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Julianne Moore on what makes Alzheimer's movie Still Alice so compelling

PUBLISHED : Saturday, 31 January, 2015, 11:47pm
UPDATED : Saturday, 31 January, 2015, 11:47pm

Julianne Moore didn't know much about Alzheimer's before taking on the role of Dr Alice Howland in Still Alice.

"I was really starting at zero," the actress admits in a recent interview at the Four Seasons Hotel. Adapted from Lisa Genova's bestselling book, the tender and occasionally harrowing drama tells the story of a Columbia University linguistics professor who discovers that she has early onset Alzheimer's.

"What was so compelling about the script was that it was the first time I had seen a disease like this depicted objectively. It's usually from the point of view of the caregiver or a family member who's watching someone transform in this way. This brings you inside this character and her journey through it," Moore says.

The actress told co-directors and writers Richard Glatzer and Wash Westmoreland at the start that she didn't want to represent anything on screen that she hadn't actually seen. Whether it's using a highlighter so as not to lose your place in the middle of a speech or self-administering a daily memory test on your iPhone, everything that Alice does in the movie is based on reality.

"I felt like that was the only fair way to do it," she says. She immersed herself in the world of Alzheimer's through books and documentaries that she, Glatzer and Westmoreland would pass around to one another, but also by talking to clinicians, neurologists and patients.

Moore started at the national level, conducting Skype calls with patients the Alzheimer's Association put her in touch with. She had a doctor administer an extensive cognitive test on her at New York's Mount Sinai Hospital. She consulted with gerontologists.

During her sojourns to long-term care facilities and support groups, Moore found herself struck by the generosity of everyone she spoke to in the process and observed that people's personalities were very evident, no matter how advanced their disease.

"There was a guy who was really gregarious and would talk to everybody and welcome people as you walked through. He had owned a bar. And another woman was a model who had worked in fashion, she showed me her book. Another woman had been a designer. It was just interesting," says Moore.

On set, Moore saw an immediate example of the effects of a disease on a marriage. Glatzer, who is married to Westmoreland, is living with amyotrophic lateral sclerosis (ALS, also known as Lou Gehrig's disease). By the time production started on the movie, he'd lost his speech and the use of his arms. In an interview, Glatzer communicated by typing on an iPad with a toe on his right foot.

"I could still type with one finger on the iPad," Glatzer says. "It's so very important if you're struggling with a disease like this to feel you still matter. It's ironic that in my deteriorated state, I'd be able to make a film that was creatively everything I'd ever wished for."

Although ALS is quite different from Alzheimer's - Glatzer has all of his cognitive faculties - both are degenerative diseases. "I think they put a lot of their own experience into this," Moore says of Still Alice's writer-directors. "This is a movie about living with disease, not succumbing to it."

To illustrate Alice's deterioration across the story's two-and-a-half- year period, the directors used various tricks including make-up and camera filters, while Moore took pains to subtly alter her speech and physicality.

"We never wanted you to know that there was a certain change in Alice's character till the end of the movie when there's a comparison with who she used to be through discovering a video message. Then you suddenly are slammed with how much she's changed. The changes happen subtly and incrementally, but, you know, inevitably," Westmoreland says.

Moore was surprised that the most difficult and tiring days were those where her character was most declined. "Those were the days when I had fewer lines. But it was about the effort that people are making to go through the disease."

The winner of this year's best-actress Golden Globe, Moore is a favourite to win the Academy Award come February 22. She's not shy about admitting how great it would be to win. "Ultimately, it's about your peers recognising your work. Who doesn't want that?"

Associated Press

Still Alice opens on Thursday