There is a scene in Todd Haynes’ “May December” in which Natalie Portman’s character stands in front of a mirror and delivers a three-minute monologue. As actress Elizabeth Berry, Portman is speaking words that another woman wrote decades ago to her much younger lover. Elizabeth is, in fact, rehearsing to play that woman in a movie, and as she stands there alone in her delicate white slip, declarations of devotion spilling out of her as freely as her tears, she appears more human, more vulnerable, more real than she has at any other point in the story.
“That’s something that we talked about, Todd and I,” Portman said. “For someone who’s always performing, what if their most true is when they’re literally performing? What if the most honest they ever are and the most free they are is from the artifice? There’s freedom in the mask.”
That’s a dizzying contradiction, but it makes perfect sense in “May December,” a sly fox of a film that plays with the idea that people perform every single day — on screen for a living, yes, but also in real life, adjusting their personas depending on whom they’re talking to. The story is loosely inspired by the infamous Mary Kay Letourneau case from the 1990s, when a 34-year-old woman went to prison for having a sexual relationship with a 12-year-old boy (whom she eventually married). In Haynes’ film, Julianne Moore stars as Gracie, whose affair at age 36 with a seventh-grader (his age is bumped up to 13 in the movie) made her a tabloid fixture and put her behind bars.
When the movie begins some 20 years later, Elizabeth enters the carefully choreographed life that Gracie has built with the now adult Joe (Charles Melton) and their three children. She is there to study Gracie and understand the “truth” behind the salacious headlines, but what happens is much more complicated. The audience doesn’t know who to trust and as Moore said, seated next to Portman in a Manhattan photo studio during a recent joint interview, a “feeling of being off-balance” develops.
“I always love that feeling in movies,” she continued. “What is really, truly dangerous? Is a monster dangerous? Not really. But when it’s behavior that’s dangerous, that puts us on edge because I don’t trust that person. I don’t know if they’re telling the truth. They’ve crossed a boundary, and I know it’s going to happen again.”
“May December” shot in Savannah, Georgia, over just 23 days in 2022. There was no time for rehearsals, so Portman and Moore had to be nimble in developing their characters and situating them in the subtle power struggle that the two women engage in over the course of the movie. Moore started by unpacking a seeming paradox in Gracie: She is extremely controlling (especially of Joe) but wraps up that dominance in a childlike femininity. “Talk about somebody who’s performing gender — I would say she swallowed gender culture whole,” Moore said. “Her narrative is a rescue narrative. Her prince came along, but he was 13 years old. So that means she’s got to elevate that prince to being a man and remain the princess. She’s a little girl with an apron on, pretending to be a mom.”
Because Moore had made four previous films with Haynes, Portman worried that she would feel like an “interloper on this club that [Julie] and Todd have. When we all three got together, I was like, ‘Oh, my God, am I gonna be the odd one out?’” she said. “And they both immediately put their arms around me and Charles and all the rest of our cast.” Moore smiled warmly as she listened to her colleague’s recollection. “Honest to God, we hit it off right away,” Moore said. “There was a real spirit of teamwork and collaboration.”
For instance, she added, on the first or second day of production, they shot a technically challenging scene that takes place in a clothing store. Elizabeth and Gracie sit side-by-side in front of a mirror, sizing each other up as they look at their reflections. (The movie is rich with mirrors and doubles.) In full observation mode, Elizabeth is absorbing her subject’s mannerisms. “Natalie does this wonderful thing where she’s mimicking me,” Moore said. “As Gracie, I see her. And she does it in a way that’s incredibly flattering. She managed to never undermine my feelings as a character, which was beautiful. It was just a very fine stroke. I was very impressed.”
As Elizabeth’s mimicry gets more intense, she incorporates Gracie’s lisp, an attribute that Moore developed when considering her character’s willful girlishness. “I had to find stuff character-wise that made sense to me and then physically that Natalie would be able to imitate,” she said. “I thought about…[how] we still have associations with that kind of talk, with baby talk or lisping, as being very childlike. And I liked it because it was an outward manifestation of her story. When someone says to you over and over again, ‘See me this way,’ I think it’s interesting.”
How the audience sees the “May December” characters and how those characters see themselves are questions that linger, no matter how many times you watch the movie. “I feel like all of us are performing in so many ways,” Portman said, circling back to the film’s central theme. “Women have a particular feminized way of performance, of how we’re presenting ourselves, how we want other people to see us physically, how we want other people to see us behaviorally, the emotions we are allowed to show or not.” “May December” adds yet another layer: Portman is an actress playing out those actions in character as an actress who is often miming someone else. Portman fully embraced all of it. “Actresses are the [perfect] example of that because we’re literally performing on top of all the feminine performance,” she said. “There is constant performance.”
This story first appeared in the Awards Preview issue of TheWrap’s awards magazine. Read more from the Awards Preview issue here.