Strumming with Streep

Actor-musician Rick Springfield scores a role opposite Meryl Streep in Ricki And The Flash

Rick Springfield auditioned by playing the guitar with Meryl Streep and got the part immediately.
Rick Springfield auditioned by playing the guitar with Meryl Streep and got the part immediately.PHOTO: NEW YORK TIMES

MALIBU (California) • Film-maker Jonathan Demme was looking for an actor who could hold his own against actress Meryl Streep and also play a mean lead guitar. All the music scenes in his new film, Ricki And The Flash, would be recorded live, no overdubs, so the guy had to have some chops. The call went out. Because of Streep's involvement, just about every actor who had ever noodled around on guitar came out, along with just about every guitarist with a SAG card. Several actors - about half, by Demme's estimation - ultimately confessed they couldn't actually play. A lot of the professional guitarists couldn't act. And then Rick Springfield walked in.

Yes, that Rick Springfield. If one hears that phrase a lot, it is probably because this actor-musician has taken on so many varied and unexpected gigs since breaking out in the 1980s with hits such as Jessie's Girl and Don't Talk To Strangers.

He still records and tours. But he has also played an unsavoury version of himself on the Showtime series Californication. Perhaps his best-known role was Dr Noah Drake on General Hospital, but he recently played a very different sort of caregiver, Dr Irving Pitlor, the creepy, fake-tanned psychiatrist in HBO's True Detective.

He has even written a best-selling novel about a guy who finds God's telephone number in a stolen self-help book (Magnificent Vibration) and has penned an autobiography that made Rolling Stone's list of 25 Greatest Rock Memoirs of All Time. "I got better reviews for my novel and my autobiography than I ever got for my music," he said.

He goes downstairs, plugs in, is introduced to Meryl and suddenly the sunshine comes out.

FILM-MAKER JONATHAN DEMME on Rick Springfield's audition for Ricki And The Flash

On a recent afternoon, he was in the Malibu home he shares with his wife of 30 years, Barbara, speaking about Ricki And The Flash, which opens in the United States on Friday. Lean, wiry and tall, the actor, 65, was wearing a greyish T-shirt, black sweats and black Converse sneakers.

After offering tea - black, green or nettle - Springfield was game to talk about anything, like how much fun he had taking acid for the first time and how sad he got, "teardrops falling on the postcards" sad, the first time he left home.

There is a baby grand piano in his living room and assorted electric guitars on the walls, but no sight of the Grammy he won for Jessie's Girl, which is at his mother's house in Australia, or of the multiple gold and platinum albums he received for selling 25 million records over four decades.

"I never put them on my walls," he said. "In fact, I had them out in the shed and they got rained on, so I had to throw them all out."

In the film, Streep stars as Ricki Rendazzo, a singer who ditched her husband and kids (her daughter, Julie, is played by Streep's real-life daughter Mamie Gummer) to pursue her dreams of rock 'n' roll stardom; Springfield plays Greg, her lover and lead guitarist. The couple are two-fifths of Ricki and the Flash, the house band at the Salt Well, a San Fernando Valley bar.

When Springfield went in for that first audition, he discovered that Demme just wanted to hear how the prospective Gregs got on musically with the rest of the band. No reading, just playing. The director already had his own favourites in mind for the part and admitted he had not been a big Rick Springfield fan.

"I knew the name, but I couldn't name any of his tunes," he said.

"He goes downstairs, plugs in, is introduced to Meryl and suddenly the sunshine comes out," he continued. "They start playing and he claimed the part immediately. He had the part within a minute of them being together."

It didn't hurt that Demme, a music lover whose filmography includes the Talking Heads concert film Stop Making Sense (1984) and Neil Young: Heart Of Gold (2006), had already recruited three of the industry's most prolific session musicians to stock his rhythm section: drummer Joe Vitale, keyboardist Bernie Worrell and bassist Rick Rosas (who died after filming wrapped), veterans who have played with the Eagles; Crosby, Stills & Nash; Etta James and Parliament Funkadelic, just to name a few.

The band members had two weeks to coalesce before filming. The first song they played during their first rehearsal was American Girl, the Tom Petty classic that also opens the film.

"You know within 10, 20 minutes when you start playing with new guys whether you're gonna be great or you're gonna suck," Vitale said in a phone interview from his home in North Canton, Ohio. "Within 10 minutes, we were playing great. We got along better than a lot of bands that are real bands."

Demme said: "I was literally barred from their rehearsals by Ms Streep. I really wanted to go, but she said, 'You've gotta let us get to know each other and find each other musically before you're sitting in a chair and watching us.'"

For the role, Streep had to learn how to play rhythm guitar as if she had been playing it for four decades (she had not).

"Rick was endlessly kind and patient with me and it must have been a colossal nightmare for him to hear me make the same mistake on the same chord for like a week," she said in an e-mail interview from London. "It was almost as if Jonathan cast the band as much for their compassion as for their rock cred."

After the premiere of Ricki And The Flash, Springfield is off to his native Australia to promote the movie and try to make amends. Last year, to make the film, he cancelled a homecoming tour there, his first in three decades.

"I did tweet, I hope you all understand, but honestly, if Meryl Streep and Jonathan Demme had asked me to wash their cars, I would have cancelled for that too," he said. "And I would have brought my own bucket."


A version of this article appeared in the print edition of The Straits Times on August 03, 2015, with the headline 'Strumming with Streep'. Print Edition | Subscribe