Julianne Moore, Kristen Stewart, Kate Bosworth, Lisa Genova & Wash Westmoreland
Stare Down a Debilitating Disease with Still Alice
by Jay S. Jacobs
It is pretty much agreed that Julianne Moore is one of a handful of the finest actresses working in film. Therefore it is even more shocking that she has never won an Oscar for her work. She had been nominated four times – forBoogie Nights, The End of the Affair, Far From Heaven and The Hours. She’s been robbed several other times – for The Kids Are All Right, A Single Man, The Ideal Husband and Short Cuts.
All that is likely to change as she is the odds-on favorite to win an Oscar in a few weeks for her stunning portrayal of a Columbia University linguistics professor trying to deal with a diagnosis of early onset Alzheimer’s disease in her latest film, Still Alice. Moore’s work in the film is quite simply stunning, arguably the finest work in her career – which is really saying something.
Still Alice is based upon the best-selling novel of the same name by Lisa Genova, which takes a serious but not overly sentimental look at a woman who has been defined by her intelligence and her communication skills coming to terms with losing both. Not only does she have to deal with her mind betraying her, she has to deal with how it affects her career, her life and shrinking her world. It also brings strain to her relationships with her loving-but-ambitious professor husband (played by Alec Baldwin) and her three adult children (played by Kristen Stewart, Kate Bosworth and Hunter Parrish).
The story hit particularly hard for co-writer and co-director Wash Westmoreland. His long-time partner (professionally and personally) Richard Glatzer had just been diagnosed with ALS (Amyotrophic lateral sclerosis, also known as Lou Gehrig’s Disease). The filmmakers decided to work on the film, with Glatzer refusing to let the horrible illness stop him from working on the film.
A few days before the film’s nationwide opening, and just two days before Julianne Moore was nominated for the Best Actress Oscar, we participated in the New York press conference for Still Alice. Stars Moore, Stewart and Bosworth, co-director Wash Westmoreland and novelist Lisa Genova took to the stage at the Crosby Street Hotel in the SoHo section of New York to discuss the film. Here’s what they had to say.
I was thinking if I took this, Safe and The End of the Affair, I could do a most depressing Julianne Moore film festival.
Julianne Moore: (laughs) I do comedy, too.
Have previous characters you’ve played influenced more recent ones, like Alice?
Julianne Moore: I tend not to think that way. Sometimes when you’re looking at someone’s career you look for threads and references. But believe it or not, as actors we’re freelancers. We literally go from job to job. You make a movie and then the next one and the next one. Especially when you are referencing things you made ten years ago. (laughs) I barely remember ten years ago. Often people will remember things in my movies. Lines. People quote lines and I’m like, “What’s that?” Poor Michael Angarano. He’s so great and he’s so funny and so cute. We were doing this little comedy called, The English Teacher, and we had to kiss in it. He told the story on Letterman or something. We kissed and he said, “Was that sexy?” And I went, “Yeah, Michael, that was great. You were terrific.” He wanted to die of embarrassment because he was quoting a line from Boogie Nights. (laughs again) But, getting back to your question, I think everything you do as a person and everything you do as an actor informs your work. It ends up [in it]. But it’s not really as direct as you might think. It’s just like life. It’s all accumulative.
What was your reaction when you got the script? A woman with Alzheimer’s is obviously not going to be what you’d call a big box office movie. People are going to say, “That’s depressing.”
Julianne Moore: I know. It’s so deep.
Even though it’s a fantastic film, what is your reaction when you receive a script like that? Does it effect whether you want to say, “Yes,” regardless of the part?
Kristen Stewart: Typically, no. Every experience of doing something is different when you’re an actor and doing it for the reasons we do. Yeah, it’s definitely morbid. It’s not a walk in the park but sometimes, it sounds silly but sometimes filmmaking can be very important. As soon as I read Julianne was playing this part, I knew that she was going to be doing something important. I knew this movie was being made so she could do something that would say something. It was intimated to me that it was our job to just hold her up. There’s a possibly that the only reason I felt so driven about this film is because Wash [Westmoreland] and Rich [Glatzer] hired me. I felt like if they thought I could do it, then I could. It’s not that I don’t have fun making people laugh going to the movies, but sometimes I think a movie can really say something.
Kate Bosworth: I feel the same way. I read the book before the script. I would imagine almost everyone in this room has someone who has been affected by Alzheimer’s. When I read the book, my grandparents had Alzheimer’s and we rallied as a family to take care of them, so it touched me deeply. I felt like this was an opportunity to shine the light on this disease in a way that hadn’t been done cinematically before. That was a real draw for me, and also being able to work with Julie. I’ve been wanting for a few years to have the opportunity to work with her. I really wanted to sit and watch her do what she’s done. She’s really spectacular. Just be around her and watch and learn. To be a part of the whole process and be a part of the message is very important to me.
Julianne Moore: I did it for the money! (They all laugh.) Sorry. It was such a great script. Such a wonderful script. And such a beautiful book that Lisa wrote. What she did that was so remarkable was that she presented the disease so subjectively. What would it feel like to go through this process? We never get to see that. Rich and Wash took that novel and made it cinematic in a very, very deceptively simple way. It was a thrill to be involved in something like that. I think that’s what attracted us to it, the very human nature of the story. The idea that you were watching an individual and a family’s journey through this very difficult situation.
Kristen Stewart: It’s interesting when you have a story and you know for a fact that if it’s done right that it’s going to be something and everyone is going to talk about it. But if it’s done badly, the alternative is so polarized. We were like, it worth it, because if we do it right it’s going to be more important than anything we’ve done in quite a long time.
Wash Westmoreland: We didn’t want Still Alice to be a depressing movie that deals with something very intense and very difficult. We wanted to always shine a light on the human, the possible connections that people can make even in the most difficult of times, which I think gives the film something very powerful to say about what it means to be alive.
Kate Bosworth: I think that even through the tragedy, what I loved watching was the comedic moments because truly that is so human. I take care of my grandmother with my parents and there are just some moments that you can’t tell if they are tragic or just absolutely hilarious. I feel like that was something that was important to Wash and Richard, to find that kind of humanity in the journey that Julie had with Alec. Those are the moments that make it very real.
The collaboration in regards to adapting this for film and working on set, what was it like? Was it a lot of give and take?
Wash Westmoreland: Well, I will say that often when you get into a situation where a book is adapted, there’s tension between the author and the screenwriter. We wrote the first draft before we showed it to Lisa. We were nervous when we sent it off – it’s her baby and we were in a way the foster parents, bringing the child up through this next stage of life. Lisa’s response was just immediately incredibly positive and supportive of what we had done artistically. Just very helpful in terms of her background and knowledge of the whole terrain, giving great, positive feedback. The process continued through the successive drafts and production. Lisa came to visit the set and it was a wonderful time. We very much enjoyed seeing her book, our screenplay become flesh through these amazing performances. We just felt very in tune all the way through. That’s not just press conference stuff, that is the truth.
Lisa Genova: I feel so incredibly lucky. I know a lot of writers and the horror stories of what those people did to the book. None of that applies to this. I understood from the beginning and was lucky to have the consciousness to realize that this is not my project. This is not supposed to be the book. This is a movie inspired by the story. I made it clear to Richard and Wash from the beginning, I know I’m not steering the ship. This is your creative project, not mine. Yet if I can support in any way what you are trying to do, please ask me, I’m here to help you with whatever you need. I’m very lucky in that the script that they sent to me was wonderful. It was incredibly respectful to the story and incredibly respectful to the subjective point of view of Alice. They got why the book was special. It wasn’t about what the caregivers were going through. While that point of view is very important, we know a lot about that. What is so heartbreaking and difficult to understand is what is the point of view of someone with Alzheimer’s as they descend further and further into dementia. They were committed to staying in that point of view, so it was easy to support what they were trying to do because they were doing such a magnificent job.
Wash Westmoreland: That was one of the challenges, because the book is inside of Alice’s head. How the audience member watching the movie inside her head, how to create that subjectivity so you could be with her and grieve with her. Go through all of the tensions and the disappointments and the triumphs with her. That was one of our main challenges when we brought the book to screen. The other one was what to leave out. A book takes 16, 18 hours to read if you’re a slow reader like me. It’s a lot of time for events to evolve. Watching a movie is a shorter amount of time. Some adaptations try to cling on to too much. You’ve got to be quite disciplined and stick to the core of story in a way that it becomes a cinematic experience that works.
Has the movie impacted your thinking and knowledge afterwards about Alzheimer’s?
Julianne Moore: Oh wow, did it ever. I knew nothing about Alzheimer’s. I was one of those rare people who really hasn’t had any contact with the disease. I didn’t know anyone personally. The National Alzheimer’s Association set me up with three Skype calls with women who had been diagnosed with early onset. They had all been diagnosed within a few years. I talked to them about their experiences. I went to Mount Sinai and talked to the lead clinician and researcher there. I had a neuropsychiatrist administer all the cognitive tests, which were fascinating. They sent me to the New York Alzheimer’s Association, where I met with women in support groups. They actually supplied a lot of dialogue for me. Specific things they said that I then told Rich and Wash and we tried to incorporate them into dialogue. From there I went to a long-time care facility and spoke to patients and caregivers and family members. I watched every single doctor who was out there and just kind of immersed myself in it. The great thing about Rich and Wash was that I didn’t want to do anything I actually hadn’t seen, because I didn’t feel like I had the authority. I didn’t know what it was. Whenever there was a time that I was unclear about something, I would check with someone. People were so happy and excited that we wanted to know and that we were trying to get it right that they really extended themselves. There’s one woman that I’m still friends with, Sandy Oltz, who was diagnosed at 45 and spent her 50th birthday on our set. She’s been very, very helpful. She would email me if it was something she thought I needed to know. People with Alzheimer’s don’t feel seen. A lot of the times people look the other way. It’s hard to look at. They feel like there’s some kind of a shame attached to cognitive decline, where people are like “Oh, I wish I had cancer instead.” It’s easier for people saying, “Look, this happened to me.” Somehow, when it’s cognitive, there is a great deal of shame involved. So it was great to have the experience of these people, and their help behind me. I really owe a lot to all of them.
Lisa Genova: I love what you said. It’s not like cancer is now, where people own up to cancer and wear the ribbon. Rally behind people and support those with cancer. That wasn’t always the case. I mean 30, 40 years ago people said cancer in hushed voices and they called it “The Big C” and nobody talked about it. There was so much shame and stigma. Then something changed and now we have the support and the walks and not coincidentally with that attention has come tons of research dollars. We have treatments for cancer and we have cancer survivors. One of the things, the importance of a film like this truly, is what I’ve been doing on a smaller scale with the book and now the movie in a bigger way, is dragging Alzheimer’s out of the closet and into the movie theaters. Now people with Alzheimer’s can be seen and heard. We’re not talking about it as though it exists. It’s very hard to cure something if it doesn’t exist. So this is a way of bringing the conversation to life, knowing it’s okay to talk about, it’s okay to say you have it. This is huge.
Julianne Moore: Do you remember in The Flamingo Kid, Jessica Walter in dinner conversation, she would say, “Did you hear about… (whispers) They have cancer.” It was literally, people were making a joke in that movie about the way people dealt with the disease. And it’s true.
Lisa Genova: That’s what they have been doing for Alzheimer’s. Now they will see Still Alice and they’ll see a vivid depiction of a woman who is not an elderly person in end stage dying in a hospital bed. That is what a lot of the mental pictures of Alzeheimer’s have been. This is how those living with Alzheimer’s look like and feel like.
How much did you take away from the family element that is so supportive?
Julianne Moore: What people told me is that everybody is different. Some families are very supportive and are there, but some families are not or refuse to acknowledge it. One woman told me that her children refuse to acknowledge that she has Alzheimer’s. They will just not acknowledge it. Another family told me that the father refused to acknowledge it and the kids didn’t know what to do. Every family dynamic is completely different. Every friendship is different. People say that sometimes people are surprised by who disappears and who sticks around. We explore that in the movie. You see one daughter who you would expect to be the one to stick around not able to take it, because of her own diagnosis. Then another daughter who seems like she’s already left come back and be able to handle it. The marriage, too. It was interesting to me, Alec was so incredibly compassionate in his performance. You see how much he loves his wife. He says he’s going to be there and at the end of the day he can’t. He wants to be with the other wife. His old partner. Every dynamic is completely different.
Wash Westmoreland: Certainly. My co-director Richard has ALS. One of the things that we found in our lives was that some people would get more distant. No one ever said anything nasty or mean, but they would re-prioritize. Whereas other people would come forward and be really emotionally present for you. We wanted to create that dynamic and make people’s absence as known as their presence. It’s really interesting to see how that works with the family members thought the film. Lydia [Stewart’s character] is the character is the one who is initially antagonistic and on a different coast. She is absent at the little birthday dinner, but comes through in the end. Whereas John, who is in love with his wife as the marriage of the minds, struggles constantly with dealing with the disease and ultimately makes a decision that makes him more absent. I think it’s really fascinating case with the character of Anna [Bosworth], the one who has inherited the gene that will become Alzheimer’s becomes absent after that for a while. She can’t deal with it. When she comes back, there’s clearly problems she’s having dealing with her mother. But ultimately when she has her baby, a new relationship can start between them, because the genetic link has been broken for the next generation. We’re very conscious of absence and presence of family members in the way the story evolves.
Is there any particular scene that you felt was the most challenging in this movie? What about your characters did you relate to the most? Like when they made the decision to find out if they had the gene to pass the condition on…
Julianne Moore: That might have been the most challenging scene, when we had that family scene where Alec and I were supposed to give the news. Because you know, she’s not in a place where she has declined, she’s just been diagnosed so she is very present, she’s very articulate. But then how do you give that news to anybody? How, as someone who is dealing with the effects of the disease on themselves. They are worried about the effects on their children. They are worried about their children’s diagnosis. They are worried about their relationship. They are worried about how this thing started, how it ended… That was probably the most difficult day.
Wash Westmoreland: It was tough because you’re dealing with a bomb going off. It’s like a silent bomb going off on that family in that room. It’s all about how people initially respond emotionally. It was different for each character. It took a lot of working out to get each emotional tone right. Just, this is what we’ve got to do now.
Did you shoot it chronologically?
Wash Westmoreland: We didn’t shoot chronologically. We would have loved to. But that’s a privilege for films bigger than ours. We tried within the house. We were in the house the first eight days. We tried to push some of the more difficult scenes at least until day three. But there were a lot of determining factors around the way we could schedule it. The amazing thing is once it was put together, how well calibrated the developments in Alice’s character are through the decline. It’s not just a straight line. It was lots of ups and downs as she descends, which is I think very authentic to the experience of living with Alzheimer’s.
Kate, how did you relate to the scene?
Kate Bosworth: I’d say that was a challenging one for everybody. Just trying to figure out the tone of the scene. For my character, I felt like Anna was Alice’s mirror. They know each other’s shorthand. They’re very, very close. I think I had the line where I say “Are you sick?” Everyone was guessing, “Are you divorcing? What’s happening?” Kind of joking. My character hones in and figures it out. I wanted her to be the most vulnerable there. Then I had to close up throughout the film, not being able to handle her own fate of having the gene and how does that affect her relationship with her mom. Watching her mom decline while recognizing that that’s how she is going to decline. Having to shut off from that. That was probably the most challenging day for me as well.
Kristen, your character did not want to know if she had the gene. Do you relate to that?
Kristen Stewart: Personally I do relate to it. You have two starkly different representations of people in the two Howland girls. Lydia finds that she has so many aspects of her mother and because of this little fast-forward accelerated period of life they are able to find that quickly. Level with each other and appreciate with each other. But at first, you have a girl who does not want to nail anything down. Conversely, if [Alice] can’t find her name for something, if she can’t understand it or define it, then it is expelled from your mind. Whereas, Lydia is not isolated or a black sheep or anything like that, but she is different from her family. She is not an academic. She lives in ambiguity. She is a creative person. She is experiencing every moment that is appreciated. Basically, I think I would not want to know. I think you can still be happy knowing, but I just think one of the things this movie is very much about is the present moment. Being you. Not being a disciple and projecting and reflecting too much. That’s why Lydia stands up and becomes a backbone. It’s weird because it’s counterintuitive because she is so flimsy, but then emotionally she is the strongest for Alice and learns a lot.
Copyright ©2015 PopEntertainment.com. All rights reserved. Posted: January 16, 2015.
Photos ©2015 Jay S. Jacobs/PopEntertainment.com. All rights reserved.