For Document's Summer/Pre-Fall 2021 issue, the Oscar-winning actor and the legendary fashion editor discuss memory, mortality, and the paramount importance of narrative
For our tenth anniversary edition, we revisit a selection of stories from Document’s archive—celebrating ten years of championing the independent creative spirit, and honoring the cultural icons who will shape our future. This conversation originally appeared in Document’s Spring/Summer 2019 issue.
According to Julianne Moore’s Wikipedia page, the Oscar-winning actor is known for her portrayals of “emotionally troubled women,” which is a pretty verbose way to say “women” or simply “humans.” It’s true that Moore’s most memorable films have found her playing, as the page continues, the “unhappy mid-20th-century housewife,” including The End of the Affair (1999), Far From Heaven (2002), The Hours (2002), and Todd Haynes’s chilling 1995 masterpiece Safe. In Safe, Moore plays a chemically sensitive homemaker who defines herself by suburban consumer products and other peoples’ perceptions, her life destitute of all desire other than to be heard as her health condition spirals. There’s a scene in which Carol is seen through the tiny window of her hermetically sealed pod-hut, resembling the viral photos of COVID patients ‘touching’ loved ones through hospital glass or the gay men shut out from society when AIDS was still a mystery illness. Haynes worked with costume designer Nancy Steiner to create an equally sterile wardrobe of mostly pastels where even specific fabrics—Carol’s unbleached “safe” linens, the upholstering on her seafoam-green couch—are permeated with a sense of dreadful anticipation, casting a harsh light on the universal human impulse to define one’s self by looking out rather than in. Some stories are so large that the particulars become stripped of gravity; specific characters are subsumed by a more abstract emotion that fills the present while rejecting a timestamp entirely. It’s these stories that Moore looks for in a script.
Moore’s latest project is a psychological horror that bends time in a more literal sense. Lisey’s Story, screening on Apple TV+ and adapted from Stephen King’s own favorite novel, sees Moore in the role of a widow sorting through the papers of her novelist husband. Lisey’s Story traverses multiple timelines, creating a sense that the past can be no less critical than the present, as Lisey embarks on a terrifying journey to face her late husband’s demons. Moore also explored the precarity of memory in the 2014 drama Still Alice, in which she plays a young Harvard professor with early-onset Alzheimer’s. In preparation for the performance that would earn her a Best Actress win at the 2015 Academy Awards, Moore spoke to a team of neuroscientists, as well as many young women who had recently been diagnosed with the disease. Moore is a voracious researcher when it comes to preparation for a role, often embarking on her own journeys into darkness before filming has even started: To rapidly prepare for playing Sarah Palin in 2012’s Game Change, she shut herself off from the world for two months of nonstop Sarah Palin studies, listening to nothing but the uniquely choleric voice of the notorious Alaskan who paved the way for Donald Trump.
It’s no wonder Grace Coddington cited Moore, alongside a host of young British acting talents, when the indomitable former Vogue editor was planning the film adaptation of her 2012 memoir Grace. (Grace was optioned in 2015 by independent production company A24.) Coddington had crossed paths with Moore on multiple occasions before the two joined Document’s editor-in-chief, Nick Vogelson, on a recent afternoon in Long Island for the following conversation. The British fashion editor and the American actor share many uncommon things in common: natural red hair and a love of being in hospitals chief among them. But above all else, they share a belief in the paramount importance of narrative. Before being scouted as a model, Coddington was drawn to fashion—she initially wanted to be a costume designer—through the magic of Shakespeare. Famously, even Coddington’s most fantastical editorials are as meticulous as a movie production when it comes to conveying a cohesive story. “You can take that bit out, ’cause I always quote that,” Coddington says after railing against the idea of high heels being worn in a beach shoot. “It’s stupid, but it’s true. It has to be real or it doesn’t work.”
Grace Coddington: Do you remember when we first met?
Julianne Moore: I first saw you at fashion shows, and I’d smile at you. You always looked so amazing. And you have red hair! With redheads, when we see each other, we always have to acknowledge each other.
I certainly knew [of] you and your extraordinary work in Vogue. But you never like to work with actresses. [Laughs] When I shot for Vogue, I never shot with you.
Grace: It’s true! I never would work with actresses. Did you always know you wanted to be an actor, even as a child?
Julianne: No. I didn’t. I liked imaginary play, and I liked to read. Reading was my big thing. By the time I was in junior high, when you have to have an after-school thing, there was, like, nothing that I could do. [Laughs] I wasn’t sporty; I didn’t make any sports teams. I would try out for cheerleading and drill team, and I’d never make it. But I would try out for the play, and I’d always get a part. So that became my after-school activity. I did it with all the rest of the weirdos who do plays in school.
When my dad was stationed in Germany—my dad was in the military, we moved around a lot—I had a teacher who ran the thespian club after school. She was really ambitious for her students, which was unusual. She said to me, ‘You know, I think you’re really good. I think you can do this for a living.’ I didn’t know anybody who was an actor! My family didn’t go to plays. That was not a career. And she handed me a copy of Dramatics Magazine that had all these colleges in it, where you could study acting. I came home and said to my parents, ‘I’m gonna be an actor!’ They were like, Oh, no.
Nick Vogelson: Did you pick out a college from that list?
Julianne: I did. I picked out Boston University, Carnegie Mellon, and NYU. I flew over with my mother to audition, and I’d applied to the grad school at NYU by mistake, because we had filled out all the applications by ourselves. [Laughs] When I walked in there, they were like, ‘How old are you?’ I was like, ‘Um, I’m 18?’ They were like, ‘This is a grad school.’ So we left, and then I got into Carnegie and Boston. I chose Boston because I thought it would be fun to live in Boston.
“I think ‘passion’ is a really tough word. Especially for young people, they’re like, ‘I’m not passionate about anything!’ Because passion feels so big. I say to my kids, ‘Follow your interests.’”
Grace: What do you think you would have done if you hadn’t been an actress?
Julianne: I wanted to be a doctor. I don’t think that I’m strong enough in the sciences for that. But I really liked it. My mother was a psychiatric social worker, so maybe if I were strong in the sciences, who knows? Maybe I could have been a psychologist or a psychiatrist, if I would have stuck it out.
Grace: I love all the programs on TV that are about hospitals, like Grey’s Anatomy.
Julianne: You love it? [Laughs] I even love being in the hospital. It’s so exciting.
Grace: Me too. If I have to be in a hospital because I’m sick or something, everyone says, ‘Oh, you poor thing, how terrible. You must have a private room.’ I say, ‘No, actually, I go down all the beds and chat with all of [the other patients].’ What went wrong with you? You get some weird answers.
Julianne: I love to talk to the nurses and the doctors. Love it! So much to say.
Grace: Last time, I befriended a nurse, and she wanted to be in fashion. So I got her to come to Vogue and have an interview. She wasn’t quite sure what she wanted to be, so she never followed it through, but it was quite funny. She was really pretty and very nice to me. She would, you know, smuggle things in—things that you weren’t supposed to have in the hospital.
Julianne: You probably were a good patient, too. I had an emergency appendectomy, which was very exciting. The lead-up to it was horrible, because I was in so much pain. And I didn’t really know what it was. Once I got to the hospital and they gave me whatever it was—morphine, something—I was fine. And then I could chat with all the nurses and the doctors in the emergency room.
Grace: And going into the operating room!
Julianne: [Laughs] Going into the operating room, I love it! You’re all wrapped up, and it’s terrifying but it’s exciting. Oh, the drama.
Grace: When I went in for my new hip, the HSS—it’s incredibly modern. It’s all sort of stainless steel. It’s like a movie set. It’s un-believable. Really, I can’t even describe it. It was fascinating. You know, then they put you to sleep, and that’s a bummer. [Laughs]
Juliann: I gotta show you this, I gotta see if I can find it, ’cause you can appreciate it. Hang on.
Nick: Grace, I wanted to ask: Do you remember when you first realized you could have a career in fashion?
Grace: Well, I was a model first. Everybody kept saying, ‘Oh, you’re tall,’ which—
Julianne: [Finds a photo on her phone] Hang on, sorry… you guys, this is my appendix.
Grace: [Draws breath] You took that picture? You are sick.
Julianne: [Laughs] I was sick—the thing was, people kept saying it wasn’t infected, right? They put me in the hospital and at night they’re like, ‘You’re gonna be okay. We’re not gonna operate.’ The head of surgery came in the next morning and palpated me like [knocks on the table], and he goes, ‘We’re operating right now.’
Anyway, that’s the end of that, so let’s go back to fashion. Yes, so you’re tall—
Grace: Well I wanted to be a costume designer. I often used to go to the Royal Shakespeare Theatre at Stratford-upon-Avon. I loved the magic of Shakespeare. It’s sort of the only thing I like on the stage. At that time they didn’t have movies, but you went to the theater. I applied to—I don’t know how I had the courage, but I called up Peter Hall. I’m like, ‘I would like—’ [Laughs] ‘What should I do?’ I was probably 16. He said, ‘Well, you have to go to college. You have to get a degree in this, this, and this.’ I said, ‘Oh, well. That’s the end of my career.’ [Laughs] Because it’s not gonna happen.
Julianne: You always have such a strong sense of narrative in your work. So it doesn’t surprise me that you were interested in that, you know—story, story.
Grace: Yeah, that’s what I love doing. I like to put things in place so it makes sense. It has to be real, or it doesn’t work. Photographers always say, ‘I’m gonna do the pictures on the beach,’ and I say, ‘Yeah, but the looks all have, like, high heels.’ They say, Oh, we can put a board underneath so the heels won’t sink, and I say, ‘Yeah, but it looks stupid.’ You can take that bit out, ’cause I always quote that. It’s stupid, but it’s true. It has to be real or it doesn’t work.
Have you ever had a role that you really wanted and didn’t get?
“Often, I think, in society, we’re always looking outside to have someone else tell us who we are. The hardest thing is to try to be quiet on the inside and try to figure that out.”
Julianne: Gosh—yeah, constantly. Certainly at the beginning of your career, you don’t get anything. You literally don’t get anything. You just keep trying. You keep going and going and going. I can remember auditioning for a play and it being down to, like, a couple of people and not getting it. I remember walking by the Morgan Library, because I lived on 38th and 2nd, and sobbing because I didn’t get it. So yeah, devastated, always.
The biggest surprise is when you start to get stuff. You’re like, ‘I got it? Are you sure? How’d that happen? Did they lose somebody? Did somebody drop out?’ You’re always aware as an actor—even [after finding success]—that you’re probably not the only choice. You’ve heard about some job, you wonder who’s in the mix for it. Far From Heaven, [Todd Haynes] wrote for me. He called me up like, ‘Hey, I just want to let you know I have this thing.’ That was a real honor. Every once in a while, people write things for you, but most of the time, it’s anybody’s game whether you get it or not.
Grace: Do you believe in fate?
Julianne: No. I think I believe in circumstance.
Nick: How did you keep going when you didn’t get the roles right away, but had the motivation? I think we’re at a really pivotal time right now where people are questioning their creative choices, following career versus passion.
Julianne: I’m glad that you said that. I think ‘passion’ is a really tough word. Especially for young people, they’re like, ‘I’m not passionate about anything!’ Because passion feels so big. I say to my kids, ‘Follow your interests.’ The thing that kept me going, I think, was that I was endlessly interested in [acting], and curious about it, and I loved doing it. If you don’t like the process, you’re gonna be disappointed. There is no result. Ever. The product doesn’t matter. It’s only the doing of it. The doing, the doing, the doing.
Grace: What was your most challenging role?
Julianne: Probably playing Sarah Palin, because it had to be so precise. She was so present in everybody’s view. She’s not somebody who has receded from memory, and she was really active too. She was on the news all the time, so everybody knew what she looked like and what she sounded like. I had to be able to get her vocally, and get her mannerisms, just so people would believe it. The minute it’s off, 10 people are going to be like, Ugh, that’s stupid.
Grace: It’s hard to play someone that’s still alive. And I think it messes up a lot of movies when you see a bio or whatever, and there’s someone like Anna Wintour or Karl Lagerfeld in it. Whom a director casts as that person is usually so wrong. It was the problem I had when I wanted to make a movie [about] myself.
The only way I could think of was to make a movie of my very early years. Which, when I wrote the memoir, the editor mostly cut out. I mean, a little bit of it is there, but not much. She said, ‘No, no, nobody would be interested in this.’ I said, ‘Yeah, but they know the now.’ They’d already done R.J. Cutler’s film September Issue, so now is not interesting. Then a lot of movies came out of that sort of teenage ode. An Education—that film could have been my life.
The other film [of yours] that fascinated me was Still Alice. I’m quite old now, and the older you get, you are very close to [the subject of Alzheimer’s]. Either way, you lose your memory—I cannot remember anybody’s name. I’m always forgetting your name. ‘You know, the redhead!’ It’s very real and it’s very close. You were really brilliant. There’s a heartbreaking scene when you actually go to kill yourself and—
Julianne: And she can’t remember, and she drops the—well, it’s interesting, the misnomer is that Alzheimer’s or dementia is a condition of aging, and it’s not. It’s a disease.
Grace: I know, you can be quite young.
Julianne: The prevalence of it increases, obviously, as people get older. I also talked to all these neuroscientists about how it’s normal for people to forget where they put their keys, to forget people’s names, those kinds of things. But when they give you this test called a Mini-Mental, each of the tests examines a different area of the brain, and they see where the deficits are.
Grace: I’m really worried. Every time I forget something, I think, ‘Oh, God. Here we go.’
Julianne: I spoke to a lot of younger women who’d recently been diagnosed, and a lot of their symptoms were not of the normal forgetting thing. A woman who was a Spanish teacher said that one of her students recognized it, because she was writing on the board backwards. In class. She didn’t realize it. Another woman said she would get into the shower, and she would not remember how she was supposed to get out. She would look at the door, and know that the door had something to do with it, but she didn’t know what to do. So a lot of it was not just, ‘Oh, I forgot where my keys are,’ or, ‘I forgot that woman’s name.’
Nick: I wanted to ask about another role. When people think about the pandemic of the past year and a half, I think a lot of people think about Safe. It was an incredible role, and [Grace and I] were talking about—before you got here—how many parallels there are to life today.
Julianne: God, it was such a beautiful script. It was also [filmed] before people were really aware of chemical sensitivity and the environment making you sick, so there was this sort of subculture of people who had been very affected by these things, and people thought they were crazy. It’s also a metaphor for AIDS, obviously, and this idea that somehow you are responsible for your illness and it’s your responsibility to make yourself well. All that was happening at the time we made the film. And one of the things that Todd [Haynes] did so masterfully is that in each scene there is a psychological reason and a physical reason that she could be sick. He leaves it up to the audience to see which it is. But the time when she’s the healthiest, of course, is in the middle of the movie, before she’s joined that weird cult, and she’s like, ‘I’m angry, I’m sick. You are making me sick.’ It’s kind of when she is her most essential self. Those things are real. We haven’t made it up.
Nick: I think there are so many parallels now, whether it’s AIDS today, if it’s more abstract ideas of anxiety, if it’s social media, if it’s how you perceive yourself in the world. I think so many people identified with that role.
Julianne: She’s someone who defines herself by the world around her. She defines herself by her couch, by her house, by her car, by the aerobics place that she goes to, by her friends. When all of the things that she cares about, that she thinks are her—that define her—start to make her sick, she doesn’t know who she is anymore, she loses her identity. Often, I think, in society, we’re always looking outside to have someone else tell us who we are. The hardest thing is to try to be quiet on the inside and try to figure that out.
“My friend David Sims said, ‘Grace, when they make your memoir, it has to be a musical.’ I did think that was terribly funny. I’m part Welsh. I sing totally out of tune. It’s very unusual that Welsh people can’t sing.”
Grace: How do you recognize a good script? I’ve read a couple of scripts and they’re just gobbledygook to me. I was completely unable to picture a picture.
Julianne: [Laughs] A lot of them are. I wonder, if I gave you Far From Heaven or A Single Man to read, you would say, ‘I can see it.’ Those are two examples where I could hear the story in the rhythm of the dialogue. I think, because I did love to read, I always looked for story, and I’m able to recognize it in screenplays. I do think I have strength in that way.
Nick: Grace, you once said, if you wanted anyone to play you in a film, you would want it to be Julianne. And if you wanted it to be a younger version of you—
Grace: Then I wanted it to be her daughter. It made perfect sense to me.
Nick: Would you see it as a drama? Comedy?
Grace: Someone suggested it should be a musical. This was before La La Land, and my friend David Sims said, ‘Grace, when they make your memoir, it has to be a musical.’ I did think that was terribly funny. I’m part Welsh. I sing totally out of tune. It’s very unusual that Welsh people can’t sing.
Nick: How would you get into the character of Grace, Julianne?
Julianne: Ooh, that would be interesting. Well, whenever I’m doing a real person—actually, I do more research the older I get. So I would watch everything, I would watch any film there was on her—not a whole lot, there’s The September Issue. The thing about fashion is that you project all these ideas onto iconic figures like Grace, Karl, Anna, and Tom. But The September Issue was so humanizing, it was really wonderful. I’d certainly interview everybody she has ever worked with. And then listen to her voice again and again too, because she has a very identifiable voice.
Grace: Okay, done deal. [Laughs] Even if I’m dead, you can play me.
Hair Orlando Pita at Home Agency. Make-up Francelle Daly at Home Agency. Manicure Yuko Tsuchihashi at Susan Price. Lighting Assistants Nick Brinley, John Griffith, Guanchan Liu. Digital Technician Tadaaki Shibuya. Stylist Assistant Connor Manning. Tailor Lars Nordensten. Producer Sarah Maxwell at PRODn / Art + Commerce. Production Manager Mitch Baker at PRODn / Art + Commerce. Production Assistants Logan Khidekel, Kelli McGuire, Hannah Lepage. Production Director Madeleine Kiersztan at Ms4 Production.