sundance 2019

Michelle Williams and Julianne Moore on Their ‘Raw, Animalistic’ After The Wedding Scene

Michelle Williams and Julianne Moore. Photo: Julio Macat; ASC/Courtesy of Sundance Institute

When I meet Julianne Moore, Michelle Williams, Bart Freundlich, and Abby Quinn in a tucked-away suite at the Sundance Film Festival to talk about their new film, After the Wedding, they assemble as follows: Freundlich, who’s been married to Moore for nearly 16 years, leaves his own chair to squeeze into his wife’s (“I was too far away!”); Moore promptly puts her feet up on his lap; and Williams lies down on a velvet chaise, her head nestled in a pile of pillows next to Quinn. It’s an aptly cozy setup, considering the film is (in more ways than one) an almost uncomfortably intimate family affair.

After the Wedding, written and directed by Freundlich, is a remake of Susanne Bier’s 2006 drama, but this time, the two lead roles are played by women instead of men. Williams plays Isabel, a bindi-sporting, meditation-teaching manager of an Indian orphanage who’s summoned to New York at the behest of Moore’s Theresa, a wealthy benefactor who’s considering a hefty donation to Isabel’s cause. While Theresa ponders just how much she wants to contribute, she invites Isabel to the wedding of her daughter Grace (Quinn). In the interest of keeping the movie’s (multiple) secrets, let’s just say that Isabel’s arrival at the wedding sets off a dramatic chain of events in the lives of all three women, forcing them to get quickly, intensely familiar with one another.

A few hours after Wedding’s Friday morning screening, Moore, Williams, Freundlich, and Quinn are visibly exhausted but also visibly thrilled to talk about the movie — and about a lot of other fairly random topics. Over the course of 20 minutes, we covered everything from Williams’s magical ability to fall asleep in public in broad daylight, to Freundlich and Moore’s relationship, to Moore’s love of the supernatural, to the “raw, animalistic” one-liner that Williams improvised during a tense scene with Moore.

Moore [as we sit down, to the group]: When I’m in Savannah, I gotta go on a ghost tour.

Vulture: I went on one there once.
Moore: Was it cheesy?

Of course! That was the best part.
Moore: Me too! I love a ghost.

What are you doing in Savannah?
Moore: The Gloria Steinem movie, A Life on the Road. We’re filming there for money — we couldn’t afford New York, but also, the weather is amazing.

Freundlich [gesturing at Williams]: You know how many pictures I have of you like this from the set?

Williams: I’m a napper. You guys, I closed my eyes for one second, I was like, Oh boy, here it comes.

Can you just sleep anywhere?
Williams: I can! Do you want me to do it for you? I can fall asleep in 60 seconds.

Moore: I’m so jealous.

Julianne and Bart, the last time you two were at Sundance together was 22 years ago. What do you remember from that time?
Moore: I think there actually was a picture of me in his lap that time [laughs].

Freundlich: I think I was feeding you a slice of pizza. We were staying in a little place at the end of town, that had like futon king-size bed and a water heater in the room, so you couldn’t open the door.

Moore: But you could walk everywhere!

Freundlich: Which was good, because you never wanted to be there.

Were you married yet?
Moore: No, we had actually just started seeing each other. We hadn’t even been together a year, right?

Freundlich: Right.

All four, in chorus: Awwwwwwww.

Williams: That’s what they’re gonna say about me and you, Abby, in 22 years. “Not even a year yet.” [laughs]

What feels different 22 years later, aside from the fact that you’ve built this whole life together?
Moore: Now it’s a beautiful hotel [laughs]. Our children were there last night. Now we have one kid who’s an adult, a 21-year-old and a 16-year old, and they both came.

Michelle and Abby, when were you last here?
Quinn: For Landline! It was much snowier here.

Williams: For Blue Valentine, nine years ago. I was just reminded of that.

A lot has changed for you since then, too.
Williams: A few things! Just a few [laughs].

Bart, at the Q&A after the screening this morning, you said Julianne watched the original film and she said, “I could play that part,” referring to the role originally played by Rolf Lassgård. Did you watch the original together?
Moore: We did watch it together, didn’t we?

Freundlich: They sent it to me, and then I said, “Take a look at this.”

Moore: He was just going to adapt it, there was nothing about a gender change. But what I said when I watched it was, “Wow, that part —  that part, I would like to play.” I was just very attracted to that character’s story. So the gender swap was great news for me!

Did you swap the genders of the leads specifically for her?
Freundlich: Absolutely. We kind of messed around for six months, considering, maybe it’s enough to remake it in English, at a different time. But it didn’t feel like it was justified. It didn’t feel like it had life to it. Susanne’s movie has so much life to it. I just started thinking about the [gender-swap] as an exercise — so much would have to change, but the solutions to those problems ended up leading to a really interesting place.

Julie read it on the plane sitting next to me, and when I woke up from my nap, she was crying.

Moore: I was crying, yeah.

All four, in chorus: Awwww.

What specifically made you cry?
Freundlich: The prose.

Moore: [laughs] The prose, yeah. In this version, there are many more considered decisions, deliberate actions. Nobody’s a villain, and nobody’s a hero. And I love the fact that my character is a woman who’s made considered decisions in everything she’s ever done: She married a man who had a child; decided to become that child’s mother. She very deliberately had more children. She built this big company. You can feel the size of her life and her engagement in it. And in order to move forward, she needs to engage this other woman in a very difficult way.

So their relationship and the lengths to which they go to — not dominate each other, but it’s a power struggle. You never see that. With women [on screen], they’re your sister, your best friend, your mother, your daughter — you’re almost always allies or they’re arch enemies. But two fully formed protagonists in a power struggle is so rare.

There’s one scene in particular where that struggle is really evident: Michelle, in the midst of a really tense conversation, you yell at Julianne, “Lick my asshole.”
Freundlich: Did you like that line?

Yes, I wrote it down! Can you talk a little bit about it?
Williams: I’d love to talk about it! I’m glad you liked that line.

Freundlich: Michelle came up with it.

Williams: I’m gonna look so dirty. “My one contribution to the movie. I wrote the line about licking the asshole.”

Where did that come from?
Freundlich: The line was originally just “kiss your ass.” But the day before we started shooting, you [Michelle] were like, “I just feel that it should be more animalistic. More raw.” It was a little bit scary, and I think everyone was scared, especially the producers. Why the word “ass” changes so radically when you add the word “hole” to it, I don’t know.

Williams: And “lick.”

Freundlich: But you see what Isabel is capable of when she gets cornered. It wakes me up. Some people haven’t been crazy about it, because it’s hard to hear, but that’s why.

Williams: Did you go with “lick your asshole,” or “lick your fucking asshole”?

Freundlich: Lick your asshole, because “fucking” you can’t have in too many times. You two [Julianne and Abby] have to two “fuckings” in the movie. So we just had the “lick your asshole.” I think you have the title of your article.

Yep, we’re done.
Williams: I think sometimes with language, you stop hearing it because you’re so accustomed to certain word groupings. “Kiss your ass” — you’ve heard it, you’ve associated something with it, and I had some desire for something… in that moment, she has no power. She’s totally weaponized and using the only thing she has left, which is language and her brain trying to maneuver out of this maze that this woman has built.

I want to talk about the relationships that develop on screen between all three of you. For a lack of a better term, there’s a lot of… eye-acting? that goes on in this movie. A lot of depth hidden beneath the surface. How did you develop that depth? Were you hanging out off set, was there a lot of rehearsal?
Moore: We had a teeny tiny rehearsal, where they came over to our house and ran through things quickly. That’s the problem when you’re working on this budget level. But when we were casting this movie, Bart and I were adamant — we really wanted these women to do these parts. We felt really strongly.

Freundlich: It’s a melodrama, and the language and events can verge on over-the-top, or feel expositional. So you need people who can build it on a silent, deep level. That’s the “eye-acting,” I think.

[Laughs] I’m a very professional critic.
Freundlich: No, but I think you’re right — all of the looks, but especially the ones going on in the hotel room between Abby and Michelle, and the scene in the restaurant, when Michelle’s looking at her without the other one looking back. It’s really powerful.

Moore: I love the scene when they look at each other in the hotel room, because they have such desire for each other. It’s so lovely. They’re regarding each other. It’s so intimate.

Julianne and Bart, the two of you have worked together four times now. Do you have a shorthand on set? Do you sort of each know what the other wants and needs?
Moore: Yes. [sarcastically, mimicking herself on-set] “I can’t believe you said that! You know I hate that!”

Freundlich: I think the advantage is that you just know each other — you know the personality, what works and what doesn’t, and where to get space, and where you can push. You get more familiar and you can create something a little bit more powerful, in a way, because you can safely push boundaries.

Was there a scene where you remember being pushed, Julianne, in a way that only he could?
Moore: I’m trying to think.

Freundlich: All the stuff that’s really good [laughs]. I think Julie and I had the advantage of talking about all of this for a long time. Wait, it’s your question.

Moore: First of all, I can never remember anything. I’m like, “What? I don’t know!” The funny thing is what you do remember. We’d drive to work at different times because he’s the director and had to be there earlier. One time we had to be there together, and all I could say the whole time was, “Russell doesn’t drive as fast as you and I’m getting carsick!” [laughs].

Freundlich: I stayed on the set in a little cabin, and she stayed with our daughter in the hotel, just so we could have a little —

Moore: Our daughter’s a PA on the film.

A true family affair. Michelle, I have to ask you about Fosse/Verdon, because we’re so excited about it at Vulture. What’s been the toughest part for you in terms of recreating these legendary numbers?
Williams: I’m very excited to hear people are excited, because they’re working us too hard. We don’t see the outside world. We work in the Bronx and on Staten Island all the time, and we have more ahead of us than we have behind us. We haven’t even finished four episodes yet. We’re still figuring things out and have so much work to do.

This is why you’re napping.
Williams: It might be why I’m napping. Plus the altitude.

Moore: We’re all huffing and puffing.

Last question. This is a movie about secrets, and people who are hiding things from each other. What’s something about you that somebody wouldn’t know just by looking at you?
Freundlich: This seems like an Abby question.

Quinn: Hmmmm.

Moore: I’ll tell you what people wouldn’t know. They wouldn’t know Abby has a spectacular singing voice. That’s her song at the end of the film, and she wrote it.

Williams: I’ve never heard anything like it.

Freundlich: They wouldn’t know about me that I just started baking sourdough bread. I have a 50-year-old sourdough starter.

Williams: I didn’t know that about you! Whose sourdough starter?

Freundlich: It was a friend of ours. I’ll tell you later.

Sourdough starter is having a moment.
Moore: It is having a moment!

Williams: I don’t know what it looks like to look at me! Can you tell that I’m very messy? Can you tell I have a messy car?

Moore: Can you tell that I get carsick when people drive too fast?

Williams and Quinn: No!

Freundlich: Well, I know that about you.

This interview has been edited and condensed.

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