Julianne Moore, who stars in the recent films Wonderstruck and Suburbicon, gives me a call to talk about Chekhov and Chandigarh, her fondness for fashion and her own highly honed sense of design, her work ethic and (even, alas, yes) He Who Shall Not Be Named.
JULIANNE MOORE: Kevin!
KEVIN SESSUMS: Hello! How are you? Thanks for doing this. I really appreciate it. You’re in the November iteration of this new magazine along with Oprah Winfrey and Sally Field – sort of like a re-imagined Three Sisters. Of those three – Olga and Irina and Masha – which one do you see yourself as?
JM: I want to play Masha. The middle one. But everyone wants to play Masha. That’s the fun part.
KS: She’s sort of the sensible one, the one who cuts through the bullshit.
JM: No, Masha is the romantic. She’s the one who has the affair.
KS: Stanislavsky said that the role of the artist is to to ask questions not to answer them. But fuck it. Let’s answer some questions.
KS: First though, I want to thank you for your kindness in doing this. You didn’t have to. So I really want to acknowledge your kindness. The older I get, the more important kindness becomes to me. What has become more important to you as you get a bit older?
JM: I think it is that old adage about being present and having more and more an appreciation of what life has to offer – and the great gift of what every moment is. So rather than rushing through things, you actually try to live the moment you’re living. I think that’s one of the things that having children does – it focuses you that way. I have been very, very fortunate so I really want to savor the life that I have.
KS: Weren’t you just in Paris and Berlin? You’ve only been back a few hours. How does one stay in the moment when you have that kind of schedule?
JM: It’s tough. I kept making jokes last night. We were sitting around the kitchen table around 4 – my husband and son and I – and I kept insisting it was really 6 my time. They kept laughing at me because I was so jet-lagged I couldn’t even add. But it is also, as I was saying, open your eyes: you’re in Berlin. Open your eyes: you’re in Paris. Open your eyes: you’re in New York. It is a constant reminder to see.
KS: You just talked about sitting around that kitchen table. Your beautiful, keenly designed home was just in Architectural Digest. You were in Paris at the Louis Vuitton show then on to Berlin for the Triumph lingerie launch there. You do have a highly honed visual sense of aesthetics. You do seem consciously to see. Your new film directed by Todd Haynes, Wonderstruck, is about silence on some profound level in which you play both a deaf character as well as a silent screen star. Silence itself plays an important role in the film. Are you aware of the silent element in your life’s sense of aesthetics? Is it a respite from what can be the cacophony at the core of acting?
JM: There was a really interesting article recently in The New York Times about style and how you teach yourself to look at things – not just visually, but also critically. I think the person who taught me that was my mother. I don’t think she meant to. I just think she had a highly developed visual sense. I once thought of her as a person who was mainly concerned with language, but we were constantly looking at things. Yet both my parents taught me about this. My father was always looking a lot at nature. My mother was more about taking me to museums and telling me to really look at what we were seeing. Even when just traveling with them, I was always being visually educated. But it all comes back to being present and being aware of really, really seeing. Really, really looking.
KS: Your father would love that garden behind your house in Greenwich Village that my buddy Brian Sawyer of Sawyer/Berson designed for you. I’m seeing him next Tuesday. He told me we were going to hang out with some “young smarties” now that we were in the “old smarties” phase of our lives. You have moved from the earlier phase of your career when you were the New Young Thing and the ingenue and you are now the older respected actress with an Oscar with all the meaning that inbues. When you are around younger actresses now, do you feel bittersweet about it? Or do you feel as if you have taken on the mentor role.? Is there even perhaps a tinge of resentment? How does one move gracefully from phase to phase in an acting career? Not everyone does it, but you certainly have. There is a grace to you, Julie, as a person and as an artist.
JM: What I find interesting about what I do for a living and what we do as actors – and I say this to young people when we’re sitting around talking – is that there is something about being an actor that has no regard for age, which is great. So when you’re twenty-one-years old and you’re cast in something, you are expected to bring it professionally and to bring it artistically. No one is sitting there going, “Ahhhh… you’re just a beginner.” No. They are sitting there and they are going, “Let’s go!” That happens at every stage of your career. When I was doing Uncle Vanya when I was 27, I was playing Yelena and George Gaines was playing Serybryakov. George was 76. We were peers. There is something fantastic about that because it teaches you to look at life as less of a … ah … well .. I don’t know … less of a temporal construct maybe. I definitely feel what you’re talking about when I’m dealing with my children or in my life with other people’s children, but not professionally. Professionally, it’s such a weird thing. Being with the kids in this film Wonderstruck – with little Millicent Simmonds who is such a magnificent actress – there was something thrilling and reassuring to work with her because I could treat her as a peer even though it was her first movie. She clearly had all the instincts of an actor. There is something so exciting about that connection when you’re in a scene together. There is something so intimate about acting, so lots of things dissolve. Gender dissolves. Age dissolves. Culture dissolves. And you’re just with actors.
KS: A lot of the early work an actor, I think, is done in silence as one reads a script and then does research and sits in thought and thinks about a character. But then one moves into vocabulary and language. Was your role in Wonderstruck different in that way in that you didn’t move into the language part of your work? You remained in the silence.
JM: But that’s not true. My character uses American sign language to communicate. So it depends on what your definition of communication is. Just because something is without sound doesn’t mean it is not worth communication. What was interesting to me in this film is that I play two different characters. One character is a hearing person who operates in a universe without sound because she is a silent movie actress. But with the other character – who is Millie grown up – my character has acquired language within her culture. As an actor, you have the experience of language and communication no matter what language you’re speaking. I just did this film Bel Canto in which my character speaks English. A lot of the characters speak Spanish. One character speaks Mayan. Others speak French and Japanese. And everyone is communicating.
KS: I read a review of Wonderstruck that called it “deeply uncynical.” Could your own work be described in such a way, or is the job of an actress to be openheartedly cynical and live in that kind of artful incongruity?
JM: Oh, I’m not cynical at all – certainly not regarding my work. We come to movies to see ourselves and to see humanity reflected. I am a big believer in everything that is human and emotional and real. Now, I don’t like sentimentality. I don’t like things that are cute or adorable or anything like that. I like things that are deeply, deeply felt. I think that is really, really important – as important as seeing clearly. And connecting.
KS: One of the things that the Millie character does in Wonderstruck is keep a scrapbook about your character, the silent screen actress. Was there an actress that you focused on in your own childhood like that, one who gave you a sense of hope?
JM: No. Not anyone in particular. But I loved the movies. When I was in fifth or sixth grade and we were living in Juno, Alaska, there was a very enterprising theatre owner who would book Disney’s Aristocats but then he’d book Papillon and One Day in the Life of Ivan Denisovich and Minnie and Moskowitz. I saw a different movie like that every Saturday. I don’t even know if I knew they were affecting me then because I just liked to go to the movies to kill time. But the idea that there was all that life out there and it was not about me and it all felt very real must have seeped in.
KS: I love that you lived in Alaska and ended up playing Sarah Palin in Game Change and won an Emmy and a Golden Globe and SAG Award for your portrayal of her.
JM: It’s just a crazy coincidence, that’s all.
KS: Let’s leave Juno and return a bit to Paris and Berlin and those fashion shows. You’re known for your sense of style and attending shows and being associated with fashion. There is a danger with an actress sitting on those front rows of her not being taken seriously as an artist and thought of more for her celebrity – although you and Cate Blanchett specifically have seemed to transcend that danger.
JM: What is fascinating to me about clothing is that I am always intrigued with our our desire to decorate ourselves. It’s not a necessity. A necessity is to keep your body warm and give yourself shelter. Yet we have this weird human instinct to decorate and to envelope ourselves in a certain sort of way. Clothes are a signifier. They tell us a lot about a person. So is the way we choose to decorate our homes. I don’t know, there is something about it that I enjoy visually but I don’t know if I could define it. I think so many of these fashion shows are just superior pieces of theatre. Karl Lagerfeld interests me in the way he talks about what fashion is to him because he always talks about craft and craftspeople and talks about all those people who do the work – the lacemakers and the tweed makers and the people who have sewn things by hand.
KS: The crew.
JM: Yes. The industry of people making things – all these human endeavors coming together to enable us to decorate a body.
KS: It does sound as if you’re describing the film industry.
JM: You’re right. The film industry is very much the same way. What is interesting to me is that everything we do is a construct. We don’t have to do anything. After you’re born all you are required to do oddly is die. So we have to fill the time somehow between being born and dying. And we find all these crazy ways to do it. For me, the ways that I have found are what are the most human and celebratory and interesting to me. This is going to sound really crazy but I really enjoy cracking and eating a walnut because it’s so complicated. You’ve got the walnut but then you have to find the nutcracker. You have to crack it open. You have to pull it out. Then the next time you think, I want to cut this in half perfectly and I want to do this without smashing it. All the complications that go into that, I find fascinating.
KS: You’re sounding like an actress cracking open a character and being impeccable about it as you get down to the meat of it.
JM: I think it’s true with anything you do. If you put a finer point on it, it makes it more interesting.
KS: Your home certainly has a sense of that finer point you’re talking about. I love your sense of design. I called it keen earlier. In fact, we have almost identical tastes in interior design. I just wanted to move into your place when I saw those photos of it in Architectural Digest. I love thinking of you sitting and doing your work at a Pierre ….
JM: … Jeanneret desk. Yes.
KS: If I had money, I would buy you a Jeanneret daybed.
JM: Why, thank you. I think all that interests me because how much these people cared. How personal it is. The tactility of the objects.
KS: What you said about your not liking sentimentality in your art and in films holds true as well for your taste in design. There is no sentimentality to it. Your sense of design sort of melds in the way you go about designing a character.
JM: I do think that with an interior you have to be able to live in it and sit on it. You have to be able to eat on that table.
KS: Well, you are a mother of teenagers.
KS: I did look at the photos of your home and wonder what it would be like to be a kid who grew up in such a house and with a mother who put that house – that home – around them. It’s certainly very different than the house I grew up in.
JM: That’s funny. As I said, my own mom was very astute visually and would sew our own curtains. She he even made slipcovers once. But nothing was off-limits. The same thing with my kids. They eat on things. They lie on things. Everything in my house is really sturdy.
KS: Another thing that interested me when I realized you worked at a desk designed by Pierre Jeanneret is that he and his cousin Le Corbusier – whose real name was Charles Edouard Jeanneret – had a break at one point – not over design or aesthetics, but over politics. Pierre fought with and stood with the French Resistance and Corbusier did not, which kind of brings me to the second film you have out at the end of this year, Surburbicon. It is a darkly comic, politically pointed movie. It was originally written in the 1980s about the 1950s but is sort of about this moment in time we are living through right now. It is about race and white privilege and the underbelly of America. How do you see your role as an artist in the age of Trump? Has it changed in any way? Is it easier or harder to be an artist if one is engaged politically with what is going on in our country at the moment?
JM: Gosh, I don’t know. I think … hmmm … it’s hard for everybody right now. I don’t even want to say his name.
KS: I refer to him as The Tacky Know-Nothing Fascist Vulgarian.
JM: Right. I feel like his disregard for humanity – for men and women and the dispossessed and anyone who is not wealthy – makes it hard for everybody. But I do think the great thing about the art of making movies is that people go to see who they are – the best of ourselves and the worst of ourselves, to see what we dream about, to see how we can do better. So I feel very privileged as a person that I am able to live a life in which I am able to explore those things.
KS: By the way, have you ever been to Chandigarh, the city in India, designed by Pierre Jeanneret? His ashes are even spread in Sukhna Lake there.
JM: No. That would be fun. Have you?
KS: No. But I’d love to make that pilgrimage.
JM: You know what would be fun for me to do? Take a design-based trip. When we were in Copenhagen a couple of years back, we went to Finn Juhl’s house. I was so, so excited. One of the things I love to do is to go to the homes of great designers. It’s difficult for me to take a big trip anywhere mainly because of my kids. But I think when both my children are grown and out of the house that is something I would like to do – take a big design trip. I would like to make Noguchi a part of that trip. There was a place in Italy where he had a quarry and there is also a place in Japan. I’d like to see those.
KS: You have something to look forward to when you get to the interesting-old-lady part of your life way down the line.
JM: Or maybe even before that – who knows?
KS: I love thinking of you, Julie, in your 80s in Japan.
JM: Uh-huh. That would be great.
KS: Chandigarh can be your Moscow – to bring this full circle to Three Sisters. If you were Masha, it could be your Moscow. “If we could only get to Chandigarh.”
JM: I love that.
KS: So what would be your metaphoric Moscow? What do you long to get to if you could just get there in some Chekhovian sense?
JM: Oh, gosh. Of course, those three sisters never got anywhere. But I did Uncle Vanya and the thing I love about Chekhov – and the thing I really believe fully – is what the character of Sonya says at the end of that play: “We must work. We must work.” I do like that – certainly not in a negative sense at all. I do think that work and effort and engagement bring us so much in life. “We must work. We must work.”