The Sphinx Next Door
Article taken from The New Yorker.
ne day in mid-March, with patches of snow still mottling Brooklyn’s side streets, I went to meet Julianne Moore on the set of “Maggie’s Plan,” a comedy written and directed by Rebecca Miller, in a town house on Vanderbilt Avenue. Arriving exactly on time for the 8 a.m. call, I picked my way past gaffers and gofers slouched on the stoop, working their phones and sucking on their morning Starbucks. Inside, Moore was already shooting a scene in the farmhouse kitchen, which was sealed from view by a wall of cables, cameras, and technicians. In the crepuscular hubbub, Rachael Horovitz, one of the film’s producers, introduced herself and ushered me downstairs to a basement bedroom, where the production team was hunched around a video monitor wedged among ballet trophies, karate belts, and a turquoise-and-pink four-poster canopy bed.
Three weeks earlier, Moore had won an Academy Award for her performance in “Still Alice,” a movie about a high-flying middle-aged linguistics professor who is in the process of losing her memory. In “Maggie’s Plan,” which premièred this month at the Toronto International Film Festival, she was playing Georgette, a high-flying middle-aged anthropology professor who is in the process of losing her family. On the monitor, Moore and Ethan Hawke, as Georgette’s husband, John, an adjunct professor of “ficto-critical anthropology” at the New School (“Nobody unpacks commodity fetishism like you do,” Georgette tells him at one point), were serving up dinner to their two children: Justine (Mina Sundwall), a bumptious thirteen-year-old, and Paul (Jackson Frazer), a dreamy seven-year-old. This very contemporary family tableau—all four were conversing while working their digital devices—was interrupted by a call offering Georgette a department chairmanship at Columbia. “When am I ever going to get any writing done?” Georgette asked her husband. “Look—I’m already breaking out in a rash.” The line wasn’t surprising, but Moore’s pitch-perfect accent—Georgette is Danish—was.
“You want to call Caleb to discuss the pros and cons of taking the chairmanship,” John said. “Justine wants to finish texting her friend. Am I right? Paul would love to play Ninja Revinja on the iPad. And, believe it or not, I even have a minor text I’d like to write myself. What do you say we all stop pretending to have this close-knit family dinner and be honest for five minutes? Then we can go back to the bullshit.” The scene, it turned out, was the movie’s inciting incident, which would send Georgette on a new career path and John on a new romantic path.
The choreography of ordinariness requires time as well as timing. The scene was played, stopped, then played again, until even the onlookers had memorized the lines, the moves, and the delivery, which got tighter with each take. When Miller stepped into the scene to discuss adjustments with the actors, the sound on the video monitor went suddenly mute, taking away any prospect of overhearing Moore’s thoughts. As the shoot wore on, a sort of soporific haze settled over the spectators; around midday, I momentarily lost track of Moore on the monitor. As I tried to locate her, there was a rustling on the stairs leading to the production office. When I looked up, Moore was making her way toward me, her thick red hair knotted into a high bun that flapped like a squirrel’s tail. She thrust her cheek forward to be kissed. “You’re here. How are you? So nice to see you,” she said. It was the first time we’d laid eyes on each other.
Although Moore, at fifty-four, is a current face of L’Oréal, she is no conventional glamour-puss. Hiding in plain sight is how she tries to negotiate her public life. “I try to make myself small,” she told me. “I try not to call attention to myself. ” The novelist Michael Cunningham remembers going out for a coffee with Moore, who had starred in the 2002 Stephen Daldry movie based on his novel “The Hours.” As they stepped outside, he noticed that she changed. “You just did something, didn’t you?” he asked. “She said, ‘No.’ I said, ‘You retracted your beauty, didn’t you?’ She said, ‘Oh, yeah, kind of,’ ” Cunningham said. “She pulled something in. There was a glow that she’d emanated in the living room that she could retract in the street.”
Moore may have a star on the Hollywood Walk of Fame, but she exhibits none of the imperialism of celebrity; she has no desire to make a spectacle of her separation from others. “I don’t understand why that would serve you as a person or as an actor,” she said. She is contained but not reserved; her good manners are a form of non-friction, intended to preëmpt envy while inviting contact. “I don’t like playing antagonism,” Moore said to Miller, after shooting a scene in which she had to be aggressive with the title character, Maggie (Greta Gerwig), a marital carpetbagger. “I feel I’m really like a Labrador—‘I mean no harm. I mean no harm,’ ” she told me. “I lead with friendliness. I feel that works for me. I don’t want to be aggressive. I don’t want to push to be in a dominant situation.” At the same time, she doesn’t retreat into herself. She’s present. She listens. “She works by being completely open to what’s outside her,” Miller said. “When she’s with another actor, she’s not closing him off so she can listen to what’s going on inside herself. She’s actually awake.”
As Moore stood chatting in the cramped production office—about Uber, the death of Mike Nichols, Wallace Shawn, who was returning from a vacation in Spain to be in the film—the conversation turned to the Birkenstock sandals she was wearing. Horovitz professed to being a fan of that particular style. “What size are your feet?” Moore asked. “These probably would fit you. You could take these. I have a pair at home. So—you take these.” After some back-and-forth, Horovitz accepted Moore’s shoes. Before handing them over, Moore took out her phone to show off the profile picture for her Twitter account (she has more than six hundred and forty thousand followers): an image of her Birkenstock-sandalled feet.
Then she turned abruptly to the video monitor. “I’m just going to look at playback on the scene to get an idea of this thing we just shot,” she said. With a fierce, unsmiling focus she scrutinized the screen, like a pitcher watching for the catcher’s sign. After a while, she pivoted away from the monitor. “I just wanted to see the rhythm,” she said. “It’s O.K. It’ll be better when it’s cut.” The scene was over, and so was Moore’s day. She was off to take her then twelve-year-old daughter, Liv, to the orthodontist. (She also has a seventeen-year-old son, Caleb.)
After she left, the video-playback operator, Max Frankston, explained that I had witnessed something that was essential to Moore’s process. “Independent films are shot like television shows, with just a live monitor,” he said. But, for this shoot, Moore had requested the playback operator: she preferred watching video playback in the moment to sitting through dailies at the end of the day. “I feel like then you can do something about it,” she told me later. “At that time, I can figure it out. Dailies? Who cares. I’ve done it.”
Moore has a visual imagination as well as a mimetic one. It’s important for her to see herself not just in the role but also in the frame. “Acting is not all about feeling,” she said. “It’s not all about what’s on the inside. There’s a physicality to what the frame is. Sometimes you want to see what story it’s telling.” Moore’s performances, at once penetrating and succinct, come from a calibration of the character with the scale and proportion of what the camera is showing. Not long into the shoot of David Cronenberg’s “Maps to the Stars” (2014), a coruscating satire about Hollywood, in which Moore played Havana Segrand, a movie star persecuted by memories of her legendary actress mother—a bravura performance, which won her the Best Actress Award at Cannes—Moore approached Cronenberg. “ ‘I love how you’re isolating us in the frame,’ ” Cronenberg recalled her telling him. “ ‘It really works for suggesting that all these characters are in a kind of isolated bubble and are so self-obsessed.’ ” “It was nothing that I’d talked to her about,” he said. “She could just see that I wasn’t doing over-the-shoulder shots. Everybody was isolated in their closeup. She saw that immediately, knew what it meant, knew why I was doing it. She’s totally aware of everything.”
Moore may be aware of everything that happens in the process of filmmaking, but she prefers to keep her own process a mystery. When, for instance, Cronenberg offered to show me her e-mails about her role in “Maps to the Stars,” she asked him not to. “Much of it was about the ins and outs of physical stuff . . . whether or not I should dye my hair blond, or if the production had enough money to make a wig, etc. etc.,” she e-mailed me. “I just felt that the exchange demystifies the process a little.”
Moore doesn’t like to rehearse. She wants to be taken by surprise, and feels that repetition can deaden the experience. “She is protecting something extremely vital and untamed that she can unleash on camera,” Todd Haynes, in whose films “Safe” (1995) and “Far from Heaven” (2002) Moore has given two of her greatest performances, said. “She doesn’t want to overthink, overplan, overanticipate.” “I prepare very stringently,” Moore told me. “I really know my lines. I really think about what I’m gonna do. Sometimes people think that means I’ve already played the part in my head. That’s not true. I know the parameters. Then, when the camera goes on, I’m ready to have an experience. I don’t want it to happen in my living room. I want it to happen on camera.”
A character exists for Moore only once she exists on paper. “I hate it when people pitch stuff,” she said. “That doesn’t help me. Let me see the words.” According to Bruce Wagner, who wrote the screenplay for “Maps to the Stars,” Moore, who never reads stage directions, is “a brutal parser of the text.” To generate emotion, she doesn’t call on sense memory from her own life, as actors are often taught to do; instead, she immerses herself in the circumstances of the character. “I have to find the place where the character cries; I have to find the place where she’s hurt,” Moore said. (“Julianne Moore Loves to Cry,” a three-minute YouTube montage from twenty of her films, bears lachrymose witness to her claim.)
Even in the most fraught scenes, Moore’s work is highly technical. “There’s nothing more awkward than scenes that deal with sexuality,” Hawke said. “Because if you have a fight scene you have a choreographer come in and do it. But if people want sexuality they’re just, like, ‘O.K., let the actors go,’ like you’re wild animals that are supposed to just do this stuff on call. And it’s very difficult to do anything that has feeling to it that reads on camera.” But, for a sex scene in “Maggie’s Plan,” he said, “Julie had a distinct sense of ‘This needs to be a two-shot, this needs to be a single. It cuts here.’ She had very specific demands about where the scene ended and where it would begin. And ‘No, that’s not sexy, that’s not funny. That’s gross.’ And she was dead right. And what is normally difficult became really, really easy. There’s a math to everything we do, to how emotions read, and she’s acutely aware of it.”
Moore is fond of quoting Flaubert’s dictum “Be regular and orderly in your life, so that you may be violent and original in your work.” And she insists on that regularity. “I’m incredibly bourgeois,” she said. “And I don’t care. I’m not wild. There’s nothing outrageous about me. I’m really a pretty nice person. I am not erratic in my behavior. You know the kind of people who are really irregular—they keep people off balance that way. I’m not that kind of person.” “Julie’s great adventure is her imagination,” her younger brother, the novelist Peter Smith, said. (Moore was born Julie Anne Smith; Anne is her mother’s name, and Moore is her father’s middle name.) “She understands the force and wildness of it. It’s a blessing and a warning. It’s this big crazy thing. It’s something that makes her feel really confident.”
In a children’s book that Moore wrote in 2009, “Freckleface Strawberry and the Dodgeball Bully” (one of a trio of Freckleface tales, which have sold more than a hundred and fifty thousand copies in eight languages), her freckled young alter ego “practices her monster,” a shadowy, horned, benign purple giant that is visible only to her and gives her the power to defeat whatever is weighing her down. Moore also created two Freckleface Strawberry apps, which teach children how to take control of their imagination—how to give their inner monsters shape, color, and sound. She can be similarly controlling with her own creativity. For instance, when she was filming “The Myth of Fingerprints” (1997), a movie about a dysfunctional New England family’s Thanksgiving gathering, the twenty-six-year-old director, Bart Freundlich, who had also written the screenplay, made the rookie mistake of trying to block a scene by telling Moore, then thirty-five, her motivation for the action. “I’ll move over there,” she snapped. “But don’t tell me why.” (“The director can tell you that you do it. Your job is to figure out how to do it,” she said to me.)
In time, Freundlich not only came to understand Moore’s protective ferocity; he married her. “She’s one of those people for whom the portal to up there is open, so you guard it the same way you would guard your family, by being very careful with your boundaries,” Freundlich told me. “I pictured it like a pilot light—this little flame that’s inside her. If she doesn’t let it get blown out by all the talking and ideas that get expressed on a set, then she can ignite it at any time. Her No. 1 job is to protect that, even if it means being prickly with you as a director.” Mark Ruffalo, who co-starred with Moore in “The Kids Are All Right” (2010), described her acting as “one hand in a boxing glove and the other in an elbow-high velvet glove.” He added, “She has something pretty damn fierce about her, forward-leaning and aggressive. At the same time, she is filled with exquisite poise.”
Even to her fellow-actors, the emotional volte-face between Moore’s offscreen ordinariness and her onscreen extraordinariness can be confounding. “She comes from a military background,” Wallace Shawn, who co-starred with her in Louis Malle’s 1994 film “Vanya on 42nd Street,” said. “She takes a military approach to her very unusual job. Her orders are to turn into a complete maniac on Tuesday at three o’clock in the afternoon. And so she guiltlessly does that.” André Gregory directed her in the intermittent five-year workshop of Chekhov’s “Uncle Vanya” that led to the Malle film. “What I loved—and what was even intimidating at times—is that she’s like a roller coaster,” he said. “She’s talking about something like decorating at rehearsal in one moment. The next moment, she’s careening into some territory you’ve never seen before. It’s not that she acts the beast, but she has access to it.” “The nicest thing André ever said about me was ‘She’s Beauty and the Beast,’ ” Moore told me. “I like the idea that nobody’s one or the other. You can be the regular girl and you can be the monster at the same time. They’re one and the same. The beast doesn’t have to be an evil or a destructive thing. It’s about possibility and feeling and emotion and all of that stuff.”
That duality is actually built into Moore’s face. “She’s more angular from the profile and softer from the full on,” Cronenberg said. “So, just by turning her head, she can go from hard to soft. She knows how to use that, too.” Although Moore can be physically transformed—as she was by her red bob wig in “The Big Lebowski” (1998) and by a blond one in “Far from Heaven”—most of her shape-shifting is emotional. Watch her in Paul Thomas Anderson’s “Magnolia” (1999), as Linda, the faithless, drug-addicted wife of a dying husband whom she’s come to love. As Linda waits at a pharmacy for the prescription with which she intends to kill herself, the young pharmacist prattles on, “What exactly you have wrong, you need all this stuff?” Moore’s face goes from cold to stormy. “You motherfucker! You motherfucker! You fucking asshole! Who the fuck are you? Who the fuck do you think you are?” she snarls. “Where is your fucking decency? And then I’m asked fucking questions . . . what’s wrong? You suck my dick, that’s what’s wrong, and you, you fucking call me ‘lady.’ _Shame on you! Shame on you! _” This blistering moment, in which Linda forces her own shame onto someone else, shows Moore’s almost extrasensory balance between intensity and restraint. In a scene in “The Hours,” in which she plays a suicidal housewife named Laura Brown, Laura is in the bathroom, fighting a harrowing battle with her desperation. Her credulous husband (John C. Reilly) calls to her, asking her to come to bed. “I’m brushing my teeth,” she says chirpily, pretending normality. When her husband asks again, “Are you coming?” a mask of resignation falls over her face and freezes there. In a barely audible voice, she forms the word “Yes.”
Moore doesn’t consider herself a theatre actress. To her, the stage experience feels too “externalized,” and she wants what she’s doing to be internal. “I like to pretend no one’s watching,” she said. “The thing that was so wonderful for me about film acting, when I finally discovered it, was that it felt like walking into a book you wanted to be in.” For Moore, learning to read was a watershed event: she was six and sitting in a wing chair in her family’s living room, in Omaha, Nebraska, with her red-haired Scottish-born mother, whom she strongly resembles, when she read her first sentence. “And then I just read,” she said. “I read everything. I read whatever I could get my hands on.”
Moore’s parents, according to her, “liked the life of the mind” and preached the gospel of education. They were aspirational, the first in each of their families to earn a university degree. Anne Love, who had emigrated with her family from Greenock, Scotland, at the age of ten, was twelve when she met Peter Moore Smith, at their Presbyterian church in Burlington, New Jersey; they married when she was nineteen and he was twenty. By the time Anne was twenty-five, she had had three children—Julie was the first—whom she struggled to care for alone while Peter was on a tour of duty in Vietnam.
The Smith family was a tight unit, because it had to be. In the course of Moore’s childhood, they moved twenty times—North Carolina, Nebraska, Virginia, Alabama, Panama, Alaska, Georgia, Texas, New York, Washington, Germany—following the trajectory of her father’s career, as he transitioned from Army helicopter pilot and paratrooper in the 82nd Airborne Division* (he won a Purple Heart for his service in Vietnam) to lawyer and, finally, to judge on the U.S. Court of Appeals for the Armed Forces at the Pentagon. Moore attended nine different schools. (She recently started a petition to have her Virginia high school—which was named for a Confederate general—renamed for the Supreme Court Justice Thurgood Marshall.) But every week, no matter where they were, Anne took her brood to the library to check out books; in the shifting ground of their peripatetic life, literature was a comfort. “We were moving all the time. I had a lot to adjust to,” Moore said. “But you pick up a book, and you know you’re going to get a story. You know how it’s going to make you feel. The constancy of storytelling is a great thing.”
The continual uprooting made Moore adaptable and as adept at reading people as she was at reading words. When starting at a new school, she said, she studied the social behavior of those around her. “I didn’t want to distinguish myself. My interest was in fitting in—seeing how do they walk, how do they talk, what do they do, what are the rules here?” In her narrative of growing up, Moore accentuates her nerdiness: she was bad at sports, a failed cheerleader, a drill-team reject, a smart kid in glasses, and so on. “All actresses love that outsider thing,” her brother said, laughing. “She was Homecoming Queen. She was beautiful. She was a straight-A student. She was popular.” (“I wasn’t Homecoming Queen. I was runner-up,” Moore insisted.) One thing, however, was incontrovertible: from sixth grade on, she was the star of all her school plays.
By the time Moore decided to become a professional actress, at eighteen, her mother, who had briefly trained as a nurse before marriage, had finally managed to cobble together a degree in social work. (When she graduated from Briarcliff College, in New York, she was the only summa cum laude in her class.) Anne went on to get master’s degrees in psychology and social work. Despite her late-blooming achievements, the years she spent following behind her husband’s career inevitably generated in her a sense of disappointment, a dissatisfaction that rumbled under the surface of the marriage. “My mother felt thwarted by the world and oppressed, rightly,” Peter Smith said. “She had ambitions that she was never able to realize. She communicated powerfully to both my sisters that in order for them to achieve success they had to be better than anybody. They couldn’t just be good. They had to be excellent.” The children grew up in this ozone of expectation. (Moore’s sister, Valerie Wells, is now a business executive.) “She didn’t want us to marry or have children young,” Moore said. “She wanted us to have an education and a career.” Still, the news of Moore’s career choice was about as welcome to her mother as a returning kamikaze pilot. “Oh, Julie,” she said. “Why waste your brain?”
“I think it was a surprise even to me that I became an actor,” Moore said. When she made her decision, she had never met an actor or seen a professional play. “I liked television and movies, but I didn’t even know there was an industry,” she said. The person who planted the notion that Moore could act for a living was Robie Taylor, her theatre teacher at Frankfurt American High School, in Germany, from 1977 to 1979. Moore was a junior when Taylor first saw her perform. “She opened her mouth in her first solo, and it was kind of primitive but it was there,” Taylor said. “She was just so stable within herself. She could walk into a room, assess what was going on, and move right in. She knew who she was.” In her senior year, Moore went to Taylor’s classroom to ask for career advice. “I said, ‘Julie, you’re bulletproof,’ ” Taylor recalled. “ ‘You can accept rejection and keep going. You need to go to New York, check into the Y, find a job that you can work at night, and audition all day.’ ” A few days later, according to Taylor, there was another knock on the classroom door: this time, it was Moore’s parents. “They were aghast. ‘She can’t do that—she’s got to go to college.’ I said, ‘Julie has the talent. It’s ready to go. If you make her go to college, you will put her five years behind her peers.’ ” The compromise that the family worked out was that Moore would apply to drama schools that also offered a liberal-arts degree, so that if she washed out as an actress she’d have the credentials for graduate school. “My mother got on the plane with me, and I auditioned for three different schools,” Moore said. In the end, she chose Boston University, where she knew no one. In the next four years, she returned to Germany and her family only twice. “Our parents referred to it as ‘when Julie ran away from home,’ ” Moore’s sister, Valerie, said.
After graduating, in 1983, Moore moved to New York, where she waited tables—“I was an excellent waitress. I’m very impatient with people who tell me they’re not good at waiting tables. I’m, like, ‘Well, you’re just not paying attention’ ”—and began her single-minded pursuit of her craft. In 1985, after some work in regional theatre, she landed a regular role as Frannie Hughes, and then as her evil half sister, Sabrina, on the CBS soap opera “As the World Turns.” (She won a Daytime Emmy Award for Outstanding Ingénue in 1988, the year she left the show.) Although Moore puts a happy face on this journeyman period of her professional life, “she hated soap operas,” according to the actor Larry Pine, who worked with her on “As the World Turns.”
Moore began to understand what it meant to inhabit a character when she joined André Gregory’s workshop for “Uncle Vanya,” in 1990. Tipped off by Pine, who had already been enlisted for the workshop, Gregory and Wallace Shawn went to see Moore in a production of Caryl Churchill’s double bill “Ice Cream with Hot Fudge,” at the Public Theatre. “There was one moment in her performance that was absolutely staggering,” Gregory recalled. “She was sitting on the floor reading a newspaper and doing absolutely nothing, saying nothing. But whatever she had going on inside was terrifying.” Afterward, Gregory took her to dinner. He asked her, “Could you tell me what you were doing when you were sitting on the floor?” She said, “I was counting from one to sixty.” Gregory said, “It showed a very clever actress who understood what she didn’t need to do to get the appropriate response.”
“I owe a huge debt to André, because that painstaking five-year process changed how I thought about acting and what I wanted to do,” Moore said. “He encouraged us to play each moment for action and reaction, to literally respond to what an actor gave. He allowed me for the first time as an actor not to be result-oriented. What is in front of me? What is happening? What could happen? What is different?” “I think Julie learned over time not how to act but how to be,” Gregory said. He added, “For two or three weeks, in rehearsals you could not hear a single word that she said. She was just mumbling. Or whispering. And actors would come to me on the side and say, ‘I don’t know what to do, because I can’t hear her, so I don’t know when to give my cue.’ And I, being the weird director I am, said, ‘Just let her do it.’ And I think what she was doing was creating the introvert. In a very subtle way.”