December 21, 2012 at 05:00 AM EST

In HBO’s Game Change, Julianne Moore did something really difficult: She turned Sarah Palin back into a real person. A portrayal of the 2008 vice presidential candidate easily could have teetered into parody (already done to you-betcha perfection by Tina Fey). Instead, Moore created a sympathetic portrait of the former governor of Alaska — all while nailing an uncanny physical and vocal likeness. ”I give her s— because she made Sarah Palin too likable,” says costar Woody Harrelson, who played John McCain’s adviser Steve Schmidt.

The genius of Moore’s Game Change performance lies in its effortlessness. But in reality, the four-time Academy Award nominee worked tirelessly before shooting began. She studied with a dialect coach to master that distinct Alaskan twang and filled her iPod with almost nothing but Palin speeches. A registered Democrat, Moore, 52, says that in 2008 she never imagined she’d portray Palin. ”It wasn’t something I did from a political standpoint,” the actress says. ”I was there to represent her as a human being.” Palin may have lost her race, but the Emmys crowned Moore’s Palin a winner.

Best performance by a character stuck in a bad plotline: Kalinda on The Good Life

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