To hear it from Julianne Moore, red locks spilling over a Waldorf-Astoria sofa, The Kids Are All Right could be about any pair of parents. “That’s what it really is, a portrait of a middle-aged marriage,” she offers agreeably. “At the heart of every family are the two people who decided to create it, because they loved each other. How do they grow after 20 years, when the children are teenagers and not going to be at home much longer?”
Moore, 49, has a career of glorious turns in domestic dramas, from a manic porn-den mother in her 1997 breakout, Boogie Nights, to the agonizers of 2002’s Far from Heaven and last year’s A Single Man. But her latest Sundance sensation—a warm comedy about a well-adjusted lesbian couple rocked by the emergence of their sperm donor—might, ironically, be her most discussed and her most satisfyingly conventional film.
“Sure, I’d sign on with that reading in a heartbeat,” concurs writer-director Lisa Cholodenko, dropping down next to her star. “Obviously, it would be moronic for me to say that politics weren’t there, but I don’t think anyone wanted to make a sanctimonious movie. We hoped to get to the root of something more relatable. Our subversion would come in showing that two dames could be doing the same thing as Mom and Dad next door—and it’s going to look similar.”
Set in an earthy, Altmanesque Los Angeles of organic restaurants and complex affections, The Kids Are All Right finds a calm center in its two main characters: stay-at-home caregiver Jules (Moore) and breadwinning doctor Nic, played by the chipper, extraordinary Annette Bening. It’s a comfy, hyperarticulate partnership, complete with believable terms of endearment (“chicken” and “pony”) and the slightest twinge of dissatisfaction.
The chattiness of the onscreen duo is infectious, and while it’s a shame that Bening canceled with us at the last minute, her banter is picked up by the sardonic 46-year-old Cholodenko, herself part of a double-mother team with her partner. “What the film needed was brusque humor,” Cholodenko recalls. “What other actor was of that age and sexy and a mama bear—all those qualities?”
Moore jumps in: “I was like, Let me e-mail her!” She and Bening had never collaborated but shared an agent. “Julie wanted to get it going already,” Cholodenko adds. “It was five years; she was riding the project since forever. I mean, getting her input on Annette was the least I could do. You’re going to be kissing this person. Who do you want to kiss?” There’s a grin from Moore, no stranger to the difficulties of launching an independent film: “Let’s cut through the crap, right?”
One thing Cholodenko was happy not to deal with was insensitivity. “It’s repelling, some of these questions I’ve been getting,” she admits, looking over her shoulder at nobody in particular. “People are asking me what my leads did to prepare to play gay characters. And I stop and go, ‘What did they do? They didn’t do anything!’ Because that’s not what they were playing. They were playing people who are three-dimensional who happen to be gay. I really appreciated that we didn’t have those kinds of conversations on set.”
Cholodenko has a booster in Moore, who sought out the director after seeing her 1998 feature debut, High Art, and experiencing role envy. The teasing continues: “Why didn’t I get a script for that?” Moore accuses. “Please,” Cholodenko defers, “I was just this sheepish little filmmaker from New York. I was like, Oh my God, I love you. Of course I’ll work with you.” There’s a pause. “I think you were shooting something.” Moore shakes her head, then explodes in giggles.
Roles have been written for Moore before, including her Xanaxed ice queen in Paul Thomas Anderson’s Magnolia. But she feels a special connection to this part, scripted carefully over five years by Cholodenko and her cowriter, Stuart Blumberg. “You worry that there won’t be any tension between what they perceive as your personality and the part,” Moore says. “And you need that as an actor. But I’ve been super fortunate. And I loved Jules.” There was complexity to this mom, both weakness and a likability.
Still, Cholodenko knows that her film, even with its modest, just-shy-of-$5-million budget and positive buzz, is a tricky sell. “Will it open doors for me?” she muses. “Trap doors? Sliding doors? I hope so. I’d love to do a studio film, something I could throw my personality at.”
Moore reminds her of their first bit of good news: “Just before Sundance, Steven Spielberg called me to say that he’d seen it and loved it!” Cholodenko laughs, and adds, “It was like, Okay, we’re going to be all right here.”