For such an ethereal beauty, Julianne Moore has managed to take her career into some seriously dark places, where graphic sex is de rigueur and every moment she’s on screen is tense with excruciating vulnerability.
Whether she’s the monstrous (and incestuous) mother in the 2007 drama Savage Grace or the lovelorn gynecologist making out with Amanda Seyfried’s call girl in last spring’s Chloe, Moore spares nothing. Try not to cringe as you watch her methodically map out the “money shot” as Amber Waves, the porn star with the mommy complex in Boogie Nights. Even her trio of tragic housewives in 1995’s Safe, and later, her Oscar-nominated turns in The Hours and Far From Heaven, inspire something akin to horror in their sexually repressed banality.
Moore says, “My characters aren’t generally heroic or anything.”
Now comes Moore’s take on bourgeois lesbian life as stay-at-home mom Jules in Lisa Cholodenko’s comic drama The Kids Are All Right, opening today. Here we see an au naturel Moore, bra-less in faded rock T-shirts and vowel-mangling California accent. She has some of the best lines in the film and a monologue that feels award-worthy.
But soon, she’s pushing the audience into intensely intimate moments where Moore’s expertise is most evident. One minute, she’s gamely burying her head in Annette Bening’s crotch as her tightly wound partner gropes valiantly for her libido. Then later, she’s explaining to her teenaged son why his mothers prefer gay male porn. Next, she’s on all fours, her auburn hair swaying loosely around her face as Mark Ruffalo feigns some convincing sexual acrobatics behind her.
To hear Moore dissect that last scene, she was as much the voyeur of the moment as the participant. She and Ruffalo (and Ruffalo’s wife) are friends, she said, having spent their time on 2008’s Blindness holding hands; he was sightless, and she played his wife. But even Moore was a bit surprised by how graphic things got during that afternoon they spent shooting the sex scene.
“There is stuff I don’t actually remember doing,” she says, her kitten-ish figure nestled into one corner of a loveseat. “When I saw the movie, I was like, ‘Did we do that?’ There’s a lot of moving around. I don’t remember it being that physical. But we wanted it to be funny and we really relied on each other.”
(For his part, Ruffalo had a bit more pragmatic view. “You get in front of a group of total strangers wearing a sock and a piece of tape and you're asked to jump into these scenes,” he told the Toronto Sun. “'OK, now bend her over.' It's not very sexy.")
Moore comes across as strikingly grounded in person. She’s got a surprisingly firm handshake and an unabashed way of making eye contact that feels authentic. It’s likely her childhood as an Army brat—she attended two-dozen schools by high-school graduation—has something to do with this self-possession. Moore says acting came more naturally because she’d spent her young life studying the people around her, trying to assimilate.
“You learn there’s a certain amount of universality to the human experience,” she says. “And you also learn that behavior is mutable.… that behavior is not character. So because you had access to this from moving around, you are able to read it and dissect it.”
Moore first drew notice in Robert Altman’s Oscar-nominated ensemble drama Short Cuts as Matthew Modine’s adulterous artist-wife (who, it’s worth noting, delivers most of her lines in a blouse and no panties).
And despite her affinity for nude scenes, she had the acting chops and the good judgment to keep from getting pigeonholed by them. By 1995, she was starring in Todd Haynes’ chilling and brilliant Safe as a San Fernando Valley housewife who is either allergic to modern life or is slowly going insane. (Even this film has its awkward sexual encounter. Moore stares vacantly at the ceiling as her husband moves rhythmically over her.)
Though Moore has made the occasional detour into big-studio films, opposite Hugh Grant in Nine Months, Jeff Goldblum in Steven Spielberg’s The Lost World: Jurassic Park, and David Duchovny in the forgettable Evolution, she always gravitated back to the meaty material. And directors sought her out, because among her peers, Moore, 49 years old, stands alone in her fearlessness.
“A lot of the movies I’ve done are not very plot-oriented,” she says. “A lot of them are kind of about what a human experience is, in a relationship or a family or some kind of a trauma. In those, it’s the emotional accessibility that matters most. My characters aren’t generally heroic or anything.”
But they are almost always compelling. Take that moment in Magnolia when Moore as the suicidal trophy wife Linda melts down in the drug store after ordering a battalion of drugs, growing more incoherent and disturbed by the moment, ultimately exploding with “Suck my dick!” Not the stuff of amateurs.
“Our job is about allowing a certain kind of emotional accessibility on screen,” she says. “That’s how people enter a film. You enter a film through a character. I think people come to the movies to see themselves. They don’t come to see us.”
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Gina Piccalo spent a decade at the Los Angeles Times covering Hollywood. She's now a contributing writer for Los Angeles Magazine and her work has appeared in Elle, More and Emmy. She can be found at ginapiccalo.com.