Good luck keeping it together during a scene in Still Alice in which Julianne Moore, playing a woman diagnosed with early-onset Alzheimer’s, delivers a wrenching speech on the art of losing.
“I find myself learning the art of losing every day,” her character begins, invoking poet Elizabeth Bishop and speaking to an audience of patients and doctors. “Losing my bearings, losing objects, losing sleep, but mostly, losing memories. … Who can take us seriously when we are so far from who we once were?”
Moore first shot that scene for the film (opening wider on Friday) alone in a large soundstage, with just a curtain separating her from the crew. “There was a big stage behind me and there was a curtain. And we did I don’t know how many takes and they came out and they were all crying.” She laughs. “I was so happy.”
Written and directed by Richard Glatzer and Wash Westmoreland, the married filmmakers crafted Still Alice in their own image: Glatzer was diagnosed with ALS in the past year. Instead of retiring, they chose Alice.
“Here was this couple who had been together for 18 years and making a beautiful movie about what it means to be alive,” says Moore. “They’re working with people they want to work with. It’s a really beautiful thing. It does help you put everything in the right spot.”
Still Alice premiered at the Toronto Film Festival in September and was immediately snapped up by distributors, who set the film on a fast track for release and into the Oscars race. It’s a breathless pace for a film shot last March over just 23 days.
“I was doing Mockingjay, so Lionsgate very nicely gave me the month off to do the movie,” says Moore, 54. “It was just an in-and-out kind of thing. It was fast.”
Fast, and emotional. Still Alice, based on the novel by Lisa Genova, chronicles the story of Alice Howland, a Columbia professor of linguistics and wife and mother of three who learns suddenly she has early-onset Alzheimer’s.
It’s a tale of caretakers, too. When Alice’s husband, John (Alec Baldwin), ultimately bails, it’s her aspiring actress daughter Lydia (Kristen Stewart) who moves from Los Angeles to New York to become her mother’s primary source of comfort as she slips away.
With all she was exposed to with Still Alice, “now I get worried,” says Stewart, 24. “My dad the other day couldn’t think of a word, and it was something really simple, and I was like, that’s weird. You should know that word!”
Moore dived into the role, visiting long-term care facilities, speaking to heads of Alzheimer’s associations, researchers, patients and caretakers. She stresses that nothing Alice does on screen is made up; everything, from her movements to her speech patterns, was observed by Moore firsthand.
“I had that (cognitive) test administered by a neuropsychiatrist, which is really interesting and really extensive,” Moore says. “You think, ‘Oh this test is not going to make me anxious.’ But man!: ‘List 35 words, then repeat the words.’ And then they’ll give you another list. ‘Now repeat the first list.’ “
Stewart compares her co-star to “a surgeon, literally. I aspire to that,” says Stewart. “I want to be able to be in control and lose myself at the same time. She’s so smart.”
Moore, who picked up a best-actress Golden Globe on Sunday, is widely expected to earn her fifth Oscar nomination on Thursday.
“I think many people would be surprised to hear that she’s never won,” says Fandango.com’s Oscarologist Dave Karger, though she has received nods for Boogie Nights, The End of the Affair, Far From Heavenand The Hours. “But that should change next month since she is the clear front-runner to win best actress this year.”
Glamorous red carpets and gold statues aside, for Moore and Stewart, Still Alice remains a constant reminder.
“I texted my mom on the way over here,” says Stewart. “I literally just said, ‘Um, incoming, package of love in the form of a text message, completely random but I love you, dude.’ ” Mom’s reply? ” ‘Wow. That was really well-timed.’ ”
Moore nods. “I came home thinking, my God, what a lucky woman I am, what a great husband I have, what beautiful children I have. I value them, I cherish them. That’s all this movie is about.”
Sit down with them, and you’ll immediately notice that Julianne Moore and Kristen Stewart are ridiculously tight.
Start with the fact that “we’re about the same size,” estimate Moore. They’ve both starred in the two biggest teen franchises of our time (Stewart in Twilight and Moore in The Hunger Games).
But the bond that glues the mother-daughter pair from Still Alice started more than a decade ago.
At age 14, Stewart starred in 2004’s Catch That Kid(about three kids who rob a bank) directed by Bart Freundlich, Moore’s husband. “I remember when he first cast her he said, ‘this girl is extraordinary,’ ” says Moore, 54.
Fast-forward 10 years. “Honestly, I’ve been dying to work with her since I’ve been an actor,” says Stewart, now curling up next to Moore on a couch. “Even if she was a total (jerk), I really would still want to work with her,” she emphasizes, as Moore laughs. “We just never stopped talking.”
In Still Alice (opening wider on Friday), Moore plays Alice Howland, an accomplished professor of linguistics whose memory begins to ebb after a diagnosis of early-onset Alzheimer’s. Stewart appears as her daughter Lydia, an aspiring actress who rises above her more traditionally successful siblings to become her mother’s chief caretaker.
Stewart has been branching out into art-house films since graduating from Twilight. She recalls a moving experience years ago with a woman who was in a severe state of dementia. “If I walked out of the room for five minutes and came back she wouldn’t remember I was there,” says the actress. “But I saw her revel in the moments that we shared. And I saw the recognition that she was going to lose those moments momentarily.”
Moore emphasizes that the lasting message of Still Alice is that the person struggling with the disease “is still there. And that’s what’s most important. There’s this notion that somehow a personality or a person is obliterated by this disease, but the person is there … that’s why it’s called Still Alice.”
Moore’s deft handling of Alzheimer’s acute and subtle effects have left a trail of critical cheers in the film’s wake. She’s “as close to a sure-bet shoo-in as you can get at the Oscars,” says GoldDerby.com awards site founder Tom O’Neil, who says no one rivals her in the odds to win. “She’s beloved by the Academy, and ridiculously overdue to win.”
And guess who has signed on to be Moore’s one-woman promotional machine?
“All I want to be is: ‘Yeah, Julianne Moore! She did that! Let me tell you how good she is’ ” says Stewart, jumping off the couch and miming walking the streets with a megaphone. “I’m not even working. I just finished everything. I am totally game.”