Still Alice’ Julianne Moore won the Golden Globe Best Actress in a Drama award this past Sunday, for taking a journey no other actress has taken.
She plays a 55 year old college linguistics professor diagnosed with early onset Alzheimer’s disease and the film follows Alice’ descent into the disease, from simply forgetting words and where she left things, to full blown incapacity.
She loses her words, her ability to communicate and as Moore told us, her sense of who she is. It’s a devastating portrait of a woman who won’t get well.
The film looks at her responses and her husband’s (Alec Baldwin) and her three children, only one of which steps up to the plate to care for her (Kristen Stewart).
As difficult as it is to watch, Moore’s performance as the vulnerable, confused Alice is a miracle. We spoke with Moore at the Toronto International Film Festival where the film debuted last fall.
Did you have any fears about dealing with Alice’ story?
I didn’t feel fear. I was fascinated by it; it was something I didn’t have a lot of information about. What’s interesting is how many people have a deathly fear of this disease and how little information and understanding there is.
It was fascinating to explore this population and talk to the women I met, the clinicians and researchers and the Alzheimer’s Association workers.
It’s a big issue increasing as people are living longer, and it’s more prevalent. It was often misdiagnosed as a condition of ageing when it’s not, it’s a disease.
You spent time with early onset Alzheimer’s patients who was inspiring, but was it at all depressing?
No. I loved working every day. We worked really, really hard. I love working with Alec Baldwin who has so much heart and soul and chemistry. It felt like a real marriage.
That scene where we have to go to hospital and he helps me put my pants on, that’s what you see, that’s the kind of caregiving you see people doing for one another.
You see this great big man you realise what he’s been living with and what he’s been doing for her and what he’s taken on. And Kristen Stewart is so extraordinary and has so much compassion in her performance. It was lovely.
Was it difficult keeping track of how far she deteriorates for continuity?
Hell yah. That’s really hard because for one thing, we were not always shooting in sequence. They did the best they could but I played the end of the movie when we were halfway through the film. The running at the beginning we shot at the very end.
It was mixed up so (we were) keeping track of where she was and subtly noting her decline, the really small things that distinguish each stage.
Even in wardrobe; she didn’t seem to be selecting things to wear the same way. She wants something because it’s soft, not because it looks good or is appropriate, and there were the problems of the lack of control of body functions. And when did the language go?
In the early stages of the decline it’s not very evident, so (they) feel reticent to become involved in a conversation because they might not be able to come up with a name or an answer.
Some people are compassionate and very patient. How do you start demonstrating the decline without going overboard? We tried to be as accurate and precise as possible.
Did you take any of the Alzheimer’s tests?
I took them all. And they are really hard, way harder than they are depicted in the movie because we don’t have time for that.
It starts with a very long story with many details and then another test and then they give you a list of words, 30 words and then they say repeat those words and again, and then they give you a another list of 30 words and then they ask you to repeat the first list.
You’re like “What?” Name every animal starting with an “e”. Each test targets a different part of the brain so they can see where the decline has been.
And then she didn’t tell me until later in an email that the results were normal, not a score. Did I get 100? All the women I spoke to told me how scary it is to take the test and get that information.
I was really shocked by that line “I wish I had cancer”.
It’s in the book and it’s not uncommon for people to feel very ashamed. Everyone, particularly early onset people wonder what’s going on and they pull away.
Some people talked about losing friendships, losing support, and someone they thought was their best friend never showed up again and someone they thought was a causal friend was there for them every day.
These days if you have cancer, people are right there, they march, they wear pink ribbons and stand up for cancer on TV, but Alzheimer’s is still like…
It’s also interesting that I know a lot of people whose family members have Alzheimer’s disease but they didn’t tell me before they knew I was doing the film.
People still have a sense of shame. It needs to be talked about. They also think it’s a normal condition of ageing but it’s not, they’re not aware that it’s an actual disease.
They don’t see symptoms “My grandmother can’t remember where she left the car keys” and you say “Oh don’t worry; it’s just part of getting old”. It’s not.
Alice considers suicide; did that come up in your research?
People’s feelings on that are personal and something I can’t address. In the book and the movie there is this tension of what’s going to happen.
Is she going to make this decision, do we want her to? Who have you fallen in love with – the old Alice, are you still attached to the old Alice and you don’t want her to go? How are you supposed to feel?
So it makes you pose that question yourself, and that thing about what is the essential self, what’s left, who she is. I don’t know. It’s a tough one.
Note: Still Alice was co-written and co-directed by Richard Glatzer and Wash Westmoreland based on Lisa Genova’s novel.
Still Alice opens in the US January 16th and Canada January 23rd