Todd Haynes has cast Julianne Moore as a silent movie-era screen star, a Joan Baez-esque folk singer, and a 1950s housewife trapped in a loveless marriage. (The latter was in 2002's Far From Heaven, for which Haynes was Oscar-nominated for Best Original Screenplay and Moore received her fourth acting nomination; she eventually won for Best Actress in a Leading Role for 2015's Still Alice.) "There's not a box that she fits into," says Haynes.
"She's so transformative and the mystery that she conjures from film to film, those are things I still struggle to find words for, even as someone who's worked with her as much as I have and loves her as much as I do," the auteur filmmaker tells A.frame. "And that's truly cinematic — when you can't find the words for something because it escapes mere language."
May December, their latest collaboration, is a decidedly Haynesian melodrama — about the rot beneath picture-perfect domestic spaces, about the disparity between public persons and private lives, and about the difficult dynamic between two women who discover they are not as different as they want to think. To star opposite Moore, he required an actress equally willing to challenge herself in a complicated role. He found that in another Oscar winner, Natalie Portman.
"Even though I have so much more history and experience with Julianne, Natalie reminded me of her," Haynes says. "I think they really understood each other as actors. They sought kinship with each other. Because ultimately, you say action, and it's all about what happens between these amazing, incredible masterful performers."
In conversation with A.frame, the actresses open up about the experience of making May December.
Writer Samy Burch's script made its way to Portman through her MountainA production company, and upon reading it, she immediately thought of Haynes, who read it and immediately thought of his longtime muse, Moore.
Natalie Portman: The explorations of performance and identity and complex female psychology really made me think of his films. From Safe to Carol to I'm Not There, I think he really wrestles with a lot of these questions. Also, I just had wanted to work with him for a long time. I sent him things regularly, and he was very kind but gave pretty prompt responses that it was not right for him. Maybe it got to the point where he just couldn't say no anymore.
Julianne Moore: There's nothing more exciting for me than getting an email from Todd or a call from Todd. You always know it's something good, because his work is so brilliant. This one was interesting, because he actually slipped it to me. He was like, 'Right away I thought of you, but I want to make sure that you like this before I say something to Natalie.' And honestly, I was like, 'Yes! Oh my God, yes, I'm interested in this. When do we start?'
Moore was cast as Gracie Atherton-Yoo, a married housewife who became a tabloid fixture of the '90s when her affair with 13-year-old Joe was exposed. Twenty-four years later, Gracie and Joe are married and preparing to send their youngest children off to college; their eldest child was birthed while Gracie was in prison.
Julianne Moore: I read it and I was like, 'Oh, I could do this. It'll be easy.' Then I started working on it and I was like, 'No, I can't! This is one of the hardest things I've ever done.' She's a tough one. This movie is so much about performance and about what stories we tell and how we tell them, and I thought about how Gracie wants her story to be told. The key to her is that this is someone who has transgressed greatly, who crossed a boundary in an unbelievable way, and in order to maintain the narrative of it being an acceptable thing to do, she made herself a princess who needs to be rescued, and she made this 13-year-old boy her prince. And that's terrifying. It's absolutely terrifying. The tension between that narrative and what actually happened is vast, and that's where Gracie lives. That's where all that tension is.
Portman plays Elizabeth Berry, a TV actress set to portray Gracie in an upcoming movie. She arrives to town in order to observe Gracie and Joe (Charles Melton) in order to capture their truth on-screen, or so she says.
Natalie Portman: I've played Anne Boleyn or Jackie Kennedy but I've never played a real person who was alive, so I haven't had the experience of shadowing the real person. For roles where I've played an astronaut or a doctor, I shadowed people with the same jobs to understand what the job is like. I spent a lot of time with ballet dancers [for Black Swan] to understand what their lives were like. But obviously, I don't get into the murky, interfering-with-their-lives territory that Elizabeth does.
As Elizabeth worms deeper and deeper into Gracie's life, she begins imitating Gracie's gestures and expressions — including her distinct lisp. Without the luxury of rehearsals and with only 23 days to shoot 'May December,' Portman and Moore had to sync their performances on the set.
Natalie Portman: Julie is just one of the greatest actresses there is, and she is always able to make these very extreme choices that feel like a real person. It's like when you see a documentary, you're always like, 'This is so much crazier than you'd ever see in fiction.' She captures that in characters, where they feel like the most real human beings but she makes these really bold, bold choices. Like that lisp.
Julianne Moore: I was messing around with this idea of a speech thing, and a lisp is something that we associate with children. We make jokes about kids when they're really little, that they almost sound like they have an accent because their tongues are sometimes are too big for their mouths, and then they grow out of it. I thought about her insistence on performing herself as young, as childlike, as naïve — as all of those things — this was kind of a physical manifestation of that. And it was something that Natalie would be able to copy.
Natalie Portman: Julie is extremely generous, so in creating her character she was simultaneously thinking about what was right for the character and also she wanted to choose traits that I could identifiably mimic, like the lisp or the very feminine hand gestures. And Todd made sure that we filmed relatively chronologically, so that I was getting to play those early scenes when my character's observing her character, and I was really doing that in those scenes — when Elizabeth is studying her, I was also studying Julie.
The apotheosis of Elizabeth's transformation into Gracie comes when Elizabeth recites an illicit love letter that Gracie wrote to Joe when she was arrested. The scene was shot on the second to last day of filming, with Portman delivering the monologue while staring directing into the lens.
Natalie Portman: It was very daunting. I knew it was all in one take, straight into camera, which is always intimidating because you have to accept that it's there. You can't ignore the camera. You have to just embrace the artifice. But because it was one shot, we got to do many takes. Even though it was a really fast shoot, we got to do eight or nine different takes, and in each one, Todd was like, 'Let's try this one really sexy. Let's try this one really sad. Let's try this one where it shifts every line.' So, it was really fun to get to try lots of different things.
Julianne Moore: I saw the transformation even before that, because I saw her on set with me. As Elizabeth is learning how to be Gracie, she's doing it in front of Gracie. One of the things that I think is so brilliant about what Natalie did is that she was able to do it in a way where I, as an actor, felt validated, because I would look out the side of my eyes and I'd see Natalie copying my gestures. And the character of Gracie is pleased because that means that her image of herself is what Elizabeth is capturing. Natalie was such a great partner. She's such a tremendous, active partner and friend.
'May December' marks Moore's fifth collaboration with Haynes, but she says they feel like the same actor and director they were when they made 1995's 'Safe.' For Portman, after wanting to work with Haynes for so long, the experience was beyond anything she could have dreamed of.
Julianne Moore: I think it becomes more and more fun, to be honest with you. When I did Safe, Todd and I were 32 or something like that, and it was a lot of responsibility. I had never been a lead in a movie. I was never number one on a call sheet. But now, we've had a lot of experience and with that experience, you can have a little more fun. It's just such a joyful experience to work with Todd. I feel so, so free when I'm with him, and I hope he feels the same way with me. I hope he feels like he can accomplish everything that he wants to accomplish, and that he has a great time. Because that's been the joy of this relationship.
Natalie Portman: The thing that was so immediately obvious was how prepared he was, and how much he shared his vision. A director is like a conductor of an orchestra and is trying to get all of these various departments to play beautiful music together, and he was able to create that vision so clearly. He gave the most incredible direction too, and was very kind and generous. You just felt safe to try anything. Julie told me at the beginning, I was like, 'What's it going to be like?' And she said, 'You're going to love it. He does all the work for you.' It couldn't be truer. He's just the best.
Julianne Moore: He loves actors so much, and he frames you so beautifully. He gives you so much cinematic vocabulary to work with, and he places you in a frame that tells the story, and you look at the quality of the light, and it's all Todd. But then having that much structure around you makes you really, really free. We could all push each other and cheer for each other and make it happen together.
In Haynes, Moore found her filmic other half and has spent the last three decades collaborating with him. After 'May December,' I joke, she may have to share him with Portman, alternating who stars in his next project.
Natalie Portman: Or we could just keep trying to find two parts together. We'll do variations on friends and enemies and whatever we can figure out! I'll do them all!
Julianne Moore: But the next thing is with guys, so we can't be in that!
By John Boone