Nobody does women on the verge of a nervous breakdown quite like Julianne Moore . But away from the cameras , the four-time Oscar–nominated movie queen couldn’ t be more in control. She takes Matt Mueller on a tour of her neighbourhood and talks ocd , buying dog beds and how to deal with difficult directors: “Fuck ’em …”
Moore hides behind her hand. It’s almost an awkward moment. But she’s joking: as she explains all the time to her two children by filmmaker husband Bart Freundlich – Caleb, 10, and Liv, 6 – when they see her face on a magazine: “I’m on the cover because it’s part of my job.” First things first: she’s got a frantic day so would I mind accompanying her after breakfast to pick up a dog bed for the new beach house in Montauk, Long Island? “I’m trying to pack everything in! Is that okay?” she says. Moore’s schedule is certainly packed.
This summer she has two films out in as many months: Savage Grace and Blindness. The latter is an allegorical tale about a city struck by a plague of sightlessness. Moore’s character plays God in a quarantined community: “My character’s no saint. There’s a moment in the movie where I really get to scream at people unnecessarily and I really loved doing it!” In Savage Grace, she plays the narcissistic, neurotic Barbara Baekeland; a real-life socialite who blundered through jet-set circles with her ruined son Tony in tow, before they started having sex and he finally flipped and stabbed her to death. One of the film’s most shocking moments has Moore straddle her on-screen son with a thrillingly casual insouciance that immediately reminds you why she has been a magnet for a string of world-class filmmakers over the past 15 years. “People ask all the time if sex scenes and nudity are hard,” she laughs good-naturedly. “What’s hard? Not the lines or the physicality, but the emotion.”
On screen Moore is the unrivalled queen of exposing hairline cracks in fragile, ethereal façades (she is often better than Streep, who signposts every shift; and always better than Kidman, whose alabaster face increasingly has an eerie, frozen quality). Magnolia’s suicidal trophy wife; Amber Waves, Boogie Nights’ caring porn star; The Hours’ tortured housefrau; the Stepford Wife whose life is shattered by forbidden love in Far From Heaven. With so many troubled souls on one CV it almost comes as a surprise to discover that there’s not a whiff of tragedy about Moore in person. On the contrary, an audience with the actress is in a strange way a bit like having a glass of sherry with your headmistress on your very last day of school. When I ask whether director Fernando Meirelles wanted to meet up before casting her in Blindness, Moore smiles faintly and doesn’t immediately answer. Message: she’s way beyond that. “I just got the offer,” she explains. “Every once in a while somebody wants to meet you but, at this point, they kind of know your work…” You’ve proved yourself? “Who knows? Yeah. I don’t know but… yeah. Should we go get the dog bed? Let’s go get the dog bed!”
Born Julie Anne Smith in Fort Bragg, North Carolina, Moore’s father was a US military court judge who dragged the family through 23 moves. The nomadic life, she has said, made her “adaptable but needy, flexible but neurotic”. Apart from the constant uprooting, she says her family life was a happy one. “People have this impression of growing up in the military as being disciplinary and dysfunctional, like the family in The Great Santini,” she says. “Not at all.” But while Moore insists hers was not the clichéd army childhood of Robert Duvall’s Marine offspring – locker inspections and lights out at eight– something of the controlled environment did affect the adult Julie. Back in the early 90s, when Moore was just another struggling actress doing television and bit parts in movies like The Hand That Rocked The Cradle, she abided by what she calls “the lucky way”. She’d leave her apartment at exactly the same time every day and follow exactly the same route to work, adjusting her walking speed where necessary so she never had to stop at a light to cross a road. “I finally abandoned it because I just didn’t have time any more,” she laughs, shrugging off my suggestion that she might have been suffering from ocd.
Cinematically, she didn’t make her mark until she was in her early thirties, when Robert Altman offered her the part of a tormented artist in 1993’s Short Cuts. It changed everything. Moore famously delivered an eviscerating monologue to husband Matthew Modine whilst naked from the waist down. Moore still doesn’t understand all the fuss. “Bob [Altman] told me the part was controversial,” she says. “But I really didn’t think there would be any issue and then there was this tremendous outpouring, like, ‘Why did you do this?’ I was like, ‘What’s the big deal?’ It was not at all salacious, not even sexual. I don’t know if it’s because at the time I was unknown but there was a period where no one could talk about anything else. Which was dumb.” Short Cuts put Moore firmly on the independent film radar and, in the early days, she pushed herself hard. In 1995 she shed 10lbs from her already slight frame to play the super-allergic, alien-like housewife in Safe, convincing director Todd Haynes that she was actually anorexic. Now she wouldn’t go as far, although she did dye her hair blonde for Blindness – the first time in her career she hasn’t opted for a wig. “I thought, ‘This’ll be fun,’ but I hated it!” she blurts. “I was bizarrely visible – people would yell at me as if there was a light shining on my head. The minute I wrapped, I came home and dyed it back to red. I was more strongly identified with my hair colour than I thought.” In minutes, we are back where we started. A friendly smile. A cordial handshake. No false intimacies. A job well done. And she disappears behind the blood-red door.
Photography: Miguel Riveriego
Fashion: Grace Cobb
Words: Matt Mueller
A full version of this article first appeared in Wonderland #14, September/October 2008