'Imitation Game' scribe Graham Moore on that heartbreaking Oscar speech
“Stay weird, stay different.” This was the message of the emotionally raw acceptance speech Graham Moore delivered after he won the adapted screenplay Oscar for The Imitation Game. But his words really came down to just one: “Stay.”
Moore, who suffers from severe depression, shocked the world from the Academy Awards stage by revealing he had attempted suicide at age 16. He even shocked himself a little.
“I had never talked about this publicly before, and there’s something incredibly strange about speaking about it publicly for the first time, uh, at the Academy Awards,” Moore told Entertainment Weekly in an interview the morning after the ceremony. “But it was just: when else am I going to have a platform like that to talk about this?”
The 33-year-old scribe was hardly anonymous before this. He wrote a New York Times bestseller in 2010 called The Sherlockian, a murder-mystery novel split between two time periods: the world of present-day Arthur Conan Doyle enthusiasts and the Sherlock Holmes author’s quest to aid a Scotland Yard investigation in the year 1900. And Moore’s adaptation of The Imitation Game, based on the book Alan Turing: The Enigma by Andrew Hodges, was one of the most talked-about screenplays in Hollywood, topping the 2011 Black List—an annual collection of the best unproduced scripts on the market. He also worked on the as-yet-unmade adaptation of Erik Larson’s 2003 book, The Devil in the White City.
But what was unknown, even to those who knew him personally, was the story Moore shared with the world on Oscar night: Severe depression drove him to try to take his own life. In his speech, he told anyone thinking of doing the same thing to think of the future instead.
“I’m extremely superstitious, so I didn’t really prepare anything,” Moore says—even though he was the favorite to win the prize. “Like anyone who grew up loving movies, I’d certainly made my share of imagined Oscar speeches into shampoo bottles over the years. But I was so overwhelmed. Getting up on stage, and Oprah standing behind me… It was so quiet up there. That was the thing I wasn’t quite prepared for. You can’t really hear the audience, and when I was speaking I couldn’t tell how people were responding to it. The lights are really bright, so you can’t see anyone’s faces. Helpfully, I was just talking into this void.”
The one thing Moore could see: the giant red countdown clock.
“As soon as you get up there, there’s this big clock in the back that starts at 45 seconds and then goes ticking down,” he says. “I remember after thanking everyone from The Imitation Game, I thought, ‘Oh, I could just walk offstage now. This could be it.’ I had 10 seconds left, but then … it felt like I might as well use it to say something meaningful.”
So what exactly happened to him 17 years ago?
“I would prefer not to talk in too much detail about the experience itself,” Moore says. “But I can say it was an uneventful Sunday. Nothing was going on. It’s not like some traumatic event happened, and in response to that I attempted suicide. It had been something that felt like it was building for a while, and it had been dominating my thoughts for so long it finally boiled over.”
The thing about depression, he says, is that it doesn’t require any special circumstances to be destructive. Moore grew up in Chicago, the son of two lawyers (his mother, Susan Sher, would go on to be chief of staff to First Lady Michelle Obama.) His parents divorced when he was young, but he says a lot of kids come from divorced parents. He doesn’t blame that for negative feelings that consumed him.
“Depression is internal. The upswings and downswings have pretty much nothing to do with what’s going on in the external world. It’s not like something sad happens to you and then you feel sad. Good things happen, but you feel sad anyway,” he says. “It’s like that line from the Radiohead song [There, There]: ‘Just because you feel it doesn’t mean it’s there.’”
Even Moore’s awkward years weren’t that unusual. “Everyone has strange teenage years. It’s not like I can claim some particularly unique set of high school horrors,” he says. “I think I was just an awkward kid, who never felt comfortable in his own skin. I think I was alone a lot by circumstance and then by choice.”
At a certain point, he said his feelings of isolation and sorrow became so uncontrollable that Moore just wanted it all to end. He won’t talk about how he tried to take his life, but said he ended up in the hospital. “I had not been [treated before]. After I got out of the hospital, obviously it seemed like treatment was very much in need,” he said. “In my experience, depression was not something that has been cured so much as managed, like a lot of illnesses.”
Since that time, Moore has also felt a lifelong kinship with Turing, the British mathematicianand codebreaker who was the subject of The Imitation Game. Turing’s work cracking the Nazi “enigma machine” gave the Allies precious information about enemy movements. He helped save the world—even though he was not welcome in it. Turing was prosecuted for the “crime” of being gay, pressured to either chemically castrate himself with medication or go to prison. He died at 41 in 1954 by apparent suicide.
“I’m not gay, but I don’t think you have to be gay to have a gay hero. Growing up, Alan Turing was certainly mine,” said Moore. “I’m also not the greatest mathematician of my generation. We have lots of biographical differences, but nonetheless I always identified with him so much.”
Many viewers automatically assumed Moore was gay when he talked about his attempted suicide, noting that as a teenager, “I felt weird and I felt different, and I felt like I did not belong.” But Moore is straight—although he’s single at the moment. For years, he dated Helen Estabrook, the producer of Whiplash, who happened to be seated just behind him at the Oscars.
He says he connected to Turing for reasons beyond sexuality. “One of the things that fascinated me about his story was he was an outsider from society for so many reasons,” Moore says. “He was an outsider because he was a gay man at a time when that was literally illegal. He was an outsider because he was the smartest person in every single room he entered, and that made it hard to talk to people. And he was an outsider because he had to keep these incredibly valuable secrets on behalf of the British government. He sort of had layers of isolation piled on his shoulders.”
What Turing didn’t have was someone close enough to him to say what Moore tried to say during his 45 seconds in the spotlight.
“I’ve been more fortunate than most that I’ve always had supportive family around me,” says Moore, whose mother, brother and sister attended the Oscars with him. “They’ve always been with me, through good times and bad. And it was nice to have some good times to celebrate.”
So, what’s next for him?
“Mostly I am finishing my second novel, which keeps getting delayed for happy reasons,” Moore says. “I started it four years ago, before I wrote The Imitation Game. I had this idea that I’d go off for six months, write this Alan Turing script, and then get back to my book. And then, four and a half years later, here we are.”
While he’s not ready to reveal the book’s plot, Moore did tease this: “It’s another historical novel, based on a very little-known true story. It’s a legal thriller based in New York during the 1880s.”
Meanwhile, he has become King of the Misfits. “Stay Weird” has become a meme, a trending hashtag on Twitter, and total strangers have been approaching Moore to thank him for speaking about depression—an illness that is typically regarded with shame by those who suffer from it.
Things are definitely weird now. With luck, they’ll stay that way.