“Oh my god, you have to tell your mother you said that!” Julianne Moore is flipping her perfect red hair, laughing loudly and long and at a pitch that suggests she isn’t actually amused. I have just asked her, in what was not quite a roundabout enough way, something about being a middle-aged sex symbol. In my defense (Mom and everyone else), it is one of the very few things that Moore—longtime liberal, pro-choice activist, and West Village resident—shares with Sarah Palin, whom she plays in HBO’s Game Change, based on the book by Mark Halperin and New York’s John Heilemann, premiering March 10.
Middle-aged might not be the first word that comes to mind to describe Moore, whose cobalt-blue dress is topped with a Peter Pan collar—a sartorial reference to a character who never ages that seems about right for the exquisite 51-year-old. But it quickly becomes clear it’s not just my mother she feels cosmic solidarity with; it is Palin-as-mom, not Palin-as-object-of-desire, that drove the remarkably empathetic portrayal Moore, a mother of two, gives in the film.
In describing her sympathy for Palin, Moore talks like she means it. “She had a 4-month-old Down-syndrome child, and she had a 7-year-old, a 14-year-old, a pregnant 17-year-old, and another kid about to go to Iraq,” she ticks off. “You don’t know yet how you feel when you just had a baby,” she says a bit accusingly. When I suggest that, just maybe, Palin used her kids in certain ways politically, Moore jumps quickly to her defense. “I have to say, I don’t believe she did,” she says, almost more upset at this than at the middle-aged comment. “I don’t.”
As the movie has it, Palin the vice-presidential candidate is petulant, in over her head, and alienated from John McCain’s top brass, who believed Palin to be useful mostly as an actress. “It’s unfortunate that that’s demanded, because that’s not necessarily a skill you need to be a leader,” Moore says. “If we want people who are great leaders in our country, why is it that we also demand that they be good-looking and charismatic and seem like movie stars?”
Moore’s compassion for Palin might have something to do with all the time she spent with her—hours upon hours captive to YouTube versions of speeches and interviews, not to mention all of TLC’s Sarah Palin’s Alaska, which she quite enjoyed. “The scenery was beautiful,” she tells me.
Moore has gotten mixed reviews for her accents in the past—she was especially slagged for the broader-than-a-Baldwin’s-forehead Boston accent she trotted out on 30 Rock—but that famously searing Wasillaish is the foundation she built her Palin on. Whenever possible, she substituted actual Palin dialogue for what the screenwriters had handed her.
The Method act continued in the makeup chair. It took Moore two and a half hours each day to get in character: The routine involved a wig, fake nails, contact lenses with especially large irises, body makeup to bring her ultrafair skin closer to Palin’s tan, and carefully drawn lips that were finished with liner and gloss. Moore’s makeup artist—a veteran of makeup-magic flick The Curious Case of Benjamin Button—even used some of the same products that Palin wears, though that particular highly classified beauty intel definitely didn’t come from the former candidate herself. (Director Jay Roach approached Palin about getting involved in the film; she predictably declined and is now engaged in a furious pushback against Moore’s portrayal.)
The resulting transformation might not fool Todd or Bristol, but it’s far from cartoonish—a credible concern with a character like Palin, who exists almost more as a stereotype than as a real person in the culture at this point. And who has been, of course, the subject of one of the most famous impressions in recent history, Tina Fey’s SNL version—a performance that inevitably hangs over Moore’s.
“What she was doing was political satire,” Moore says, ducking the comparison. “It was something that’s outside of who Sarah Palin is. It’s somebody’s interpretation of her. I was trying to approach it in a different kind of way.”