Julianne Moore has played her fair share of troubled mothers over the course of her incredibly prolific and illustrious career, most memorably as the real-life incestuous socialite Barbara Daly Baekeland in “Savage Grace,” who was murdered by her own son. Susanna, the rock star mother she plays in Scott McGehee and David Siegel’s heartbreaking modern-day adaption of Henry James’ novel “What Maisie Knew,” doesn’t go to such salacious extremes, but she’s no less abusive in the way she subtly manipulates her young girl’s burgeoning emotions after being denied sole custody following a bitter battle with her ex-husband (Steve Coogan).
Indiewire sat down with Moore in New York to discuss the appeal in playing such a woman, how she developed her character’s rock sound, the challenge of working opposite such a young co-star, and whether she ever revisits her own work. “What Maisie Knew” is currently playing in New York and expands May 17.
From what I’ve gauged, the majority of critics have deemed Susanna to be an unlikeable character. How do you view her?
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She’s a terrible mother, terrible mother. It’s her inconsistency that is really more dangerous than anything else, the fact that she smothers her [Maisie, played by Onata Aprile] with affection and love and then is completely absent or withdraws and is angry. That kind of inconsistency is really abusive, you can’t do that to kids. The one thing that kids need is consistency. It would’ve almost been better for Maisie if she was just absent because then could go, “Well my mom’s not around, period.” But to have that kind of back and forth kind of stuff is just crazy.
I viewed her as somebody who’s primary relationship was with her music. That’s the tragedy of her — she doesn’t have the ability to have a relationship with her daughter, her husband, her boyfriend, whatever. She’s simply a musician and that comes first for her. That’s her way of communicating too, when she sings to Maisie, when she brings her into the recording booth, when she says let’s do a duet together; all of those things are her effort of connecting, the only way she knows how.
You’ve played your fair share of flawed characters. How do you get to the center of these people and tell their stories truthfully without judging them from the outside?
Sometime you do judge them (laughs). I think I definitely judged Susanna. But that doesn’t mean I can’t play her. I mean you try to figure out what they know about themselves, what they don’t know about, why they think it’s okay to do what they do. You’re always just trying to figure out what that behavior is about.
Susanna is someone who feels very slighted and has kind of an empty hole. That last line, “I used to be just like you,” — I feel like that’s what her mother was like. She probably thought she was capable of having a child and making life different for that child and she’s just realized she’s not. All of Susanna’s need to be loved, all that has gone into her music. So she feels that stuff she has to have, that’s what feeds her.
As Susanna, you had to play these tough going scenes wtih Onata, who’s so remarable in this. How did you approach those scenes with her?
I’d say to her, “We’re going to do this scene,” you know we’d hang around and talk about regular stuff and I’d say, “I might talk really quietly for a while and then yell at the end really loud. Then maybe somebody will slam a door, or I might cry in this scene. It’s not real. I’m crying, but I’m not upset it’s just acting, so know that.” One scene where I was crying she went, “You did, you really cried!” I’d say to her,” Is it okay if I pick you up? I’m going to pick you up and kiss you.” You know, so I always tried to let her know exactly what I was doing when I was doing it so she felt safe that she knew was what going on.
Did you always check in with her after the scene was wrapped to make sure she was okay?
Yeah absolutely, absolutely. Usually afterward we’d laugh. I think she felt comfortable and safe. The worst thing you could do is scare a kid or trick them. Never ever, ever do that.
Have you ever seen that happen on set?
Can you tell me about it?
No. But I don’t mean it that way. I mean actually, yeah, I feel like sometimes kids are put in positions, I feel like it’s my responsibility to look out for kids when they’re on set. That’s just a parent, as a fellow actor, I try to look out for the kids.
You make for a great rock-star in this! How did you develop your sound?
Thank you! Our sound person Pete was great. I did it in his studio and he recommended this woman, Elaine Caswell, who’s a singer and really cool person who came over and just encouraged me to sing. They were so supportive, so supportive and so kind and Alison Mosshart very nicely allowed us to use these songs by The Kills. Everybody was really great. It was terrifying. Pete would record it and then we’d re-record it and work on it and it was hard (laughs). It was actually fun. It was fun because it was so, so different for me. I’d never played a musician before.
Did you follow any bands to try to get a sense of their lifestyle?
I looked at a lot of Patti Smith and I watched a bunch of things on Courtney Love and Hole. And Alison, I looked at her stuff too because she’s such a cool person and has such a great look and a great sound — so those are really the three.
You must’ve met a lot of these people over the course of your career.
Some of them. I’m not much of a, you know, I don’t go out a lot. I’ve met some people. The musicians that I’ve met have all been very lovely, normal people. It’s that thing about sometimes those superstars are kind of the nicest, easiest ones of all.On Vulture they posted an exclusive clip of you performing on stage at Webster Hall two years ago during the shoot of “Maisie.”
(Laughs) Oh god!
I didn’t know while watching the movie that you had to perform at a real live concert.
Well we didn’t, I’m sure they’re making it look like that. In the movie when she looks at the video footage, that’s what we shot, we shot that for video footage. We had extras there, but we probably had like 15 people, but they moved them around and made it look like a crowd. So I did perform with a band on stage and we shot it different ways. I guess that’s what they’re. That’s interesting, that’s funny, but that’s the footage. Ahh! Oh god!
Take me back to when you got on stage to perform. Even though it wasn’t a full concert, it must have been a nerve-wracking experience.
It was and I made myself sick too because I wanted to have a cigarette through the whole thing. You can see me sort of singing and smoking. At the beginning of every take you have to have a cigarette — you have the match right — so we would always start at the beginning of the song and at the beginning I would light the cigarette. And it was 9 o’clock in the morning and I don’t smoke, I mean I smoked years ago, but I don’t anymore. After a while I was like, “Somebody please light this for me I can’t light them anymore.” I was physically sick!
Susanna fits into the long line of challenging characters you’ve conquered since beginning in the industry. Does anything scare you anymore?
Skiing. It scares me. I’m terrified of skiing — I don’t do that anymore I quit. I skied for five years, downhill, I hated it every time. I decided I’m not doing it anymore I’m just too scared, it’s not fun for me!
But I make this joke: I always say, “Well people say that you’re being brave as an actor, that means that you must be afraid of doing it.” Frankly acting doesn’t scare me because I really enjoy it. Skiing scares me. Those five years that I was trying to ski I felt like I was being brave because every single second I was terrified. I don’t feel that way when I’m acting, I enjoy it. I like it when it’s challenging and sometimes it’s nerve-wracking, like the singing in this was really nerve-wracking and learning how to do it with Pete, that was hard. But I don’t have the same crazy fear about it.
Have you reached a point in your career where when offered a role like Sarah Palin in “Game Change,” you go to yourself, “I got this.”
No, I don’t think anyone ever feels that way. I think every part’s a challenge and you also never know if you’re going to pull it off. Even in the midst of doing something you might think, “Well I think it’s going to be like this, but it may not work out.” You may not be able to manifest it the way you hoped you’d manifest it. I think it’s always a challenge and it’s always in the doing of it too, once it’s done it’s done, you’ve kind of moved on. You’re like, “Well what can I do this time with this character in these circumstances.” It’s never a sure thing.
Are you one to revisit your performances?
No. You know it’s funny I went to see the Andre Gregory movie, the documentary that his wife made about him. It’s called “Andre Gregory: Before and After Dinner.” I went to the premiere because I worked with Andre years ago and I love him. There’s a clip in there from “Uncle Vanya on 42nd Street” and I haven’t seen “Vanya,” I mean that clip, in 18 years. I was shocked. It was pretty alarming to see that.