Barbra Streisand: 'My dog is like the daughter I never had...she speaks English'

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She was sensational singing at the Oscars and now appears in her first leading film role since the Nineties. Barbra Streisand tells Gill Pringle about her on-and-off-screen sons (and dog) and why the time is right to take top billing once again.

"Holy cow," whispers Barbra Streisand as she struggles to  explain how she’s managed to remain relevant for more than half a century. “I don’t make that many  movies and I don’t make many appearances, maybe that’s it?” offers the superstar who has two Oscars, eight Grammys, five Emmys and a Special Tony award; one of few entertainers to boast this quadruple achievement.

“Less is more and maybe that keeps a little mystery or something, I don’t know? I like to stay home a lot. I like to do other things too, like decorate or build,” says Streisand, suddenly back in the spotlight, starring in The Guilt Trip, her first leading movie role in 16 years, as well as returning to the Oscars last weekend performing “The Way We Were”, the Oscar-winning theme song from her 1974 movie of the same name, co-starring Robert Redford. Dedicated to her late dear friend, Marvin Hamlisch, the song’s composer, it was her first time singing on the Oscar stage in 36 years, and her performance predictably drew a standing ovation, with everyone from Oprah to Jennifer Lopez tweeting and gushing afterwards.

It’s not as if she’s exactly been quiet since her last major film outing, starring, singing, producing and directing 1996’s The Mirror Has Two Faces. There’s been a recurring role in the Fockers comedies as well as the sell-out concert tours, auctions, politics, philanthropy, books and almost annual CD releases.

But, more than anything, she’s been enjoying married life. Wed almost 15 years to actor James Brolin, their unexpected romance came after she’d practically given up on finding lasting love.

Thus the notion of stumbling upon love, is actually one of the themes that resonated most deeply when comic actor Seth Rogen first approached her to play his mother in The Guilt Trip, a bawdy road-trip comedy.

As Rogen’s neurotic widowed mother, she gamely attends singles soirées,  although Streisand herself doesn’t  advocate dating clubs in real life: “They [women] shouldn’t look. I wasn’t looking when I first met my now husband,” she confesses when we meet in a romantically themed Beverly Hills hotel room filled with flickering perfumed candles, pink and cream roses tastefully arranged in silver vases.

“Sometimes love comes when you don’t try so hard. I think that’s what happened with us too. I was editing my last movie [Mirror Has Two Faces] when I was supposed to meet Jim on a blind-date thing. I had a night shift because I like to work into the wee small hours of the night, and I said to my editors, ‘Stay here. I’m just going into town for a dinner party and then I’ll come back and work.’

“I think Jim had the same feeling before he met me like, oh my God, what am I doing? But we got along great and talked about architecture and relationships. He said I’m going to take you home. I said, I have to go back to work. No, he says, I’m going to take you home. And that was it. I wasn’t looking for a man. It’s too hard to date and see if you have chemistry. But then it all fell into place.”

Just 20 years old when she wed Elliott Gould, their marriage lasted eight years before Streisand famously went on to date Ryan O’Neal, Don Johnson, tennis player Andre Agassi, former hair- stylist Jon Peters, Liam Neeson, Kris Kristofferson and Canadian Prime Minister Pierre Trudeau.

Throughout those turbulent years, the one constant man in her life has  always been her son Jason Gould, now 46. If most people are terrified to voice their real opinions to the legendary diva, then her son is unafraid: “Actually, he was very important in my decision to make The Guilt Trip because he was in bed recovering from back surgery when I brought the script over. It was interesting because actually his father was in the room too,” she says, offering a rare glimpse into her private world. “Isn’t that funny? So we were both there,  coddling our son, and Jason said, ‘I think you should do it, Mom.’ I really trust his integrity and his opinion. He has great taste, and whatever he chooses to do, it’s amazing, so he clinched the deal.”

At 70 years old, it turns out that Streisand is more clued in than most septuagenarians, mercilessly teasing her “movie son” Seth Rogen throughout the process of making The Guilt Trip.

Briefly joining us, Rogen verifies, “She cracked me up quite a bit”, to which Streisand instantly rejoins: “Because it’s more unexpected from me probably? I’m the more serious person.” Nodding earnestly, Rogen says: “The way we talk in real life is not  entirely different than our rapport in the movie. It’s a lot of me trying to  explain things to her about modern times and her trying to feed me stuff  I don’t want to eat,” he laughs.

Streisand is having none of it: “And yet he copied my iPhone. I was the one with the iPhone,” she says forcing Rogen to defend himself. “It’s true. I had a BlackBerry while she was always playing games on her iPhone and I thought, ‘I‘ve gotta get one of these. If Barbra can work an iPhone then it’s gotta be fun’.”

When Rogen departs the room, she continues: “Seth, it turns out, sussed me out, and called people from the Focker movies. Me? I don’t know any of those people from his movies so what was I going to do?” she asks, seemingly oblivious to Rogen’s status as spokesman for today’s slacker generation. “I thought he was adorable. I also thought this is interesting, and unlikely. And yet we’re both Jewish so I could be his mother.”

Returning to The Guilt Trip’s mother-and-son themes, Streisand confesses to her own guilt: “Sometimes you  resent the people you love and need the most. Love is so fascinating in all its forms, and I think everyone who has ever been a mother will relate to this.

“And mothers do develop guilt trips. When I was working a lot, I felt guilty as a parent. I couldn’t pick up my son every day from school, bake him cookies and that kind of thing. So I know that feeling a lot, where you try to compensate and everything they do is great, but children sense that guilt, and they’re going through their own  rebellious times or whatever. Having a famous parent is an odd thing, so I thought it was interesting to investigate this; trying to be my son’s friend versus a mother and when it comes time to really say, ‘You abuse me, you disrespect me; you talk back to me; you don’t honour what I say, you won’t take my advice’, that kind of thing, in terms of this movie it hit on all those things that I thought I could explore.

“And it also just felt like it was meant for me to come back to work as a star; as a starring role, rather than six days on a movie,” she says in reference to her Fockers roles.

“It was time to challenge myself again. Of course, I made it very difficult for them to hire me because I just kept wanting an out some way so I made it really hard. And I would never do this normally, right? I really don’t want to schlep to Paramount – it’s two hours each way – so would you rent a warehouse and build the sets in the valley, no more than 45 minutes from my house? And they said yes. So then I asked, ‘Can you pick me up at 8.30am because that’s a normal time to get up for me?’ I love the night. My husband and I stay up till 2 or 3 in the morning, so we don’t function that well at 6am, and they said ‘OK’. And Seth agreed that it’s very hard to be funny at 7am,” says Streisand who earned the Best Actress Oscar for Funny Girl in 1969.

If The Guilt Trip is essentially a road-trip comedy, then it seems ridiculous to quiz her about any real-life parallels, assuming she only travels by private jet. Not so, apparently. “I love road trips!” she exclaims. “My husband and I love that. We bought a truck with a bench seat so we could put the dog in the middle. I have a coton. She’s the most beautiful thing you’ve ever seen. She’s like the daughter I never had. She speaks English. She understands English I swear to God. She’ll come up to me and go ‘mmm’ it sounds like a baby. That means she wants water. Or she’ll just look at me with those eyes and then she wants a treat. She always comes with us. I would never leave her.

“We love to take long trips and stay in all these interesting places and B&Bs. They have great breakfasts, biscuits and homemade hash browns. “One time we went to Mendocino and we couldn’t find a hotel room at all. We knocked on somebody’s door and they said, ‘Come and we’ll give you our bedroom.’ Can you imagine? I said, ‘I can’t do that.’ But they insisted: ‘Oh yeah, we’d love to have you stay in our bedroom. We’ll sleep in the other bedroom.’

“But I love the spontaneity. You go away and just get in the car. As a matter of fact, when we were coming home from my concert in San Jose, there was something wrong with the plane. Rather than wait for them to fix this plane at midnight, we just got in the car and drove home. I got food in the car, water, and my dog, and my husband loves to drive.”However, she refuses to entertain Brolin by singing in the car: “Oh no. I don’t sing in cars and I don’t sing in showers. I sing when I have to. I sing in recording studios. I don’t like public performances because that is hard for me. You have to put on make-up. You have to wear heels. You have to dress up. That’s why I like directing and recording, private things.”

Ask how her son feels about her being labelled as a ‘gay icon’, she says: “He doesn’t see me as an icon. He sees me as his mother who touches his hair too much. I love being an icon to anybody. Equal rights!”

Meeting with Streisand, up close and personal, she’s everything you might imagine, the perfectly coiffed hair, pearly glossed lips and long,  manicured nails. Dressed in an off-the-shoulder black silken top, she wears skin-tight tight black pants, knee-high black suede Stuart Weitzman boots with a black glittery choker around her neck. A perfectionist to a fault, she admits she still can’t help herself: “I’ll be in somebody’s house and just move something an inch because it’s off. That’s the way I see things. It’s a blessing and a curse. It just bothers me. I feel it viscerally if something is out of balance.”

If The Guilt Trip failed to ignite the US box office, then Streisand continues to trust her nearest and dearest in terms of quality control: “I trust my manager of 50 years,” she says. “Other than that, it’s hard to choose between my husband and my son. I don’t like to be ‘schmuckled’. Do you know what that means? Schmuckled is a great Yiddish expression which means smeared. I prefer the truth.”

‘The Guilt Trip’ opens on 8 March

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