When Julianne Moore first was approached for May December, a dark dramedy that would have her star opposite Natalie Portman under the direction of frequent collaborator Todd Haynes, she said yes immediately. But only in looking more closely at the material and her Gracie character did she come to understand the complexity of what she’d just signed on for.
“I called up Todd and said, ‘I can’t do this. This is too hard!’” the actress admitted Saturday in conversation with Joe Utichi at Deadline’s Contenders Film L.A. “I was really struggling. I’m like, ‘Who is this woman?’” The character was difficult to get a handle on, she said, given how strongly she was holding on “to her own narrative, to her own performance,” with regard to her life and who was. “And what is that performance?” she wondered.
In examining the script by Samy Burch, when producer Portman sent it over through her newly launched production company MountainA, Haynes resonated immediately with exactly the theme Moore was referencing, in terms of “the stories we tell ourselves” and others, as we look to “survive our lives.” What made the material all the more amazing was its “tone and sense of confidence” in navigating what was truly “disturbing territory.”
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Loosely based on the story of Mary Kay Letourneau, the film revolves around a married couple who, 20 years ago, fell into a scandalous romance as teacher (Moore) and underage student (Charles Melton), remaining together even after being intensely scrutinized for their decisions. Imposing a new sense of pressure on the pair, all these years later, is the arrival of Elizabeth Berry (Natalie Portman), an actress preparing to portray Gracie in a movie.
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As much as the couple she was studying, Elizabeth is a figure of nebulous motivations. The project, to Portman, recalled the oft-discussed credo among actors of refusing to judge a character, as the person portraying them, regardless of what they’ve done. “We’re trying to get into people’s hearts and minds, and sometimes you play people who commit crimes,” the Oscar winner said. “That doesn’t mean that you believe that those crimes should be committed. [It’s] just, we as artists are curious about the internal workings of the human heart.”
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Netflix snapped up North American rights for $11 million after the pic’s world premiere at Cannes. It debuted November 17 in select theaters and will premiere on the streamer December 1. Also present today at the DGA Theater for the conversation on the film were Burch and Melton, who spoke to their respective experiences cracking the script and portraying the complicated Joe. Deadline will update this post with video of the panel when it comes in.
Check back Monday for the panel video.
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