Life is never easy for whistleblowers – see Mordechai Vanunu, Chelsea Manning and Edward Snowden among many others. But in 1974 Karen Silkwood, a lab technician who had doubts about the safety of the nuclear plant she worked at in Oklahoma, died – in extremely mysterious circumstances – before she could reveal the information. It was her death itself that led investigations into safety practices at the plant. Joyce Eddinton interviewed Meryl Streep, who played Silkwood in Mike Nichols’s eponymous film, for the Observer Magazine of 8 April 1984 (‘The Karen Silkwood File’).
What did Streep think? ‘I don’t know what happened. I went into the movie thinking that, of course, she was killed, but now it’s more of a mystery than ever. She was full of contradictions. She loved her children and yet she left them. She was on about safety, yet sometimes she smoked dope and popped pills on the job.’
Silkwood’s car ran into a ditch on her way to hand over a folder full of evidence of hazards at the plant to a New York Times reporter. Police concluded she had fallen asleep at the wheel (there were traces of sedatives in her blood). The folder was never found.
Streep admitted to some dark thoughts about the subject matter and became worried that something might happen to her, too. ‘Afterwards I realised that was absurd,’ she said. ‘We were not presenting anything in the film that was not a matter of public record. We did not need to embellish the story.’
Silkwood had to be decontaminated at the plant at one point after she had extremely high readings of plutonium – when Streep filmed the scene, they shot jets of water up her nostrils. ‘They filmed that sequence twice and wanted to do it another time,’ she said, ‘but I said no.’ It’s notable that after Sophie’s Choice and Silkwood, Streep chose the romantic drama Falling in Love as her next film.