... and with Ed Harris as Senator John McCain
A study in Palin: Moore on set with Woody Harrelson...
... with director Jay Roach...
By Kate Bennett | February 20, 2012 | People
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Last year, when HBO Films announced it would be making a movie based on the tour de force best seller Game Change, by John Heilemann and Mark Halperin, insiders and political watchers were not particularly surprised. After all, it made sense to spin the behind-the-scenes tell-all of the roller-coaster 2008 presidential campaign into Hollywood gold. The contents were juicy, the dialogue sharp, the sourcing impeccable, and the characters ripe for portrayal. Ed Harris as Senator John McCain was plausible; although years younger, one could envision Harris as the formidable Republican candidate—a touch of hair and makeup magic, and voilà. McCain’s senior strategist Steve Schmidt would be played by Woody Harrelson; fair enough. Ron Livingston as Mark Wallace, an instrumental advisor to the McCain campaign; Peter MacNicol as Rick Davis; sprightly Sarah Paulson as Nicole Wallace—yes, those are all good fits, no raised eyebrows there.
However, it was the announcement of who would play vice-presidential candidate Sarah Palin that had tongues wagging. Could Julianne Moore, the flame-haired, Manhattan-based actress with liberal leanings and a penchant for portraying complex middle-aged women in the throes of personal ennui, take on Mama Grizzly, with her Alaskan accent, French-twist updos, power suits, and gesticulations with a wink? Could Moore, as Palin famously put it, go rogue? “It never crossed my mind that I’d be asked to do it; it really came out of left field,” says Moore from her West Village home on a recent weekday afternoon, recalling her initial reaction to being offered the part. “So I sort of, well, I said yes, and then I didn’t really think about it until after I’d hung up the phone. And then I thought, Holy cow, how am I going to do this? But I was really intrigued by the idea, and that’s always how I prefer to start a project.”
What followed was an intense period of preparation, perhaps more than for any of her other roles. Moore had to wrap her brain around the notion of this character, someone whose personal beliefs were not only diametrically opposed to her own, but who was also very much alive and fresh in the minds of most Americans. “It was a crazy, crazy challenge just to attempt to portray her—a living and extremely well-known and well-documented figure,” says Moore. “I basically had two months to prepare, so I cleared my schedule of everything, literally. I cleared everything that didn’t involve my family—I just let go of it and spent all of my time doing the research.” Moore spent days with a vocal coach, watching Palin footage, listening to her vocal patterns, and reading everything that had been written about her. “It was total immersion. The trickiest thing is to take all these physical and vocal characteristics and somehow filter the character’s essence through them. And then you personally have to meet them somewhere, too. There’s this melding that has to happen.” If you’re thinking this is more than mere impersonation, you’re correct; Tina Fey on Saturday Night Live it most assuredly is not.
However, for Moore, playing Palin in Game Change, which debuts on March 10, meant more than conquering Palin’s physical mannerisms. It also meant coming to understand her public persona and the impact of her meteoric rise on the political stage. “She was so electrifying as a figure,” says Moore of Palin’s emergence, which changed everything about McCain’s campaign and altered the 2008 race for the White House. “One of the main things they talk about in the book, and we also talk about it a lot in the film, is the nature of charisma and star quality—and what that means to people and why they respond to it. We expect [candidates] to lead, and we expect them to be like movie stars, and that’s a pretty tall order.” Moore’s heat-seeking intellect quickly zeroed in on Palin’s advantage and the nature of candidate popularity as a whole. “We continue to respond to people who are the most charismatic. And it seems to me, when you have a candidate like [Palin] who has a natural ability to reach people, that sometimes shoves every other quality out the door.”
As Moore delved into the book and the background maneuverings while doing her research, she developed a visceral sense of what drove Palin’s popularity. Moore says she understood implicitly the qualities Palin used to keep Americans riveted to her every move. “Here’s a woman who’s a parent, who’s an actual working mother, who worked her way up from local government, who was definitely middle working class, married to a commercial fisherman. She was incredibly relatable, she was attractive, she was young; she was speaking to a wide portion of the population that didn’t feel that they’d been noticed or seen or heard,” explains Moore, sounding every inch the political historian. “In a way, she was representing an entire swath of the public that had previously felt invisible.”
Moore Reflects on Palin and Washington
While filming Game Change, directed by Jay Roach and produced by Tom Hanks, Gary Goetzman, and Roach, Moore also came to understand the climate of Washington, and its uncanny ability to transform heretofore unknowns into headline-grabbing political powerhouses, churning them out at a pace to satisfy our 24-hour-news-cycle obsession. “I had no idea what really goes into making a candidate,” Moore says, admitting her lack of knowledge about the inside-the-Beltway playbook and its at times cutthroat tactics. “I was actually shocked by how close it was to the way Hollywood markets an actor or a film or any idea. It’s about a very careful kind of exposure, and putting candidates on with one anchor and then another anchor, and limiting appearances and using everything very strategically.”
Personally, Moore, 51, isn’t a stranger to Washington and its outlying suburbs. She spent part of her early years here, including a couple at JEB Stuart High School in Falls Church, Virginia. Her sister still lives in the area, as does her father, a retired military judge and Army colonel. After receiving a bachelor’s degree from Boston University in 1983, Moore embarked on her acting career, moving to New York City and eventually landing roles on soap operas and then in feature films. Her work has earned her accolades as one of the greatest actresses of her generation: four Oscar nominations and six Golden Globe nominations. She continues to work steadily and has the luxury of selecting from most of the industry’s choicest roles. “I just wrapped two independent films—What Maisie Knew, based on the Henry James novel of the same name, and another that’s a comedy called The English Teacher.” (Moore tries her best to limit her work to school vacations so she can be home with her two children—Caleb, 14, and Liv, nine— and her husband, director Bart Freundlich.)
As the 2012 presidential campaign roars on—a process that Moore describes as “hard to watch right now”—the actress recalls her thoughts as a spectator in 2008. “I would say, as a registered Democrat and a longtime liberal, I think that I speak for a lot of women when I say that when [Palin] burst onto the scene, the way that she did that was pretty terrifying because I really felt like, Oh my gosh, the Republicans might have this election. She was so electrifying as a figure. It kind of blew everyone away.” Despite her political leanings, Moore comes off as ambivalent about Palin’s future impact on the national landscape. “I don’t know, I really don’t know,” Moore says, her voice trailing off. “She is somebody who seems to have less of a political voice over the past few years and more of a kind of, well, pop-culture aspect to her life. I do think that if there hadn’t been a Sarah Palin, I don’t know if there would be some of the candidates we have this year.” For her part, Palin has kept relatively mum on the film and what may come of Moore’s portrayal. In March of last year, she told Sean Hannity on his Fox News program that she will “just grit my teeth and bear whatever comes what may with that movie.”
When we ask Moore for any parting thoughts about Palin, her response is measured. “That’s a really tough question to answer, because I’m not in the business of trying to slant anything one way or another with my work. I think all of us felt that way on this film. There were two chapters in a book that we were representing, so what we wanted to do was to be as accurate as we possibly could be with these people,” she says. “You have a responsibility to illuminate that person, to capture whatever their essence is, or to find their humanity—the stuff that makes them who they are. At the end of the day, I’m never going to be Sarah Palin. Thankfully, only Sarah Palin is Sarah Palin.”
Tags: julianne moore celebrity cover story hollywood hbo spring 2012 game change actress sarah palin ed harris john mccain steve schmidt woody harrelson ron livingston peter macnicol what maisie knew the english teacher
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