Culture

Will next year’s Oscars ceremony see a change of fortune for Julianne Moore? By Helen Barlow.

Julianne Moore still fearless

Julianne Moore in Still Alice
Credit: © BSM Studio. All Rights Reserved.

When you come to write about Julianne Moore, it’s hard to describe how nice, normal and even-keeled she is. The 53-year-old actor has an enduring marriage and a happy family life and works hard to keep it that way. She goes all girly at the mention of fashion – “You can’t lose sight of the fact that it is tremendously enjoyable” – and has girlfriends she likes to hang out with around the kitchen table, where they discuss all manner of issues – both family oriented and political.

Her acting, though, is another matter. Consistently risk-taking and provocative, the red-headed beauty has missed out on an Academy Award on four occasions (in 2003 she was nominated twice). Now, finally, after decades of delivering assured performances in Hollywood and independent movies, she has emerged as an Oscars frontrunner in 2015 for her heart-wrenching portrayal of a linguistics professor diagnosed with early onset Alzheimer’s in Still Alice.

Moore is not a complete stranger to awards, of course. She won an Emmy and a Screen Actors Guild Award for her embodiment of former Alaskan governor Sarah Palin in the 2012 television movie Game Change. This year in Cannes she took home her first major best actress award for Maps to the Stars, David Cronenberg’s cynical take on Hollywood.

“I’ve had a really, really great year,” Moore concedes, smiling sweetly as we sit down for a chat at the Toronto International Film Festival where both Maps and Still Alice are part of the program. “I love these two movies so much. It’s so exciting to be at a festival where they are both being shown and both are really well received.”

When I mention that she has long deserved an Oscar, Moore, unlike other actors who feign bashfulness and dismiss such talk, embraces the idea wholeheartedly.

“Tell everybody! It’s terrible!” she laughs. “I remember working with Nathan Lane. We were doing a little movie together and he is so funny. I forget why it happened but I said, ‘Oh Nathan, I realise why I do this. I crave praise!’ ”

In Maps to the Stars her mascara-smeared, frequently hysterical fading star, Havana Segrand, is about as far from Moore as you can get. Havana’s lost the plot and so have those around her, including her therapist Dr Stafford Weiss (John Cusack), who has created a self-help empire based on “psychological authenticity”, and her new personal assistant Agatha (Mia Wasikowska).

“It’s about people and it can be any industry – it could be Wall Street, politics, media or anywhere where you are seeking validation outside of yourself,” says Moore. “Hollywood is a perfect metaphor because literally you are projecting images into the ether that aren’t real and people are connecting to them as if they are real. What’s ultimately so sad about this movie is that you watch everybody reach out and eventually implode.”

Moore was excited when she discovered she might reunite with Australian actor Wasikowska, who played her daughter in The Kids Are All Right.

“I emailed Mia and I was like, ‘Hey, I really hope it’s going to be you’, because I knew it was going to be so relaxing to be with her. She’s so good.”

 

Moore burst onto the Hollywood movie scene naked from the waist down in Robert Altman’s Short Cuts. I’d interviewed her about that role, and in the 20 years since have caught up with her to discuss many of her subsequent films. Regarding her Short Cuts exposure, she says: “I was in the hands of a really brilliant director, one of the great auteurs of our time, who I was fortunate enough to have crossed paths with. If what you’re doing is human and you are telling a story that’s not going to be exploitative, then I’m not afraid.”

In her own life she says she has different fears. “I am very afraid of going really fast in a car or even a bike and I don’t like to go downhill really quickly. I feel out of control. I don’t like skiing and I am scared of the ocean. There are a lot of physical things I am not able to do. If it gets really dark suddenly and I can’t see, I’m like, ‘I can’t see!’ ” she shrieks. “But in an imaginary world, in a story where there is an emotional narrative and I have somebody at the reins telling the story, I am not afraid. You can’t get hurt by feeling something.”

Todd Haynes was one of the first directors to recognise Moore’s talents. He wrote Safe and Far from Heaven, two movies focusing on female characters, especially for her. Although 1995’s Safe was not entirely successful, Moore’s studied performance of a pallid housewife who has developed an intense sensitivity to household chemicals caught Hollywood’s attention, and showed that she could carry a film. Far From Heaven, made seven years later, earned her an Oscar nomination. Nicole Kidman won that year for The Hours. Moore, her co-star, was nominated in the supporting actress category, and together with Kidman and Meryl Streep, shared the best actress Silver Bear for The Hours at the Berlin International Film Festival.

“Julianne is completely different in every film she’s been in,” notes Haynes. “None of the roles are Julianne Moore, the funny, charming, intelligent woman I know. Many of her characters have those elements, but they’re not her. Each time, she constructs the person from scratch. Not many actors do that; they rely on their innate personality and charm.”

 

The eldest of three children, Moore is the daughter of a Scottish-born psychiatric social worker mother who died suddenly five years ago, aged 68. “Losing her has been tremendously difficult,” says Moore. Her father’s profession as a military judge meant the family was mobile, with Moore attending nine schools and living most of her teen years in Germany. “It gave me adaptability, a sense of universality and it made me very close to my family,” she says.

Now her own family helps her keep her life together. After a failed first marriage to actor and stage director John Gould Rubin – “I married too early; I wasn’t ready for it” – in 1996 she met her current husband, director Bart Freundlich, on The Myth of Fingerprints. It’s probably no coincidence that her career took off around the time they met, though they only married in 2003. Handsome, tall and Jewish, Freundlich, 44, is opposite in colouring and size to Moore. Their two kids, Cal, 16, and Liv, 12, are an unusual mix of both of them.

“What’s amazing is that they look so much like Bart and so much like me,” Moore says. “I think the weird thing about genetics is that it’s like seeing somebody shoved through the sieve of another person. I’ve really experienced that with our children because they are both so tall and long-limbed like him and they’re both so fair-skinned and with different shades of red hair like me. I am like, ‘Wow, how does that happen?’ ”

Moore’s stunning red hair and alabaster complexion may be an attribute now but growing up was not easy. She has channelled some of her early experiences into a successful series of Freckleface Strawberry children’s books, so named for the nickname she hated as a child. Given her hectic movie schedule, how does she find time to write them?

“My God, like, when I am at the beach. I have a contract with Random House and I am doing Freckleface for early readers. I have just delivered four little books. I actually owe another book. When am I going to do that? I have to now start on something else. It’s a gentle world, the children’s book world.”

Suddenly I realise what she is up to. She’s shooting the taut gay rights drama Freeheld (based on the 2005 fight by terminally ill New Jersey police officer Laurel Hester to pass on her pension benefits to partner Stacie Andree, played in the film by Ellen Page) while trying to write a children’s book.

“That’s right!” Moore chuckles, clapping her hands. “That’s what I’m doing. It’s a living, right?”

Over the years I have spoken on several occasions to Freundlich, who has directed his wife in most of his movies. When I have interviewed Moore, the pair has either been there together, usually with Freundlich outside with the children, or she has been on a fleeting visit to the likes of Cannes and can’t wait to get home.

Freundlich is a caring, sensitive kind of guy. When Moore first saw Still Alice – and her character’s gradual degeneration – she brought her husband along and he sat there blubbering, so she had to comfort him. The film is based on Lisa Genova’s 2007 bestseller and boasts Alzheimer’s advocate Maria Shriver and Trudie Styler among its producers.

“I felt like I had an obligation to the people who have experienced early onset Alzheimer’s to personally get it right,” Moore says. “I met with a lot of people living with the disease and they were trying to explain it but they had limited language. So it was absolutely fascinating and incredibly emotional.”

Why did she want to do the film? “It’s so touching and it’s about who we are essentially. Where is the human being? You don’t go away, you are there and you recognise people and you’re feeling things. So what is that experience? In a way it’s an expression of our mortality, too, which is something we like to dance around.”

In her career Moore tries to mix it up with studio movies such as Non-Stop and Carrie. Few films could be bigger blockbusters, though, than her latest venture. In The Hunger Games: Mockingjay – Part 1 she plays a major new role as the enigmatic President Alma Coin, the leader of the militaristic order of District 13.

“I just saw the movie and it’s really, really good,” Moore says. “It’s really devastating, because the third book is all about the revolution. Francis Lawrence is a wonderful director and really has such an eye for the huge scope of things as well as the minutiae of relationships. It’s also nice to be in something that my kids want to see. Argh, there are so many young people I know who want to come to the premiere. How many tickets do I have? I’m trying to give the tickets away only to people who really want to go.”

While one imagines her kids’ friends will be lining up at her door, until this point Moore’s job has been decidedly uncool.

“Liv has just gone to this new school and she has a drama class and there is a play and I asked, ‘Are you going to try out for the play?’ She said, ‘Mum, that’s not cool.’ I was like, ‘What do you mean, it’s not cool? I was in it.’ Then I went, ‘No, it wasn’t cool when I was in school either.’ I was just not cool. My daughter is a little cooler than I am. When I was in sixth and seventh grade only weirdos were in plays and I just liked doing it. So the fact that oddly what I like doing has turned out to be this incredibly rewarding career, where I get lots of perks to my job, has been a by-product of that. But, honestly, I just really, really enjoy the uncoolness of the process.”

What do her kids think of her having on-screen sex with the once supercool Twilight dude, Robert Pattinson, who plays her chauffeur in Maps to the Stars?

“They will never see this movie. It’s not for them; it’s rated R. They didn’t see Twilight either. My son doesn’t like that sort of thing; he’s a boy. And my daughter is too young. We started to watch the first one a couple of years ago and she got scared and asked me to turn it off. Now the moment has passed for that and they have all moved on to Divergent and The Hunger Games.”

One of the women who regularly congregates in Moore’s kitchen is her best friend, actress Ellen Barkin.

Recently Barkin and I discussed the current dearth of actresses being touted for the upcoming Oscars – until Moore came along in Still Alice.

“I can’t say anything because I don’t want to jinx it,” the irrepressible Barkin said, lowering her deep raspy voice for effect. Then she suddenly bellowed, “But God, do they owe that woman.”

This article was first published in the print edition of The Saturday Paper on Nov 22, 2014 as "Still fearless". Subscribe here.

Helen Barlow
is a Paris-based film writer.