Julianne Moore takes on the most controversial and forbidden character of her career in her latest film, that of a convicted sex offender who began an affair with a pre-teen kid.
Even May December director Todd Haynes confessed that it made him feel ‘very uncomfortable,’ with the film pulled straight from horrible real-life US tabloid stories.
Moore, 62, is no stranger to challenging roles, having previously portrayed a porn star in 1997’s Boogie Nights and a threesome in Savage Grace alongside onscreen son Eddie Redmayne.
May December, on the other hand, is undoubtedly the riskiest film and portion of her career, with the subject matter sure to elicit rage and revulsion from certain corners.
Mary Kay Letourneau, 34, a Washington teacher and married mother of four, astonished the world in 1996 when it was revealed she had began a sexual connection with Vili Fualaau, her 12-year-old student.
A relative of Letourneau’s then-husband tipped off the authorities when she became pregnant with him, and she served three months in jail after striking a plea deal and agreed to no contact with Fualaau for life, among other stipulations.
Despite this, she became pregnant again by Fualaau only weeks after her release and ended herself imprisoned for another six and a half years.
Following her release, Letourneau and Fualaau married in 2005 and spent 14 years together before divorcing in 2019. She died of colon cancer a year later, at the age of 58.
May December, a film scripted by Samy Burch that premiered at the Cannes Film Festival in May, is inspired on this heinous tale, with Moore’s Letourneau-esque character of Gracie married to Joe (Riverdale’s Charles Melton).
The film takes place several years after the scandalous events that started their romance, with the married couple eagerly anticipating the arrival of Natalie Portman’s Elizabeth; she is an actress preparing to play Gracie in a film about their tumultuous love affair.
It’s a meaty drama for its two starring ladies to sink their razor sharp teeth into, laced through with pitch-dark comedy, with Haynes (Carol, I’m Not There) on board.
But that doesn’t mean the filmmaker didn’t struggle with the subject matter, no matter how intriguing he found the writing – though he did appreciate that it ‘had a distance from its material’ by being set after the fact.
‘It didn’t cast judgements, which made one really uncomfortable – especially now, when we assume we know what we think all the time, walking into material and the subject matter, especially, of this type,’ Haynes explained.
Despite the similarities between the real-life Letourneau-Fualaau affair and that of Gracie and Joe, the filmmaker revealed that his first instinct was to “stay away” from the real-life inspiration and “respect the distinctions between the Mary Kay Letourneau story and what Samy had written,” which he classifies as “a fiction.”
However, Haynes, 62, admitted that there was another reason he avoided investigating the real-life case – his disgust – and it was his leading woman, also 62, who challenged him about it.
‘I think it was also [me] biding my time, in a way, because there are things I just didn’t want to think about too – I wasn’t ready to think about – until we had to think about them, like that relationship, how it began.
‘It was Julianne who instigated, who basically was like, “Todd, you have to start, you’ve got to watch these documentaries”, because they were useful in understanding Gracie. And they gave specific examples to a kind of backstory that we had to figure out for ourselves as actors and director.’
With May December set over 20 years later, and therefore ‘distanced’ from it, Haynes calls it ‘excavation from the past’.
‘It’s not what the film is showing you. So you’re pulling the threads of the past out and you’re following Elizabeth’s investigative journey through all of those layers – and that creates a lot of tension and excitement and expectation.’
‘But it meant that there were ways we could filter what had happened and learn about it in pieces,’ he added.
It’s an unquestionably weighty and sad subject for a film, but Burch and Haynes have turned it into a ‘wonderful’ two-hander for Moore and Portman, 42.
This is especially noticeable in situations where Portman’s Elizabeth mimics Gracie’s behaviours, such as applying lipstick or replicating motions when they take her daughter to a clothing shop with plenty of mirrors.
These moments are darkly humorous, yet in a way that gels with the irreverent tone of May December.
‘The humour in the script was apparent, [but] it wasn’t like laugh out loud – it was embedded within the characters and the situations. And while we were shooting the movie, we weren’t laughing out loud. Also we were just racing to get from one thing to the next, we shot it in 23 days, it was very, very tight, so every moment was measured,’ Haynes explained.
‘But it was when I started to see the cut of the film I realised how much humour really was available to the audience as a release valve and another layer of how you interpret it all.’
Of her onscreen relationship with her co-star Melton, Moore told Gotham Magazine earlier this year: ‘He and I are a couple that first met when he was 13 and I was 36. It’s a story of gender, public interest, tabloids and identity – about who we think we are and who the world tells us we should be.
‘How do we absorb ideology? How have we been marinating in expectations? And where does it come out? And where do we subvert it? And then how do we tell the stories?’
Her and Portman’s intricate and nuanced performances, as well as Moore’s boldness in taking on such a forbidden role, will undoubtedly earn them both Academy Award nominations. Haynes is no stranger to this, having helmed Carol nominees Cate Blanchett and Rooney Mara in 2016.
He also received a Bafta nomination for best director, after his Oscar nomination for best script for Far from Heaven in 2003, which he also directed and starred Moore in the main role.
However, Melton, 32, blew Haynes away with his portrayal of the fragile Joe, who may just now be beginning to comprehend the repercussions of his connection with Gracie.
Praising Melton’s idea of Joe as ‘something else’, Haynes continued: ‘He understood how stifled Joe was, how prenatal Joe was, how he was just starting to learn how to speak and see his situation. So the granular restraint of that performance was something that really clarified for me who Joe was – and that came from Charles.’
Haynes was also astounded by Melton’s performance, given that he had “almost no experience working in dramatic and big screen film prior to this.”
His non-Riverdale works include The Sun Is Also a Star and Bad Boys For Life, as well as American Horror Story and the music video for Ariana Grande’s Break Up With Your Girlfriend, I’m Bored.
But it appears he was unaffected by the level of his co-stars or the production.
‘The women saw in him as an actor those instincts and that innate understanding of what this was about, so I think he felt really supported and embraced by everybody.’
May December releases in UK cinemas on November 17 and will launch on Sky Cinema from December 8.