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Julianne Moore

Playing a professor with early-onset Alzheimer’s in ”Still Alice,” she proves (again) that she’s unforgettable

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You’d think that Hollywood types would become jaded after seeing (or shooting) so many onscreen tragedies. But when Julianne Moore attended a private screening of her new drama Still Alice—in which she plays a linguistics professor named Alice Howland diagnosed with early-onset Alzheimer’s disease—she was startled to hear ”these kind of muffled sounds” from her husband, director Bart Freundlich, seated beside her. ”I turned and saw him blowing his nose and I thought, ‘Is he sick?”’ the 53-year-old actress recalls. ”Then I thought, ‘Oh my God, he’s crying.”’

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You’d think that Hollywood types would become jaded after seeing (or shooting) so many onscreen tragedies. But when Julianne Moore attended a private screening of her new drama Still Alice—in which she plays a linguistics professor named Alice Howland diagnosed with early-onset Alzheimer’s disease—she was startled to hear ”these kind of muffled sounds” from her husband, director Bart Freundlich, seated beside her. ”I turned and saw him blowing his nose and I thought, ‘Is he sick?”’ the 53-year-old actress recalls. ”Then I thought, ‘Oh my God, he’s crying.”’

Seeing her husband’s reaction justified Moore’s initial embrace of the script, adapted by directors Richard Glatzer and Wash Westmoreland (The Last of Robin Hood) from Lisa Genova’s 2007 novel. Unlike many chronicles of dementia, Still Alice focuses not on the caregivers, including Alice’s medical-researcher husband (played by her 30 Rock costar Alec Baldwin), but on the patient herself. ”Very rarely do you see a disorder depicted from the inside,” Moore says. ”That’s what was so touching about it. You saw her decline but also saw her struggle—her personal struggle not to decline.”

Now the four-time Oscar nominee is drawing awards attention for the film, which premiered to cheers (and tears) at last month’s Toronto Film Festival. ”There is not a single phony beat” in Moore’s performance, says Westmoreland. ”It is absolutely consistent, beautifully delivered, and incredibly well researched.” The role, Glatzer adds, ”demanded someone with fierce intelligence who had the ability to access primal emotions.”

For Moore, it also demanded three months of prep that included calls with researchers, a genetic-marker memory test (her results: normal), support-group meetings, and visits with patients in advanced stages of the illness. ”It wasn’t like someone disappears,” she says. She met a woman in her 60s who had ”very little language,” but Moore noticed ”how much she attempted to connect. There was clearly a presence there.”

Despite the awards buzz for both Still Alice and her role as a Hollywood diva in director David Cronenberg’s Maps to the Stars (for which she won the Best Actress prize at the Cannes Film Festival in May; out Feb. 27, 2015), Moore shrugs off the idea that she has any master plan for her career. ”Every actor you talk to, unless they’re fooling themselves, will tell you that you’re at the mercy of who will hire you next,” she says. ”The only control we have is saying yes or no.”

Still, she doesn’t exactly have to audition these days. Director Francis Lawrence cast Moore as rebel president Alma Coin in next month’s The Hunger Games: Mockingjay—Part 1 immediately after she approached him about the part. ”Once we knew she wanted it, that was it—done,” Lawrence says. Moore, who was introduced to the book trilogy through her kids, 12 and 16, then worked with Lawrence to develop the character beyond what was in Suzanne Collins’ novel.

At heart, Moore regards herself as a working actress, emphasis on working. She recently started shooting the fact-based Freeheld, playing a terminally ill New Jersey cop in a legal battle to pass on her pension to her same-sex partner (Ellen Page). It’s another fearless role for a performer who relishes pushing herself to extremes. ”I’m not afraid of acting,” Moore says. ”I’m afraid of skiing. I’m afraid of going fast. I’m afraid of diving. And I’m afraid of cocktail parties. There are a lot of things I’m afraid of, but acting is not one of them.”

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