"My achievement, if you can call it that, is that I've basically pretended to be extraordinary people my entire life, and now I'm being mistaken for one," a humble Meryl Streep once said. But over a 30 year career that includes 16 Oscar nominations, the actress has unarguably become of Hollywood's biggest talents.
Born Mary Louise Streep - she was later dubbed Meryl by her mum - on June 22, 1949, to commercial artist Mary and pharmaceutical executive Harry, the New Jersey native showed early promise. She had already begun to study opera singing before she entered her teens.
At 15, tired of being an awkward little girl, she gave herself a makeover. Out went the spectacles and her dark hair was bleached blonde. By the time she finished her studies at Bernardsville High School she had transformed herself into a cheerleader and homecoming queen. Describing the change as her "first characterisation", the Tinseltown star now renowned for her chameleon-like qualities, says: "I played the blonde homecoming queen for several years."
It was while she was attending New York's prestigious Vassar College that Meryl was bitten by the acting bug. "I was in a play at Vassar and my friends all swooned and said, 'My God, how did you know how to do that?'," she recalls. "And I didn't know how I did that, I just knew that I wanted it. I loved it."
She began performing professionally on stage, making her Broadway debut in 1975, the same year she received a Master of Fine Arts from Yale University's school of drama. Over the next few years she made the transition to TV plays and films winning an Emmy for the 1978 miniseries Holocaust before landing her big-screen breakthrough alongside Robert De Niro in the Vietnam war drama The Deer Hunter.
The actress took Hollywood by storm, with Newsweek predicting Meryl would become "the first American woman since Jane Fonda to rival the power of such male stars as Dustin Hoffman, Jack Nicholson, Robert De Niro and Al Pacino." The magazine was right. Nearly a decade of back-to-back successes Kramer vs Kramer (for which, aged 29, she won her first Oscar) The French Lieutenant's Woman, Sophie's Choice, Silkwood, Out Of Africa and A Cry In The Dark gave her the makings of a legend.
Meanwhile, the star had started a family with her sculptor husband Don Gummer, whom she wed in 1978, and Hollywood life was losing its attraction. "In LA, I was 'Meryl Streep' all the time There was always the feeling that I should clean up before dropping the kids off," she says. "People would look at me, and I'd realise I looked like hell and probably wouldn't get work next time, so I'd better clean up, better work out, better get that blackhead removed. I couldn't deal with it." They moved to Connecticut, where the couple raised their children, Henry (born in 1979), Mary (1983), Grace (1986) and Louisa (1991). Her family, she says, "is the most important thing in the world to me. But it's a separate thing. I am not living through my husband or my children. Acting is something I do for myself."
Wrapping up the Eighties with eight Oscar nominations and two wins under her belt, Meryl continued to feature on Academy Award shortlists throughout the following decade. Despite the mixed reception that met her comic forays She-Devil and Death Becomes Her, she earned accolades for roles ranging from The Bridges Of Madison County to Music Of The Heart. And in 2003, she earned a 13th Oscar shortlist, making her the most-nominated performer of all time.
"If there's a heaven for directors, it would be to direct Meryl Streep for your whole life," says Sophie's Choice director Alan Pakula. "And my wish for the world is that Meryl will some day be 90 years old, acting in a great role." For now the actress is taking ageing in her stride. "I was older than I was for so long," she says. "I never felt young and an ingenue and happening. I felt about 40 all my life. And then I turned 40 and I felt comfortable. Now, I still feel 40." She muses: "Maybe I'm moving backwards."
Unlike other actresses, as she's matured Meryl has continued to be offered a wealth of roles, including a turn as a driven fashion magazine editor in The Devil Wears Prada, her role as Sister Aloysius Beauvier in Doubt, and her portrayal of the legendary Julia Child in Julie & Julia. Her work in all three films brought lead actress Oscar nominations.
In 2013, the talented moviestar took on the role as foul mouthed, oxycodone-fuelled matriarch Violet in August:Osage County, which led to her 18th Academy Award nomination, again for Best Actress.
"Now I play older women and, of course, they are more mature and more interesting... I have had some great roles to get my teeth into especially as getting older in Hollywood is not usually a great thing for a woman." With a host of projects in the pipeline, she's not about to start slowing down, either. "That's the way I like it, even though I whine about it all the time," she laughs.