For anyone who’s had to watch a loved one suffer with a disease, Still Alice heart-breakingly and realistically shows how it not only affects the individual, but everyone in their lives. Directed by Richard Glatzer and Wash Westmoreland, it is the largely first-person experience of Alice Howland (Julianne Moore, in a stunning performance), a happily married, renowned linguistics professor with three grown children (played by Kristen Stewart, Kate Bosworth and Hunter Parrish), who learns that she has early-onset Alzheimer’s disease and struggles to stay connected to who she once was, as she terrifyingly starts to forget everything around her.
During a conference at the film’s press day, co-stars Julianne Moore and Kristen Stewart talked about trying to understand what it’s like to live with Alzheimer’s, that it’s a disease that’s rapidly gaining ground, how the Alzheimer’s community really feels that they’re close to something meaningful, whether they’ve had any personal experience with the disease, and what they enjoyed about working with each other. Check out what they had to say after the jump.
Question: Julianne, how did you approach portraying this woman, when nobody knows what it’s really like to live with this disease?
JULIANNE MOORE: That’s a great question. Nobody really knows. That, of course, is the great challenge, and that’s what we talked about a lot, when we were working on the movie. This is an unusual project because it’s the first movie I’ve seen that talks about a condition like this, presented completely subjectively, often from her point of view. Generally, we see these stories and they’re from the caretaker’s point of view, or a different family member. This is inside Alice’s experience. So, the only thing I could do was research it. Not that I’m ever going to understand it completely, but I spoke to everyone I could. I started with the head of the Alzheimer’s Association, and I spoke to these different women on Skype that had been recently diagnosed. I went to Mt. Sinai and talked to clinicians and researchers. I took the cognitive test that they give. I went to the New York Alzheimer’s Association and worked with some support groups there and talked to the women there. I went to a long-term care facility. I tried to meet everybody, at every stage fo the disease. They were so generous with their time and information, but I would always say to them, “Can you tell me what it feels like?,” and they would try to explain it. They would say that it’s not always the same, and that you have good days and bad days, and that you can look for a word and reach for it, but have it not be there. We really think about what’s on the inside, and I think that’s why Alzheimer’s is so terrifying to people. They’re like, “Well, who am I, if that’s gone?” So, I don’t know what that’s like, but I got as close as I could. I think we all tried to represent it, as much as possible.
As a culture, we always seem to think we can go out and fix whatever is wrong, but there’s nothing that we can really do to fix Alzheimer’s, at this point. Is this something that concerns you?
MOORE: There was an article in Time magazine that said that women in their 60s have a one in six chance of developing Alzheimer’s disease, which is the same as their chance of developing breast cancer. It’s a disease that’s rapidly gaining ground. The terrifying thing about it is that, once you are diagnosed, there’s very little you can do to alter the prognosis or even the progression. We don’t know anything. We know that there are correlations between brain health and heart heath. There are some genetic markers, but later onset has to do with age. But 30 or 40 years ago, no one knew what to do about cancer. With enough money, time and research, there are so many things that they can do now. People in the Alzheimer’s community really feel that they’re a stone’s throw away from something meaningful.
Kristen, you’re a successful actress who’s been a part of a big franchise, but in this film, you play an aspiring, struggling actress. What was it like to get into that mind-set?
KRISTEN STEWART: One of the greatest struggles of becoming an adult is figuring out what you want to do and what makes you happy. Lydia actually figured it out quite early. The courageous thing is to stick with it and see it through and see if you were correct. I admire her for the same reasons I admire some of my friends who have not achieved what they ultimately would like to, in their wildest dreams. They’re still working for it. I am fortunate enough to have outlet after outlet at my disposal. I still am looking for it, though. With every project, you feel like you’re trying to find your place to vent. For any actor, that’s typically the feeling that drives you to do it. I can relate. If I stopped working tomorrow, I would still have these impulses and feelings to get out, and these questions and desires to explore. I feel that way every time I’m approaching the idea of taking on a responsibility as great as saying, “I’m good enough to be in your movie.” It’s a huge statement to make, and every time I do it, I think, “Is this the right choice?”
Julianne, you play a wife and mother in this film, and you are one, yourself. How do you feel about finding the balance between the two?
MOORE: One of the things about this movie that’s interesting is that you’re meeting a woman at a time when she has achieved a lot. She has been very successful in her career, she has a happy marriage, and she has three kids that she hopes are well on their way to happiness. You really see her at the point where we all feel like we’d like to be. When she’s hit with this news, it’s pretty dramatic and pretty life-altering, for the whole family. I think that’s interesting, just in terms of storytelling. Things can appear to be perfect, or things can appear to be static, but I don’t know that they always are. There’s so much beauty in the movie. In the beginning, you see this beautiful, wonderful family. There’s beauty in watching them transform, in reaction to their mother’s issues and illness, and there’s beauty at the end, when you realize what it’s all been about. We have this discussion of work and family, and how you balance it all, but at the end of the day, isn’t that all there is. That’s what we have. We have the work that we want to do, to express ourselves, and we have the people in our lives that we love. It’s interesting because that’s the kind of stuff of our lives.
Kristen, if you were in this situation, do you think you’d react like your character does?
STEWART: Well, I think that it is easier for a person who lives and indulges in the ambiguity of life, considering Lydia is this artistically inclined person that is not entirely comfortable having the answers. She does not profess to be able to tell you exactly what she wants. What she’s telling you is, “I don’t know what I want, and that is okay. I am traversing that.” I think it’s easier for a child looking at a mother with something that is so undefinable. It’s easier for a child to appreciate and live in the moments. Just because you can’t have a final answer, in terms of how it’s all going to work out, or you can’t call it by a name, it’s still worth living in that potentially wonderful moment. Whereas somebody who wants to map it all out, if they can’t solve it like an equation, then they can’t have it in their lives. I can relate to my character, in that I definitely don’t have the answers, and that’s not even what I’m looking for. I’m not the type of person that just needs to feel concrete and like nothing’s going to change. I revel in the change. It’s not that she’s more apt or has the tools to be emotionally stronger. It’s not strength. It’s just the way people are. Within this story, and within anyone’s reality that might be similar, I hope to god they have someone who doesn’t need the answer and who is just willing to sit there and forget every other sentence, and still enjoy the afternoon.
Have either of you have any personal experience with Alzheimer’s?
MOORE: I have had no personal experience with Alzheimer’s. I’ve been lucky on that score.
STEWART: I’ve never had any personal experience with Alzheimer’s, with a family member or a loved one. I have one story from when I was a kid, at a family friend’s house for dinner. I walked into a room and there was an older lady there, and I had this strange experience. We started speaking, and I very quickly found that there was something wrong. I was little, so I didn’t know what it was, but I was very aware that she was what you say about somebody who might have Alzheimer’s in their older age. I had this exchange with her that just slammed both of us into our bodies and into that moment with such force that you could feel that we were emotionally connecting, and I could see in her eyes that this was precious and that it was going. And then, she asked me where her sister was and I was like, “I don’t know. Bye.” We had dinner, and she was absent from the dinner. She was sitting at the table, but was completely and utterly ignored. I felt like there was no way that the soul of this person, as much as her body and her mind was limiting her, wasn’t singing. She was just not being heard. I remembered that, for a long time. It was the first thing I shared with Wash [Westmoreland] and Rich [Glatzer], when we talked about the script. I don’t judge the family that was ignoring her, at all. I was a kid who was there for 30 seconds. That’s probably not the case. They probably have these connections where they fuel each other and give each other a lot. But what really stuck with me is that people are forgotten, but they’re not lost. Everyone could be so much happier and have so much more to hold. That made me so emotionally invested in this, in a way that I wouldn’t have been, had I not seen that.
Kristen, what was it like to work with Julianne Moore?
STEWART: We’ve known each other for a few years, and I knew that I could play her daughter and have this relationship with her. I’ve probably only spent, cumulatively before this movie, very little time with her.
MOORE: It was time at events, and stuff.
STEWART: But what I found, other than what I expected, that she transcends the technical aspect of what she does, yet she masters it, and actually is able to live and breathe in it. I’m a kid, so it sounds silly for me to speak to this, but I have watched a lot of people do this. I was really fueled by the fact that she really likes to straddle the emotional and spontaneous and scary side with the controlled and prepared side. Once she’s there, she lets herself be there. I love her, and it’s weird to talk about her in a room like this, but I’m candidly and embarrassingly saying, straight up, that if you called her a jerk, we would have serious problems.
I learned a lot. I learn a lot with actors that I don’t think are good. Every experience shapes you. I’ve had experiences with actresses – and I say actresses because there’s just a woman thing – that have achieved what she’s achieved, by means that I can’t understand. When I met Julianne and actually started going through this process with her and was able to observe this monumental task that she has completed, I could fully relate to the way she approaches everything. It made me feel so good. I want to know where we’re being seen from, I want to know every angle, I want to talk to the D.P., and I want to annoy the director, all day, about what the shot list is ‘cause I want to be able to utilize every single half-second that we have to tell the story that we have to tell. That’s fun. I don’t think that that takes anything away from being completely entrenched, involved and lost in a situation. She’s a soulful technician. I’d never seen it, and it makes me feel better about not being the type of person that’s like, “Oh, I don’t even know where the camera is, I just am so in it.” No, she knows. That’s why she’s better than you.
Julianne, how did you feel about working with Kristen Stewart?
MOORE: Either you like a person or you don’t like a person. I don’t have to love somebody to work with them. I’m a professional person. But when you get the bonus of really liking someone and really connecting with them and really enjoying them, it’s a fantastic thing. And I think we felt that as people, as actors and as partners. It’s very freeing. It made it all very, very easy for us.
Kristen, what do you look for, in a character, when signing on for a movie?
STEWART: Most of the work that I’ve done, I’ve been so personally drawn to that I felt that was the most honest way to do it, not only for the good of the project, but for the reason that I am an actor. I have very rarely stepped outside of myself to play a character that I couldn’t fully understand. I don’t know if I’ll ever do that. Maybe one day. I don’t know. There isn’t a specific through-line for the characters that I gravitate towards. I think that you see me in them because I can’t hide that and I’m not trying to. I’ve played a few characters that have been based on real people, and those have been the times that I feel stretched the furthest. But even then, I think the reason I was drawn to those characters was because I felt an unbelievable amount of myself in them, and undiscovered aspects of myself in them, which is more important. I’m not fully interested in just playing things that I know. Of course, I’m comfortable running my hand through my hair in a moment that I get insecure, and that might be caught on film, so you can assign me that affectation for life, and that’s fine. But the reason that that’s happening is because I want to be there and I want to do it. I want to learn why I’m worked up about a project. I want to know why I get this feeling when I read a script, or I get on the phone with a director. I need to live it, so that I can get on the other side of it. Hindsight is 20/20 and I learn something, but in the moment, I am fully there. That’s what I like to do.
Still Alice is out in theaters on January 16th.