Julianne Moore: Alzheimer's Makes Us Question 'Our Essential Selves' In Still Alice, Moore plays Alice Howland, a 50-year-old linguistics professor diagnosed with early-onset Alzheimer's. Moore says she spent months meeting with people affected by the disease.
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Julianne Moore: Alzheimer's Makes Us Question 'Our Essential Selves'

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Julianne Moore: Alzheimer's Makes Us Question 'Our Essential Selves'

Julianne Moore: Alzheimer's Makes Us Question 'Our Essential Selves'

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MELISSA BLOCK, HOST:

Julianne Moore has just been nominated for an Oscar, and she already won a Golden Globe award for her betrayal of a woman diagnosed with early onset Alzheimer's disease. In the movie "Still Alice," Moore plays Alice Howland, a 50-year-old linguistics professor at Columbia with a razor-sharp intellect.

(SOUNDBITE OF FILM, "STILL ALICE")

JULIANNE MOORE: (As Alice Howland) Today, I'd like to focus on some recent studies from my lab on the acquisition of past tense irregular verb forms.

BLOCK: In this scene, she is giving a lecture.

(SOUNDBITE OF FILM, "STILL ALICE")

MOORE: (As Alice Howland) You may say that this falls into the great academic tradition of knowing more and more about less and less until we know everything about nothing.

(LAUGHTER)

MOORE: (As Alice Howland) But I hope to convince you that by observing these baby steps into the - into - I knew I shouldn't had that champagne.

(LAUGHTER)

MOORE: (As Alice Howland) Into the word-stock of a given language.

BLOCK: Alice laughs it off, but she realizes her memory lapse fits a pattern. She's starting to forget things, loses her way, gets fuzzy. The movie charts her rapid decline with Alzheimer's and her struggle to hold onto her sense of self. I talked with Julianne Moore about this character, a woman in her prime whose career depends on her brain.

MOORE: Yeah, yeah, she's someone who's really - who's always defined herself by her intellect. And now that that's something that she can't depend on, she's finding that she doesn't really know who she is, or she doesn't feel that she knows who she is.

BLOCK: When you were thinking about how to betray the progression of this disease, I understand you talked with women who have been diagnosed with early onset Alzheimer's.

MOORE: Yeah, I spoke to so many people. I had - I didn't have any familiarity with Alzheimer's. I'm - I think I'm one of the few people who hasn't had a family member affected by it. And I - when I spoke to filmmakers I said that I didn't want to represent anything on screen that I hadn't witnessed myself or had been described to me. So my research process was pretty lengthy. I actually had about four months and the women I spoke to were so incredibly generous with their time and their thoughts and their experiences. And it was a pretty profound experience, actually, talking to them.

BLOCK: Were there specific things they told you, keys to what it's like to have Alzheimer's disease that filtered into your performance in really specific ways?

MOORE: Yeah, so, I mean, so many specific things. Well, I mean, one of the things that I sort of misunderstood about Alzheimer's is that somehow it was - just affected memory, just simple memory. And what I didn't really understand that it's also kind of a neuro spatial disease; that you're going to have a different interpretation of how things are happening to you. One woman I spoke to said she was a high school Spanish teacher and she said she didn't know what was happening to her, but one of her students noticed that she was writing backward on the board - on the blackboard.

Another woman told me that she was making very simple mistakes at work and she couldn't learn a very simple computer program and didn't know what was wrong. So it was interesting to me that for some of these women so many things happened at work. That was where they noticed the deficits first. And then once there had been some kind of ramification in their professional life, they realized that things had been happening in their personal life as well.

BLOCK: Let's listen to another scene from the movie. This is after Alice has lost her teaching job at Columbia. And she goes before an Alzheimer's conference and delivers a speech about her experience with the disease, a long speech. Here's part of it.

(SOUNDBITE OF FILM, "STILL ALICE")

MOORE: (As Alice Howland) Who can take us seriously when we are so far from who we once were? Our strange behavior and fumbled sentences change others' perceptions of us and our perception of ourselves. We become ridiculous, incapable, comic, but this is not who we are. This is our disease.

BLOCK: And, Julianne Moore, why don't you describe what you're doing as you are reading those words?

MOORE: I am - I'm taking a yellow highlighter as I read so I can follow along. So I'll know what I've read and what I have to read. And this is something that we saw in speeches that people give at these Alzheimer's conventions.

BLOCK: You know, I found myself, as I watched this movie and afterward, becoming hyperaware of my own memory and any time that I forgot words...

MOORE: Oh, yeah (laughter).

BLOCK: Or lost my keys or didn't know where my phone was. Is it the same for you?

MOORE: Sure.

BLOCK: I mean, has this sort of changed how you see your own memory?

MOORE: One of the things that I did very early on, actually, I went to Mount Sinai and I met with Dr. Mary Sano, who is one of the leading researchers and clinicians in Alzheimer's disease and spoke to some of her colleagues there. And they said so often people come in and say, you know, I want to be tested. I think I have Alzheimer's and they test them and they'll find that it's normal. They're - people are stressed. They haven't been sleeping enough. They're overworked. But when you take the - I took the cognitive test. The neuropsychiatrist gave me the cognitive tests. And I didn't hear anything and for - a couple weeks later I'm like, you know what? I'm just going to email her again to say thank you, really (laughter) the guise of finding out whether, you know, she'd seen anything. And when she answered me she said I just wanted tell you your results were normal, and I was like, good (laughter).

BLOCK: Yeah, yeah.

MOORE: Yeah.

BLOCK: Did working on this movie and thinking about memory and memory loss, did it make you any more or less afraid about aging?

MOORE: I think that what it does make you think about - as it's not just about aging. It's about mortality - I mean, it's about mortality and aging's about mortality, too. And it's something that, you know, I think in our culture, in lots of cultures, we have this kind of, you know, you are as old as you think you are, forever young, you can do whatever, you know, 50 is the new what, you know, 30. This idea that somehow you're forever young or - and this refusal to look at the, you know, the life - our life cycle.

And the thing that happens to Alice in this movie is that she's kind of in the prime of her life, in a great place in her life, and she's faced with the idea of her own mortality. She does know that it's going to be shorter than her expectation was. Or it just forces her to acknowledge an end, which is very difficult for any of us to do. And I think the interesting thing about looking at the end of your life or knowing it's an end of your life is that you start to value what you have even more. You know, you value the present. I think you're never, never more in love with life than you are in the presence of death or your own mortality. So it kind of makes you think about that, you know? It thinks - you think about how much you love to live, how much you love the people you love. What do you value? Who do you value? What do you want to do? In a sense, it makes everything kind of crisper and sharper and more vital.

BLOCK: Well, Julianne Moore, it's been a pleasure to talk to you. Thank you so much.

MOORE: It's been so nice to talk to you, Melissa. Thank you for having me.

BLOCK: Julianne Moore stars in the new movie "Still Alice."

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