Mamie Gummer’s mom, Meryl Streep, gave her the script for Ricki and the Flash while she was over at her house, sort of the way the rest of us get meatballs or apple pie when we’re at mom’s. A producer had presented it to Streep with the idea of her starring in it alongside Gummer. Her mom put it in front of her without saying a word and walked away.
In the movie, Streep plays the lead singer of the title band, who left her husband and three children to become a rock star, but winds up fronting an 80s cover band at a San Fernando Valley dive bar. Gummer is her daughter, shell-shocked by the end of her own marriage and still mad at her mom for skipping out on her childhood.
“It wasn’t going to be handed to me first,” Gummer says of the part, while drinking a Negroni in the back corner of a wood-paneled restaurant in New York’s Chelsea neighborhood where she lives. “My mom had to be on board. It was her decision. She needed to be attached for it to get made. I’m not quite at a green-lighting scripts phase of my life and career yet.”
Being anyone’s daughter is challenging, but being the daughter of the best actress alive, when you want to be an actress yourself, is sort of like having to wind through a Pac-Man maze whenever you go for a role. Some children of Hollywood stars have said they use fake names at auditions, so as not to get a part because of who their parents are. Gummer’s resemblance to Streep — the flawless alabaster complexion, the elegant presence offset by a mischievous smile — makes the very idea of her doing that farcical. In fact, it wouldn’t be shocking if she were just one more “Mamie Gummer Looks Just Like Mom Meryl Streep at a Young Age” Us Weekly story away from becoming an accountant.
Yet at 32, Gummer has been conscientiously — and continuously — building her acting resume for a decade. In the past few years, she’s increasingly sure of herself and the choice to keep going in this line of work, in spite of the challenges of mingling her lineage and her career. “I feel far more self sufficient and ambitious,” she says. “It feels really great. You gotta take ownership of your life. All you have is you.”
After graduating from Northwestern University, Gummer began working off-Broadway, in the Roundabout’s production of Mr. Marmalade, then on Broadway, in the Roundabout’s production of Les Liaisons Dangereuses, before moving on to television (and the pay bump that came with it), with a recurring role as a faux-naive attorney on “The Good Wife” and a starring one as an insecure med-school intern on the now-canceled series “Emily Owens, MD.” She’s also had small roles in serious films; most recently, she played a friend of the writer David Foster Wallace in The End of The Tour.
In person, Gummer’s pulled together and proper, in a white silk Band of Outsiders dress dotted with small flowers that she bought from the vintage store Fox and Fawn via Instagram, where she’s been shopping a lot lately. “They post their inventory, you comment on it ‘I want this,’ and they send it to you,” she says. She tends to be thoughtful and speaks purposefully and carefully, but even as she weighs her words, she’s not shy about admitting that working in television hasn’t been great for helping her become a better actor. “At least with the television I’ve done, it’s a bit quirky,” she says. “It’s a bit cuter. You don’t have a relationship with the material where you can get to know it and play it from the inside out. Network television specifically I found really challenging. The emphasis is wrong in terms of character and story instead of hair and makeup. Often it was like, 'Really that’s what we’re going to focus on?’ You can start to feel like you are really just selling tampons or whatever.”
Ricki and the Flash is the first time she’s acted with her mom (being carried on Streep’s hip as a two year old in the 1986 movie Heartburn doesn’t count). “It was a little nerve-racking and strange at first,” Gummer says. “I think neither of us knew how it would go, especially because she’s always endeavored to keep work and family separate and sacred in their own rights. So to make those two worlds meet was a little bit scary. We were being introduced to each other in this new way.”
When Gummer first appears in Ricki, her hair has been teased out to comical heights—it’s cartoon-worthy bedhead—to show that she’s been too distraught to shampoo. “It’s insane,” Gummer says. “They styled it that way. It was kind of actually a back and forth between the stylist and me. I worried that it was not entirely believable.”
Streep’s hair is also showy; she wears a few tiny side braids that were the 80s hallmark of young women who also thought plastic charm necklaces were totally stylish. The movie is a mix of ridiculous, unrealistic moments and ordinary familial ones, but it shines most during the live performances of songs like Tom Petty and the Heartbreakers’ “American Girl” and Bruce Springsteen’s “My Love Will Not Let You Down.” Streep learned to play guitar for the film, and the Flash’s members are all real-life musicians, including a charming Rick Springfield as Streep’s lover and lead guitarist. “It was a fucking riot,” Gummer says of watching her mom rock out. “It was a joy.”
Despite any initial apprehension, working with and playing off her mom was affirming and confidence boosting. “I don’t think either of us would have been like, 'You know what you did in that scene, it really wasn’t very good.’ There’s no point,” she says. “At the end of the day, I think that she would encourage certain choices or things that I’d done. She’d reassure me, 'Everything’s okay.’”
Like her character, Gummer had a short marriage that ended in divorce. In 2011, she wed theater actor Benjamin Walker, whom she met when they were in Les Liaisons Dangereuses together, and they split up two years later—an experience she pulled from in in her performance. “How could one not really?” she says. “But I think the beautiful thing about what we do and any artistic endeavor is really to take the bad stuff and make something good. It can be a very, very cathartic thing.” She went into the marriage thinking it would give her some kind of security. He was trying to make it in the same business as she was, but without any misgivings about why he was successful — in theory, he’d be someone who could guide her through the Pac-Man maze. “Because of how complicated this choice has been, for me to pursue this line of work, I’ve never totally accepted or felt safe professionally,” she says. “I was all too ready to hitch my wagon up to someone who did know what they were doing.”
After the divorce, Gummer moved to Los Angeles, but didn’t find any sort of Eden out West. “I lived between the blow dry bar and the SoulCycle, just next to the juice place,” she says drily. “I was like, hat in the air, like Mary Tyler Moore, 'It’s going to be a fresh start.’ It was not all that. This whole notion that I had that that was going to be the thing that was going to turn it around was wrong. What I really needed to do was come home.”
Now, in Chelsea, she spends her time trying out new restaurants, seeing as much theater as she can, and happily going wherever an adventure might be. “What I just love about New York is all you have to do is keep your eyes and ears open and your feet can be directed anywhere,” she says. “It’s that element of surprise and discovery that I felt was lacking in Los Angeles.”
As for the future, it’s mostly unknown, and she’s fine with that. “The wonderful thing about getting just a little bit older is admitting that you don’t actually fucking know anything,” she says. Her next role has her returning to the Roundabout theater company as a recently discharged soldier in Ugly Lies the Bone. “I didn’t think I’d get the job,” she says. “I went in and auditioned for it with complete abandon, which is really the best way to do most things in life, it turns out.”