The game plan was simple: Everybody liked Julianne Moore. She was the “wish” in their wish list. Director Jay Roach says, “I’m a gigantic fan — it was always, ‘Oh, man, wouldn’t it be great to get her?’” while writer Danny Strong recalls, “I was lobbying for her from the get-go.” Julianne Moore was irresistible, and when HBO, Roach and Strong approached her about playing Sarah Palin in “Game Change” — a movie based on a portion of the book of the same name by John Heilemann and Mark Halperin — the opportunity was impossible to resist. At least, in the first few seconds.
“I got a phone call saying, ‘They just offered you Sarah Palin, and can you talk to Jay,’ and it all happened really fast,” recalls Moore, a leggy fair-skinned redhead who does not, initially, call to mind the rogue Republican 2008 vice presidential nominee. “So I kind of said yes before I really thought about it. My first thought was, ‘OK!’ and my second thought was, ‘Oh, no! I really, really, don’t know how to do this.’”
Capturing any real-life individual on film is one thing; when she’s still living is yet another; when she’s as polarizing as the former Alaska governor is — and you’re part of the “liberal Hollywood elite” — it’s on another plane altogether. Moore in many ways is the polar opposite of Palin: Committed to LGBT rights, getting rave reviews for edgy roles in such films as"The Kids Are All Right"and “Boogie Nights” (the latter earned her the first of her four Oscar nominations). Last year, she even became British American, having claimed a UK passport through her late mother’s Scottish origins.
Needless to say, Moore is not going to be appearing on any real-life GOP or"tea party” running tickets.
But her real-life persona wasn’t important to getting Moore into the role of Palin. Admired for her solid acting chops, garnered over nearly 30 years in the business, the question was whether or not she could overcome not looking like her real-life counterpart?
Roach says he had “a slight hesitation” at first and went to work photoshopping the Palin accessories — the bumped-up hair, the librarian glasses, the fitted suits — onto a photo of Moore. Strong says that by looking more closely, you could see the two did have some physical overlaps: “They have similar jawlines, and, with a wig and glasses, I thought it could work.”
With just two months to prepare, Moore threw herself into the project, watching hours of YouTube videos, putting Palin’s speeches on her iPod and listening to them obsessively. “There are a couple of speeches my kids can do now because they listened to me practicing them every day,” she says with a laugh.
“Other actors are essential in the piece,” says Strong, “but the whole film rode on her performance. If Sarah Palin didn’t work in the film, the film was not going to work. So there was a lot of stress on that. And when she showed up on Day One, she hit it out of the park.”
Roach has to agree: “The Photoshop thing was such a superficial comparison; when you see her in full makeup — and there were no prosthetics or digital tricks — come out joking with the crew in Palin’s accent and going up on our first makeup test pre-shoot, it was just amazing. It was an instant click, the moment she stepped out on the stage. I was giddy all over.”
Makeup, costume and training were one thing — but for Moore, it was about doing a characterization, not an impersonation. “When you’re impersonating someone, you’re striving for the idea of them,” she says. “What I wanted to do was put it all in a context — outside of that context, I’m not going to be this character. So the person has to have context, and you bring a level of gravitas to it by not only doing the mannerisms and speech patterns and physicality of her, but also to attempt to inhabit them emotionally, whatever you believe their thoughts, feelings, desires and intentions were at the time.”
Moore’s out-of-the-park performance surprised many viewers not only because she was spot-on with her characterization but also because she tapped into the emotional well she and Roach were aiming for, creating a level of empathy for Palin that gave her a common humanity among even her detractors.
“She was put in an untenable situation,” says Moore. “In a matter of days, she was thrust onto the international stage and wasn’t prepared. She was under tremendous pressure to perform and learn things quickly.” She says that it really can’t even be compared to celebrity scrutiny, the kind she knows about personally: “Politics are dirty, and rough, and I have an unbelievable amount of empathy for that, it’s crazy.”
The “Game” plan worked: HBO scored its highest ratings for an original movie in eight years, with 2.1 million viewers, when “Game Change” premiered March 10; the numbers over the weekend, including repeats, tallied 3.6 million. And Moore immediately became a front-runner in just about everyone’s mind for the Emmy nominations. If she does take one home, it won’t be her first — she earned a Daytime Emmy in 1988 for her work on “As the World Turns” — but it will shore up her credentials as a cross-media star who makes it work on the big and small screens.
For now, the New York-based actress, back to being glasses-free and redheaded, isn’t focusing too much on the prize. She’s busy with at least six other projects.
“I really, genuinely like working,” she says. “I like acting. It’s interesting to me. Maurice Sendak once said in a documentary, when someone asked him why he wrote children’s books, he was very gruff and said, ‘It comes out how it comes out!’ And I love that. I feel like creativity is that way too. You don’t always drive it; sometimes you follow it. And sometimes having too much of an idea of what you want to do next — it’s not helpful.”