In the dramatic film “What Maisie Knew,” Julianne Moore plays Susanna, a selfish rock singer who is in a nasty custody battle with her ex-boyfriend Beale (played by Steve Coogan), an equally narcissistic art dealer, over their 6-year-old daughter, Maisie (played by Onata Aprile). The fractured family lives in New York City, where Maisie shuttles back and forth between her separated parents’ homes and is often neglected. Susanna is prone to sudden outbursts and emotional blackmail, while Beale often tries to buy Maisie’s affections with gifts.
Things get more complicated when Beale marries Maisie’s former nanny Margo (played by Joanna Vanderham), who is a Scottish immigrant with visa issues. Susanna then uses her new boyfriend, a mild-mannered bartender named Lincoln (played by Alexander Skarsgård), by manipulating him into marrying her because Susanna thinks she will have an advantage in her custody battle if she is a married woman. As Maisie’s parents continue to fight over custody of her, Margo and Lincoln become the nurturing and more stable caregivers for Maisie. On May 2, 2013, I participated in a roundtable interview that Julianne Moore did with journalists at the New York City press junket for “What Maisie Knew.” Here is what she said.
Your role in “What Maisie Knew” is the first time that you’re playing not just a singer but someone who’s supposed to be an edgy rock singer. Were there any real-life singers who inspired how you acted in this role? Was Patti Smith an influence?
Patti, definitely. I listened to a lot of Patti Smith. Probably three that I looked at the most were Patti Smith, Courtney Love and Allison Mosshart. Those were the ones.
I looked at a lot of Hole footage and listened to Patti. And Allison, the Kills gave us the songs, and she’s the coolest girl in the world so kind and so encouraging, and nicer than she needed to be about me singing her songs. I love her look. Yeah, so all three of those women.
There’s a scene in “What Maisie Knew” where a video from Susanna’s performance is playing at a party she has at her place. Did you perform in front of a live audience to film that performance?
Yeah, it was about four people deep. There was nobody there. We actually shot that video after I had already shot “The English Teacher.” So I shot “Maisie,” then “The English Teacher,” and then had to come back and do the video thing. We probably only had 10 extras or something, because they couldn’t afford anything, so we just moved them around, according to the shot, and made them look dense.
Were you comfortable on stage?
Oh no! It was terrible! It feels embarrassing. You’re just like, “Oh God, it’s embarrassing!” It’s hard to do. It’s certainly not something that comes naturally to me and I just wanted it to look [real].
Pete [Nashel], who was our sound guy, was so great and so encouraging. If I did stuff, he’d be like, “Oh, I like that move” or “I like this move.” He was incredibly helpful to me, because he knows musicians and music, and didn’t make me feel like an idiot. He was great.
So you’re not a karaoke girl?
Oh my God, no! My daughter, who’s 11, she said to me the other day, “You know, Mommy, we should do family karaoke.” And I’m like, “No, I’d rather die.” I don’t understand karaoke. It seems so scary to me.
You’ve played so many different roles in your career. What attracted you this role in “What Maisie Knew”?
Certainly, the musician part. That was really challenging. I don’t play the guitar. I had to learn those three chords to play “Rock-a-Bye Baby” and how to sing and all that kind of business. I’m not inherently that cool. It was a real stretch for me, so that was interesting.
But I loved the story, and I liked the idea of playing this person who 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 kind of face that at the end of the movie.
My favorite line was painful too: “You know who your mother is, right?” That’s all that she’s able to offer that child, but she is her mother, and she does love her, but she’s not going to be able to parent her. It’s awful …
She knows she’s not a good parent. She’s a musician. That’s all she wants. 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.
She loves this girl, and she knows to take care of her, but she’s not able to. And a horrible thing too is that she realizes that she is a bad mother. She’s probably never going to be a good one … It’s awful! Terrible!
Have you ever known anyone like that?
No! She’s bad! [She laughs.]
Your colleagues often say that you psychologically understand the characters that you play. Do you think that Susanna has a narcissistic personality disorder?
Do you think she was just stressed out because of the custody care, or do think there were other issues going on with her?
She probably is a narcissist. Like I said, her relationship is probably not with people. It’s with her music. And also when she says, “I used to be just like you,” I think she probably has a mother like she is.
And she thinks that she’s not like her own mother, but when she realizes, “Oh my God, look what I did to this child: the same thing that was done to me.” In that sense, about being let of the hook, I think she feels like, “I can’t do this. I don’t want to do this. I’m going to walk away from this.” It’s awful.
What was the process of working with Onata Aprile?
She’s so easy. You met her. She’s a delightful girl. She’s really bright, very curious and trusting and loving. And seems to really like to do this [acting]. That’s the other thing. I didn’t feel like this was a child under duress. She wanted to be there.
As a parent, I would say to her, “OK, we’re going to do this scene, I’m going to yell at the end. I’m probably going to slam the door. Don’t be scared. And I may start to cry in this scene, but it’s not real. Don’t worry if I’m crying. It’s not real.”
There was one time I cried in the scene, and she was like, “You really cried!” “I told you I was going to cry!” And then I’d be like, “Is it OK if I pick you up and twirl you around and hug you and kiss you?” And she’d be like, “OK.”
So I just wanted to make sure that she always felt safe, she always knew what I was going to do. She was prepared as a kid and as an actor. And so we knew what role we were working in. She’s great. She’s terrific. She’s a really good girl and has a lovely mother.
Did you read Henry James’ novel “What Maisie Knew”?
Yeah. It’s very loosely adapted. He was kind of commenting on divorce and shared custody and also these recalcitrant parents. And I think what’s interesting is we have a tendency to think that things like divorce or custody battles are endemic to the time that we live in.
It’s like, “Oh, modern times. In the old days, people didn’t get divorced. In the old days, this didn’t happen to kids.” Well, clearly, it did. So I think that’s what’s interesting too: These themes repeat themselves, unfortunately.
My daughter had to read this book in school this year called “The Orphan Train.” It’s awful! This mother, these parents living in the Industrial Age in New York City, and this mother puts her kids on the orphan train …
It’s this idea of kids being shuttled all over the place. These are the things that people go through. So historically, things happen. Kids are left to fend for themselves.
Have you had any roles that were hard to shake off after filming?
[She shakes her head no.] I can’t. 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. You know, I think I am! That’s work stuff and this is home stuff. I think you can choose to sit around in it but, like I said, that wouldn’t be tolerable for me or my children.
What kind of person do you think Susanna represents in society?
The movie and the book are both warnings about what the dangers are of behaving that way and the collateral damage in divorce. Clearly Susanna and the Beale character are locked in a power war that’s not about custody of the child, because neither one of them wants to parent the child. They just want to win. So it’s a cautionary tale in that way.
As a mother in real life, did that make it even more challenging for to you to play a mother who was so neglectful of her child?
Like I said, because I’m so compartmentalized, I know that that’s not me. My biggest concern was to make sure that Onata felt safe, that she knew we were pretending. My kids made a lot of jokes about me playing a bad mother.
We were right next door so [my daughter] came and met Onata and hung out a little bit and would see my kind of flailing around. It’s not who I am. As long as Onata knew that it was make-believe, I felt OK about it.
In describing how you worked with Onata, it sounds like there is a director inside of you. Would you like to do to direct a movie?
You know what? I’d like to try. I think I would I have interest in it it’s one of the things on my bucket list. It’s one of the things I’d like to do. If I don’t do it, I’ll be disappointed. Yeah, so we’ll see.
It’s a really big job. And I don’t know if I’d want to direct something that I didn’t write. So that’s the hard part. I don’t know how I’d feel about somebody else’s screenplay.
I write children’s books, but I don’t know if that’s a movie. I have three children’s books: this “Freckleface Strawberry” series. And I have a fourth book coming out in September  called “My Mom is a Foreigner, But Not to Me.” It’s about the experience of growing up with a mother from another country.
I have an app out right now that’s free. I write those things. I’d like to try to write a screenplay too. We’ll see.
Do you like Twitter and Facebook?
I tweet. I don’t do Facebook because it seems to be a major time suck. Also, the people that would Facebook me are the people I see that say, “Hey, it’s me. I just saw you at school this morning.” “Then why are you Facebooking me?”
So I do tweet. I follow people that are funny … I’ll retweet political things, stuff like marriage equality. I tweeted Jason Collins the other day. You do that kind of stuff.
What’s the most important thing that you’ve learned from making “What Maisie Knew” or any of your other movies?
I think you learn from life. I don’t think you learn from work. People say, “Well, what did you learn from this character?” It’s like, “No, what I learn in my life is what I apply to my work.” I don’t learn a whole 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. And with my work too, what I’ve learned as a human being, what I’ve done as a parent, what I’ve done as a spouse, a friend, a worker — all of those things, I take and put into my work.
You mentioned earlier that you might want to be a director someday. What are some things that you’ve learned along the way?
That you better be prepared. I have great respect for people who have a vision and know how to communicate it and know how to assemble it. What I find is that some people are very, very good at it. They know they have a shot list. They know what they want to accomplish.
Everyone works in a different kind of way, but I see how far people can go when they’re really truly, truly prepared. I think that’s how I try to work as an actor. I’m really familiar with what I need to do that day so I can accomplish it, especially in independent film where you have such a limited amount of time. And you better figure it out quickly.
Can you compare working in independent films to working on major studio films?
You have less time [in independent films]. It really comes down to that. That’s the hardest part. If I hear one more time, “We’re shooting this [entire movie] in 23 days …” Not again! It’s become harder and harder to get money and days for things. So that just means you don’t have the hours.
It’s like, “OK, you get two takes and you have to move on” or “We have to cut this. We don’t have time for it.” That’s the really hard part about it, whereas a big-budget film they’re like, “We didn’t get it today. We’re going to do more tomorrow.” “We’re doing more? Hurrah!”
Do your kids watch any of your movies?
They don’t watch any of them. My son came to see “Crazy, Stupid, Love” with me because that’s right up his alley. He’s 15 now, and he was 13 [when that movie came out]. But he was the appropriate age for it, and he loved all those people, and it was really fun for him to see.
Other than that, they’ve seen little pieces on television and stuff like that. But they don’t see much, and I don’t encourage it. They’re not terribly interested.
For more info: “What Maisie Knew” website
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