Julianne Moore breezes into the room – a cozy, sun-lit suite at a Four Seasons in Los Angeles – with a perky bounce, appearing far shinier than the ordinary-looking lesbian mom she plays in “The Kids Are All Right.” Her wide smile’s luminosity challenges the light tugging at its glow, and when she unleashes her walloping cackle it’s so magical it swallows the room.
She lets one loose while laughing off a question about kissing Annette Bening, her lover in the heartfelt slice-of-life feature, and then expresses agitation over Newsweek, giving a figurative middle-finger to the magazine for its anti-queer actor rant. Moore isn’t gay, of course, but she’s hardly a stranger to slipping into that role – and here she is again as Jules, a gay mom in a movie that’s really not very gay at all.
The film’s only agenda is to have no agenda whatsoever. It doesn’t preach or force liberal propaganda down the throat of Middle America, even with a lesbian couple at its core. Jules and Nic (Bening) are just two relationship-challenged people trying to make it work. Oh, and they have two kids. No biggie.
“The great thing about it is it’s making no statement at all. It just simply is,” Moore tells us. “And people keep asking me whether movies influence culture and I think, actually, that more often they reflect it. So we’re able to have a movie like this because this is something that’s occurring in our society – all over the world right now.”
Just because it exists, though, doesn’t mean the two-mom dramedy will fly with filmgoers; gay parents don’t get much play in popular cinema as it is. So how will audiences react to writer-director Lisa Cholodenko’s alt-family film in which the couple’s teenage children (Josh Hutcherson plays their son; Mia Wasikowska, of Tim Burton’s “Alice in Wonderland,” their daughter) find their sperm donor (Mark Ruffalo) and begin to bond with him? The best test might be reactions to this scene: Bening and Moore’s characters get kinky with a vibrator and some vintage male-on-male Colt Studio porn. Eyebrows, though, might be raised for a totally different reason – like, do lesbians really get off to dudes doing the dirty? You’re not the only one wondering.
Told that Cholodenko and musician Wendy Melvoin, her partner, switched some on when the mood struck, co-writer Stuart Blumberg says: “I was like, ‘OK, let’s just stop right there … because I thought I knew a thing or two.'”
Blumberg insisted that be worked into the screenplay, which took several years – because, he sarcastically gibes, “there were so many people dying to make a movie about 50-year-old lesbians” – before Focus Features picked it up for $5 million after its Sundance Film Festival premiere this year.
When it finally screened, it charmed. People laughed … hard. It’s Cholodenko’s first film since receiving tremendous critical, but not commercial, success with 1998’s seductive tragedy “High Art” and its successor, “Laurel Canyon.” But “The Kids Are All Right,” her five-year-in-the-making movie, might be her mainstream launch-pad. Even she was aware that this tiny picture, shot in a tight 21 days, could be her golden ticket.
Cholodenko wanted this to be a welcoming work, then. That meant she had to pander to a broader crowd; she couldn’t just have, much to the letdown of lesbians everywhere, Moore and Bening wielding dildos. Ruffalo would have to get naked (much to the agreement of gays everywhere) … and in bed with Moore.
“In terms of accessibility and marketability, I’m not going to lie,” Cholodenko starts, absolutely shameless. “I think, sure, if that makes it easier for people to get with it, I’m OK with that.”
It’s a story that’s universally told, and despite who’s doing whom (and with what), it’s about family and marriage and love and all the convolutions that affect each of those.
Moore was sold before reading a script. Since watching “High Art” – a film she regretfully wishes she were a part of, but was never pitched – working with Cholodenko has been on her to-do list. “I love her movies so much because they really are about the way we kind of fall in love with each other, how we communicate, and the nature of relationships,” Moore says. “There’s never a lot of plot in her movies; it’s really just about what people mean to one another and how they’re trying to connect.”
Here, they just happen to be lesbians.
From sperm to script
In a film where sperm was so important to the birth of the script, the topic can’t be ignored. And, no, Mark Ruffalo has never, ever donated. To that, he laughingly quips: “I think I wasted a lot of talent back then.”
Blumberg, however, wasn’t throwing away any “talent”; he contributed some of his baby-making material while in college. That came up when he met Cholodenko, whom he knew only casually before running into her at an L.A. coffee shop while she was ill with writer’s block, trying to pen a project for the masses. She had the idea – two moms, a sperm donor, kids – but couldn’t get it on the page. Blumberg wanted what Cholodenko’s made a career of – an indie piece. The two met halfway.
“It was fun writing with a straight guy – somebody who has a very different perspective on men and women and what it’s like out in the world,” Cholodenko says. “For me, it was like any relationship. There were struggles, but it was a good one.”
Good because Cholodenko took risks she’d never taken before as a filmmaker. This time, though, she let the ideas sitting in her imagination run onto the page – revealing the humor in the risque bits that she otherwise would’ve left untouched. One such scene involves Moore and Ruffalo, who worked together previously on 2008’s sci-fi thriller “Blindness,” making whoopee during a hilarious sex scene.
An irritated Cholodenko notes that the MPAA thought the from-behind banging lingered for just a little too long. It’s still memorable (very, very much so) – and more graphic than the lesbian bed romp, which might give some the sense that Cholodenko’s catering too much to mainstream moviegoers. And, well, she is.
“We could deconstruct it and say, ‘How much is this male identified or straight?’ or we could just say, ‘This is this representation of this family and these two people and this is how they get their freaky-freaky on,'” the director defends. “I guess it’s a two-fold answer, which is: Yes, in a sense it was calculated to reach and be accessible and feel inviting for more people to come to, and not be disingenuous in my own experience and understanding of gay relationships.”
But “The Kids Are All Right” also isn’t just about gay relationships – it’s about relationships. Period. The good, the bad, the ugly – family aspects that Blumberg and Cholodenko were determined to expose, regardless of the sex, or any other trivial part, of the parents.
In agreement is Moore, who says, “A relationship is a relationship whether it’s two women, two men, or a man and a woman … or, ya know, a dog and a cat. And a long-term one is challenging and rewarding. At the end of the day, it’s a portrait of that – and of a family.”
Gay, straight – so what?
Sexuality wasn’t all Cholodenko was concerned about when she casted “The Kids Are All Right.” For Nic and Jules, the actors needed to unfurl the nuances to humanize these very flawed, very real people; she needed talent to radiate these roles – and who better than Bening and Moore, both Oscar nominees?
“It was important to have actresses who had established themselves and were known and who we knew could pull this off,” Cholodenko says. “Were there actresses who were gay, whether they were out or not, that I felt (were) perfect for it? I absolutely would’ve considered them, but they (Moore and Bening) ended up being the right ‘men’ for the job.”
This all happened, of course, before Newsweek published a controversial column that debunked gay actors in straight roles. Moore got fired up over the magazine’s piece: “We were talking (on set) a lot about the Newsweek story, about the f’ing asshole who made that comment about gay actors not being able to play straight,” she spews. “I’m like, ‘Excuse me, gay actors have been playing straight roles for centuries. We’re acting.‘”
So will she pick up another issue? “I haven’t bought Newsweek – and I never will again.”
Of course she’d go gay again, though – as long as the role’s right, that’s a no-brainer for the actress and 2004 GLAAD Media Award winner. She’s already done distraught housewife in “The Hours” – and kissed co-star Toni Collette. Just last year she lip-locked with “Mamma Mia!” actress Amanda Seyfried in the erotic “Chloe” – and again, with another woman in “The Private Lives of Pippa Lee.” Directors she’s worked with, including Tom Ford on 2009’s stylish life-and-death drama “A Single Man” (which also portrayed the gay union as simply a matter-of-fact), have been just as queer.
“I don’t like to be divisive about people’s gender or sexuality or race or nationality,” Moore says. “People that I’ve worked with are telling stories, sometimes extreme stories, about what it is to be a human being, and I’m attracted to people with that kind of sensibility – whether they’re gay or straight or whatever.”
That sensibility lured Ruffalo; his freewheeling dog of a donor dad goes from girls and motorcycles to – as the amiable actor, searching for the right word, calls him – a “lump.” In the film, he looks less like Jennifer Garner’s pretty boy in “13 Going on 30” and more rugged. But even with a shaggy hairdo and gray-speckled scruff he throws off the same vulnerable charm that’s hard to resist in his “The Kids Are All Right” character, Paul. For most people, anyway.
During a TV interview the day before our sit-down, the female reporter ripped on the actor. As Ruffalo remembers, she said – seriously: “By the way, I’m a lesbian, so you lay off our women!” Shocked, he thought: “Are you kidding me? I support your women from head to toe. I am a lesbian!” Proof: He listens to Joni Mitchell.
“Is Joni Mitchell lesbian music?” he obliviously inquires, after questioning his real-life music taste since he and Bening’s characters bond over the hippie legend in the film.
Lesbian-loved tunes might escape Ruffalo, but he’s at least clear on the kind of movie he’s in – and how un-gay its gayness is: “It’s a ‘lesbian movie,’ and we’re in the middle of this huge debate about gay marriage, but what I really loved about it was how quickly the novelty of gay marriage and the sperm donor just falls away.”
That his clothes do, too, isn’t anything to complain about either.
‘The Kids Are All Right’
Opening July 23, Main Art Theatre
118 N. Main St., Royal Oak
(Expanding July 30)