Julianne Moore raises her foot and takes one very careful step — over the entire span of the Brooklyn Bridge. The Oscar winner is not playing a 500-foot-tall woman. She’s walking on a vast diorama of New York City while shooting a crucial scene in Wonderstruck, her fourth film with director Todd Haynes (Safe, Far From Heaven).
Built for the 1964 World’s Fair in New York, the 895,000-building panorama is now a permanent installation at the Queens Museum. “It’s such a special exhibit,” Moore says, “because you see how enormous New York City is, but also how tiny. [New York is] the only place in the world where I’ve had anonymity and community at the same time. And even in the model you can sense the humanity of the city, how it really is a little mecca for being who you want to be.”
That theme ripples throughout Wonderstruck, an adaptation of the best-selling 2011 novel by Brian Selznick, whose previous book was the basis for Martin Scorsese’s Hugo. The plot interlaces two different stories set 50 years apart: In 1927, a 12-year-old deaf girl named Rose (Millicent Simmonds) runs away from home and wanders through New York’s American Museum of Natural History. In 1977, an 11-year-old boy (Pete’s Dragon star Oakes Fegley) is grieving the death of his mother (four-time Oscar nominee Michelle Williams) and also embarks on an adventure through a much seedier NYC, ending up at the same museum.
How these two characters are connected is revealed in a lyrical, late-film twist. The cast also includes Jaden Michael (The Get Down), Cory Michael Smith (Gotham), and the great Tom Noonan (Anomalisa), who shows up for a touching scene near the film’s end. In a dual role, Moore appears as both a silent-film actress in 1927 and a museum employee in 1977.
Like Scorsese, Haynes is a boundary-pushing filmmaker who made his name with daring projects like Poison and Velvet Goldmine. And though his scandalous 1988 short film Superstar: The Karen Carpenter Story employed Barbie dolls to portray the family of the anorexic singer, Wonderstruck is the director’s first movie geared toward a younger audience. “Since the story is partly about museums and exhibitions and modes of expression,” Haynes says, “I realized it could focus on how we define the things we love as we’re coming of age. I thought that was such a cool challenge.”
And a challenge is exactly what Haynes gave himself. The entire 1927 portion of Wonderstruck is presented as a black-and-white silent film, buoyed by a magnificent score by composer Carter Burwell (Carol). And far from a gimmick, the stylistic decision deepens the story’s subject matter. “Deafness is a theme in the film,” Haynes says, “so the language of silent movies seemed like a beautiful way to unite the hearing and non-hearing audience.” The director also hit the jackpot with Simmonds, an expressive 14-year-old from Utah whose acting experience consisted of Shakespeare in her drama class. She also happens to be, like her character, deaf.
“Todd could have found someone hearing to play Rose, and that would have been okay too,” Simmonds says via email. “That’s what acting is, right? But I felt I could really relate to Rose and feeling isolated and alone. I feel that around hearing people every day. And what I love about Todd is that he trusted me. It means a lot to the deaf community.” (Read the full interview with Simmonds here.)
Haynes was utterly dazzled by the actress, citing a scene where Rose observes other girls chatting and laughing with each other. “I’ll never have an explanation,” he says, “for how Millie communicated that feeling of being left out, which everybody has experienced, especially in childhood, with such economy and subtlety and confidence. You can’t do that unless you know how to communicate with the world around you.” At the Cannes Film Festival in May, Simmonds received rapturous reviews for her performance, putting her on track to become the first deaf actor to score an Oscar nomination since Marlee Matlin won Best Actress for 1986’s Children of a Lesser God. She is the definition of one to watch.
You can watch Wonderstruck when it opens Friday, and check out the video above for more from the director and his Oscar-winning leading lady.