There is no question in a career that has included one risk-taking performance after another—including Oscar-nominated roles in The End of the Affair, Far from Heaven, The Hours and Boogie Nights, as well as her memorable Emmy-winning Sarah Palin in HBO’s Game Change—that Julianne Moore is about as good as it gets. This year alone she is showing the depth and breadth of her talent, first as an aging actress trying to remain relevant in Hollywood in Maps to the Stars, a performance that won her the best actress prize at the Cannes Film Festival in May. Now she has received two Golden Globe nominations—best actress in a comedy for Maps, as well as best actress in a drama for Still Alice, in which she plays a professor struggling with early-onset Alzheimers. It’s a heartbreaking portrayal that already has won her several critics groups awards as well as a Screen Actors Guild nom in the lead actress category. Could this finally be Moore’s year to take home a long overdue Oscar? Her prospects are looking good.
Still Alice debuted at the Toronto International Film Festival without a distributor. It blew everyone away and within days Sony Pictures Classics picked it up.
Oh, we were so lucky. As you know, you do tiny movies like this and, first, you just hope you get the money (to make it), and then you hope it finishes on time. Then you hope somebody picks it up. When somebody picks it up you hope somebody sees it. There’s always the “What if, what if, what if?” and we just feel extraordinarily lucky. The paint is barely dry. We finished the movie at the very end of March and it’s out now.
What appealed to you about this movie?
I read the script. I read the book. I couldn’t stop crying. It’s so unusual—the story—as it is told from the point of view of the person with the disease rather than a caregiver. I think, traditionally, when we do these narratives it’s really for the community and the caregiver. So, what makes this unusual is that it’s about somebody who is in decline but fighting their decline.
You were really involved. You worked with directors Richard Glatzer and Wash Westmoreland very closely in developing this film and this character and the whole thing, right?
We did. They live in L.A. and I live in New York and we would Skype. We had these Skype calls where we would go through the scripts beat-by-beat. I was doing research simultaneously because I didn’t know anything about this disease and I wanted to learn what I could. People were extraordinarily generous. We started with the head of the Alzheimer’s Association, who then set me up with several women that I spoke to and Skyped with who were recently diagnosed with early-onset. And then I went to Mount Sinai and had all the tests done. They’re called Mini Mentals. I talked to the neuropsychiatrists and clinicians and researchers and then went to the New York Chapter of the Alzheimer’s Association and other support groups of women who talked to me about their experiences. I then went to a long-term care facility. So, it was like boom, boom, boom, all the way through.
So is it as if everything that you play in the movie is based on what you saw?
What I observed, yeah. Absolutely what I observed. I used to say that to Richad and Wash, too, that I would feel really uncomfortable with something that I hadn’t seen physically or emotionally. I didn’t want to depict it because it didn’t seem right.
What was it like working opposite Alec Baldwin in this film?
Alec Baldwin is such an extraordinary actor. He’s a such a special guy to me. He has so much life and masculinity and he brought all of that to his part and to the caretaking stuff—that idea of (our characters) being in such a tremendously intimate relationship, with him being so viable and so male and so alive with somebody who becomes so diminished and him having to do all of this kind of caretaking.
I thought his character’s reaction in the beginning, that the diagnosis was wrong, was very natural…
Of course, because here he is with this woman who has been his partner, his intellectual equal, for years and years. They’ve been together since they were very young, they had three kids and a great life and he’s a doctor and is going to fix it. It’s so heartbreaking.
Directors Wash Westmoreland and Richard Glatzer have such an extraordinary story separate from this.
When I met Rich and Wash and we first spoke about this, Richard was having difficulty speaking. They thought he had a virus and he was on some medication. By the time we were ready and we had our money in the slot they said, “We have some urgency because Richard has ALS.” By the time we got to set, Richard was more severe than we anticipated. He really lost function from the upper half of his body, yet he directed the movie. He and Wash are partners. They are married. Richard directed me with an iPad. They were both dealing with his disease. What happened is that basically what we were depicting in the film is what they were going through in real life as a couple.
From the point of a view of an actor, what was it like being directed through an iPad?
Surprisingly easy. With Richard, his language is gone in terms of his verbalization, but his communication is not. The person who was communicating was essentially Richard; oddly, it kind of goes away. Richard was so very, very pleasant in his eyes and in the way he communicated with me that I didn’t feel it after a while.
Most small independent movies like this are not shot in sequence. You don’t have the affordability to do that. How do you keep track of that as an actor and know where you need to be at any given point in the story even though you’re shooting this totally out of sequence?
I think that was why I was so meticulous in the script involvement with Richard and Wash, because I wanted to make sure I knew where I was and how it was going to play out. You have to keep it going in your head and hope you get it right. Occasionally, of course, you do something and you’re like, “Ugh, I wish I’d known they were going to do that in the future so I could have done that scene like that.” That’s also I think a practice thing, something you just get used to doing as an actor.