Every drag queen knows the eternal gospel of RuPaul: Before setting a stiletto onstage, you must know your lyrics, cinch that waist, and, most importantly, you mustn’t “f— it up.” Though she’s not a student at the school of Mama Ru — nor does she possess the pipes of a classically trained singer — Oscar-winning actress Julianne Moore wasn’t about to fall victim to the perils of oral miming as she prepared to front Paul Weitz’s new romantic thriller Bel Canto (in theaters now) as a famed opera singer.
“This was really daunting and exciting because it was an education,” Moore tells EW of bringing the character of Roxane Coss — a songstress taken hostage by a band of rebels amid a contentious guerrilla conflict in an unnamed South American country — to life in the cinematic adaptation of Ann Patchett’s 2001 novel loosely based on the 1996 Lima Crisis via hours of intricately studying the craft. But because her captors aim to use Coss’ abilities to train international attention on their cause, Moore wanted to bring a unique believability to the role beyond mere mimicry. The only problem? She’s admittedly a little rusty when it comes to acing vocal acrobatics.
“No, no, no!” she says with a laugh when asked if she considered lending her real voice for the part, which marries the real-life chops of soprano Renée Fleming with Moore’s on-camera emoting. “My character is supposed to be a world-renowned opera singer. That’s not something an actor could bring in unless they were themselves a world-renowned opera singer. I don’t know if they could come in and make those sounds!”
Thus, the 57-year-old embarked on a crash-course with Fleming and her vocal coach, Gerald Moore, to hone a lip-synch performance that visually captures the spirit of an operatic experience, as Coss’ voice inspires a cadence of compassion amid political conflict, ultimately uniting prisoners (Ken Watanabe, Christopher Lambert) and their captors (Tenoch Huerta, María Mercedes) on a lyrical journey that ends on a haunting high note.
Below, Moore explains to EW how to master a lip-synch that would make both drag queens and real-life divas proud.
SING LIKE NO ONE’S LISTENING
Moore did it for authenticity’s sake!
“The most important thing for me is accuracy. I always say that if you’re doing something, don’t make it up, you know? Because I was not an opera singer…. One of the things [I had to do] was learn how to sing like an opera singer. Not that I actually know how to sing, but if anybody were trying to lip-synch, they have to learn how to sing first!” she explains. “The scary thing is, I actually had to sing…. In order to lip-synch you have to produce sound, because if you don’t, it looks fake! It was super embarrassing…. When we shot, I’d ask them to turn Renée up as much as possible so they didn’t hear me warbling.”
EMBODY YOUR DIVA’S SWAG!
Opera is acting through song, after all.
“Opera singers are human musical instruments. It was something I’d never witnessed before. I think most of us are exposed to opera on television, and you don’t experience the depth and range of the sound in a recording, on TV, or in movies, but [rather] live,” Moore observes. “They [change the] shape of their hand, mouth, chest, and their bodies…. I sat there with Renée while she recorded [the film’s songs], and asked questions. I also watched her expressions intently, mainly the shape of her mouth.”
TAKE A BREATH…OR SEVERAL
Fleming’s voice coach stressed it.
“When you’re in acting school, you’re taught to produce sounds in the front of your face, what we call the ‘mask.’ What’s different about opera singers is…. it doesn’t look like they’re expelling air; it looks like they’re breathing it in and up, so for sound they lift their soft palette and all the resonance happens…. in the back and the upward part of their head. So the sound almost appears to be coming from the top of their head. It was a completely different orientation to what I’ve seen before,” says Moore. “Where [Renée] takes a breath, I take a breath. A couple phrases were extra long. Renée’s known for her ability to carry a phrase to incredible length, [but] if you’re going to lip-synch, you need to do it exactly…. Be precise about who you’re emulating, fully inhabit it!”
CONNECT WITH YOUR MATERIAL
“To me it reads like a love story. That’s what drew me to it: working with Ken Watanabe and getting to play this kind of extraordinary love story that’s told in music. Ken’s character is someone who’s drawn to this woman’s artistry, and she’s someone doesn’t feel seen as a person. She’s only seen as a star who has no community,” she muses on Coss. “For the first time she’s in a situation where she actually has community and falls in love with someone who sees her as an artist and as a human being. For me it was always a love story.”
But the film’s real-world implications aren’t lost on Moore, either. Some have called the film a prime example of the film industry inserting a “white savior” into a narrative involving racial minorities and bloody conflict, but Bel Canto operates on a different plane, placing its characters on equal planes of empathy and compassion before its shocking conclusion that criticizes absolute power and corruption instead of tying things together with a bow on top.
“It’s awful, right? How are we participating in this by looking the other way…. It’s always important to try to understand the cause of a conflict. In conflict, it’s important to remember everybody thinks they’re right. What’s the perspective? Where are these people coming from? Why do people resort to violence?” Moore says of the film’s message. “I don’t think it’s our first instinct to be violent, but people get there when they feel they have no alternative. So, how do you solve a situation before you get to that place? Because it’s not something that’s innate to our humanity.”
Bel Canto is in theaters now. Watch EW’s exclusive clip from the film above.