Julianne Moore has been having a great fall season. In September, her latest film “Still Alice” premiered in Toronto with close to no hype and emerged as one of the biggest hits of the festival thanks to deafening awards buzz for her devastating performance as a renowned linguistics professor struggling with early onset Alzheimer’s. Sony Pictures Classics swooped in to acquire the film out of the festival, all but ensuring that Moore will go on to net an Oscar nomination — and in all likelihood finally take home the award following four previous nominations and no wins. She’s already netted multiple awards for “Still Alice” including Best Actress at the Gotham and Hollywood Film Awards, and just yesterday Moore was nominated for two Golden Globes for her work in “Still Alice” and David Cronenberg’s Hollywood satire “Maps to the Stars.”
Moore spoke with Indiewire about the work that went into her portrayal of the disease and about working with co-star Kristen Stewart, who plays her daughter in the film. The film opens January 16 in select theaters. I caught this film back at the Toronto International Film Festival, and it totally floored me. I don’t think I’ve cried that much in my entire life, let alone in two hours.
Oh, thanks for that. That is really nice to hear! Thank you, I’m so glad! That’s one of the things about this movie is how touched people are by it, and I do feel like it’s genuine. It’s not forced in terms of peoples’ reactions. It’s not like the movie is trying to make you cry, it’s just people really connect to it. Which is nice.
I’m sure you’ve encountered people on the press tour who know or have known people with Alzheimer’s. What’s that been like to hear people’s stories and how the film touched them?
It’s been kind of remarkable. I got a note from a friend of mine’s wife saying she’d had a family member with Alzheimer’s too, and she suddenly felt close to her. And felt like she understood something about the experience. For me, all the research that I did — people have this notion that with Alzheimer’s, somehow the “self” disappears. They’re like, “That’s not the person I knew,” and “Somehow the self has gone away, somehow they’re not present anymore.” But in all my research and dealings with people, I’ve found the opposite. The people, they were changed, certainly, but their personality somehow remained. That was really, tremendously moving to me.
Do you know anyone personally who suffered with Alzheimer’s in your life?
I don’t, I don’t. I’m really, really very lucky — that hasn’t been something that’s affected my family.
One of the film’s two directors, Richard [Glatzer] has ALS. And I’m curious what that lent to your process — to work with somebody who’s going through that struggle every day, who went through that struggle on set with you.
Well yeah, that’s the thing! I mean, basically, Rich and Wash [Westmoreland] — what’s happening in their life, is Richard also has a progressive, degenerative disease. It doesn’t affect him cognitively, it affects him physically. But the idea of having to continue with your life to try to remain in touch with what is essentially yourself — your desires, and the kind of life that you want to lead while dealing with the disease… that’s very much what Rich and Wash are going through, as a couple. Basically, we were on set every day, all of us — and in a situation where people were living the story! Which is very unusual. That very rarely happens. It was also strenuous physically. We didn’t have any heat, we shot the whole thing in three-and-a-half weeks. The food was terrible, there was one bathroom…and here was Rich, who could no longer speak, was communicating through an iPad, had lots of challenges, who was there every day to tell the story. We were very, very inspired — all of us. And you know, the great thing about Richard — Richard and Wash — he’s smart! He’s on top of it. He’s very, very present. He sometimes perceives himself as worrying about slowing people down with his iPad. It’s like, “You didn’t. Not at all. You were amazingly fast, and accurate and concise.”
How did you approach portraying the scope of the disease in such a compressed amount of time?
It was completely dependent on the amount of research I did. I couldn’t have done this movie — there was no way I was going to be able to figure out what to do with this movie — unless I’d had the proper amount of time to do research. Thankfully, I worked on it for about four months. I started research while I was doing [“The Hunger Games”] “Mockingjay.” I started watching every doc I could get my hands on. Every film, every documentary, every interview. So, there, once I got back to the city, I started with the head of the national Alzheimer’s Association, Elizabeth Gelfand Stearns, to talk about her experiences. And then they set up these Skype calls with three women across the country — all who had been diagnosed with early onset, or what they call “younger onset,” which means before the age of 65. And the youngest person I spoke to was a woman named Sandy Oltz, who was diagnosed at 45, which was was astonishing. From there, I went to Mount Sinai and spoke to Dr. Mary Sano, who is head the Alzheimer’s research there — and some of the other researches and clinicians. And I had a neuropsychiatrist administer the cognitive tests, which are extensive and shockingly difficult [laughs]. Then I went to the New York Alzheimer’s Association and met with the support group there, and spoke to the women in the groups about their feelings and experiences. And then from there, went to a long-term care facility and met people who were really pretty declined. So it was four months.
One of the things I said to Rich and Wash was: I didn’t want to represent anything onscreen that I hadn’t actually witnessed, because it wasn’t fair, you know? If I didn’t understand something, I’d ask somebody. When I spoke to the women in the support groups, I’d say, like: “Well, what does this feel like? What does it feel like to be lost? What does it feel like to not understand whether a door opens in or out? Or not know what a handle is called? Who helps you? What are your mnemonic devices?” It was fascinating. And people were so incredibly generous with their time. And Sandy and I became friends. I’d email her about something and she’d say “Oh, I just thought of something else!” And she’d email me back again. And she spent her 50th birthday on our set, actually. Which was kind of cool, because I was like “You should come the day I do the speech!” And she goes, “What day is that?” And I gave her the date and she says, “That’s my 50th birthday!” I’m like, “Well then you have to come!” So she came, and we got her cake and sang.
I’m guessing you didn’t shoot this chronologically.
No. [laughs] No way. Like with every movie you shoot by location, in this instance Kristen [Stewart] and I shot the last scene of the movie of the ninth day, because that was in the interior of the house. So we kind of had to shoot that before we got anywhere near the end. So it’s challenging, definitely.
How did you map out Alice’s gradual loss of memory? It’s so expertly modulated in the film, but that must have posed such a huge challenge for you.
Thank you, it did! As I was saying before, if I hadn’t done the research — not that I understand what it’s like to have Alzheimer’s, anything I had any question about, I asked. I wouldn’t do any behavior I hadn’t witnessed. There would be times Rich, and Wash and I were talking about something. I remember there was something in the movie where I’d be looking and something and think, “I don’t understand that behavior. I don’t know what I’m looking at.” And we came up with the thing about tying her shoe, working really hard to tie her shoe. And I did see people working very hard to complete actions that seemed to be simple actions. So, it was always about that. Trying to be really specific, and just think about what I wanted to do in each scene. I went to the script a gazillion times, so that when we were shooting it, there was no question about what I would be doing. So I just kind of kept in my head that way.
The film touches upon some primal fears that we all have. The loss of memory, the fear of death. When I last interviewed you I asked if acting ever scares you. You said “No,” and that skiing scares you.
[Laughs] That’s right! It’s true.
Did this challenge of getting inside her head scare you in any way? I can’t imagine it didn’t.
Actually, it was kind of the reverse. People talked about that too — “Did you bring home the fear and did you bring home the sadness?” Actually, no. It kind of puts your life into relief. And what I brought home was the joy, and the love and the hope. And the idea that this is valuable. That we are all living lives of great value, and I come home and think how lucky I was to have a great husband and wonderful children, and how lucky I was to shoot in my hometown, and to work with these wildly creative people. It just made me appreciate everything I have. Rather than being afraid, I felt kind of joyful and appreciative of everything I’ve gotten to experience.
About the way you work, I interviewed Kristen Stewart yesterday, who I think is so tremendous in this film. She spoke of how she kind of works in a similar way to you, and how she was happy to learn that. Did you two really bond on set, and how did she — as a young actress — surprise you?
You know, I’m not surprised by Kristen at all. And people keep asking me that question, but they don’t know that I’ve known Kristen since she was 12 years old. [Laughs] So she made a movie with my husband when she was 12, and I can remember when he was casting it, and he’s like: “This is the girl I want to work with. This girl is extraordinary. She is going to be a huge star, she’s a major talent.” So there was never any question in my mind that Kristen wouldn’t — I always knew how special she was. What was a pleasure for me, working with her, is to witness somebody that’s got that enormous reserve of emotion at their fingertips. It’s just right there. She has a tremendous amount of feeling. It was a joy to sit there and watch her access it. There were times when I was working with her — when I could see her, her face would flush. I’d see the feeling in her eyes. I also — you know she’s only 24 years old, and she’s a young person. But she has a remarkable degree of maturity and compassion. So watching her in those scenes — we’re kind of talking about how we both have a dual focus when we work. I’m able to be in, it, hopefully, but also kind of watch it at the same time. I remember watching her in the scene where she’s on the computer and registering what I’m doing, and I was just stunned by the amount of compassion in her performance. I thought it was really, really beautiful.
Jennifer Lawrence, who you recently worked with, also shares that quality. Both actresses made their names via big film franchises. You came up through the ranks in a very different way. How do you think you would’ve handled the spotlight at such a young age?
When I first started out, I started out in daytime television. Which is a whole other thing. So you were able to really develop without people watching your every move. I don’t really know how I would’ve been. I think these two are remarkable. They’re remarkable in their intelligence, their talent and their poise. And their choices. I think they’ve both made really, really compelling choices. And I think they have an awareness of what these big movies have given them. But they also have their eye on longevity, and a real desire to be actors. Even though they’re both these mega-stars, they’re both very much interested. And they value the work. I’m tremendously impressed with both of them.