The Oscar-winning actor talks socially distanced singing, weathering the pandemic and her irrepressible need for new challenges
Words by MARSHALL HEYMAN
Photography by JACK WATERLOT
Fashion Direction by KATIE MOSSMAN
Over her 30-plus-year career, Julianne Moore has created so many indelible characters in so many notable films, small and large, that they’re nearly impossible to count, let alone list.
She’s given pathos to period housewives stuck in the rut of stale marriages (Far from Heaven, The Hours). She’s fully grounded a kooky artist whose artistic expression is very much about lady parts (The Big Lebowski) and a porn den mother whose occupation involves her own lady parts (Boogie Nights). She’s brought the same kind of attention to detail in huge action films and blockbusters (from The Lost World: Jurassic Park to Kingsman: The Golden Circle) that she has to small, personal ones like Still Alice, for which she won the Best Actress Oscar in 2015.
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One of the greatest talents of her generation, spoken of in the same breath as Cate Blanchett, Frances McDormand, even Meryl Streep, Moore has such range and talent that she could have won an Oscar for any other number of incredible performances too: as a divorcée trying to reignite her love life in 2018’s Gloria Bell, as a woman allergic to her environment in 1995’s Safe, as one half of a lesbian couple in 2010’s The Kids Are All Right.
There have been remakes and horror films and thrillers and literary adaptations and romantic comedies, too, but it turns out Moore has never sung in a movie. That changes this fall with the release of the big-screen adaptation of the Broadway musical Dear Evan Hansen, about an anxiety-stricken high schooler (played by Tony winner Ben Platt) whose life begins to unravel after a lie he tells gets out of control. Moore plays Evan’s mom, a loving and devoted single mother who works hard to provide for her son, while he struggles with his mental-health issues.
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“It was a very scary undertaking for me. I was terrified, but I really wanted it,” says Moore in a breezy and warm lilt from her newish home in Montauk, New York. She played Marian the librarian in a high school production of The Music Man, and auditioned for the role later taken by Marion Cotillard in Rob Marshall’s Nine.
But, she explains, “I’m not a singer, so it was a big leap.”
In fact, Moore wanted the role of Evan’s mom so badly that she actually auditioned for it. “Honestly, it’s been a long time since I auditioned. I really can’t remember the last time I read for [a project], but I was happy to,” she says. “As an experience it was so challenging — so out of the box for me — that it was exciting.”
“I’m not a singer. … I was so terrified of singing, I spent all of my spare time doing it”
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The funny thing is: Moore initially wasn’t even offered the part. “So basically, I auditioned, and I didn’t get it. [Someone else did], and I had to tell my kids I didn’t get it.” Caleb, 23, a graduate student studying film-score composition, and Liv, 19, now at Northwestern University, had both loved the show when they’d seen it on Broadway several years before. “It so spoke to a teenage experience, and they were right in that age range,” Moore recalls.
“I knew that soundtrack inside out,” she goes on. “My kids always played it in the car.”
But COVID-19 reared its head, and by happenstance, the actor who was cast dropped out due to a conflict with another job. Not long afterward, last fall, Moore left for Atlanta to shoot the film. “I told the kids, and they were both very, very excited,” she says. “My movies are usually not terribly interesting for kids to see.”
Liv and Caleb have yet to see their mother in Dear Evan Hansen. “I’m waiting for a time we can all see it together,” Moore says. “I don’t want to see it alone.”
Normally, because of her family life in New York, Moore would fly back and forth to set for a project. But because of the pandemic, she had to spend two months in Atlanta, basically alone.
“We were all given houses with backyards, and we couldn’t go anywhere. We were tested every day,” she recalls. There were no dinners out, no food shopping. “Either you went to set and you worked, or you came home and sat around. As soon as Ben and I would finish a take, we had to go to sit in separate chairs wearing masks and face shields. He’s so quick, and our connection was good, but we didn’t have a lot of time to build it.”
Still, she says, “I was so grateful working on something that I cared about.”
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Moore filled her days with singing, practicing her character’s song “So Big/So Small” “over and over and over,” she says. “And vocal exercises. I sang a lot. I was so terrified of singing, I spent all of my spare time doing it.” Did it make her want to do a live Broadway musical? “It did not, but I love to go see them,” she deadpans. “I might do a play again.”
Otherwise, she watched Call My Agent! on Netflix and What We Do in the Shadows on FX. “I’d love to go on that show,” she says of the latter. A pitch for a character she could play: “I could be the energy vampire’s sister, but this one has so much energy and whirls and whirls around that her energy just zaps yours.” She took long walks around Atlanta. “I walked by Whole Foods, thinking, ‘I wish I could go inside.’” (A production assistant was responsible for delivering groceries to the cast.)
And there were lots of online yoga classes with The Shala back in New York.
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“God bless Zoom. It gives you a community. And the yoga really steadied me,” says Moore, who has been going to the same studio in New York for 20 years. Besides walking and hiking, it’s her main source of exercise. “I always say I’m steadfastly an intermediate beginner,” she says. “There are things I can do now that I couldn’t do at the beginning, but I don’t notice any massive improvement. I have to work hard at it. I’m not naturally bendy.”
Besides filming a few last scenes of her limited series on Apple TV+ — Stephen King’s Lisey’s Story — and making When You Finish Saving the World, a small, comedic movie based on Jesse Eisenberg’s audiobook, Moore (who turned 60 in December) spent most of the pandemic in Montauk with her husband, filmmaker Bart Freundlich, and their kids. “I felt lucky that I could spend so much time with my family,” she says. One of the perks of that time together was getting to watch shows like The Bachelorette and Love Island with Liv. “It’s actually shocking that people do this stuff on television. We’d be sitting and Liv would say, ‘You can watch with me, but you cannot talk.’”
Typically, when it comes to reality television, Moore prefers HGTV. “I love a real estate show,” she says. In July she sold her Manhattan West Village townhouse, which was featured in Architectural Digest, for $15 million. (She purchased it for $3.5 million in 2003.)
“God bless Zoom. It gives you a community. And the yoga really steadied me”
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Otherwise, pandemic downtime meant working on the new Montauk house, getting a puppy, a lot of cooking and a little bit of baking, “a lot of puzzles” and a newfound interest in audiobooks. Her current recommendations: The Nickel Boys by Colson Whitehead and The Dutch House by Ann Patchett, narrated by Tom Hanks. Now that more big stars are narrating audiobooks for audiences, does it make her want to pop into the studio for that too? Not really, Moore says. She’s done it before, for a title by L.A. novelist Bruce Wagner: “It’s a lot of work.”
Not that Moore has any allergies to work. This is someone who has appeared in five movies in a single calendar year. “In an ideal world, you’d probably do one smaller project and one bigger project every year,” she says. “The one downside of [a career in Hollywood] is not being able to schedule anything.”
How does she find projects? “You kind of keep your eyes open,” she says. “You look for those really original voices. I think there are creative people telling stories they want to tell, and I hope maybe there will be some room for me. Things kind of come your way.” In September, she plans to shoot a film called Sharper in New York City. “It’ll be fun to be there,” she says. “I guess it’s a thriller, but I don’t want to tell you too much.”
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Moore was born Julie Anne Smith in Fort Bragg, North Carolina, the daughter of a military judge in the Army and a Scottish psychologist and social worker. The eldest of three, she moved around a lot as a kid, even to Germany, and studied theater at Boston University. She worked in soaps and theater before landing tiny breakout roles in 1992’s The Hand That Rocks the Cradle and 1993’s The Fugitive. But it was her work with a handful of auteurs that really brought Moore to the attention of audiences and critics, including in 1993’s Short Cuts (directed by Robert Altman), 1995’s Safe (with Todd Haynes, who has cast her in nearly everything he’s made) and Boogie Nights (1997) and Magnolia (1999; both with Paul Thomas Anderson), which showcased her to great effect.
Now that she’s tackled singing on-screen — and one should note that she acquits herself in Dear Evan Hansen quite impressively, in a beautiful, understated way — are there any heights even left to scale?
“I’d like to shoot a movie in a foreign language,” she says. Any particular language? No. “I don’t speak anything really well. To act in another language, it’d be exciting, because you’d be learning it the same time you’re speaking it.”
Whatever does come her way, she explains, “I want challenges. I want to find things that engage me. I love my job. I didn’t expect to love it, but I find behavior endlessly fascinating. I don’t want to do anything else.”
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Julianne Moore wears LOEWE coat and BULGARI and CARTIER jewelry.
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This story originally appeared in the Fall 2021 issue of C Magazine.
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