Moore Than Meets the Eye

Sure, she’s a knockout, But it was Julianne Moore’s combination of blazing talent and quiet determination that propelled her from TV soaps to cinema stardom. Now she portrays controversial Sarah Palin in the new HBO movie Game Change while living a game change of her own—a happy family life with her younger husband 

by Leah Rozen
julianne moore image
Photograph: James White

Julianne Moore is mad for beavers. (You’re all mature. No sniggering, please.) “I always tell my children”—son Caleb is 14, and daughter Liv turns 10 in April—“that my favorite animal is the beaver, because it’s so industrious,” the actress says. Then she adds, laughing, “And when they grow up, they’ll be, ‘Can you believe she said that all the time?’ ”

But Moore is serious. “Beavers don’t seem that industrious when you look at them,” she continues, “but they make those dams, little by little.” She doesn’t just admire the toothy rodents; she identifies with them. “I am diligent,” she says. “That’s one of my qualities: diligence. Not very glamorous, but true.”

Her hard work (she has acted in nearly 50 movies, including Boogie Nights, Far from Heaven, The Kids Are All Right and last summer’s Crazy, Stupid, Love), combined with Streep-like subtlety, has led to four Oscar nominations and a reputation as an actress who fully inhabits her characters. And her stature will only be enhanced by Game Change, the made-for-HBO movie about Sarah Palin’s vice-presidential run, debuting March 10.

While the best-selling book on which the movie is based covered all the national candidates in the 2008 election, the film focuses on Palin and her increasing estrangement from Republican nominee John McCain (played by Ed Harris) and two key campaign advisers, Steve Schmidt (Woody Harrelson) and Nicolle Wallace (Sarah Paulson).

Moore plays the former governor of Alaska and self-described hockey mom in all her contradictory glory. The portrait she creates is nuanced, complex—and surprisingly sympathetic (the film is less so, depicting Palin as intellectually and emotionally unprepared for the office to which she aspired). Moore, a registered Democrat who voted for Barack Obama, took the part for the challenge it presented. When director Jay Roach sent her the script, she says, “I was flabbergasted. I felt the role was as far away from me as I could possibly go. Once I said yes, I went into a full-fledged panic, because I was like, I don’t know where to start.”

But she did know. Step one was to wipe her iPod clean and fill it with the audio of Palin reading her memoir, Going Rogue; she also downloaded dozens of Palin speeches and interviews. For the two months before shooting began, Moore says, “I listened to her talk nonstop. I read every book that she wrote, the books that everybody else wrote about her, and I watched every speech and interview on YouTube. I immersed myself in her life, and I canceled everything else in my life.” What wasn’t part of her research: speaking to Palin in person. Moore says she didn’t even try to make contact. “I don’t think she was interested,” she says.

Moore’s intense preparation and commitment impressed her director. “I’ve never seen an actor work that hard to tap into the essence of a character,” Roach says. He remembers that Moore often suggested they substitute a line that Palin had actually spoken in an interview for a line in the script. “She would never push you on it, but if she had found something that was stronger or more authentic, she’d make a pitch for it. She won a lot of those debates,” adds Roach, who calls her performance “an embodiment, not an impersonation.” Costar Sarah Paulson says, “I never felt that she was commenting on Palin’s choices or her political moves from an acting perspective but rather that she was trying to play her with as much truth as possible.”

Moore says that while she disagrees with Palin’s politics, she does find the moose-hunting maverick “extremely charismatic” and is fascinated by how far that can take a candidate. “The movie makes the point that in politics, you need a star to win an election,” she says. “I find that very disheartening as a voter—and as an actor—because knowing what that system is, it’s not something I put a lot of stock in. Stardom is a quality, not a characteristic. At the end of the day, what we’re looking for as citizens is leadership, and often what the system gives us is entertainment. And that I find deeply disappointing.”

Moore herself has star quality aplenty, but in person, she’s friendly, funny and down to earth. When we meet at a cafĂ© near the Greenwich Village home she shares with her husband, director Bart Freundlich (Californication), and their children, she answers questions readily and is refreshingly frank about the joys of being a celebrity: “There’s no downside! None. I explain to my kids that I’m very, very lucky. When people stop me and I’m with my kids, I always say hello and am nice. My daughter will say, ‘That person was very nice, Mommy.’ ” And she confesses to being “the worst tweeter ever: boring and infrequent.” She takes the Fifth on only one subject—her first marriage, about which she says simply, “I was too young.” (She was 25 when she wed actor and stage director John Gould Rubin. They divorced nine years later, in 1995.)

If family and work are her priorities, friendship is a close third. “She is a very good girlfriend,” says actress Ellen Barkin. “She’s someone you can call up and share your happiness with or cry your eyes out for two hours.” The two have been close pals—Moore referred to Barkin as her “BFF” in a recent tweet—since they met backstage while visiting Ralph Fiennes when he was starring in Hamleton Broadway in 1995.

Told that both Barkin and Paulson had extolled her gift for friendship, Moore says, “I like women a lot. I’m always excited to find someone I can talk to and spend time with.” She is so pro-woman, in fact, that she dismisses celebrity magazines as harmful to them: “They encourage young women, and some middle-aged women, to be interested in somebody else’s narrative rather than their own. I don’t want my daughter or her friends to be interested in Jessica Simpson. I want them to be interested in what’s happening in their own lives.”

Given how strongly she identifies with women, she says, it was an eye opener, in a positive way, when her firstborn was a son: “The best thing to happen to me was that I had a boy, because then I was able to go, Oh, look, there are all these other people, and they count, too.”

Moore has gained insight into men by coming to appreciate their love of sports. “I married into it. I didn’t understand sports before,” she says. “I just thought it was a bunch of nonsense.” Now she believes that every player and team has a story. “It’s narrative,” she says, an epiphany that occurred when Freundlich told her, as they were watching a World Series game, that a player’s young son had died and he was pitching in memory of his child. “It’s men’s way of expressing emotion, and once you know that, for me it becomes incredibly dynamic.”

One man she’s bonded with (though not over sports) is Colin Firth, with whom she costarred in A Single Man.“ She’s one of the most fun people I’ve ever worked with,” says Firth. “She was such fun that the work itself became something of an interruption. We were so busy telling stories that when [director] Tom Ford said ‘Action,’ it was a bit of a distraction.”

Though Moore roots for New York teams now (she avidly talked up the Knicks with Jon Stewart on The Daily Show), she moved from place to place so often as a child that she could have accumulated a whole drawerful of home-team tees. She was born Julie Anne Smith—friends still call her Julie—in Fayetteville, North Carolina, where her father, Peter Moore Smith, an Army helicopter pilot and paratrooper, was based. He later became a mili­tary lawyer, judge and Army colonel. Moore’s Scottish-born mother, Anne Love Smith, was a psychiatric social worker. Her family, which soon included a brother and sister, pulled up stakes repeatedly for her father’s postings, among them overseas to Panama and Germany, an opportunity Moore now calls a gift. “The world is a much more global place than it was when we were growing up,” she says, “and I feel like I was given an avenue into it at a pretty young age.”

She became serious about acting while attending an American high school in Frankfurt, thanks to an English teacher who cast her in school productions of Tartuffe, Medeaand more. “She was the one who said, ‘You can do this for a living,’ ” recalls Moore. “I’d never known any actors or seen a real play except for high school plays, and the movies were very far away, so it had never occurred to me, but she encouraged me.” Moore applied to Boston University as a theater major and was accepted; her audition included a monologue from Butterflies Are Free and the song “I Cain’t Say No” from Oklahoma! “I wasn’t intimidated because I was so naive,” she says. “I mean, I was the only one there auditioning with my mother.”

She thrived at BU and, after graduating in 1983, moved to New York City, where she began winning parts in ­regional-theater productions and commercials. In 1985 she was hired to play dual roles on As the World Turns. Unlike some movie stars who have logged daytime duty, Moore fondly remembers her three years on the soap and her colleagues (including fellow up-and-comers Marisa Tomei and Steven Weber). “I averaged 4.5 episodes a week and worked really hard. I gained confidence and learned how to take responsibility for the work,” she says. She also won a Daytime Emmy in 1988 (beating out Robin Wright and Lauren Holly, among others). If anyone doubts her sincerity, know that when ATWT was canceled in 2010 after 54 years on TV, Moore returned for a farewell cameo.

But her film career has taken her far away from the soaps. Stardom came after she landed a trio of showy roles in a quick succession of memorable independent movies: Short Cuts (1993), Vanya on 42nd Street(1994) and Safe (1995). “They all came out at once, and I suddenly had this profile. It was amazing,” she says.

Once Moore became a star, she stayed one. “She’s a real hard worker,” says Barkin. “Julie makes things happen for herself. She’s not waiting to get lucky, and I don’t think she ever was.” Mark Ruffalo, who costarred with Moore in Blindness and The Kids Are All Right, also emphasizes her determination. “I would describe her acting style as one hand in a boxing glove and the other in an elbow-high velvet glove,” he says. “She has something pretty damn fierce about her, forward leaning and aggressive. At the same time, she is filled with exquisite poise.”

Even Alec Baldwin, he of the tart tongue and tarter tweets, has only compliments: “Julianne brings a beauty, warmth and intelligence to everything she does,” he says of the woman his Jack Donaghy wooed on 30 Rock. “Even when she is playing a middle-aged single mom who ‘sweeps dead squirrels off the porch.’ ”

Over the years, Moore has picked roles in more winners than clunkers. Her secret to sifting cinematic gold? “I’m a really good reader,” she says. “Sometimes I think if I’d followed what interested me, I’d have ended up a librarian or an English teacher. When I started acting in high school, it just felt like reading aloud. So when I read a script now, when I can hear it and it comes alive, it’s like, This script is great! I’ll do this.”

Back in 1996, one script she loved on first read was The Myth of Fingerprints, a family drama written by Freundlich, then an aspiring director and nine years her junior. She signed on and found herself scheduled to do her most difficult, emotional scenes at the start of shooting. “I was very focused. Then, when I’d done all of that, I woke up at the end of the first week and went, ‘Oh, he’s cute,’ ” she says, laughing. “So it kind of happened then.”

What happened was that the two became involved, her first (and last) on-set affair with a director. A romance between actress and director seemed to Moore a show business clichĂ©; she says, “I was hugely embarrassed about it, so I tried to keep it a secret. Ellen knew. I was on the phone with her and I wouldn’t admit it, but she knew and she was going, ‘Don’t do it.’ But I always say, it all worked out. We stayed together, and we have these kids together.”

The couple wed in 2003 with their offspring in attendance. Barkin, who had been at the hospital with Moore for Caleb’s birth and rubbed her feet when she was in labor with Liv, lent her friend a pair of long, dangly diamond earrings for the wedding. “It was the something borrowed,” says Barkin. “She looked beautiful.”

Moore says she and her husband realized on their most recent wedding anniversary that they’ve now been hitched longer than they lived together pre-ceremony. “We were like, ‘Wow, we did it!’ Marriage is commitment; it’s the ultimate challenge. It’s a very mature, adult kind of thing to do, to say I choose to have a household with you, children with you, to spend time with you.” And that gets her back, as so many things do, to the idea of narrative. “Family is the ultimate narrative,” she says. “It gives a story to your life in a remarkable way. And a witness.”

HER FAMILY focus is so strong that she celebrated a recent birthday by going to Paris with her husbandandkids, because the couple couldn’t bear to leave them behind. And yet most years, Moore manages to act in two or three movies; Being Flynn opens March 2. She also appears in advertising campaigns, saying the lucrative paychecks from companies such as Talbots, Bulgari, Revlon and Coach enable her to take roles in microbudget indie films.

Her nonacting activities are so extensive that she clearly could teach a course in time management. Maybe even to beavers. She volunteers for Save the Children, Planned Parenthood and the Human Rights Campaign (which advocates for marriage equality, among other goals). And she writes children’s books, including the best-selling semi­autobiographical series Freckleface Strawberry, about a girl with red hair. The first Freckleface book has been adapted to a long-running Off-Broadway musical, and a non-Freckle kids’ book is in the works. This backup career, she says, “isn’t terribly remunerative, but it’s a lot of fun.”

Moore’s identity appears to be cheerfully grounded in reality, and that attitude extends to the question of plastic surgery. She hasn’t had it and doesn’t plan to: “I feel that, with a few exceptions, people always look like they’ve had surgery; they don’t look any younger. I’m 51, and no matter what I do to my face, I’m still going to be 51.

“Age is about life span, about the journey we take,” she says, and then returns to her favorite trope. “It gets back to narrative: You have to be where you are in your story and enjoy it for what it is.” And with that she departs, heading home to add another page to the unfolding story of her life.

LEAH ROZEN, a former movie critic at People magazine, has profiled Lisa Kudrow and Naomi Watts for More.

 

Click here to read MORE's cover story on Naomi Watts.

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First Published Tue, 2012-01-31 16:05

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