When the phone rang about a year ago, with a query about whether she would consider playing Sarah Palin in a TV movie, Julianne Moore jumped at the chance. "Then I hung up the phone and thought, 'Oh my God, what have I done?'" Moore recalled recently with a laugh.
"To play a historical figure is one thing. To play a living historical figure deepens the challenge. But to play a culturally significant, very prominent, living figure, that kind of put it over the top."
Over the top could also describe early reaction to Moore's performance and to "Game Change," HBO's docudrama on Palin's mesmerizing 2008 run for the vice presidency. Early reviews have raised the possibility of awards for Moore's canny rendering of the former Alaska governor. Palin and her team, in turn, have lambasted the two-hour movie, due to air Saturday, as "fiction." A former spokeswoman described it as "sick."
The four-time Academy Award nominee now faces the incongruity of provoking more controversy with her portrayal of the populist politician than she did with her roles as a cocaine-addicted porn star ("Boogie Nights") or as a lesbian mom who cheats on her spouse with the family sperm donor ("The Kids Are All Right.")
Neither Moore nor "Game Change" director Jay Roach is particularly shocked at the tempest surrounding a film centering on a totemic cultural figure, who famously cleaves public opinion with each foray into the public arena — as politician, author, reality television star and Fox News commentator.
"We can say we researched and sourced this very well, which we did," Moore said, speaking at a Midtown suite where she nested for a series of interviews about the film. "But every experience is refracted through somebody's own worldview. You could do a 'Rashomon' kind of thing with this story and come out with a different version every single time. Is it the truth? It's that [storyteller's] truth."
Few films provoke blowback so fierce that the filmmakers feel compelled to ask the audience, well in advance of the release date, to give them a fair viewing. Hard to imagine, then, that screenwriter Danny Strong and filmmaker Roach (who previously collaborated on the Emmy-winning "Recount," about the 2000 election) had once hoped to get Palin to pitch in with pre-production research.
When Palin's lawyer responded with an unequivocal "no," the movie team went ahead with a narrative of Palin's Pygmalion-style rise largely as it was rendered in "Game Change," the bestselling book by journalists Mark Halperin and John Heilemann. By the time Moore came for the two-month shoot last spring in Baltimore, the script had been augmented with scenes from Palin's own books and by Strong's interviews with 25 operatives from John McCain's presidential campaign.
The film focuses on the roughly 60 days from McCain's surprise selection of Palin, who had been in office less than two years, through the Republican ticket's loss. The story is told through the eyes of the McCain (played by Ed Harris) camp and particularly senior strategist Steve Schmidt (Woody Harrelson), who championed the choice of the virtually unknown politician, only to later view it as a tragic blunder.
The filmmakers and Moore confronted the challenge of taking a hyper-public figure, who everyone felt they already knew, and rendering her in a textured way, while also recapturing the high stakes of the 2008 race.
Moore's post-casting moment of doubt did not last long — she had too much work to do, beginning with mastering Palin's idiosyncratic speaking style. She worked with dialect coach Leigh Dillon virtually every day for the following two months.
Moore wiped her calendar clean, except for a few events with her 14-year-old son and 9-year-old daughter and husband, the director Bart Freundlich. She cleared her iPod of almost everything but audio recordings of Palin's books, which the politician recorded in her own voice. She consumed so much Palin via YouTube, print and recording that her son asked, "What's wrong with you, mom?"
As important as nailing Palin's great northern accent, with its sing-song musicality, was mastering the rhythm of what Moore called "a baroque kind of phrasing," in which the candidate paused at odd intervals between phrases and sometimes emphasized prepositions, rather than verbs. "I need to make a decision."
Moore readily matched Palin's youthful glow and diminutive stature. But it took a serious daily makeover — wig, dark contact lenses, signature glasses — to turn the auburn-haired, Celtic actress into a believable match for the tawny, brown-eyed brunet.
Roach has described "Game Change" as a dramatization, hewing in large portions to Palin's public statements but with some private moments extrapolated from the book. Occasionally during the shoot, Moore felt she couldn't imagine how Palin would have delivered a line. So she asked to substitute in one of Palin's public statements. "She reverted to the actual dialogue she had heard Sarah give in public," Roach said, "and the results were so much better."
The actress, who at 51 is three years older than Palin, also felt the script had unnecessarily truncated a key scene. Palin trashed candidate Barack Obama for his association with onetime radical Bill Ayers. Moore persuaded Strong and Roach to extend the scene to the climactic moment, when Palin whips the crowd into chants of "USA! USA!" "To me," Moore said, "that was so emblematic of how successful she was in galvanizing a crowd."
The actress doesn't accept every interpretation from the book "Game Change." It gives an account of Palin breezing into a hotel room after a shower, wearing a towel around her and on her head, as she prepared to meet with senior advisors.
Moore noted that Palin denied the episode (not included in the movie.) Even if it happened, she said, it seems that a few men may have projected the idea that the episode was oddball or sexual.
"I mean, she was wearing a towel," Moore said with a slight roll of the eyes. "She wasn't wearing a washcloth. You know?"
The actress voted for Obama but nevertheless said she could see Palin's appeal. "She represented a swath of the population that felt like they weren't recognized, that they were unseen," Moore said.
The most controversial scenes depict the candidate as supposedly ignorant of the Federal Reserve system and unaware that the queen does not head the British government. Seven current and former Palin aides rejected the account in a recent conference call, charging that Schmidt and other McCain campaign staffers were trying to deflect blame for their failed election strategy.
Overshadowed in the furor have been several scenes that the governor's most faithful fans might find gratifying. They depict Palin as a caring mother and an inspiration — particularly to families with special needs children who flocked to see her. Palin's son, Trig, has Down syndrome.
Moore said she felt she understood the tremendous stress Palin must have been under — serving as governor and the mother of five children, including a pregnant teenage daughter and a son headed to war. "Then she is thrust on the national stage and subsequently asked not to be herself, to do it somebody else's way," Moore said. "How hard would that be?"
Not that Moore is preparing a Sarah Palin endorsement or considers her somebody who was qualified to be vice president. Roach and his star agreed that both political parties have sometimes reached for candidates of more charisma than substance.
"I hope the film will entertain the audience," the director said, "but I also hope it raises questions, and maybe adds some pressure to remove the reality-show, professional-wrestling-style fake drama from the process, and encourages people to ask for deeper conversation, total transparency and basic wisdom in selecting our leaders."