About halfway through Game Change — the HBO movie based on the best-selling account by John Heilemann and Mark Halperin of the contentious 2008 election — comes one particularly mesmerizing scene. It’s Sarah Palin watching Tina Fey impersonate Sarah Palin on Saturday Night Live. Of course, it’s not really Sarah Palin watching — it’s Academy Award nominee Julianne Moore playing the then governor of Alaska. But watching the many complicated emotions flickering across Moore’s face, you’d be hard-pressed to remember that you’re not looking at Palin. As much as you may know this is an actress watching another actress playing a real person (who might or might not be watching somewhere out there too), you also suddenly remember there is a real Sarah Palin, a woman who had her feelings hurt by becoming a Saturday Night Live punchline. It’s the difference between a wonderfully clever caricature and the portrayal of a three-dimensional human being. ”It’s a true metamorphosis, don’t you think? It’s just incredible,” marvels Woody Harrelson, who says he only agreed to play senior campaign strategist Steve Schmidt to Ed Harris’ John McCain after he knew Moore had committed to the movie. ”I watched her do a scene one of the first days and thought, ‘I better get my s— together. This is the big leagues!”’ Director Jay Roach (Recount) agrees: ”She’s this actress with such tremendous experience and a devotion and commitment to her craft that is kind of intimidating.”
In person, however, Julianne Moore is anything but. Opening the door to her Manhattan home, she’s instantly warm and friendly. Seeing her clad in a soft black sweater and pants; hair long, red, and shiny; and looking at least a decade younger than her 51 years, it’s almost impossible to find the physical similarities between Moore and Palin. Ideologically, Moore — a Democrat who campaigned for Walter Mondale in her 20s — and the über-conservative Palin are probably just as far apart. Would Moore have ever believed during the 2008 campaign that in four years it would be her job to try to get inside the head of the woman who did, in fact, change the game? ”No,” she answers without hesitation. ”But this wasn’t something I was doing from a political standpoint; it was about being human. I wasn’t interested in a hatchet job. With every character you play, you look for a way to humanize them and communicate who they are to an audience. In this case I had even more of a responsibility because this is a real person and it was my job to bring as many facets of her to light as I could.”
So how did she do it? Here, Moore reveals the process behind becoming Sarah Palin.
Was it tough mastering that voice? You betcha!
As soon as she told Jay Roach she’d take the job, Moore says the daunting reality of what she’d signed on for instantly set in. ”I got off the phone and I was like, What did I do?” she says with a laugh. Her first order of business was to book vocal coach Leigh Dillon. ”The voice was really hard…. I had two months, and I cleared my schedule of absolutely everything that didn’t involve my kids and family,” she says. (Moore and her husband, director Bart Freundlich, have a son and daughter.) ”I didn’t go out to lunch, I didn’t go out to dinner, I worked with Leigh.” Moore immersed herself in Palin’s speech patterns, taking all the music off her iPod (except for ”Ice Ice Baby,” which her daughter ice-skates to) and filling it instead with all things Palin. ”I would go for a run and listen to her. I’d be in the car and I’d be listening.” To round out her research, she also turned to YouTube clips of those infamous interviews with Katie Couric and Charles Gibson, the vice-presidential debate and stump speeches, and Palin’s reality show, Sarah Palin’s Alaska. Even now — eight months after wrapping the film — sitting in her home and out of makeup, when Moore slips into her Palin, it is downright spooky.
A hockey mom with lipstick…wigs, contact lenses, and designer duds
Beyond her own preparation, the actual physical process of turning Julianne Moore into Sarah Palin took up to two and a half hours every day on set. ”She has a different architecture to her face than I do,” explains Moore. ”Her eyes are much larger, her cheekbones are different, lips, everything.” Moore credits makeup artist Elaine Offers — ”She’s a painter, she has a real eye” — with casting the perfect illusion. ”[Palin] uses self-tanner, so Elaine would put one base color, then another, and would shade.” A brunet wig was an easy fix for the natural redhead, but then there was the issue of turning Moore’s green-flecked almond-shaped eyes into Palin’s big brown ones. ”What I’m really proud of is when I was in a fitting with the contact-lens people, I asked them to make the iris of the eye larger than mine so that it would help the whole eye socket look larger,” Moore says. (”In this case we tried to customize the color as close to Sarah Palin’s as possible,” says Dr. Mitchell Cassel, who had previously crafted special-effects lenses for Moore in The Hours. ”Because the camera shots are tight, you have to make sure there’s natural movement.”) For her wardrobe, costume designer Daniel Orlandi succeeded in replicating Palin’s much-scrutinized campaign clothes. ”We had reference photos, literally, everywhere on set,” says Moore. Was it strange to look in the mirror and see herself utterly transformed? ”It was…interesting,” she says. ”We were [shooting] in Baltimore and we heard someone say, ‘Sarah Palin is here?’ That’s when I was like, Yay.”
Political posturing (and pointing)
Another piece of the Palin puzzle involved the way the vice-presidential nominee holds herself. ”She stands very tall and very straight,” says Moore, who admits she tends to hunch. ”Sarah’s a very athletic person and has a very athletic walk.” Moore stands up in her living room, using her arms to demonstrate. ”She has these gestures — she points a lot. She points in a positive and also in a pejorative way — it’s not a neutral gesture. I was always looking for specificity.”
But to Moore, the essential part of playing Palin had nothing to do with appearances. ”The most remarkable thing about Sarah Palin is how charismatic she is. For me that became the most important to get across,” Moore says. ”So once I had the vocal pattern and the mannerisms down, and had the physical look, I had to figure out the nature of her charisma. She has this ability to communicate that’s really astonishing.” Moore says that when she struggled, as she did with the scene where Palin does a key interview with Charlie Rose, it was her director who helped her through. ”Jay said this kind of amazing thing to me,” she recalls. ”It’s an E.T. reference! He was like, ‘This is going to sound crazy, but you’re going to have to use your heart light, you know?’ It was a really wonderful direction.” (Says Roach, ”I don’t remember saying that. That sounds incredibly cheesy!” Instead he gives the bulk of the credit to his star: ”She directs herself. She’s that good.”)
Keeping it real
Throughout the project, Moore carried the weight of portraying a still-living person — who might one day see the movie. ”I made sure I didn’t say anything unless it was sourced. Absolutely everything is sourced,” Moore says. ”I was always asking because that was all I could hang my hat on.” And while Moore may not be of the same political persuasion as Palin, she still found points in the Alaskan’s life that she could empathize with. ”I did Saturday Night Live when my son was 3 months old. It was an absolute blur — a week of insanity. I was barely conscious,” she remembers. ”How do you run for vice president with a 4-month-old? She had a pregnant teenage daughter, a son about to ship off to Iraq, and a 7-year-old she was doing flash cards with on the road. The kinds of pressures on her personally were enormous.”
On Feb. 12, while appearing on Fox News Sunday, Sarah Palin was asked about the movie adaptation of Game Change. She said she wouldn’t waste her time watching it. (Roach says he tried contacting Palin for her involvement before production began.) ”If I were her, I would ignore it,” says Moore. ”I would not comment.” Harrelson has a different take: ”You’re the central character and you’re not going to watch it? You’ll just be too curious.” Whether or not Palin tunes in to Game Change, one thing is for certain — Julianne Moore won’t be watching. ”Oh, no,” she says with a laugh. ”I think I’m done with all that now.”