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May December’s Julianne Moore and Natalie Portman on Playing Transgressive Women

May December’s Julianne Moore and Natalie Portman on Playing Transgressive Women


<p><em>May December</em>’s Julianne Moore and Natalie Portman on Playing Transgressive Women </p>
Courtesy of Netflix

Natalie Portman and Julianne Moore in MayDecember

The stars of the Netflix film May December, Julianne Moore and Natalie Portman, open up about the boundary-crossing women they play. They also touch on their director, New Queer Cinema legend Todd Haynes.

At a certain angle, May December is about a horrendous tabloid personality a la Mary Kay Letourneau. But under the direction of New Queer Cinema legend Todd Haynes (Poison, Far From Heaven, Carol), a crackling script from Samy Burch, and searing performances from Julianne Moore, Natalie Portman, and Charles Melton, the film deftly takes its tabloid roots to new depths around trauma, rebirth, societal expectations of women, and the craft of acting.

The film centers on the disruption that occurs when Elizabeth, an actress played by Portman, arrives in Savannah, Ga., to study Moore’s Gracie for a movie she’s making about the woman who served time in prison decades earlier for the child rape of a 7th-grade boy whose baby she delivered in prison. The hitch is that Gracie and the boy, Joe, were married after her release and raised three children together. With their twins imminently graduating from high school, empty-nest syndrome looming, and Elizabeth poking at the edges of Gracie and Joe’s outwardly abiding relationship, a rift begins.

In an interview with the Advocate Channel, Moore and Portman touched on their characters’ traits like Gracie using femininity as a shield and a weapon and Elizabeth’s ambition taking her to the darkest edges of acting as a craft.

Throughout the film, Gracie, the image of domesticity, cruelly comments on both of her daughters’ appearance, specifically, their weight.

“I think Gracie is someone who’s swallowed feminine culture and ideology whole. That’s how she was raised. That’s how she sees the world. That seems to be her only avenue into life,” Moore says.

“I don’t think she understands there’s any other way to be. And it’s left her as someone who’s truly transgressed, who’s really crossed a boundary. She’s done something so unexpected in what was expected of her. Then it’s like she doubles down on the femininity,” Moore adds. “It’s like she’s going to go to this extreme and say, This is who I am, and I am a mother, and I am a wife, and I am a baker, and I am feminine. When in fact she’s done something that’s so different, so transgressive, there’s this chasm in who she is and how she presents.”

Natalie Portman, Julianne Moore, and Todd HaynesFrancois Duhamel/Courtesy Netflix

From Elizabeth and Gracie’s first meeting, the actress begins to study and meld with her subject to increasingly bizarre degrees. By the close of the film, Elizabeth has adopted Gracie’s small lisp and made it a central part of her interpretation of Gracie.

“Part of Samy’s brilliance with her writing was getting into that exact ethic of what we do when we depict a story like this. Are we endorsing it somehow? Are we celebrating it somehow? Are we interfering with the story when we’re telling it or when we’re researching it or when we’re exploring it?” Portman says. “And then also, what is that? What process of performance? What does it mean for us as women? I think especially, how do we perform in many ways in our lives? And of course, an actress kind of exemplifies that actual, literal performance, whereas it’s a more metaphorical one, I guess, for most women — the different ways we perform.”

Watch the full interview below. May December is available now on Netflix.

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Tracy E. Gilchrist