MERYL STREEP repeated the question, ``What would surprise the public about me?'' Her lips curved upward in the first stage of a smile, then her blue eyes narrowed slightly. ``Maybe they'd be surprised to learn no matter how rich and famous you are, if you're a working mother, you are always pulled to the limit.''
Streep has four children, ranging in age from 5 to 14, and recently moved from Hollywood back home to the East Coast.
``Many think - `well, she's a star, she's got sitters, she's got someone to cook, she's got things.' Yet, you're always feeling you are late to an appointment, inadequate at this, coming up short at that. It's a stretch and a strain.
``It's something I deal with every day, and I think I couldn't live any other way because I couldn't live without either dimension, family and career,'' she says.
The two-time Oscar winner leads the small list of actresses over 40 who are in demand. ``I get lots of scripts, but most of them are not exciting. I'd read the bestseller, `The Bridges of Madison County,' but turned down the movie. Some time later, my agent sent me the script, and I was excited by it. The screenplay offered challenges I hadn't read in the book. Also, I liked the idea of playing opposite Clint Eastwood.''
Streep took on her most physically rigorous role to date in the Universal film, ``The River Wild.'' Her character, a wife and mother, tries to recapture the adventurous spirit of her youth and revive her marriage by revisiting the wilderness of Montana where she grew up and worked as a river guide.
She acted in 90 percent of the river scenes. About her willingness to take on such a daring role, she says: ``I was ready for a change and a challenge,'' she says. ``I'd rather sit down than anything. But, suddenly, I felt antsy, I wanted to confront my fears, push my physical self to the limit, and test my mental bravery.
``I knew this movie was not going to be easy. I had a specific task. I wanted to look like a real mom, not someone who goes to the gym, but a Boston housewife who occasionally [rows] when she can get away.
``I had two great trainers, a husband and wife, Kimberly and Mark Silver. He's a body builder, she's a dancer, both practice yoga. Some days I'd exhaust myself, from head to toe, right to my fingertips. The secret gift in the whole thing was the yoga, which gave me a kind of centered sense of myself, a calm nerve, which I needed more than anything else.''
They filmed on rivers in Oregon and Montana. Streep says that one day when they were going down the rapids known as the Gantlet on the Kootenai River, director Curtis Hanson said, ```This would be a really great shot - if people could see it's really you pushing those oars, they'd go crazy.'''
After several conferences with the river crew - the team collected from world-class white-water, kayak, and raft experts - it looked as if it might be possible.
The third time they repeated the scene, the unexpected happened: Streep's oar sailed into the air, she fell overboard into a treacherous hole, and the current tumbled her into the rapids. One of the river crew pulled her out.
``I don't remember being frightened, for all I could think of was getting my hands around Hanson's neck,'' she jokes.
``I hope my kids will like this movie,'' she says with a smile, ``but they'll probably enjoy me more as the voice of Bart's new girlfriend in `The Simpsons.'''