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…”
Julianne Moore wants to meet at her favourite café. It’s a tiny place with a green concrete floor, a couple of doors down from her townhouse in the heart of New York’s West Village. When I arrive with 10 minutes to spare, the spiky-haired student behind the counter has been forewarned and asks if I want to put in Miss Moore’s usual order. “She always has the scrambled eggs,” he assures me, with a smile. Sure enough, when Moore arrives at 11 on the dot (“Hi, I’m Julie.” Firm handshake), she orders scrambled eggs with spinach and cheerfully insists on a blueberry muffin for each of us. “They’re so-o-o good,” she beams.
The temperature outside is already in the 80s and Moore is dressed for comfort, not to impress, in Birkenstocks, jeans and a white cotton smock. The Chloé sunglasses perched on her spectacular auburn hair – worn shoulder-length, no fringe – are her only obvious nod to a label. It’s a look that doesn’t scream for attention, but the café is packed to the gills with well-groomed Village people and, as I plonk my tape-recorder down between us, several heads inevitably turn. 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 film-maker 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. It’s a rhetorical question, but put very sweetly. “My babysitter’s sick and it’s the last week of school for my kids so they have concert things, singalongs, today there’s a pot luck – it’s all nutty.”
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 film-makers 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. At one point she admonishes me for tearing the plastic tag off a water bottle with my teeth: “Don’t use your teeth, that’s terrible! Think how bad you’d feel if you chipped your tooth!” She is friendly to a fault, charming; open, even. But there are clear barriers. 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!”
Out in the street, Moore is slipping on her shades when we bump into her husband. “Have you met my wife?” Freundlich asks me with a grin. The director, it transpires, is shooting a film on the very next street and has brought one of the child actors for a quick tour round Moore-Freundlich Towers. “I’ve seen you in dailies and you’re really good,” coos Moore to the tousle-haired boy. “How old are you?” “Um… seven.” “Me too! What a coincidence! We’re going to buy a dog bed.” “Sweet!” says Freundlich. “I know, I’m taking care of business.” After a quick spousal peck, Freundlich and the boy disappear through the townhouse door, which is painted the colour of arterial blood.
Moore met Freundlich, who is 10 years her junior, when he cast her in his 1997 dysfunctional-family drama The Myth Of Fingerprints. They married five years ago, but he still doesn’t understand her unwavering attraction to dark materials. “He thinks I’m weird,” Moore says. “There was a script I read recently where I was like, ‘Oooh, this horrible thing happens and it’s really good and then they’re all dead!’ He’s like, ‘What is the matter with you?’ I’m like, ‘I don’t know but I like it.’ I’ve always liked things that are meant to terrify. When I was a kid, I used to watch this vampire soap opera, Dark Shadows. I loved that show… and I was little! I can remember my sister going into the other room to fold laundry with my mother because she was so frightened. I guess it has translated into the material I want to do as an adult.”
As much as she likes it sinister and unsettling on screen, in real life Moore prefers things bright and cosy. On our way to Zoomies, the pompous pet shop on nearby Hudson Street, the actress enthuses about her neighbourhood’s “friendly, small-town vibe”. In the shop the French owner tries to get Moore to “go crazy” with the colour of the dog bed. “No, same colour as the one we have,” says Moore, without hesitation. The owner then asks after Moore’s mother. This clearly makes a big impression. Back out on the street, we walk past the iron railings that for Moore clearly represent a white picket fence: “I swear to god it’s like living in a small town,” she raves. “Like, did you hear her? ‘Say hi to your mother!’ It’s great! I mean, I was in there with my mom but it was a while ago!”
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 an ocd. “I was the oldest child and I was always organised and responsible and I still am,” she smiles. “If I say, ‘I’ll be there on time’, I’ll be there. If I say, ‘I’ll do it’, I’ll do it. I’m not one of those people who say, ‘Yeah, I’m a flake.’ I’m not flaky. I’m really responsible!”
Moore has even less time for grown-up rebels: “If you’re rebelling in your personal life after a certain age, you’ve got a fucking problem. It’s like, ‘Just fucking figure it out – you’re in charge.’ It makes me crazy when people say, ‘I don’t want to do this anymore!’ I’m like, ‘Well then don’t.’ People behave like there’s some great parent out there and there’s not, there’s just you. You are responsible for your own actions. There’s a tremendous amount of freedom in that. I’d sometimes be in a place where I’d think, ‘It’s horrible here.’ Then I’d think, ‘Wow, you can move – you can change’.”
Dog bed mission successfully completed and midday sun beating down hard, Moore and her milky, freckled complexion need to find a shady spot – “I can’t stay out in the sun, it makes me crazy”. She settles on Riverside Park. It’s a gorgeous day and there are plenty of people about, but no one bothers Moore or even seems to recognise her. “I don’t think that I’m terribly famous,” she muses. “My son doesn’t perceive me as being terribly famous. He thinks of Will Ferrell as being famous. Yes he sees people take my picture and ask for autographs, but it’s a pretty low-key thing in our life.”
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.”
These days, Moore will only accept roles that she can squeeze into the school summer holidays or films that shoot within commuting distance from New York. But even time limits haven’t improved her taste in studio pap. She may just be a victim of Hollywood’s lack of vision regarding its female stars, but Moore has chosen some forgettable piffle for her big-budget outings. Nine Months, Evolution and Laws Of Attraction were surely just nice little earners until she could make her next arthouse impact? “I do them all for me,” she insists. “I like them all! I did Hannibal and The Lost World as much for me as them.”
Because of the indelible marks she’s left on independent cinema, more is often expected of Moore and she admits that, in the past, her confidence has been trampled by bad reviews. “Oh hell, yeah! Tremendously. A good one can make you feel terrific, but a bad one…” She says she can’t recall any that have stood out. I have one to hand, however, and read her a quote from The New York Times’ bashing of her 2004 thriller The Forgotten – not, in fact, the worst blot on Moore’s career, but boasting a performance that, according to the critic, “has all the emotional commitment of a bored kid playing with a light switch”.
It turns out Moore remembers the review: “It was like she was disappointed that I’d taken the movie! And I wanted to say, ‘Why do you care? What’s it to you?’ My mother told me to read the review! She called and said, ‘It said so many nice things about you.’ I said, ‘Mom, you have to read it more thoroughly. It’s pretty mean!’… As much as we try not to be controlled by praise and criticism, it’s very easy to be undone by both.”
Would she ever admit to losing her way with a role? Moore ponders for a moment, then says, “There’s an unconsciousness to the way I work which I like, but sometimes I feel like if I were more conscious, I’d be better. I’m always trying to get to a place emotionally where something can happen to me on camera. Sometimes it can be great and sometimes it’s just not gonna happen. But there’s always a point near the end of a film where I’m like, ‘Shit! I should have worked harder and maybe I would be better!’”
Whatever anxieties she might be feeling on the inside, Moore doesn’t like to discuss them with her directors. In fact her favourite kind of director is one who doesn’t talk very much. “My thing is I have an idea about what I want to do and it’s in my head and their words are just going to set me off the wrong way. When somebody starts throwing all their words in your head, you’re like, ‘Whoa, that’s your idea!’ I’ve been known to tell directors, ‘That’s enough, no more talking.’ I like to feel that we’re partners and if they want something that I’m not doing, I’m going to try very hard to do what they want, but I’m also going to be like, ‘Well, why do you want that when I think it should be this?’” And what happens when they’re not her partner? “Then fuck ’em.”
Later, as we move to another picnic table, Moore is musing about what frightens her when a teenager tries – and spectacularly fails – to do a back flip on the grass in front of us. “I have very little apprehension about doing things in a movie but I would never attempt a back flip like she just did!” she laughs uproariously. “I’m terrified of that stuff!” On New Year’s Day she had to drive a snowmobile into a Wyoming park with her son clinging onto the back. “I was terrified and my husband was like, ‘Are you alright? Are you alright?’ It was horrible! You’re only being brave if you’re afraid to do something. But I don’t have any fear in acting. I never scare myself. Diving? That’s scary. Snowmobiles? Are scary. But doing an emotional scene? I don’t have any fear. I love it! It’s fun. Bring it on…”
Our time nearly up, Moore asks politely if we can start walking back towards her brownstone (“Sorry, I have one of those days…”), offering a tour-guide commentary along the way. “Lou Reed lives there… Julian Schnabel lives here… This is supposed to be a new, hip bar. I’ve not been there because I don’t go to new, hip bars.” 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.