Julianne Moore, sporting leggings and a fleece jacket that accentuate her fit physique, her copper tresses tied in a knot, sets out for a routine jog. Weaving through the wooded trails of Central Park on this crisp spring day, she makes her way onto Columbia University’s campus on Manhattan’s Upper West Side. Suddenly she stops. Dazed and disoriented, she spins, frantically struggling to identify her surroundings. Her breathing grows heavy, she gasps for air, and tears glaze her speckled green eyes as an anxiety more powerful than the gusty wind sweeps over her.
Today, Moore is not herself. Today she is Alice Howland, the protagonist in Richard Glatzer and Wash Westmoreland’s latest indie film, Still Alice, premiering this month at the Palm Springs International Film Festival, where Moore will be honored with a Desert Palm Achievement Award. The story is based on neurologist Lisa Genova’s 2007 best-selling novel of the same name and details the emotional journey of a renowned linguistics professor, wife, and mother of three grown children who is diagnosed with early onset Alzheimer’s shortly after her 50th birthday.
“It’s so rare that you see a depiction of a disease this way, from the point of view of the patient,” says Moore of why she was drawn to the part. “It’s striking because you’re experiencing the disease along with this character. You’re sort of inside her when she’s struggling to articulate herself, you’re inside her humiliation, inside her struggles with her husband and children. It’s arresting.”
Alice’s symptoms appear first as brief memory lapses: She forgets words, the directions to a recipe she herself created, how to navigate the very campus where she teaches. What initially seems dismissible to her husband, Alice instinctively knows is more serious. But when she begins to repeat herself or forgets the face of a person she met just minutes prior, her family notices. Not long after she receives the diagnosis, rapid decline sets in. We watch empathetically, achingly, as this once independent and successful woman tragically loses the career she has built over a lifetime. We cry with her when she cannot remember how to tie her own shoes or find the bathroom in her own house. Or recognize her daughter’s face.
The film also intimately explores Alice’s familial relationships. We feel her frustration and sense of abandonment as her husband (played by 30 Rock colleague Alec Baldwin) progresses in his career and makes plans for the future, or as her youngest daughter (Kristen Stewart) continually rejects a traditional college education to pursue an improbable career as an actor in Los Angeles, a decision that makes her mother fearful for her child’s future.
“Having Alec and Kristen was enormous for this film,” says Moore, who is rumored to have inveigled her friend Baldwin to join the cast. (She made a point to thank him several times during this interview.) “I was so touched and shocked that we were able to get them in these roles.”
Moore learned after she told directors that she was accepting the role that Genova had always imagined her for it.
“Oddly, Lisa sent me a notebook of hers where she had written — long before I read the script — ‘Julianne Moore for Alice.’ ” Suddenly it seemed serendipitous. Moore threw herself entirely into the character, exploring various avenues of study on the topic. “I probably did more research for this movie role than anything I’ve ever done,” she says, quipping, “with the exception of Sarah Palin!” (Moore is referring to her 2012 performance in Game Change, the HBO drama in which she convincingly portrays John McCain’s running mate during the 2008 presidential election, and for which she won an Emmy.)
In Still Alice, Moore’s character, though fictional, is frighteningly real, representing not a specific person but a composition of many suffering with Alzheimer’s. To profoundly understand early onset of this disease, as well as its subsequences, Moore met with women in support groups who were at various stages of decline and had only recently received their diagnosis. She interviewed clinicians and researchers at New York’s Mount Sinai Hospital, who gave her the full scope of symptoms and characteristics. She took the memory test they administer to real-life patients and visited a long-term care facility where residents were “quite declined.” Along the way, she asked patients what they wanted her to represent about the disease through Alice.
“Something I learned that I thought was interesting is that people often think this disease is part of aging, and it’s not,” Moore explains. “That’s the reason Lisa [Genova] wrote the book about someone who is 50 years old and not someone who is 75. You can see the quality of the disease more clearly. What’s also fascinating is that people with Alzheimer’s still are who they are; their personalities are not obliterated. It’s just a struggle for them to get it out.”
Moore’s work shows extreme versatility, evidenced in her portrayals of a progressive feminist with an affinity for creating provocative art (The Big Lebowski); an irresponsible, off-the-rails, rock-star mom who puts romance and music tours before her young child (What Maisie Knew); and a fierce, fantastical leader of rebel forces (The Hunger Games: Mockingjay), among many others. No matter the role, if Moore takes it on, it’s believable.
“With each character, you have to find a place where you connect with them or they connect with you,” Moore explains of her ability to evoke such authenticity. “In that sense, they’re all you … because there has to be something true in there that you understand.”
Julianne Moore (center) is rumored to have inveigled her friend Alec Baldwin (to her left) to join the cast.
The veteran actor finds herself attracted to strong characters and human interest stories because those are what resonate with her. “For me, interpersonal drama is the most interesting,” she says. “It’s really about relationships — to your spouse, to your children, to your friends. Those are the things that really fascinate me.”
One genre you won’t find her starring in is mere action. “I’ve realized it’s the one thing I like least. I can’t watch all-action movies because I don’t connect to them.”
That’s a good thing, because if there’s one thing Moore does really well, it’s emotion. It makes you wonder if she’s had a traumatic past from which to channel such deep sorrow or rage or elusiveness.
“No, that doesn’t work for me,” she says. “It’s funny, because when you go to acting school, they teach you lots of different techniques to access your emotions. You learn what works for you and what doesn’t, and one thing that does not work for me is substitution — thinking about something traumatic or sad — I can’t do that.” Instead, she internalizes the circumstances of the character: “I ask myself, ‘What would this experience be like for that person?’ ”
Moore’s past, though, likely makes her more sensitive to the situations of others. Born Julie Anne Smith (she assumed her father’s middle name, Moore, when she registered with the Screen Actors Guild since it was less common) to an American military judge and colonel father and Scottish-born social worker mother, Moore, 54, relocated around the world with her family about 20 times in her early life.
“What’s interesting about moving around so much — and I’ve talked to lots of people who have grown up this way — is that you learn that behavior is not character,” she says. “How people act or move or speak is not an indication of who they are. It’s only an indication of what’s going on in that particular [place]. All of those things are mutable. You figure out that there’s something universal about all of us as human beings, that we can all kind of relate to, but everything else is almost like appliqué.” Perhaps Moore’s own mutability, based on where she was, is what groomed her for a future in acting.
“I was planning on being a lawyer or a doctor or something professional like that,” she says, influenced by parents who valued education. “But then I had a teacher who encouraged me to be an actor and I came home one day and told my parents, ‘I want to be an actor.’ It wasn’t terribly thought out. It was sort of an impulse [laughs].
“A career in the arts is not a sure thing, and education is something that everyone can benefit from — that’s why I really understand Alice’s desire to have her daughter go to college. I believe in that, personally. I say that to Liv and Caleb (her children, 16 and 12, with director husband Bart Freundlich). My parents said that to me. I wanted to be an actor and they were like, ‘Great, but you have to go to college.’ And they were right.”
Cutting her teeth off-Broadway and in soap operas (she debuted on screen as two half-sisters in As the World Turns in the 1980s), Moore has since appeared in several movies, both mainstream and independent. Nominated four times for an Oscar, Moore says her career highlight was winning Best Actress last year at Cannes for her performance in David Cronenberg’s Map to the Stars. “Never in my wildest dreams did I think that would happen to me — never, ever, ever,” she exclaims, seemingly still as stunned as she was the moment it happened. “It’s so rare that an American actress wins at Cannes. I just didn’t think it was possible. It was so incredible.” Now the world awaits Still Alice and whether the role will earn Moore her first gold-plated statuette.
Julianne Moore: “For me, interpersonal drama is the most interesting."
Burrowing a hint of insecurity behind her trademark good looks and confident disposition, Moore’s other passion — writing children’s books — reveals a more personal, a more relatable, side. “Just read my Freckleface Strawberry series — it’s all about how much I hate my red hair and freckles,” she says. “I still haven’t embraced them.” Ironically, she finds these same traits in her two children “adorable.”
When speaking about writing children’s books, Moore’s pitch grows excited. What started as a way to kill time on a flight to London, at the suggestion of a friend, has elevated to a real passion. “It’s become something I really enjoy doing,” she says. “I like reading to kids and visiting schools and having a different form of creative expression — something I literally do just for fun.”
More important than the actor or the children’s book author, though, is Moore’s role as a mother. “I feel so lucky to have them, and to do what I do for work. Finding a way to balance it all so that my family doesn’t suffer is something I really value,” she says. “I also have an amazing husband who is a great, great parent …” — we’re interrupted by a playful “Woop woooop!” from Freundlich, who is in the adjacent room of the couple’s New York City home — “As I was saying [laughs] … he’s such a great dad, and we make great partners. That has helped tremendously in figuring it out.”
Like any parent trying to figure it out, there is sacrifice. “There are times when I’ve had to turn down a role I really wanted, because it was just too far away. When there’s a part I want, but they’re shooting in Australia for six months, I can’t do that. I have kids. I need to be home. When you have a family, there are always professional compromises that you make.”
Currently, Moore is “right smack in the middle” of filming Freeheld, based on the 2007 documentary about partnership rights and equality. She plays New Jersey police detective Laurel Hester, who is diagnosed with lung cancer and attempts to have her pension benefits assigned to her same-sex romantic partner (played by Ellen Page). “The county freeholders turned her down, so this woman spends the last year of her life fighting for this,” Moore explains. “It’s a really important and emotional story to tell.”
Moore’s next role after Freeheld is yet to be determined. “I’d love to see Deborah Eisenberg’s short stories turned into a movie,” Moore says. “I’m always threatening to try to find a way to do it, but I never follow through [laughs]. I’m very inspired by her writing. I’d want to play in it … if there were a part for me.”
In the meantime, Moore looks forward to the upcoming film festival season. “I haven’t been to Palm Springs — oh, probably since I was shooting with Herb Ritts in 2000,” she says. “We were shooting in the Kaufmann House, which was extraordinary. The architecture is so astonishing in Palm Springs and that’s something I really enjoy. I also really love Joshua Tree. I have some friends who have a music venue in Pioneertown called Pappy & Harriet’s — have you heard of that? I’ve never been there, so I’d love to go while I’m visiting.”