December 13, 2002 at 05:00 AM EST

Before you ring her doorbell, you hear the music. ”It’s a cruel, cruel summer…” emanates from a toy boom box that, once Julianne Moore opens the front door to her downtown Manhattan loft, you realize is in the hands of her 5-year-old son, Cal. ”It’s the Blue Crush soundtrack,” Moore explains, as Cal begins to break-dance on the hardwood floor. Suddenly, Moore herself is letting loose, exhibiting choreographic stylings that are less J. Lo than Julia Louis-Dreyfus on Seinfeld. Moore’s longtime boyfriend, writer-director Bart Freundlich (the father of Cal and 9-month-old Liv), shakes his head and says, ”Julie, I told you never to dance in front of journalists!”

At last, something Julianne Moore can’t do. Though, come to think of it, Flashdance II is pretty much the only movie in which we couldn’t imagine Moore excelling. In more than a decade of film work, the 42-year-old actress has proved herself equally breathtaking in heart-wrenching dramas (The End of the Affair), sharp comedies (An Ideal Husband), and popcorn thrillers (Hannibal), earning Oscar nominations for Affair and Boogie Nights. At a time when actresses are bemoaning the lack of roles for mature women, Moore has only landed better parts as the years have passed. ”It’s hard to find good roles, period,” she says. ”I continue to work on things that move me, and it all just sort of falls into place.” Now, with her stunning twin performances as 1950s housewives in Far From Heaven and The Hours, she’s reached a new peak in an already stellar career — and might very well double her Oscar-nomination tally from two to four in the process. ”I think she’s America’s best actress right now, like Meryl Streep is for her generation,” says Dennis Quaid, who plays Moore’s husband in Far From Heaven.

”She really breaks the rules that people usually think of — like using the safe resources that have worked in the past and going back to that in role after role,” says Todd Haynes, who directed her in Far From Heaven as well as 1995’s Safe. ”She’s reached her level of success and stardom completely on her own terms.” True, which makes Moore’s elegant trajectory less about breaking the rules than about creating her own.

RULE NO. 1 Don’t Let Your Agent Do Your Homework.

Moore says she personally reads each and every script that comes her way. ”You can miss things if you don’t,” she explains, a lesson she learned the hard way. ”A long time ago somebody had read this script for me and they thought I should pass,” she recalls. ”I was like, ‘Whatever.’ But the script had also been delivered to my house. I picked it up and it was [by] Paddy Chayefsky [who wrote Network]. I was like, ‘Okay, that’s the last time I ever let somebody say no to something for me.”’ The one drawback to running your own career? ”The time that I would have been reading novels for pleasure,” she says, ”that goes out the window.”

RULE NO. 2 Be Your Own Talent Scout.

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