Moore, 62, is no stranger to tackling eyebrow-raising roles, having previously played a porn star in 1997’s Boogie Nights and engaged in a threesome with onscreen son Eddie Redmayne in Savage Grace.
However, May December is certainly the riskiest movie, and part, of her career with the subject matter likely to draw fury and disgust from some quarters.
Back in 1996, Washington teacher and married mum-of-four Mary Kay Letourneau, 34, stunned the world when it was revealed she had begun a sexual relationship with Vili Fualaau, her 12-year-old student.
After becoming pregnant by him, a relative of Letourneau’s then-husband tipped off the police and she spent three months in jail after reaching a plea agreement and agreeing to no contact with Fualaau for life, among other terms.
Despite this, she fell pregnant once more by Fualaau just weeks after her release and ended up imprisoned for a further six and a half years.
Following her release, Letourneau and Fualaau married in 2005 and spent 14 years together before separating in 2019. She died of colon cancer one year later, aged 58.
May December, which premiered at Cannes Film Festival in May and is written by Samy Burch, is inspired by this unsavoury tale, with Moore’s Letourneau-esque character of Gracie married to Joe (Riverdale’s Charles Melton).
The film occurs many years after the scandalous events that began their relationship, with the married couple anxiously awaiting the arrival of Natalie Portman’s Elizabeth; she is an actress preparing to take on the role of Gracie in a movie about their queasy love story.
With Haynes (Carol, I’m Not There) on board, it’s a juicy drama for its two leading ladies to sink their expertly sharp teeth into, shot through with pitch-dark humour.
But that doesn’t mean the director didn’t struggle to get to grips with the subject matter, however fascinating he found the script – although he appreciated that it ‘had a distance from its material’, being set after the fact.
‘It didn’t cast judgments, which made one extremely uncomfortable – especially today where we think we know what we think all the time, going into material and the subject matter, especially, of this nature,’ Haynes told Metro.co.uk.
Although there are heavy similarities between the real-life Letourneau-Fualaau affair and that of Gracie and Joe, the filmmaker revealed that his first instinct was to ‘stay away’ from the real-life inspiration and ‘to respect the distinctions between the Mary Kay Letourneau story and what Samy had written’, which he categorises as ‘a fiction’.
However, Haynes, 62, also confessed that there was another reason for him avoiding immersing himself in researching the real-life case – that of his distaste – and it was his leading lady, also 62, who confronted him about it.
‘I think it was also [me] biding my time, in a way, because there are things I just didn’t want to think about too – I wasn’t ready to think about – until we had to think about them, like that relationship, how it began.
‘It was Julianne who instigated, who basically was like, “Todd, you have to start, you’ve got to watch these documentaries”, because they were useful in understanding Gracie. And they gave specific examples to a kind of backstory that we had to figure out for ourselves as actors and director.’
With May December set over 20 years later, and therefore ‘distanced’ from it, Haynes calls it ‘excavation from the past’.
‘It’s not what the film is showing you. So you’re pulling the threads of the past out and you’re following Elizabeth’s investigative journey through all of those layers – and that creates a lot of tension and excitement and expectation.’
‘But it meant that there were ways we could filter what had happened and learn about it in pieces,’ he added.
It’s undoubtedly a heavy and upsetting topic for a movie, but Burch and Haynes have made it a ‘delicious’ two-hander for Moore and Portman, 42.
This is particularly evident in scenes where Portman’s Elizabeth copies Gracie’s mannerisms – such as her applying lipstick, or mimicking gestures when they take her daughter to a dress shop and are blessed with an abundance of mirrors.
These sequences are darkly amusing, but in a way that fits in with May December’s subversive tone.
‘The humour in the script was apparent, [but] it wasn’t like laugh out loud – it was embedded within the characters and the situations. And while we were shooting the movie, we weren’t laughing out loud. Also we were just racing to get from one thing to the next, we shot it in 23 days, it was very, very tight, so every moment was measured,’ Haynes explained.
‘But it was when I started to see the cut of the film I realised how much humour really was available to the audience as a release valve and another layer of how you interpret it all.’
Of her onscreen relationship with her co-star Melton, Moore told Gotham Magazine earlier this year: ‘He and I are a couple that first met when he was 13 and I was 36. It’s a story of gender, public interest, tabloids and identity – about who we think we are and who the world tells us we should be.
‘How do we absorb ideology? How have we been marinating in expectations? And where does it come out? And where do we subvert it? And then how do we tell the stories?’
Her and Portman’s complex and nuanced performances – and certainly that of Moore’s bravery in taking on such a taboo part – will surely get them both recognised by the Academy. Haynes is no stranger to this, having directed both Cate Blanchett and Rooney Mara to nominations for Carol in 2016.
He also bagged himself a Bafta nomination for best director, following on from his best screenplay Oscar nomination for Far from Heaven in 2003, which he also directed and also cast Moore in the leading role.
However, Melton, 32, also blew Haynes away with his take on the role of the vulnerable Joe, who may only just now be starting to understand the ramifications of the beginning of his relationship with Gracie.
Praising Melton’s idea of Joe as ‘something else’, Haynes continued: ‘He understood how stifled Joe was, how prenatal Joe was, how he was just starting to learn how to speak and see his situation. So the granular restraint of that performance was something that really clarified for me who Joe was – and that came from Charles.’
Haynes was also gobsmacked at his performance given that prior to this Melton had had ‘almost no experience working in dramatic and in big screen film’.
But it seems he certainly wasn’t fazed by the calibre of his co-stars and the production either.
‘The women saw in him as an actor those instincts and that innate understanding of what this was about, so I think he felt really supported and embraced by everybody.’
May December releases in UK cinemas on November 17 and will launch on Sky Cinema from December 8.
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