In an interview with "American Film", Meryl Streep said of Karen Silkwood, "she wasn't Joan of Arc at all. She was unsavory in some ways and yet she did some very good things...[director] Mike [Nichols] spoke of the film as being about people being asleep in their lives and waking up: 'How did I get here?' And that's exactly how I felt...I think the movie is about human nature more than about any issue...I get very creepy feelings if I think about it [whether Streep's characterization let her get to know Karen Silkwood]. My heart breaks for her. She was only twenty-eight or twenty-nine when she died, and it was a real waste. I'm really glad I got the chance to try to step into her shoes for a while".
Reportedly, the production of this film set a legal precedent in the U.S. Supreme Court regarding the protection of confidential sources for film-makers under the First Amendment, as is the case for media reporters [See: Stephen F. Rohde, 5 Pepp. L. Rev. 351 (1977-1978), "Real to Reel: The Hirsch Case and First Amendment Protection for Film-makers' Confidential Sources of Information"].
The name and location of the plutonium plant that Karen Silkwood worked for was the Kerr-McGee Cimarron Fuel Fabrication Site which was situated near Crescent in Oklahoma, USA. The picture was not shot in Oklahoma.
Movie posters for the film featured a preamble that read: "On November 13, 1974, Karen Silkwood, an employee of a nuclear facility, left to meet with a reporter from the New York Times. She never got there".
The main character of the fiction novel "Sysco, the Worst Disaster Ever Created" was based on Karen Silkwood, and another character in the book was named Dolly as a connection to the character from Silkwood. In fact the movie is quoted several times in the book.
The one scene that was particularly difficult for Meryl Streep was the one in which Karen flashes her breast to her coworkers while on the job. It was a scene that was "very awkward," she said, "because I'm always so sensitive about women doing nude scenes. It's a personal gripe. I did it because, in context, I thought she probably would do something like that. It made sense. But it's still a completely bizarre and horrible thing to do in front of a crew."
One of the first major tasks that Cher had to tackle when she arrived on location was to find the right look for her character Dolly. In the beginning, according to Cher, Dolly was written as a "glamorous barrel rider." They tried a screen test of Cher with that look, but Mike Nichols didn't like it. Nichols told Cher to wash her face, then wash her hair and let it dry flat to her head without doing anything to it. Then he and costume designer Ann Roth began to dress her in dowdy clothes, working hard to strip every trace of glamour from the usually picture perfect star. "They were just merciless with me, until I had on some horrible men's bowling shirt and awful chino pants, with two pairs of jockey shorts underneath to make me look heavier," said Cher. "When I stepped out in my new costume, Kurt Russell said, 'What the f*ck are you supposed to be?' I ran in tears to the back bathroom, which had the only mirror in the house. And I cried my eyes out."
Cher was warned not to wear any makeup at all. "Mike would give me the white-glove test," said Cher. "He'd run his finger across my cheek, to make sure I hadn't snuck on a touch of something. Once I tried to cheat and curled my eyelashes, and Mike said, 'Don't do it again, my dear.' He said it sweetly, but I got the message."
Cher was nervous about meeting Meryl Streep for the first time. "I thought it was going to be like having an audience with the Pope," she said. Streep, however, immediately put her at ease. "The first day on location," Cher told People magazine, "Meryl just came up, threw her arms around me and said, 'I'm so glad you're here.' She's all communication and warmth and friendship with a great sense of humor."
Cher's comfort with playing Dolly was helped tremendously by Meryl Streep taking the time to put her at ease. The two women formed a fast friendship and soon were inseparable during the film's down time. "We hung out and drank plum wine-eww-after work," Streep told Vanity Fair in 2010. "Cher was really fun. I was smitten by her openness, both as an actress and as a person...For a showgirl, there's not a phony bone in her body."
When the film was in post-production, Mike Nichols and editor Sam O'Steen ran into a problem regarding the way Karen's death was depicted. Kerr-McGee, the company Silkwood worked for, threatened legal action against the film if anything was portrayed that was not 100 per cent factual. As O'Steen tells it in his 2001 book Cut to the Chase, Karen, in the original cut, left the union meeting in the coffee shop with another friend following her out to give her the papers she had left behind that she intended to share with the New York Times reporter she was meeting afterwards. "Silkwood said goodbye to her friend, got into her car then started it," said O'Steen. "The moment she pulled into traffic, the headlights blinked on in the car parked behind her. This was an 'oh, oh' moment. But I had to take that out, the shot of the lights blinking on. Now all you see is a time jump, where she's driving at night and sees headlights from the car behind her in her rearview mirror. The next shot is of her wrecked car. So in the final cut it wasn't as clear that someone was following her."
Karen Silkwood's parents and former roommate Sherri Ellis were unhappy with the film. Her father believed that Karen was "a whole lot smarter than they showed in the movie," while Ellis objected to Cher's depiction of Dolly, even though it wasn't based expressly on her. "It really spun my head," Ellis told People when asked about the film. "The upsetting thing is the insinuation to I could have snitched on Karen to the company. But I sold the producers of the film the character portrayal rights, and for $67,500 they can defame my character any way they want."
Despite Karen's fame after her death for her activism, her three children never fully got over her leaving them with their father and his girlfriend after their parents split up. In NewsOK, the children were quoted saying, "To tell the truth, we were kind of glad that publicity died down after a while. It made it easier to move on. I really, really appreciate what she did for the world, I can't appreciate what she did for me, my brother and my sister. People magazine reports that Michael Meadows' clearest memory of his mother is a swat on the buttocks for using a soft drink rather than milk in a bowl of cereal. "It's sad that you remember a BAD thing," he said.
On meeting Cher for the first time, Meryl Streep said, "I was already in the mindset of 'My friend is coming, I have somebody on my side.'" In a 1983 interview Streep said that there was some awkwardness between them in the beginning, but it quickly dissipated. "We had to get used to each other. Accept each other. On my side, I was thinking, Cher! You know, from 'I Got You, Babe' and all those other records I bought. She, on the other hand, apparently had an image of me as sitting at the right hand of Dame Edith Sitwell. I think she was intimidated by my rep."
De-glamorizing herself was difficult for Cher, who had made her career on a trademark style of being dressed to the over-the-top nines. "But I was looking at the big picture," she said. "Everyone was trying not to laugh and not doing a very good job of it. Mike was looking really pleased. 'That's perfect,' he said. I couldn't believe it. My first real time in front of a camera in a big film, and this was the way I had to look?"
Meryl Streep and Cher got along well with Kurt Russell, whom Cher described as "like a bossy big brother" that she adored. Russell said that working with Streep was "one of the highlights of my career. She gives so much in a scene that it's hard to keep up with her."
According to Nora Ephron, Meryl Streep's friendship with Cher helped create a fun mood on the set in the midst of making such a serious film. "They would do actress shtick, voices, fake fights, jokes. They were hysterically funny together." Ephron added, "I can't overestimate how that friendship made it possible for Cher not to be wildly nervous."
According to Cher, when she and Meryl Streep hung out together, they talked mostly "about our kids, music people, where we wanted to live, what I wanted to do when I grew up. Meryl," she said, "couldn't care less what she wears. I'd tease her about that and she'd tell me to shut up. And she did her own ironing, which drove me insane. She says it keeps her down to earth. I don't know what keeps me down to earth, but it isn't ironing. I send my stuff out."
In the scene where the plant workers are listening to the union doctor's speech about cancer and Winston is fanning himself with something folded up into an accordion, it's a paper booklet of facts about plutonium that was handed out in plants across the United States in real-life.
In the movie, the character Cher plays is named Dolly Pellicker. In reality, her name was Sherri Ellis. When Drew, Karen and Dolly are meeting with the doctor after they all come back from being tested for radiation in Albuquerque, the doctor refers to Dolly as "Miss Ellis".
The trivia items below may give away important plot points.
An autopsy on Karen Silkwood after her death produced results that there was plutonium contamination in several of her body's organs. An civil court case followed that went on for years which resulted in the eventual out of court settlement of US $1.3 million.
This film's closing epilogue states: "The precise circumstances of Karen's death are unknown. It is also not known whether she had any documents with her. None were found. An autopsy revealed a high level of the tranquilizer Methaqualone and some alcohol in her bloodstream. Oklahoma police ruled her death a single car accident. A year later the plant shut down".
Karen Silkwood is buried in an East Texas cemetery. A few years ago a local TV reporter paid a nighttime visit to her grave...on Halloween...with a Geiger counter. The grave still emits enough radiation to set the Geiger counter clicking.