Interviews with the cast of May December
Published 8:00 am Sunday, December 17, 2023
It is no secret that MAY DECEMBER is one of my favorite films of the year. Todd Haynes is one of the best directors working today and was the perfect choice to bring Samy Burch’s intelligent, tonally balanced script to the big screen. Adding award-caliber, can’t miss performances from Julianne Moore, Natalie Portman, and Charles Melton is the cherry on top.
I had the incredible opportunity to interview this delightful team and was blown away by their insightful answers. I was really nerding out and getting into the weeds of how some of the scenes were shot and specific acting choices, and they stayed right there with me. It is clear they love and appreciate the film as much as audiences do. And of course, I had to talk to Charles Melton about our Fantasy Football teams before the interview started. I am part of an all girls Fantasy Football league, where we know nothing about football or the players but still enjoy the competition of it all. He got a kick out of that.
More than that, I had a very meta experience doing these interviews. Coming from a small town without a huge movie selection, I spent my childhood as one of Netflix’s first customers, depending on disc rentals in the mail to see my favorite actors’ filmographies, movie titles that weren’t popular enough to be immediately available at Blockbuster. Julianne Moore, a fellow redhead, was one of the actors who I chose to watch their entire filmography, including FAR FROM HEAVEN, her first film with Haynes; I remember watching it on a portal DVD player on the way to Hilton Head. So twenty years later, sitting in front of Julianne for an interview at a Netflix press junket, was a complete out-of-body experience. I don’t think younger me would be able to believe it.
JULIANNE MOORE AND NATALIE PORTMAN
I’ve seen the film three times now, and I absolutely love it. It’s one of my favorite movies of the year, and I think you guys just are incredible in it. When the two of you are on screen together, it’s absolutely magnetic, such great chemistry, especially the makeup scene. I think that’s my favorite part of the whole film. When you were reading that (scene) in the script, did it kind of jump off the page that it would be such a climactic moment in the film?
Julianne Moore: I don’t know that it did. I mean, you know, they have they have many scenes together. I think it’s… I’m trying to think. I mean, because we have the cooking scene. We have the flower arranging scene. We have the makeup scene. So it was actually interesting that all of these pursuits are… there’s something about them that’s hyper-feminine. Right? So this one maybe is the most of that. And I think because we’re physically touching each other, it’s really compelling.
I know! I couldn’t tell what was gonna happen. I was like, are they going to kiss? What is actually going to happen here?
Julianne Moore and Natalie Portman: (laughing) Yeah!!
So I was just talking to Charles (Melton). I asked him about the humor elements of the film because I think there’s such a good tonal balance, and I feel like the humorous bits kind of allow the audiences to release a bit of the tension. He said that when he saw the film first with an audience, he was surprised that people were even laughing in some parts. Is that how you guys felt? Because he said filming on the day was very tense, so he was surprised that there was laughter.
Natalie Portman: I think it it was clear in the script that there was humor, and that it did have this very unusual balance. I mean, I remember reading the scene where [Elizabeth] is looking at the audition tapes, and she’s like, they’re not sexy. And I was like ohhh gross and funny! (everyone laughs) So you could definitely read it in Samy’s script. But I think only Todd could have found this perfect, delicate balance because there’s really genuine, heartfelt emotion. I mean, when Julie is crying about the cakes… I mean, it really makes me so moved. And then there’s stuff that is genuinely funny, and then it has this strange tone all the time that I think he created by the way he shot it, with the way he edited it, with the music, and also, of course, all the the casting. But I think it was very much Todd’s vision that allowed it to thread that very specific line of humor and discomfort and real genuine emotion.
Absolutely! Like the hotdog scene. That is always going to make people laugh.
Julianne Moore: (laughing) Right? Exactly.
The other thing that really stood out to me not only was the use of mirrors and reflection, which I thought was really cool, but also just (Todd’s) choice to have such long takes, because I think that really allowed you guys such room to work off of each other. And so in terms of the long takes, did you guys do a lot of rehearsals before that, or was it just kind of on the day?
Julianne Moore: On the day. It was on that day. We didn’t rehearse anything!
Julianne Moore: Yeah. We just had 23 days, and we all came… I think Charles came first. And then I came, and then Natalie came, and then boom, we were shooting. Everybody was really working at a very high level, and Todd is always so prepared and knew exactly what he wanted shot wise, and so that was helpful for us. It gave us a tremendous scaffold.
Charles, my fantasy football friend. I’ve seen the movie three times now, and your performance is one of my favorites of the year. I absolutely loved it. I loved how restrained you are in the role because I think it really makes it hit even harder at the very end of the film, without getting too much into spoilers, to finally see him have that release. So can you kind of talk about developing that process of how you were going to play the character?
Charles Melton: Yeah. You know, it really started with Samy’s script. I mean, there’s so much in between the text, and it kind of created this vast field to just explore who this man was. And really looking at Joe’s circumstance and at such a young age, given this responsibility of being a father and, you know, with public perception and then just the scrutiny that he went through personally… how he would internalize that and how that would manifest from his emotional makeup, the complex emotional makeup into the physicality. And I think there’s so much strength and quietness. There’s so much that can be expressed beyond just words and how we move, how we blink, how we talk… there’s this idea of repression that Joe has. There’s something like in the voice too. It’s this restraint that you talk about. In order to survive, he created this adaptive adult child to navigate in life, to really protect himself in a way. And beyond that protection, what fueled him was being a great father to his three kids, a loving husband, a provider, and all these things really just… it really moved me about Joe.
I really love how the film does a great job of balancing humor and drama. And especially with your character, when he’s on the roof of the house, again without getting too much into spoilers, I love that it kind of creates this release for the audience to be able to laugh at a really terrible situation. How did you balance that tone with the character?
Charles Melton: You know, that’s really interesting you say that because when we were filming for those 23 days, never did it ever seem funny or humorous at all. Especially filming that day. I mean, it was just heartbreaking. So it’s interesting to hear the audience receive it and find humor in it. I think sometimes you can’t help but laugh in the face of tragedy. Because it’s easier to laugh than to cry. And it’s so uncomfortable. And there’s so much width and depth to Samy’s writing that really allowed everyone to just come together. It was intense and it was dramatic. It never felt funny, just more so heartbreaking.
Interesting, yeah. Because the audience does laugh at quite a few scenes in the film. So were you surprised?
Charles Melton: It’s interesting. I’m just surprised looking at my experience that day of filming compared to… it just goes to show, my job is to.. sometimes I can get caught in the idea of trying to tell the audience how to feel. But it’s like, no. I have to just tell my character’s story. And then whatever response comes from whatever I do is out of my control. And to see that, if I’m trying to understand it, it’s because tragedy… sometimes it’s just easier to laugh.
And it was very organic. And I think it might have been a little bit of the audience just needing to laugh. It gave us an excuse.
Charles Melton: Yeah. There’s a need to release. I would rather release with a laugh than a cry.
I am a huge fan of your work. I think a lot of my favorite female-driven movies and TV series have been yours. I love MILDRED PIERCE, CAROL, and, of course, MAY DECEMBER. I was just wondering what draws you to these female-driven stories and also I wanted to comment that I loved all the female representation you had on stage last night and behind the scenes on the film.
Todd Haynes: Well, that’s it. You know? I’ve had female representation inside and outside and all over my life. And women played a formative role. As a kid, my mom, my grandmother, my art teacher, my sister… and then that turned into formative lifelong relationships and friendships with women. I’m interested in the female subject and the dilemmas that women encounter that are unique. Some people want to tell escapist stories and genre stories and fantasy stories. And I’m more interested in the stories of the lives that we all lead. And so domestic stories, which are often where women are found, are the stories of our lives. And they take us back to… and all these different stories starring women about women are very different, each to the next.
And something else that I found so visually striking in your movies, especially in this one, is your use of reflection and mirrors. I’ve noticed that in CAROL, especially when Therese is behind Carol, and in MILDRED PIERCE as well. Can you talk about what draws you to that?
Todd Haynes: Well, again, I find them film specific and setting specific. So the photography of Saul Leiter was very, very influential, first in MILDRED PIERCE, but ultimately, we fully embraced his work and his aesthetic in CAROL. And that sense of refracted images where there’s something in between… there’s filtration, there’s dust, there’s precipitation, there’s atmosphere between us and the person on the other side of the glass. And that put us very much in the time and place of New York City in CAROL and in MILDRED PIERCE in Los Angeles. And in a different era, of course, too. But in this film, it was different. There were so many mirrors that occupied central settings in the script where scenes would be played in the mirrors. And I thought, you know what? Let’s just make the camera the mirror. And let’s let the actors make the mirror with their gazes. And look right into the dead barrel into the lens as themselves and look right off the lens as the reflection of the other and watch that interesting sort of interplay of shifting gazes unfold as this story unfolds about people looking at each other, or refusing to look at themselves.
Absolutely. I thought that was really, really cool and really well done.
Todd Haynes: Thank you so much.
Last question for you. I noticed that a lot of your films are shot in the past. Even in this one, it is shot maybe five or six years in the past. Why did you make that decision?
Todd Haynes: Really simple with this film. The script was set in present tense, but I just wanted to move it just before the most recent Trump era political noise that we live in that I just felt might be a distraction in trying to assign partisanship or recognition of all that to these characters who live in such a bubble. Especially when we ended up having it be set in Georgia, which is such an amazingly pivotal state these days politically. But I just thought right before that would be a quieter place for this strange story to unfold.
Like, I was just telling you, I absolutely loved the movie. I just thought it was so well done, the tone, especially. It was like you were walking a tight rope with that. And so when you were crafting the script, was that one of the hardest parts to nail? Or what would you say was the hardest part for you?
Samy Burch: That’s an interesting question. I think it’s just a balancing act as you say. I see it as there are two types of humor in the film. One that comes from incredible uncomfortability, some darkness, and tension that needs to be released. And then, with the actors coming in, there could be more sort of glib, satirical humor as well braided in. And just making sure there is balance with the humanity and the heartbreak ultimately of the stories.
Again, I’m really interested in your process in writing the script. So when you’re writing the script, did you have any actors in mind when you’re thinking of these characters?
Samy Burch: Well, when I wrote the script, I didn’t have representation. I don’t know if I should say this, but I wrote it in my hall closet. There was a window, so it wasn’t really crazy, but we took the coat rack out, and I would sit in there like it was my office. So basically no because that would have felt a little delusional, I think, at that point…to be like, I’m gonna write this for Natalie Portman.
But in your mind… because sometimes when I read a book, I’m like, oh, I’m picturing Kate Winslet in this role. Is that how it is when you’re writing, or are they kind of just nebulous characters to you?
Samy Burch: They can be. It really depends. For this… it kind of came sort of formed and they were filled by shoes I couldn’t have really imagined ultimately.
It was absolutely amazing the cast that you got for this, the heaviest hitters in Hollywood.
So was that also one of the biggest surprises that you had when seeing the final film on screen was those pauses.
Samy Burch: I think one thing that I really loved that I’ve seen almost in layers, every time I’ve seen the movie, are the choices that Charles Melton made physically. In some moments he’s so childlike, and in some, he seems much older than he is. And that was really subtle choices that he and Todd worked on. That was so, so brilliant and really moving to me.
And it seemed like that was surprising for Todd as well when he was talking last night at the Q&A about how it opened the character a bit to him. Was it the same for you?
Samy Burch: Oh, absolutely. Charles… I always knew once we got into it, they were going to discover someone. Laura Rosenthal, who’s just an amazing casting director and so cool… was up to the task of finding this person. And really they looked at a lot of people. Charles, because he’s known from a TV show, was up against people who had never done anything. It was a really wide search, and it was so unexpected. It’s really not ever what you would think and I am so excited for him. He’s amazing.
Well I’m so excited for you too! Again, it was great to meet you.
So nice to meet you too!