In an appearance on “The Late Show with Stephen Colbert,” the Oscar winning actress revealed that former President Barack Obama mistold a story about her in his recent memoir, “A Promised Land.”
Colbert brought up the story by cracking, “I’m not in the damn book, but you’re in the book,” then summarized a passage. “He’s talking about artists and entertainers and the cultural hub they wanted the White House to be. He mentions, ‘Meryl Streep so softly recited in Mandarin the song about clouds that she learned for a part years ago.”
But Streep, who has not actually read the book, said Obama didn’t get the story right.
“I do remember that moment, but he got the story a little bit wrong. He’s a very good writer but his memory is…,” she trailed off. Colbert gleefully replied, “let’s fact check the President.”
As it turns out Streep read a “famous fourth-century” Chinese poem, not a song, and she didn’t learn it for a film part.
Streep had just returned from a trip to Beijing, where she performed live with lauded cellist Yo Yo Ma. “It was a cultural kind of exchange thing. I went with Yo Yo Ma and a bunch of performers and we were to be in the great, big nest stadium with 7,000 people. We were going to do a concert.”
“I had learned the poem in Mandarin… and Yo Yo Ma would weave in his music in-between. We practiced this, but in Chinese the same word can be translated as a completely different thing,” Streep continued.
She explained that the word “ma” with different intonement can mean “mama,” “horse,” or “h**ker”.
Upon learning the cultural minister was attending at the last minute, and “terrified” after being frisked for security, Streep was so rattled that she froze on stage. She managed to recite the poem in English, but turned mutely to Ma as she was supposed to say it in Chinese.
In the end, “people loved it,” she said, crediting Ma’s “artistry” for saving the moment.
Colbert challenged Streep to recite the poem live, which she did in English and Chinese, but noted, “since one in five people on the face of the Earth is Chinese, they will know now that I have just said something horrible probably. It’s an international incident!”