Getting to the Heart of ‘What Maisie Knew’ With Julianne Moore

Upon seeing her volatile pharmacy breakdown in Paul Thomas Anderson’s Magnolia, I become immediately enraptured by Julianne Moore. Here was this porcelain skin, fragile beauty completely enraged, in the throws of an emotional collapse to an almost melodramatic point, and it was glorious—her performance throughout that entire film scarred me in the most wonderful way. And as I became acquainted with her earlier work, from Short Cuts and Safe to Boogie Nights and Far From Heaven, I only became even more taken with the evolution of this prolific and versatile actress and her incredible ability to portray the deepest emotions of everyday life.

And throughout her vast career, she has taken on some of the most fiercely-charged female roles, working with cinema’s most acclaimed directors, continuously proving what a rare and marvelous staple she has become in Hollywood. This year alone, we’ll see her star in Don Jon, The English Teacher, Carrie, and The Seventh Son, before heading into production on David Cronenberg’s latest, Map to the Stars. But in theaters now is her latest film, Scott McGehee and David Siegel’s heartbreaking family drama, What Maisie Knew

As a modern reworking of Henry James’ late 19-century novel of the same title, the film centers on a wise young girl caught amidst her parent’s bitter custody battle. It’s not simply a film about a family torn apart, rather, the movie takes a close look a Maisie (played by Onata Aprile) and as she finds herself abandoned by Susanna and Beale, parents too consumed by their own egos to properly take care of their child. And in the film, Moore plays Susanna, an established yet erratic rock star who loves her daughter yet is not fit to be the mother she deserves. It’s a struggle to watch someone neglect such a delightful young person but Moore takes on the role with conviction, shedding her real-life persona of incredibly caring woman and mother to portray someone so wrapped up in their own ambitions, they fail to devote their affections anywhere but inward. In addition, we also see an edgier side to Moore as she channels her inner rocker and shows us her musically adept side, which as she claims, was not an easy feat. 

Last week, it was my pleasure to sit down with Moore, alongside a selection of other writers to discuss the difficulties of playing Susanna, working with the talented Onata Aprile, and her own directorial ambitions.

So your character Susanna is not just a singer but a rocker. Were there any female musicians that you looked to for inspiration?
Well, the three I looked at the most were Patti Smith, Courtney Love, and Alison Mosshart. I looked at a lot of Hole footage and listened to a lot of Patti. The Kills gave us the songs for the film and Alison was so sweet. She’s very the coolest girl in the world and so kind, encouraging, and really nicer than she needed to be about me singing her songs. I also love her look.
 
And were you actually performing with a live audience?
Yes—well, it was about four people deep. We actually shot that video part after I shot English Teacher. So I shot Maisie, English Teacher, and then I had to come back to do the video. We actually probably only had about ten extras, but we just moved them around and made it look dense.
 
Were you comfortable on stage singing?
Oh, no. It was embarrassing; it’s hard it do! It’s certainly not something that comes naturally to me. Our sound guy was so great though and so encouraging. He knows musicians and didn’t make me feel like an idiot.
 
So you’re not one for karaoke?
No! my daughter, who is 11, she said to me, "You know Mommy, we should all do karaoke." But I don’t understand
karaoke, it seems so scary to me.
 
You’ve played so many wonderful, challenging, and varied roles throughout your career, was this element of doing something totally new what intrigued you about the film—not only in terms of the singing.
Yes, certainly the musician part; that was really challenging. I don’t play the guitar and I had to learn those chords and how to sing and all that. Also, I’m not inherently that cool, so it was a real stretch for me. But I loved the story and I liked the idea that this person was not able to parent—even though she thought she had the desire to do it, she didn’t have the ability to do it. I had to face that at the end of the movie. My favorite line, and the one that’s the most painful too is, "You know who your mother is, right?" She knows that that’s all she’s able to offer that child, and she is her mother and she does love her, but she’s not going to be able to parent her. It’s awful.
 
Do you think your character would have fought more to get her back in the end?
No, she doesn’t want to; that’s what’s sad. I think she feels like she’s let off the hook. She knows she’s not a good parent and she’s a musician, that’s all she wants and that’s how she communicates with the world. She doesn’t have a  relationship with her child, with her husband, with her boyfriend, she has it with her music. So she loves this girl and knows she should take care of her but she’s not able to. And she finally realizes she is a bad mother and probably the best thing she can do is to let someone else really care for her. It’s terrible.
 
Have you ever known anyone like that?
No. She’s bad.
 
To really get inside of Susanna’s psychology, how did you see her?
Her relationship is not with people, it’s with her music. And she probably had a mother just like she is, and she thinks she’s not like her own mother and then she realizes oh my god look what I did to this child. In that sense of her feeling like she’s let off the hook, it’s as if she knows she can’t do this—I don’t want to do this, I’m going to walk away from this.
 
How was working with Onata and getting her to feel at home on set?
She’s so easy and such a delightful, delightful girl. She’s very bright and she’s very curious and loving and trusting and seems to really like to do this. I didn’t feel like this was a child there under duress. As a parent, I would say to her, "Okay we’re going to do this and I’m going to yell really loud at the end and slam the door, so don’t be scared, and I may cry, but it’s not real." Or I would say,"Okay I’m going to pick you up and twirl you around and give you a kiss." I just wanted her to feel safe and that she always knew what I was going to do and was prepared as a kid and as an actor, so we knew what world we were working in. She’s terrific and has a lovely mother.
 
Maisie is a very modern film based on an a Victorian text, but how did you find the similarities between the two?
It’s very loosely adapted. But James was commenting on divorce and shared custody and also these recalcitrant parents.What’s interesting is that we have a tendency to think that things like divorce or custody battles are endemic to the time we live in, like in the old days people didn’t get divorced, these stories didn’t happen—but it did. And that’s what’s interesting too is that, unfortunately, these themes repeat themselves. My daughter had to read this book in school called The Orphan Train—it’s awful! These parents living during the Industrial Age put their kids on the orphan train and send them to go work, which relates to this idea of kids being shuttled all over the place. So historically, this stuff happens and kids are left to fend for themselves.
 
Do you find that when you play a role like this you tend to carry it around with you or is it something you’ve learned to shake off at the end of the day?
I don’t like to take it with me. I have two kids! I don’t have time to sit and wallow in it, nor do I want to. My husband says I’m really good at compartmentalizing, but I think I am: that’s work stuff, this is home stuff. You can choose to sit around in it but it wouldn’t be tolerable for me or my children. 
 
Your character seems emblematic of a certain type of person that existed when James wrote the novel and especially now, someone centered entirely on themselves and has a very egotistical approach to life that’s kind of a warning how one shouldn’t behave.
I think the movie and the book are warning of what the dangers of behaving that way and collateral damage of divorce. Susanna and the Beale are locked in a power war that’s not about the custody of the child—because neither one of us want to parent the child—they just want to win. So I think it’s a cautionary tale in that way.
 
As a mother yourself, did that make it even more challenging to be so neglectful and selfish towards Maisie?
Wellb, because I’m pretty compartmentalized, I know that’s not me. My biggest concern was to make Onata feel safe and that she knew we were pretending. My kids made a lot of jokes about me playing the bad mother because we were right next door, so she would come over and hangout a little bit and see me flailing around. But it’s not who I am.
 
The way you work with Onata sounds like an approach a director would have working with a young child. Having worked with so many fascinating people, would you ever consider directing a film yourself?
I’d like to try, I really would. Yeah, I have some interest. I feel like it’s on my bucket list. If I don’t do it I feel like I’ll be disappointed. So we’ll see. It’s a big job and I don’t know if I would want to direct something that I didn’t write, so that’s the hard part. I don’t know how I feel about directing someone else’s material.
 
Do you write as well?
I write children’s book, but I don’t know that that’s a movie. I have three books in a series and fourth book coming outing September called My Mom is a Foreigner, But Not to Me about the experience of growing up with a mother from another country. So I write those things. I’d like to try to write a screenplay too, so we’ll see.
 
What did you learn from playing Susanna and working on a film like this?
I think you learn from life, I don’t think you learn from work. People always say, well what did you learn from this character? And I’m like, no what I learn in my life is what I apply to work. I don’t learn a lot at work, it’s a little bit like saying—how do films influence culture? Well, how does culture influence film? Film doesn’t do anything original. What art does is reflect culture back to the world at large. What I’ve learned as a human being, as a parent, as a spouse, and as a friend and worker, all of those things I take and put into my work.
 

What have you learned along the way in terms of being a director?
You better be prepared. I have a great respect for people who have a vision and know how to communicate it and know how to assemble it. Because what I find, is that some people are very, very good at it, but everybody works in different ways. I see how far people can go and really truly prepare, and I think that’s how I try to work as an actor, I want to make sure I’m really familiar with what I need to do that day so I can accomplish it. And especially on an independent film, you have such a limited amount of time and you better figure it out quickly.
 
How do you find vacillating between smaller independent films such as this and big Hollywood studio pictures?
You have less time; it really comes down to that. If I hear one more time, we’re shooting this in 23 days I’m like no! It’s become harder and harder to get money and days for things, so that means you don’t have the hours. It’s like, okay you get two takes you have to move on—and that’s really hard. Whereas big budget films are like, we didn’t get it today, we’ll do more tomorrow. And you’re like, we’re doing more?!
 
Do you allow your kids to watch your movies?
They don’t watch any of them. My son came to see Crazy, Stupid, Love with me because he was 13 and he loved all those people and it was really fun for him to see. Other than that they don’t see much and I don’t encourage it.

Latest in Film

Film

From London, With Love: Sotheby’s Will Auction 007’s Posters, Watches…and yes, the 1964 Aston Martin

Film

Exhilarating New Documentary ‘White Riot’ Revisits the Heroic History of ‘Rock Against Racism’

Film

10 Moms That Will Make You Even More Grateful For Yours This Mother’s Day

Film

alexa BlackBook: Fluid Notions: Face to Face with John Cameron Mitchell and Shamir

Film

alexa BlackBook: Style Icon: Edgar Ramirez Fashions a Vivid Portrayal of Legendary Designer Gianni Versace for ‘American Crime Story’

Film

alexa BlackBook: Alison Mosshart, Don Lemon, Matthew Modine, Nia Vardalos, Leslie Odom Jr. & More Tell Us Their Christmas Wish Lists

Film

alexa Blackbook: Small Screen Sirens

Film

In Bed With Netflix and Armond White