This month, Let Them All Talk premiered on HBO Max, a film that sees three capital-G great actresses—Meryl Streep, Candice Bergen, and Dianne Wiest—set loose on the luxury ocean liner Queen Mary 2, with Lucas Hedges and Gemma Chan in very endearing supporting roles. Directed by Steven Soderbergh (Sex, Lies, and Videotape; Erin Brockovich), the film is principally about a Pulitzer-winning author, Alice (Streep), reuniting her two oldest friends, Roberta (Bergen) and Susan (Wiest), for an elegant crossing to England, where she’s won another prize.
Along the way, Alice’s nephew, Tyler (Hedges), falls in love with her agent (Chan); Roberta reveals to Susan how Alice’s work has ruined her life; and Alice studiously conceals her real motive for the voyage. The largely improvised dialogue—shaped by backstories and outlines from writer Deborah Eisenberg—reveals some wonderful performances: as a woman peering rather anxiously over the wall of her own intellect, Streep is magisterial; Wiest, playing an advocate for women in prison (and her friends’ de facto mediator), is affectingly sanguine; and Bergen, as a Texan lingerie saleswoman with a bone to pick, is funny and sharp, giving the group its bite.
Chatting over the phone last week, Bergen—an undisputed star of both film (Carnal Knowledge, Starting Over, Bride Wars, Book Club) and television (Murphy Brown, Boston Legal, Sex and the City)—discussed her first meeting with Soderbergh, going “the extra mile” for Streep, and her thriving side career.
How’s it been, promoting your new movie from home?
I do miss being with the cast, because usually when you promote these things, you do these, I don’t even know what they call them, but you’re all in huge rooms together and you’re moving from table to table, which I frankly hated. But [on Zoom] I love that you don’t have to dress the bottom half of you—I can wear my yoga pants and my sneakers, and I can just sort of wear a sweater. You can be home and go to the kitchen and get some cake. That’s very appealing to me.
And how did Steven Soderbergh first articulate his vision for Let Them All Talk?
I had lunch with him, and he said, “I’m doing this movie. I’d love you to be in it with Meryl and Dianne.” “Yeah, sure.” It’s like, not a lot to discuss there. And he said, “We’re going to be improvising the dialogue, but Deborah Eisenberg”—who I’ve known forever—“is going to be writing the story and the character synopsis.” So we each got like a page telling the story of the three women being best friends in college, and then they haven’t seen each other for 30 years. And then he gave a little précis of each character and what their life situation was. And then he just kind of threw you on the playground.
Meryl’s such a force that I, of course, was concerned. There’s just no way to work with someone of her ability. But she was lovely to work with. I went to Texas for three days to go to oil fields and see oil rigs. I thought that might help, but I was desperate.
Do you usually do that kind of research?
Well, really I went the extra mile. But then of course [Meryl] knew more about my character and oil wells than I could ever hope to learn. She’s just too intelligent for a normal person.
How did the improvisational element of filming work?
I’d never [improvised before]. So I thought, well, I wonder how this will go. And once you sort of got over the hump of it, it was freeing in a way, and made the scenes a little more alive, and made you a little more alive and alert because you were responsible for more than just learning your lines.
Deborah gave you a page saying what the scene was about, or, “You’re having lunch. You’re talking about what happened in college when”—you know—“you flunked this subject,” or “when your friendship really formed.” And, and then the next scene would be, “You’re having dinner, it’s a ballgown night on ship” … she tells you what it’s going to be about. And then you have to fill in the spaces. It’s sort of like painting by numbers, but…less.
And what was the pace of shooting like?
Because Steven shot with this RED camera that soaks up all the available light, you don’t need lighting, so you can just keep shooting and shooting and shooting and you don’t get a pause—usually on a set, you take a break for 20 minutes for the lights to change for a new set-up, and [in this case] you didn’t have any of that. So it was always very high energy and very focused because Steven is incredibly focused. We shot the whole film in 10 days.
You’ve been in a string of movies now—Home Again, Book Club, and Let Them All Talk, of course—where you seem to be having…just a lot of fun? Is that a function of the projects being fun, or are you actually approaching work differently these days?
Well, it’s more fun now because I know a very little something about what I’m doing. Twenty or 30 years ago, I just was flailing. But doing Murphy Brown for 10 years gave [me] a certain confidence in front of the camera that you can’t replicate. And it was really fun to work with Meryl and Dianne and kind of cobble together a story and not know quite where it’s going.
Are you working on anything else now? Do you have anything down the pipeline?
You know, I had a film project with Dustin Hoffman that Mayim Bialik wrote, but I think that’s languished in COVID. And I did a TV show when I was in LA last week, just to sort of get my brain moving again, which it refused to do so. And I have something that I’m supposed to be writing … I have projects, I’m just kind of putting them off.
I know that the Murphy Brown reboot didn’t quite take off, but would you do a major television series again?
No. I mean, you know, if something comes up that’s interesting, I’m grateful and happy to do it. But to do television is a relentless pace. I’m just—I did that.
But are you watching any shows right now that you like? What’s been keeping you entertained?
Oh, I’m watching everything. There’s such great stuff. I mean, I loved The Undoing. I sent David E. Kelly an email thanking him for it. And I loved the fourth season of The Crown, and The Queen’s Gambit. And there’s a Hugh Laurie one by David Hare called Roadkill that I’m looking forward to watching.
You’ve been running a website selling clothing and accessories printed with your paintings. How is it going? Are people shopping for the holidays?
Sales are good right now! I just checked on those yesterday. We’re doing very well. The ladies liked the Ruth Bader Ginsburg [products] that I did, and I have a couple of Christmas items that sold very nicely.
Do you paint for leisure at all? Or are you mainly creating new motifs?
It is actually sort of meditative and relaxing, but if I don’t have someone’s bag to do or something to paint for someone, I don’t usually do it. I’d never painted before [my daughter] Chloe [Malle, a Vogue contributing editor] suggested that I paint her bag. It started out very primitively, and then once I kept doing it, they got better and better. And I’m now sort of proud of them.
This interview has been edited and condensed.