephen Colbert interviews Bill Nye "The Science Guy" at the Wellmont Theater on May 6 as part of the Montclair Film Festival. Ricardo Kaulessar/NorthJersey.com

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She's been Margaret Thatcher, Julia Child, Katharine Graham, a nun, a rabbi, a she-devil, a suffragette, a dead woman and countless others. 

But Saturday night, when the three-time Oscar-winning actor Meryl Streep stepped onto the stage of a sold-old NJPAC in Newark for "An Evening with Stephen Colbert and Meryl Streep," a fundraiser for Montclair Film, she wore only a simple white sweater, striped pants and her own long, straight blond hair. She was, simply, Meryl Streep.

The 69-year-old New Jersey native, introduced Saturday night by Gov. Phil Murphy as "the world's greatest living actor," kept her audience riveted just the same, with stories about the path to her acting career begun during her school years in New Jersey; how "not thinking she was beautiful" has helped her, and advice to budding actors. 

Comedian Stephen Colbert, host of "The Late Show," who shared the stage with Streep, was introduced by Murphy this way: "If the People's Republic of Montclair were a monarchy, he'd be the king. I don't know where we would be as a nation without his courage, without his humor, without his speaking truth to power ever single night."

Colbert, in turn, introduced Streep by saying: 

'It's so rare you can say: That person is the best at something. Every performance she does, you know she's giving it everything she has with complete honesty and the depth of her artistic soul." 

Streep on growing up in New Jersey: 

"I was born in Summit, but we moved to Madison, then to Basking Ridge, Bernardsville, New Vernon. It was just getting further and further out in the country."

"New Jersey is really interesting. It's got everything. You can sleigh-ride and you can go to the beach. Oh, man, it was great to grow up here. It was fantastic."

On her path to becoming an actress:

"I didn't want to be an actress. Nobody in Bernardsville was going to be an actress. The expectation was that I would get married and have children; get my Mrs. degree."

On what attracted her to acting: 

"I am a curious person. I'm very interested in finding out more about people. And there is no greater job than the one I have to do that. Deeply to understand what makes someone very different than you and what it feels like to be them."  

On the moment she got hooked on acting:

"In high school I played Marian in 'The Music Man.' It was my first time in a play. At the end everyone stood up, and I thought, 'What's happened? Did I do something wrong? Oooh, it's for me!' I felt it there. [Streep grabbed her belly and said in a low, growling voice:] That felt good." 

On how she almost went to law school: 

"I was about to get a master's degree from the Yale School of Drama. I had read Jonathan Schell's 'The Fate of the Earth.' It was about global warning and nuclear war. I was interested in the environment."

She signed up to take the LSATs for entrance to law school. But, she said, she was in a play, "The Father," the night before and "went out with the boys" afterward and slept through the exam. 

On playing legends like Katharine Graham and Margaret Thatcher: 

"The real-life people that I play are so much more than I could ever be. It's an honor to step into the shoes of people who had such capacious minds and courage. These brave women — they left their mark on the world. I feel very lucky to have been a translator for their lives."

On getting "in character":

"A character is not something you pull out of someone else; it's a thing that exists in you that also exists in this character. 

"You take that shared gestalt. That mystery, music, poetry — what makes life worth living."

On her looks: 

"To me the great gift of my life was when I was 3 and I couldn't see anything and they took me in and I wore glasses like this for a long time. [She demonstrated crooked glasses.] I didn't like them on my right ear. I think wearing glasses at 3 and having people call you 'four-eyes' gets you ready for the world. You think: I'll develop other skills."

When Streep was young, she said, she didn't think she would ever be a film actress because, "My nose was too big." 

"Once I auditioned for a part with Dino DeLaurentiis. He said in Italian, 'Why give it to this ugly thing?' I was fresh out of Vassar and I had studied Italian. I just said, 'I'm sorry I don't please you,' in Italian. Jessica Lange got the job.

"I had the gift of not being cast as a bombshell early in my life when I sort of was one. It was the greatest thing that ever happened to me, because I could be a character actor in a leading role. Not feeling beautiful was a gift, because I could fool around with my image; I could play with it. I could play old people when I was younger; I could play men. In 'Angels in America' I played a rabbi. I could screw around with how I looked, which to me is like a political act. It's not about attraction or lust or interest or anything to do with ingratiation."

On her first New York City audition:

"It was for 'Trelawny of the Wells" ' at Lincoln Center. It was with the biggest producer-director in the city, Joe Papp. He was a great mentor to me."

Streep said she took the train from Connecticut to New York for the audition.

"I was one and a half hours late for the audition. I remember coming down to the theater — it was summer, hot; I was sweating. I looked like 'The Wreck of the Hesperus.' I came down Lafayette Street and there he was, out on the sidewalk, in a white linen suit. For some reason they waited for me. It was a smaller world then. I did the audition. I got the part. At Lincoln Center. My first play. It was incredible."

On her first moment on the New York City stage:

"I was the first person to go on the stage, which is really hard in a play. It was opening night and the toughest critic in the world, John Simon, was there, and my lip involuntarily starts going like this. [She demonstrated it twitching dramatically.] I'm bustling around and Michael Tucker comes onto the stage, a great actor. He, too, was very nervous. There was a candy dish, and suddenly the dish was broken. It was a real thing, and I lost all my nerves and we just carried on with the play the way we had in rehearsals. Because we had a thing break — a real thing happened on stage. That was a wonderful lesson."

On where she gets her inspiration:

"It's so crucial in life, imagining what it's like to be other people. It's getting harder and harder, with social media, to empathize. Empathy is the only thing that will save us. If we will be saved. 

"But when you can empathize it makes you crazy. That's why a lot of actors are crazy."

On journalism's role in creating empathy:

In response to a question from Ed Forbes of NorthJersey.com, a sponsor of the event, Streep said journalism is important in helping us be empathetic: "We're all in this boat together. We have to protect these journalists. Journalists are not doing it for the money, they're in it for what's right, real, pure."

Streep referred to the high-five between Saudi Arabia's Crown Prince Mohammed bin Salman and Russia's President Vladimir Putin during the opening of the G-20 leaders summit: "I see that and I see two men who murder."

Her advice to young people pursuing acting:

"Everything has been changed by social media. I recently talked to a very wonderful casting director, and he was casting the second iteration for 'Spring Awakening,' which has a very young cast. He was asked not to see anyone who had fewer than 5,000 followers on YouTube. This is a world I don't understand."

"My best advice for people who love acting: Find other people who are doing work that you admire, gravitate toward them, do anything — pass out programs; do anything in their theater. Go to the source."

"My husband is a sculptor. It's something he said to me, and it's part of what made me fall in love with him. It's his mantra: 'Start by starting.' "

Email: jmartin@gannettnj.com

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