Julianne Moore hopes her role in 'Still Alice' changes the stigma surrounding Alzheimer's
The actress talks about her emotional role and the movie's potential to change the conversation and stigma surrounding the disease.
Julianne Moore has been nominated for an Academy Award four times, but despite amazing performances in "Boogie Nights" and "The Hours," she's never brought home an Oscar. This might be Moore's year, as she's receiving rave reviews for her role in "Still Alice."
Based on the 2007 novel of the same name, "Still Alice" tells the story of a Columbia University psychologist who develops early onset Alzheimer's. The film explores the effects of the degenerative disease on both Alice and her family.
The film's directors, Wash Westmoreland and Richard Glatzer, are a married couple who are facing their own version of this tragic story.
Shortly before choosing to adapt "Still Alice," Glatzer was diagnosed with ALS, the motor-neuron disease that gradually destroys cells that control essential voluntary movement. Famed cosmologist Stephen Hawking has a version of the disease, but most who are diagnosed don't live longer than a few years.
During filming, Glatzer's condition worsened to the point that he had to communicate via a texting app on an iPad. The disease is, in a way, the exact opposite of Alzheimer's, but Glatzer's experience informed Moore during filming.
When Moore stopped by The Frame recently, we asked what drew her to "Still Alice," learning from people with early onset Alzheimer's, and the movie's potential to change the conversation and stigma surrounding the disease.
Why do you think it's important to bring a movie about Alzheimer's to the big screen?
There's a tremendous amount of stigma. I think it has to do with lack of information, lack of knowledge about the disease. I think dementia has been considered to be a condition of aging, so people feel like, Oh, if I'm having some kind of mental impairment I'm not seen as youthful. When, in fact, Alzheimer's, and lots of other forms of dementia, are diseases. They're not symptoms of aging.
When you first encountered this script and this book, how did you react to the story? Did you react to it emotionally? Physically? Do you start seeing this film, hearing yourself as this character? What are the steps that you take before you decide that you want to make a film?
You know, you pick up the script, and you kind of look at it, and you see how quickly you read it. [laughs] I think one of the tip-offs is that if you get through it very quickly without getting up to do something else, that usually means you're pretty engaged. And I was very, very engaged, and I felt very emotional; I think I cried at the end of it, and I was shocked by how emotional it was, how resonant the story felt to me. Right away I thought, Wow, I want to do this.
It was true in terms of what it said about Alice? True about what it said about an infirmity? True in what it said about a family trying to stay together through a difficult period?
I think all of the above. I think what's so remarkable is that I really had never seen a disease represented on film subjectively. Generally, whenever you see these kinds of movies, it's from the point of view of the caregiver or a family member, but this was the first time I'd encountered something that gave you the perspective of the patient. It's sort of inside-out, her journey through it.
One of your directors [Richard Glatzer] has a degenerative disease [ALS], which is almost the opposite of Alzheimer's in that he's robbed of his body but not of his mind. Did you have conversations with him about that, and was there anything you could take from what he was going through that shaped your performance?
Oh my gosh, yeah. Particularly in the speech that Alice delivers to the Alzheimer's conference. One of the places where I kept hitting a bump was with that speech; I just didn't feel that it was ... I didn't understand it, I'm not feeling it. Finally I [said], "Look, what would you want to say? What does it feel like to be in this situation? How do people treat you?"
We were about to start pre-production, and I said, "Oh my god, this speech is finally perfect!" Rich was on Skype and Wash [said], "Rich wrote it." And I think he really distilled everything that he was going through into that really, really beautiful, very unsentimental, and very restrained speech.
When you were making this movie, who were you turning to besides your filmmakers about what it is like to have Alzheimer's?
I didn't talk to my filmmakers about it, because they had other stuff to do. [laughs] I had tremendous, tremendous resources working on this: I started with the head of the [Judy Fund at the] Alzheimer's Association, Elizabeth Gelfand Stearns, and talked to her about her experience. And they then set me up with different women across the country who have been diagnosed with early onset, or younger onset, they call it.
One woman had been diagnosed at 45, the other two were in their early 50s, and I talked with them about their experiences. From there I went to Mount Sinai [School of Medicine in New York City] and I talked to Dr. Mary Sano, who's the head of research there, and her colleagues, and had the cognitive tests administered by a neuropsychiatrist. And they are extensive.
And when you're going through these batteries of tests, do you start thinking about your own mental ...
Oh my gosh, of course, everybody does! And the thing that was really interesting was that the doctors ... are so opaque. We finished doing the tests and she didn't say anything. And I thought, Oh boy, what's that about? It wasn't until about a week or two later when I had to e-mail her about something else that she said, "Oh, by the way, your results were normal." [laughs] You're just like, "Thanks, thanks for telling me."
But in that week you're like, What did she see that I haven't heard?
Yeah, exactly! Maybe she's writing up the report now.
And what do you take away from all of that, and specifically, what did you imagine to be true that was not?
What I took away was how individualistic this disease is. It isn't like everybody's painting with the same brush; people have all sorts of different reactions. And I think the notion that people have of a person disappearing, being obliterated by the disease, isn't true at all. With every person that I spoke to, I found that who they are, no matter where they are with the disease, was very prominent. Even in people who were in long-term care, it was remarkable how much personality came through.
This is a movie that can change the conversation about its subject, which is different than a lot of movies that you might make. Does that have a special appeal to you, and if this movie succeeds in changing the way people think about Alzheimer's, how might that work?
Well, I don't think that movies should be polemics. I think that movies are a way to talk about who we are as human beings, and what it's like to be alive, and to tell stories that help us understand things. However, if this movie does help us understand what it's like to live with this terrifying disease and to bring awareness to that and change the conversation about what it's like to have it and who it affects, then that's fantastic.
One of the things that I like about "Still Alice" is that I don't feel it's a polemic. I think it's a story about a family and an individual, but in that way the most personal story is the most universal. I think that's the note that it hits: you see an individual's experience with Alzheimer's, but it resonates in a really universal way.
The movie's just now coming out, but it's getting a lot of great critical attention. Are you aware of that? Do you try to shut it out, or do you actually pay attention to it?
I think it's hard to not be aware of it. [laughs] It's so pervasive, it's so loud, and frankly we are so grateful. It's very welcome. This is a movie we made for $4 million in three-and-a-half weeks, not even a year ago, so the fact that we even got distribution is astonishing. We're really, really happy about that, and that it's getting attention? Wow! How lucky are we? [laughs]