Julianne Moore is never afraid to stand up for what she believes in, on-screen and off. The Oscar-winning actress talks to Stylist about family, politics and the battle for gay rights
Words: Stephanie Rafanelli
Photography: Ruven Afanador
New York feels dark today. An epic snow storm is hurtling towards Manhattan, the presidential campaign is ramping up, with all its associated power games and smear tactics. For someone like Julianne Moore – actress, pro-choicer, LGBT rights supporter, gun control campaigner and vociferous political tweeter – it might feel as if the apocalypse is just around the corner. Hence why I’m waiting for her to charge through the door of her homey Greenwich local like a flame-haired Boudicca, Donald Trump’s head on a stick, whose politics are the antithesis to everything she holds most dear. But it turns out she’s too smart for that.
When she blows in with the pre-blizzard wind – in a black mohair beanie and shearling jacket – she is only unsettled because she is six minutes late (for which she apologises profusely). If she is concerned about Trump’s campaign to de-fund Planned Parenthood (a women’s clinic for which she sits on the board), abolish gun-free zones in schools and repeal Obamacare, she is the model of self-control. “I will not discuss that man,” she says calmly, ordering her usual: jasmine tea and a spinach omelette. This neighbourhood bistro is the extended living room of her townhouse around the corner and the staff are all on first name terms with her. “You know why? Because that’s exactly what he wants. I refuse to give him any airtime. The more we give him, the more he loves it. If nobody ever wrote about him, or photographed him, if the media just shut him down, what would happen?” She’s clearly got a cool head on her.
But not a cold heart. Moore has already re-scheduled our interview time from yesterday (I was incapacitated by food poisoning) – and today she showers me with maternal concern and warm curiosity, sharing stories of family bugs and pictures of her children Caleb, 18, and Liv, 13, on her iPhone. She presents herself as the domestically anchored ‘Julie’ who insists on the humdrum nature of her life. “I don’t think what I do is so terribly unusual. It’s not any different from what anyone else in this restaurant does for a living,” she insists. So ordinary is this exchange, it’s easy to forget the extraordinariness she is capable of.
The gap between the very functional, level-headed Moore and her roles – women shipwrecked, drowning in suppressed emotion – has confounded journalists and directors alike. Her husband, director Bart Freundlich (they’ve been together for 20 years), describes her capacity to self-ignite and burn wildly in another life, as “like a pilot light – this little flame inside her.” It’s true, I sense something in her flickering quietly away: the presence of ‘Julianne’ the forensic observer, with a gift for the language beyond words. It is this part I feel is scanning me, as she chats away warmly, trying to read me, searching for some emotional honesty with which to connect. Because of this, a lump in my throat rears up and for a second I feel a weird wave of emotion wash over me and then subside.
Moore’s ability to drill down deep into her characters – however stifled (The Hours), narcotically compromised (Boogie Nights and Magnolia), monstrously self-absorbed (The Big Lebowski), unhinged (Sarah Palin in HBO’s Game Change), or reeling (the martini-soaked queen bee in Tom Ford’s A Single Man) – has enabled to her portray a seemingly infinite range of women, neck-deep in the messy business of life. She shot an entire scene naked from the below the waist (her film break, in Robert Altman’s Short Cuts in 1993) and simulated oral sex on Annette Bening in The Kids Are Alright in 2010. Ordinary is certainly not a word you’d use to describe her work.
She is peerless in Hollywood and indie films alike for both boundary-nudging fierceness and on-screen restraint – and for being able to break through the barriers that have hemmed in so many female leads over 40. Now 55, she has received four Oscar nods – she finally won Best Actress for her portrayal of the profound loss Alzheimer’s disease causes in Still Alice last year.
Moore’s gift for sliding in and out of identities was honed out of necessity in childhood. Born in Fort Bragg, North Carolina, the eldest daughter of a Scottish social worker and an army pilot, she moved 20 times and passed through nine schools before she was 18, ending up in Frankfurt. Her very survival depended on hypersensitive observation: identifying local dialects, mannerisms and social codes and adapting herself to fit in, unnoticed. Meanwhile, she absorbed a strong sense of justice and an empathy for the emotionally troubled from her parents. Her mother retrained as a psychiatrist and her father went on to serve as a military judge.
Just as Moore is both lion-hearted and humane on-screen, so she is in her life. When her films shine a torch on contemporary issues, she is bold enough to stand up and speak out in the spotlight. In the wake of the Newton school massacre in Connecticut in 2012, in which 20 primary school children were killed, she mobilised her Hollywood friends through her campaign Everytown For Gun Safety. Moore’s performances often give human faces to her social concerns. In her latest film, Freeheld, an adaptation of the 2007 documentary of the same name, she plays closeted New Jersey cop Laurel Hester who, in the throes of stage-four lung cancer, battles for the right to leave her police pension to her domestic partner Stacie Andree (Ellen Page). The case in 2006 helped pave the way for the federal vote in favour of same-sex marriage in the US, but for Moore, it is ultimately “a love story that in its demise became this great political act”.
Same-sex marriage became legal in the US in June 2015, but you filmed Freeheld in October 2014, when its sanctioning hung in the balance. Did it add urgency to the story?
This movie [produced by Ellen Page] took about eight years to get made. So when script development first began gay marriage wasn’t even a possibility. When the decision was made it was a moment of real jubilation. It was Gay Pride, and I walked through the crowds in New York’s West Village, on the way to meet my husband. Barack Obama issued this beautiful statement, something like, “When we are all more equal we are all more free.” When you think about how far we have come in such a short time: what happened to Laurel and Stacie only happened 10 years ago.
Did this film have an agenda for you?
I’m attracted to story, narrative always comes first. If you don’t tell a very human story, it won’t serve your agenda, whatever it is. This is ultimately a story of how the personal is political. We think of politics as being far-removed from us. But really the government makes decisions about how we live, and there is nothing more personal and political than who you love, make a home and a life with. It’s a human-rights issue.
This film was very personal for Ellen Page who came out at 26. Did that enrich your understanding of hiding one’s sexuality?
Ellen is an extraordinary individual – and was so genuine and open about her experiences as a closeted gay woman and as an out gay woman. And the joy that she felt at being able to portray Stacie, a character of the same sexuality, was palpable and exciting. I was honoured to be a part of that with her.
Laurel’s appeal to have her pension passed to Stacie is repeatedly refused. It made me think of the frustration Barack Obama experienced over gun-control laws. How did you feel when he wept while announcing new measures to strengthen gun-control laws?
Everyone’s just had it. We’ve had it. There have been too many tragedies. It’s absolutely ridiculous. So all of us who believe in gun safety, we’re thrilled to see how personally he took it – and it’s exactly how we all feel. When you’re instituting change, it’s not sexy, it’s not fast. Like same-sex marriage, it will slowly happen, little by little. That’s what I’m trying to do with Everytown. I went through all my contact books, emailed every friend I had and asked, “Would you be willing to lend your name to this organisation? Would you be willing to tweet about this?” Amy Schumer was the first person to say yes. It’s a matter of changing culture by speaking out and saying, “This is enough”. But it will be a long, hard slog.
‘Celebrity’ is an important force in American politics, and is increasing in the UK…
In America and the UK we have this unrealistic expectation that our politicians should be as charismatic as movie stars. That idea is dangerous for us all. Historically, that’s how things happen again and again: how a leader who is potentially unprepared or even dangerous – like Hitler – can come to power. So it is to our detriment that we respond to a type of charisma.
In that context, do you feel that people with a public profile have a duty to speak out on political issues?
Yes, absolutely. I don’t get involved in politics as a leader in any sense, but as a member of the community, which is what we encourage in the United States: we’re a democracy so everybody has a voice. If anything, I feel like I very much represent women of my age and demographic, women who have a job and have children.
As a Democrat, are you supporting Bernie Sanders or Hillary Clinton?
I’m for Hillary. I think it’s very important for America to have a female president. My friend [feminist writer] Gloria Steinem says that culturally we are used to seeing women in positions of authority [in politics], but it still seems unusual to us. Until we see something, until it’s happened in our country, it’s not real. So it’s definitely time.
One of Hillary’s campaign topics is equal pay. Should Hollywood be setting an example with transparency, with male actors such as Bradley Cooper disclosing their fee?
Well, the only reason he did it was because Jennifer Lawrence did. But I say, “Good for him for responding”. But this problem is not endemic to Hollywood, look at what female journalists are paid.
Indeed. Journalism is rife with sexism. Do you get annoyed by being asked about your weight, age, botox, being an ‘older’ actress?
I’ve been asked those questions consistently since I was 30. Maybe they think that sells magazines. But do people really want to know? I mean, it’s hard to find a great part. Period. Hollywood is not in the business of looking for roles for actors, they’re looking for something that will make as much money as possible.
Looking at the all-white Oscar nominations this year, Hollywood doesn’t seem to be in the business of racial equality either.
That was very unfortunate. I think Straight Outta Compton should have been nominated. I think Idris Elba should have been nominated [for Beasts Of No Nation]. Samuel Jackson definitely should have been nominated [for The Hateful Eight]. The voting process is very shrouded, but what they say about the Academy Awards is that it skews very heavily towards white and male, so that might be what we are seeing.
In your films, there’s often a ‘breakdown’ when your characters’ emotions come to the surface. Do you cry often in real life?
My kids say that I do. My daughter’s like, “You always cry!” But I think I get emotional around them, especially on their birthdays. My son just turned 18, and it was really challenging. I was so emotional the few days around it. I think because of time passing so fast. He was my first child, and he was my little guy for such a long time – and now, he’s not. He’s got a life and a girlfriend. Eighteen feels more symbolic than 21, because this is the beginning: soon he’ll have his foot out of the door and be going to university. He still doesn’t know what he wants to do.
Before you discovered acting, you wanted to be a doctor…
I had an emergency appendectomy recently. I was in terrible pain. I went into hospital, and I was there for eight hours until they diagnosed it as appendicitis. The pain was awful but I had so much fun being in hospital. There was a lot of drama. I loved talking to the nurses. And there was a mystery all the way along: they take tests and they observe you, they make a discovery. I did think, ‘Maybe I would like to go medical school’. But I don’t know if I’d be strong enough. I have a friend who’s an emergency room physician and it astonishes me the stuff he sees. It’s really tough.
But what you do must be tough sometimes. You lift the skin of often troubled characters to look inside and see what’s wrong.
In a sense, with acting, what you hope you are doing is illuminating something about humans, so someone in the audience can say, “That’s me, that’s my story”.