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Julianne Moore, Relishing Complicated Characters

In<em> What Maisie Knew,</em> Julianne Moore plays a hard-partying rock star whose daughter, Maisie (Onata Aprile), witnesses her parents' nasty divorce.
JoJo Whilden
Millennium Entertainment
In What Maisie Knew, Julianne Moore plays a hard-partying rock star whose daughter, Maisie (Onata Aprile), witnesses her parents' nasty divorce.

In the film What Maisie Knew, Julianne Moore plays a troubled rock star whose young daughter witnesses her parents' volatile behavior as they argue over custody during their rocky separation.

On the surface, Moore's character, Susanna, might seem to be an entirely terrible one — a self-involved person and inappropriate mother who's not paying attention to her child. But Moore makes her more complicated than that.

"What's interesting to me about Susanna as a mother, particularly, is how inconsistent she is," Moore tells Fresh Air's Dave Davies. "You see how much she loves this child, and how much she would like to be able to parent this child — and then her own inability to do it."

The crux of that is Susanna's inability to communicate.

"In that sense, [Susanna] really shouldn't be someone who has a child," says Moore, "or has a relationship, because she's not willing to share herself with anything but her music."

You don't usually get the opportunity to kind of obliterate your physiognomy when you're acting.

In this and other films such as The Kids Are All Right, Magnolia, The End of the Affair, Boogie Nights, Short Cutsand The Hours, Moore has shown a knack for sympathetic portrayals of complicated women. The same capacity was on display in 2012 when she played former vice presidential candidate Sarah Palin in Game Change.

Moore's portrayal of Palin earned her critical raves as well as a Golden Globe, an Emmy and a Screen Actors Guild Award. Moore herself acknowledges that when she saw herself as Palin on the big screen, she was pleased with the completeness of the transformation.

"You don't usually get the opportunity to kind of obliterate your physiognomy when you're acting," she says. "And that was really fun and kind of welcome, because we're always trying to effect some kind of transformation in our heads, and then it's disappointing when you finally see the movie and you still see yourself there. But in this case, because I had so much physical help, [I felt] like I was able to look at someone else, which I loved."

Interview Highlights

On working with a 6-year-old

"One of the things that I would do with Onata [Aprile, who plays Susanna's daughter] — especially in the scenes where the behavior was extreme — I'd say, 'Listen, you know, I'm going to yell in this scene. I just want you to know, I'll talk like this [whispering], I'll talk like this and then I'm going to yell really loud, so don't be scared.'

"Or, you know, 'At this point I might be crying,' or 'If I start crying don't be upset. It's just part of the scene.' I would tell her exactly what I was planning on doing, because then she was able to handle it. ... I never wanted her to be afraid with me. I wanted her to be completely comfortable and relaxed, and I wanted to give her the room as a person and as an actor to be prepared for stuff and do her own work."

On discovering her interest in acting

"I read a lot growing up. It was kind of my comfort, you know; I loved it. I love story. I love narrative. I was academic. I wasn't particularly athletic. I didn't make the drill team. I didn't go out for sports. There wasn't much for me to do after school except the drama club, so when I kind of started doing drama club, it seemed to be something I could do. It seemed more like an extension of reading. It was like reading aloud, and it was all about story and being in the story. Like, actually being in the book.

"So I continued doing that just as my after-school thing, but it wasn't until I was 17 and we had moved to Frankfort, Germany, and I had a teacher ... who [was] our English teacher and the after-school drama coach, and rather than doing things like Afternoon in the Park,her first production there was Tartuffe — Moliere's Tartuffe -- which is pretty unusual for a high school drama teacher, and I found it incredibly challenging and really interesting. And she said to me out of nowhere, 'You know, you could be an actor.' And I was shocked. It never occurred to me that the actors were real, that anyone had a job doing that. Movies and TV seemed very far away. I had never seen a real play. I'd just seen, like, high school plays and community theater, and so I was like, 'So that seems interesting.' And she handed me a copy of Dramaticsmagazinewith all these schools listed in it, and I came home and said to my parents, 'I'm going to be an actor,' at the dinner table, and they were shocked."

On what she learned working on soaps

"I learned to be a professional. You might have, as a character, 30 pages of dialogue a day if you're what they call a 'front-burner story.' So you go home, you learn your lines for the next day, you get up, you're there at 7 in the morning, you do a quick rehearsal, you're on camera, you might leave, you know, at 7 at night and start the whole thing over again. And you have to do it. Everyone's working very, very quickly.

"There's not a lot of time to help anybody, you know, and they have to get it down, too. Unless somebody really blows a line, that's going to be the take they use. That's just how it is. So you sometimes don't give the kind of performance you want to give, and there's just not enough time. And you go home, and you watch it, and you're like, 'Wow, I was terrible.' And so you think, 'How can I make this better?' "

On studying Palin's speech patterns for Game Change

"I listened to the vocal patterns before I added the physicality, because sometimes, if you just watch videotape, you see the physicality, and you miss the nuance in the speech. So I spent a lot of time just listening.

"I went running. I wiped everything off my iPod except for Sarah Palin. I would listen to it in the car when I picked my kids up. That was all I heard. So I just listened, listened, listened, listened — and then, when I felt like I had the vocal mannerisms down, I started looking at her physically. I watched all the YouTube stuff, and all of the conventions, and the television shows and the speeches. Everything, everything's documented. It's all on YouTube."

On preparing to shoot a steamy scene

"Whenever I'm doing anything romantic with an actor, or if there's a director around, I never want anybody's wife to feel threatened by me. So the first thing I do is go up and be like, 'Hi, my name's Julie, and nice to meet you, and how many kids do you have, and I have two kids and blah blah blah.' ... [B]ut basically you want to say to somebody, 'I'm not a threat. I'm not a threat, and I want you to be comfortable with me, and I don't want you to feel bad about any of this, because we're just pretending.' "

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