Though she won a Daytime Emmy in 1988 for her dual role as a pair of half-sisters on As The World Turns, Julianne Moore didn't gain a foothold in cinema until she was well into her 30s, but she quickly made up for lost time. In rapid succession, she established herself as a screen actor with formidable range and daring, giving memorable turns in Robert Altman's Short Cuts, Louis Malle's Vanya On 42nd Street, and Todd Haynes' Safe, which revealed a penchant for playing stifled upper-class housewives. Moore worked with Altman again on Cookie's Fortune, and took on more roles with Haynes (Far From Heaven, I'm Not There), Paul Thomas Anderson (Boogie Nights, Magnolia), and her husband, Bart Freundlich (The Myth Of Fingerprints, Trust The Man). Though dramatic turns have earned her four Oscar nominations—for Boogie Nights and The End Of The Affair, and, in the same year, The Hours and Far From Heaven—Moore has also dabbled in comedy (The Big Lebowski, Nine Months, Evolution), big-budget blockbusters (The Lost World: Jurassic Park, Hannibal, Next), and a handful of small-scale independent films.
Based on Natalie Robin's book and directed by Tom Kalin (Swoon), Moore's provocative new film Savage Grace casts her as Barbara Baekeland, a deeply disturbed woman who married into the Bakelite plastics fortune. Moore recently spoke to The A.V. Club about crying on cue, paying the bills, and the TV shows she wishes she was on.
The A.V. Club: Savage Grace is one of a number of period roles you've taken on in your career, along with Far From Heaven, The End Of The Affair, and The Hours. How do you go about getting into characters from a bygone era?
Julianne Moore: I don't really think about that that much. This movie starts in the '40s and ends in 1971, so we went through a lot of different periods with it. And then when you do period stuff, it's sort of shaped by things like language, the way they dress, and behavioral kinds of things. That stuff is sort of basic, and it's actually the least of my problems.
AVC: Then what's the biggest problem?
JM: Well, the big challenge is always who the person is. With a movie like this, too, the scale was really important. In this story, it's almost like a Greek tragedy. It's so huge. And the behavior is so seemingly aberrant that you have to find a way to make it realistic and palatable and normal. Because when you read the book and see all the recollections about Barbara, all in the same breath, people say, "Oh my gosh! She was charming! She was beautiful! She was the life of the party! We just loved her!" Then they also said "She had this voracious need for attention, she was narcissistic, she was demanding, and I couldn't have dinner with her all the time." There was this duality to her character. And I was like, "Okay, so how does that happen?" I talked to her babysitter often, and she told me, "Oh, I thought there was nobody in the world more glamorous than Barbara! Then of course when I grew up, I realized she was a lunatic." [Laughs.]
AVC: So you talked to some people who are still alive?
JM: A couple of people. The interesting thing about this family, living in New York City, is that I run into quite a few people who remember them. They remembered them from New York City, from Easthampton, and I know somebody who was in Ill Saint-Louis [in Paris] growing up when Barbara and Tony were there. This one girl was 5 years old at the time, and she said Tony tortured her, and I said, "What was the deal?" and she said, "He was high." So I encountered lots of interesting things to draw upon. It's such a recent story, really.
AVC: The film is very elliptical in the way it moves through time. Did that present any problems for you as far as getting a handle on continuity? And did the book help fill in the gaps?
JM: I actually like the way it's presented in the film. The book is so long and vast and thorough. What was going to be the most difficult was adapting the story and turning it into a 90-minute feature film. And I think what Howard Rodman, our screenwriter, did so beautifully was, he and Tom [Kalin] presented these snapshots as we go decade by decade in time. You go from one vignette to another, and in the process, you sort of watch the family deteriorate. I actually found it helpful to work that way—it wasn't like one thing was leading into another. It's almost like you made these mini moments that were very contained. Blam! You're in Paris! Then suddenly you're in Majorca, New York, London. I loved it.
AVC: Do you think about how an audience might react when you start thinking about a character? Does that figure in any ways to how you play a character like this one?
JM: Well, you're in a movie, so you have to think about how something plays. It's not like you're thinking about how an audience is going to react. You're trying to present the story. You're trying to illuminate the lives of these people in the story. So I'm thinking about how my behavior as this character best illuminates what's going on with them in this moment in time. I always say it's sort of the director's job. People think that the directors direct actors. No. Really, what the director's doing is directing the audience's eye through the film.
AVC: You talked about the duality of this character. How do you handle a character who obsesses over her social standing, but can't keep from saying things that break the codes of the society she's trying to operate within?
JM: Right. She was fascinating, wasn't she? She was boundaryless. The thing I'll say about Barbara is that she didn't know where Barbara ended and the world began. It was all Barbara. That was one of the things that was so endearing about her. She was all id. There was never any disconnect from anything, it just kind of went forward and forward and forward. She's also arguably a sociopath. [Laughs.] She was not somebody whose behavior was in the realm of what people would consider normal in society.
AVC: You play her with a certain measure of compassion. But she does behave in pretty monstrous ways.
JM: Well, she's a person. I think I wanted to make that clear. We have a very cinematic way of looking at the world these days. So shaped by what we see in the media and film and television that we're conditioned to expect, "Oh, who's the villain? Who's the victim?" But in life, I don't know that it always works that way, and that's certainly what was revealed to me when I read the book. Some people did have a tremendous amount of compassion. A lot of people hated her, but some people had a lot of compassion for who she was. I just wanted her to be a human being. I'm interested, because I think this didn't need to be a tragedy. The film could have been very judgmental about this family. But I think Tom is quite compassionate about all three of them.
AVC: The film has a number of extremely provocative scenes. Does it take a certain amount of courage on your part to pull them off? Do you prefer that uncomfortable scenes be saved for the middle or the end of the shoot rather than the beginning?
JM: The end of the movie [in which Barbara's relationship with her son grows more intimate] we did film near the end of the shoot, which was great, because we all knew each other very well. It was pretty dramatic stuff. I felt very comfortable with this group of people and with Tom, and I think we all knew what we were doing and we weren't careless about it. I don't consider myself very brave in any sense. I'm interested in this kind of behavior. My job is to try to make it realistic and emotionally resonant. That's the most challenging thing, to bring emotional resonance to what you do as an actor.
AVC: You've taken on many roles in movies, like this one and Magnolia and Safe, that demand a lot from you emotionally. What does it take for you to get to those vulnerable places on cue?
JM: I don't know! It's weird. I work with these directors on a thriller, and every time I had to cry, I'd be like, "Oh, thank God that was over!" And everybody's like, "Why do you hate to cry?" And I'm like, "I just do! I don't like doing it! I don't know." I can do it, but it doesn't mean that I like it. I do it because you're supposed to. That's what the part is. That's where the character goes at that moment. I kind of like the range of it. I like the enormous range of emotion that you can do on a film.
AVC: Is it tough to access those emotions when you're in front of the lights and a big crew?
JM: It certainly was when I first started out. I think experience has taught me a lot with that. When I started out, the most terrifying thing was when I had to be very, very emotional in front of lots of people. Now I've kind of learned that it is very important to keep talking all day, keep making jokes, and be connected with people, and be present. It's very important for me to be absolutely present in order to be emotional. I learned that is sort of the way I need to be. When I was younger, I thought I had to shut myself off, work really hard to cry. I learned after a while that that's just not… You know, often in life, you cry when you're caught off-guard. That's where I need to be when I'm acting, too.
AVC: Do roles of this sort of intensity bleed into your life once the camera stops rolling?
JM: I turn it off. [Laughs.] I do. I have other stuff to do. That's what I like about it. It can be challenging and interesting and exciting and fun. I like all of that, but I also have a life. I have a husband and two kids, and they're usually around when I'm shooting, then I go home. We have dinner, and that's what I'm dealing with when I go home. I can't be a wreck.
AVC: You've worked with a lot of famed "actors' directors"—Robert Altman, Paul Thomas Anderson, Louis Malle, among others. What does that term mean to you, to be a good actor's director?
JM: I am very excited to work with people who have a strong vision of what they want. They're trying to tell a story, and they want to use me. I'm there to facilitate that. I really like that. I'm like, "Tell me where your frame is. Tell me what you want, what kind of story you want, and I will facilitate it." That's sort of my job, and it makes my work better when I'm working in that kind of a frame, and hopefully it's their work. It's incredibly collaborative, in the sense that you're working toward a common goal.
AVC: You've been in a lot of movies, like Children Of Men and P.T. Anderson's films, where there's a lot of camera movement and complicated blocking. Do technical aspects of filmmaking ever become distracting to you when you're trying to act?
JM: No. Not when they're good at it. If they're bad at it, it does. If they can't get the camera movement together for some reason, then it's really problematic. You're like, "Oh, come on!" But if they're good, in the case of Paul and Alfonso, it's exciting. It's challenging, because you have to get this acting moment and you have to get this camera movement right. You have to get three cameras going at the same time. Maybe something has to explode. It just raises the stakes. It makes it much more exciting. It's hard. If have to cry, for example, after I hit a certain mark after all this stuff happens, obviously there's going to be times when you're like, "All right. This is impossible." But, honestly, I really enjoy the challenge of it.
AVC: Have you ever been in situations where your conception of the character is at odds with the director's? Whose will tends to win out in that situation?
JM: Mine. [Laughs.]
AVC: Are you that persuasive?
JM: Yeah. But very rarely have I worked with a director where we've been at odds. And by the time you've actually talked to somebody and you have the job, there's something that they see in you that they want you to bring to the character. And the best director says very little to you, acting-wise. They usually just say, "Okay, here's the shot." It's their job to do all that stuff, and your job's to do the acting. So it's very rare that somebody will say, "Oh, no. I conceived this very differently." There have been times when somebody has said, "I saw you doing this. That doesn't really work for me." I had a situation not too long ago where a director wanted me to play a line a certain way, and I really tried. I had done it my way, and it seemed more successful. And he said, "You know what, you're right. I think your idea is better." You know, you just work it out.
AVC: Does it help that your stature has increased as an actress? Early on, could you have said something like "My way might be best here?"
JM: You also often don't say it that way. My job as an actor is to try to do what the director wants me to do. I'm going to do everything I can to incorporate that note and make it work. If it doesn't work, I'll try this kind of thing, and "How do you feel about that?" If you are at odds with the director, neither one of you is going to get anywhere. You really do have to be able to make both of you happy. Even when I was younger, there were times when you have to find a way to make it work for both of you.
AVC: How much do you approach acting as an artist, and how much do you approach it as a job? Is there a balance to be struck between satisfying yourself creatively and paying the bills?
JM: Well, first of all, as a professional, you can run around saying "artists, schmartists" as much as you want. But I'm a professional, so if somebody hires me for something, I'm going to bring my best to it. They've hired me, I'm professional, I show up on time, I do my job. That's what we're doing. So in that sense, it's always both things.
AVC: How did you make that initial leap from the soap operas to the movies? Those two worlds seem walled off from each other.
JM: I came to the city and I started auditioning. And I got a couple of jobs, got a couple of plays. I got a couple of short TV jobs, and then I got into the soap [As The World Turns]. And while I was in the soap, I also did plays, like Off-Off Broadway. Then I got off the soap and I did regional theater, then I did more movies of the week and whatever. Then I got my first feature. It was like that. It wasn't like "Well, I came to town, I got a soap opera, and then bingo, I got a movie." There was a lot in between.
AVC: Was Andre Gregory's stage production of Uncle Vanya pretty critical for you?
JM: Oh yeah, personally, it was hugely influential. It was five years of my life. It was a theater piece I worked on for five years. Every spare summer we had, every two weeks in the spring, every week in the fall, whatever, we did it before we eventually filmed it. For formation as an actor, yeah, it was huge. But everything that I did starting out, every job that I had, I haven't regretted any of them. They've all been informative, interesting in one way or another. With a career, I think there's this idea that you're just trying to get somewhere. It's like, "Oh, okay, let's keep going, because if I do this, I can get this, I get this, this." It wasn't that way. I did what I wanted to do when it was in front of me, and I'm trying to continue to do that.
AVC: Do you do a lot of plotting, or do you sort of take opportunities as they come?
JM: Nobody does a lot of plotting. They can't. Everybody wants to do that in life, but I think it's almost impossible. Opportunities present themselves, and you say, "Hey, is this interesting to me?" Is this something you might want to pursue? Maybe you'll get it, maybe you won't. It really does have to do with a "one foot in front of the other" kind of thing, I think.
AVC: Are you as comfortable with comedy as you are with drama? Do you welcome the opportunity to do something light, or does comedy have its own challenges?
JM: Oh, comedy is incredibly difficult. When I think about what I like to watch, honestly, if I could have been on a show like Arrested Development… I think that show is absolutely genius. Or The Office. I said that to somebody the other day, "Jeez. That's what I like to watch. Maybe I should have been on that." [Laughs.] So I don't know. Your career brings you to funny places.