By Luke Crisell
Photography by Kurt Iswarienko
Styling by Deborah Afshani | March 24, 2015 | People
Beauty. Brains… Balls. In Still Alice, Julianne Moore delivers yet another heavenly (read: Oscar-worthy) performance.
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The sky is low and mercury-colored and seems to press down on New York this afternoon, crushing the holiday crowds that move shoal-like along the sidewalks. The midwinter wind is whipping down Broadway and seeping determinedly through the windows into this loud, overcrowded café, which compensates by having the radiators on overdrive: They hiss and splutter indignantly against the walls, steaming up the windows. Anyway you look at it, this is an odd place to choose for an interview. Indeed, it’s hard to imagine a lunch spot in downtown New York that might be busier, and yet it’s here and now that Julianne Moore, who lives a stone’s throw away in Greenwich Village, has decided we should meet.
But despite Moore’s rarefied place in popular culture, despite the numerous Oscar nominations (five), and despite her presence in the biggest movie of the year (The Hunger Games: Mockingjay, Part 1), she moves with ease among the crowds, just another West Village mother who has spent the morning doing yoga and meeting up with girlfriends. In many ways, it’s precisely this anonymity that sets Moore apart as an actress: Her preference—her burning desire—is to watch, not to be watched. Taking off her gray cashmere beanie, she shakes loose her long red hair, and puts her iPad and book, Russell Hoban’s Turtle Diary, down on the table, staring with those crystalline green eyes and grinning widely, her cheeks flushed from the cold: “Well, what do you want to know?” Five minutes later, it’s as if there’s no one else in the room.
Though she’s unassuming in person, Moore has played some of the most memorable female characters in the past 20 years of cinema. While she occasionally takes roles in big-budget blockbusters, she is happiest in independent film. From intense, indelible parts in The Big Lebowski, Boogie Nights, and Magnolia to her nuanced handling of repressed female characters in films including The End of the Affair, The Hours, and Far From Heaven, Moore has spent her career shocking, enthralling, seducing, and occasionally terrifying audiences; in what was perhaps her breakout role, as Marian Wyman in Robert Altman’s Short Cuts (1993), she delivers a Raymond Carver-penned harangue whilst entirely naked from the waist down. Moore doesn’t take on characters lightly and when she does, she inhabits them fully, creating work that at its best is nothing less than art—quite simply, as good as acting can be. Not that she would ever talk about her work that way: “All I know is that I feel like I need to accomplish stuff and I guess I try to do it and just forget it. I really care about it when I’m doing it, but then when I’m done with it I have to be done with it, because there’s nothing else I can do.”
But even for an actor who seems incapable of turning in a mediocre performance, Moore’s star is burning particularly brightly at the moment. Her role in David Cronenberg’s dark Hollywood satire Maps to the Stars earned her a Best Actress Award at Cannes, where the film premiered, and a Golden Globe nomination for Best Actress in a musical or comedy. But today we’re here mostly to discuss Still Alice, a tiny film made in three weeks last March, which also earned her a Golden Globe win for Best Actress in a Drama and an Academy Award nomination for Best Performance by an Actress in a Leading Role. Written and directed by Richard Glatzer and Wash Westmoreland, the film is based on Lisa Genova’s novel of the same name and depicts a relatively young woman’s sudden descent into early-onset Alzheimer’s disease (also known as younger-onset Alzheimer’s disease).
Moore plays Alice Howland, a linguistics professor at Columbia University who is happily married to John, another brilliant mind, played by Alec Baldwin, with three unusually beautiful children (Kristen Stewart, Hunter Parrish, and Kate Bosworth). After some disconcerting episodes in class and at home, Moore visits a neurologist who diagnoses her with the extremely rare disease. As Alice’s neurological capacity diminishes (a situation heavily accentuated by her position as an expert in communication), we watch her try and deal with it in her daily life, fighting an inevitably impossible battle against what poet Elizabeth Bishop called “the art of losing.”
The emotional impact of the film is intensified in the light of its circumstances: Glatzer, who is married to Westmoreland, was diagnosed with ALS, another neurodegenerative disease, after they had taken on the project. As the film took shape, Glatzer gradually lost his ability to speak and communicated on set everyday through an iPad. “What Richard was going through in some ways mirrored Alice’s [experience], and we fed that into the screenplay,” Westmoreland says. “The resonance with the movie was always obvious.” For Moore, who was, like the rest of the crew, working in less than ideal conditions on the low-budget film, Glatzer’s condition brought the work they were doing into vivid context. “He’s incredibly insightful and he’s really smart, and I think the interesting thing for all of us was how quickly that all went away,” Moore says. “Richard is there intellectually… But it certainly added an urgency to what we were doing, and a poignancy, and it really brought home what kind of movie we were making: That this was not pretend.”
Moore, who had initially turned down a role in another Glatzer/Westmoreland film, says she knew immediately that she was going to take this one on. “It’s so very rare that you get anybody’s subjective journey through anything in a film,” she says. “We all say that we’re aware of our own mortality, but we’re not. It’s always present but we choose to deny it. In this case there’s a woman who’s forced to say, ‘The end of my life is coming, and I’m going to have to experience it disappearing.’”
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As Alice, Moore is astonishing, expressing complex, nuanced emotions with just a few tweaks of her facial muscles. Perhaps her biggest accomplishment is never letting Alice’s situation seem hopeless. Watching her, you feel she is struggling to find Alice, even as she seems to lose sight of her; as Alice clings to herself, so Moore clings to Alice, never letting her disappear beneath the surface.
“I think there’s this idea about Alzheimer’s that it obliterates the self, but in my experience and in talking to the clinicians and the family members and the patients themselves, I felt like who that person was [before the Alzheimer’s took hold] was very prominent at all stages of the disease,” Moore says. “[Even] in the very final stages, I felt like everybody I met [was] communicating who they were. It’s not like they were gone.”
This is precisely why the film resonates so emphatically. It addresses a central question of human existence: Who are we? Few things are more confusing or more terrifying than any threat to this idea of self, and it’s one reason Moore’s performance is so devastating. “I saw the movie with my husband,” says Moore, who is married to the director Bart Freundlich (the couple have two children, Liv, 12, and Caleb, 17). “And I was sitting taking notes and heard these sounds, and I was like, ‘Bart?! Are you crying?!’” When I tell her I don’t really blame him, she says: “What’s interesting is in as much as Hollywood deals with externalization—with what people look like and that kind of thing—Alzheimer’s really gets to what’s most important, which is who are you on the inside?”
Her fastidious preparation for the role started with a call to the director of the national Alzheimer’s Association, which set up Skype interviews for her with recently diagnosed early-onset patients across America. “I had a tremendous responsibility to get it right. I said, ‘I don’t want to do anything that’s not truthful.’” Moore even went to Mt. Sinai Hospital in New York to undergo the tests for the disease and attended support groups for women affected by it. “Julianne’s commitment to the role bowled us over,” says Westmoreland. “With some actors, you have to encourage them to do research, but with Julianne, she tears right into it. The authenticity of her performance is a direct result of that.”
Moore talks quickly, with a clarity and intellect that shines through almost every sentence. She’s so engaged in the conversation that 45 minutes go by before we realize that we haven’t even ordered anything, haven’t even been disturbed. “You should put that in the article!” she says, laughing loudly. “But on the other hand, to their credit, they just let two people sit here.” To hear her tell it, for all the ferocity of her performances on-screen, Moore lives an extremely quiet, normal life. I mention a recent reference of hers in an interview in The New York Times to a famous quote of Gustave Flaubert’s: “Be regular and ordinary in your life like a bourgeois, so that you can be violent and original in your work.” Clearly, it strikes a chord.
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“That’s the kind of person I am!” she says. “I’m not tremendously exotic, I’m not very eccentric, I’m pretty regular.” She laughs. “I live in the West Village, I have two really beautiful children. I have a great husband. I like the city. I like walking around. I really value my ordinary life and my family life. But I also value this life of the imagination, this life of stories. Because I feel like it’s in stories and these narratives that we talk about who we are.”
Born in Fort Bragg, an army base in North Carolina, Moore had a peripatetic childhood, moving all over with her mother and father, a paratrooper-turned-military judge. She attributes her arresting physicality—those high cheekbones, fiery hair, proliferation of freckles, jewel-like eyes—to her mother, a Scot, and has written children’s books about both: Freckleface Strawberry, which takes its title from a playground taunt and is published by Random House, with whom Moore has a four-book deal, and the recent My Mom Is a Foreigner, but Not to Me.
“My parents were amazing, she says. “They said, ‘You can do anything you want to do, you can be anything you want to be, by getting an education.’ But when I said I wanted to be an actor, they were like, ‘What?! We didn’t mean… theatrics.’” She laughs again. “But once I said it they were supportive, and they paid for my school, and I look back and can’t believe it. I say it to my kids, I say it to everybody: ‘What do you like doing?’ Your life should be pleasurable. You should have relationships that are interesting, travel through the world, do whatever you can. I’m a very lucky person; I really, really landed in it.” When I add that she’s also extremely gifted, she laughs, then hides her face behind her bowl-sized latte. When I ask if she was a self-conscious child, there’s a pause. “I’m not by nature a performer,” she says, tentatively. “I’m not that kind of an actor, you know? And some actors are.” Another pause. “They’re good at that.”
Moore’s own children don’t seem particularly enamored by their mother’s star status. “Children have verryyy little interest in what their parents do for a living,” she says. “We have an interest in our parents being our parents. And I don’t want them to see any of it; I just want them to see me as their mother, you know?” But surely they were excited for Mockingjay? She is matter-of-fact, without being dismissive: “They both saw the movie, they both really liked it.” A sip of coffee. “And they haven’t spoken about it since.” Still, now that her son is 17, it’s easy to imagine him going back and—gulp—watching his mother’s performance as a feminist artist in The Big Lebowski (“My art has been commended as being strongly vaginal”) or as the porn queen Amber Waves in Boogie Nights.
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Moore laughs it off. She credits much of her success to keeping her work separate from her personal life. The trappings of Hollywood over there, her normal existence, with her yoga and coffee dates, over here. “I’m not joking when I say I’m compartmentalized. My home life, my family is separate. My work as an actor, the interviews and the photo shoots and the red carpet, that is in another box altogether.” She runs a hand through her hair. “I think it’s important for me to keep that stuff in a separate box so that I know what it is. If you start to confuse things, and if you start to believe that the interest shown to you in a beautiful dress is commensurate to the work you’re doing as a mother, I think you can get into trouble.”
Talking to Moore is an invigorating experience. Not only is her beauty—so often the subject of writers’ hyperbole—quite remarkable, but she seems utterly genuine, so free from pretense, that you want nothing more than the very best for her. Whether or not she wins an Academy Award, she deserves to. And when you tell her that, her gratitude and excitement is obviously real. Westmoreland says of her performance: “It’s not just the takes you see in the final version that were great. Julianne was producing incredible stuff every time the camera rolled.” When I ask Moore if she felt she was producing extraordinary work, she says simply (and predictably): “No.”
But is she at least excited about the Oscar speculation? She beams a smile that consumes her whole face. “Of course I am! To be even in conversation about it, to have people be excited about your work… You know we all love praise. It’s an honor to be discussed in this way. Of course—of course—I’m thrilled. And for a little movie like this, which we barely finished, that people made because they cared about it—and it’s a story about knowing what it means to be a human being, that’s what’s great too. And it makes you feel hope, right?” She stops for a moment, and takes another sip of her latte, staring out onto the bitter streets through the condensation dripping down the windows. “The meaning of everything is in its simplicity, the Our Town-ness of it,” she says. “Because that’s the stuff that kills me! Because that’s what’s valuable. I think that’s why I like movies about people and families and relationships, because that’s the stuff of our lives.”
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