Lisa Cholodenko says she is not making a political statement with her film, The Kids Are All Right, but you can just tell she wouldn’t mind it if proponents of Prop 8 in California took it that way. At the beginning of the film, the loving nuclear family that Nic (Annette Bening) and Jules (Julianne Moore) have created is so strikingly normal, you barely think about the fact that there are two moms in the picture. Teenagers Laser (Josh Hutcherson) and Joni (Mia Wasikowska) seem well adjusted, with the same amount of sibling push-and-pull that any 15- and 18-year-olds would naturally exhibit. It’s not until the kids set out to find the sperm donor that made their family possible that you even become aware there was a piece missing in the familial puzzle.
And what a puzzle piece he is… As the blissfully unwitting donor Paul, Mark Ruffalo is one of those raffish, devil-may-care bachelors whom you want to despise but can’t, because he’s got an easy-breezy sort of slacker charm. What’s more, he’s an organic farmer with a beautiful farm-fed restaurant. As the kids get to know him, Laser (who was the most eager to find him in the first place) is disappointed that he’s not the archetypal jock/father figure he may have yearned for, but Joni is immediately sucked in by his charismatic confidence.
It would be a mistake to give away too many plot points of this immaculately-crafted story, as it goes in directions you wouldn’t ordinarily expect, but suffice it to say Jules and Paul do get a little too close for Nic’s comfort.
After its opening weekend, Kids is already on track to be the breakout indie hit of the summer. The reviews have been stellar, and the performances are uniformly superb. Cholodenko’s previous films (High Art, Laurel Canyon) have shown hints of her talents as a director, but the heart, soul and fearlessness in this script (co-written with Stuart Blumberg) make this her masterpiece to date.
At a recent roundtable interview, Moore, Ruffalo, and Cholodenko talked about the characters, the Kinsey scale, and what they want audiences to take from the film.
Q: What made you want to play Paul?
Mark Ruffalo: I thought it was a really interesting turn on an American iconoclastic character—this kind of Peter Pan bachelor who lives his life purely for his own pleasure. A lot of us have looked up to people like this, and wanted to be them, and he has this really nice turn in it when he meets his biological kids. They make him a pile of mush. Oh—and I loved how funny it is.
Q: Is this role close to home for you? Aside from the fact that you are married and have kids…
Mark Ruffalo: I think I approach life and people with the same kind of attitude that Paul has. I think the guy has a fairly open heart, and he’s not too judgmental of people. He’s interested, and he’s adventuresome, and I think he’s got a sense of humor that I relate to. I don’t have the confidence that he has, and I’ve never had the confidence with ladies that he has. I wish that I’d found a sperm bank when I was in my early 20s—think of all the wasted talent! [laughs] As far as the rest of it, it’s an amalgamation of people that I’ve known and loved over the years.
Q: [teasing] How about being SO irresistible that a lesbian can’t resist you?
Mark Ruffalo: You know, I think Paul is half a lesbian himself! No, I’m kidding. He’s got one foot in the door—he’s got two kids with [Jules], so I think it’s a confluence of a lot of different circumstances that they are attracted to each other. I don’t think there’s a really deep connection other than a sexual one. I don’t know how real that relationship really is.
Lisa understands it way better than I do—to make those jumps. Statistically, more people are sort of on the fence than not. When it comes to sex, people have all kinds of kinky things that turn them on that I don’t think always reflects on who they are.
Q: How complete was Paul on the page when you read the script?
Mark Ruffalo: It was pretty clear to me who he was from the script. It pretty much stayed the same—at some point, I would improvise a line here or there when I felt there was a chance for humor. I think what makes Lisa such a great director is that she’s really interested in subtext, in what’s happening between the lines.
Q: You’ve had a year where you’ve played characters with a realm of sexual orientations. You’ve become something of an expert!
Julianne Moore: You bet! In terms of sexuality, I think [the movie] has very little to do with that. It’s a movie about a family, and even more importantly, a relationship. At the heart of every family, there are two people who have decided to be together, and have children together. And these women have been together for probably 20 years, and it’s about who you are at the start, who you are at the middle, and where you’re going. The exploration of that is pretty fascinating.
Q: Did you and Annette talk a lot about creating these characters beforehand?
Julianne Moore: No. [laughs] I mean, I think what we have going for us is that we’ve both been married for a super-long time. And we both have children—she has 4, I have 2. This family unit thing is pretty darn familiar to us, and to the kids as well. Josh and Mia were both still living at home at the time.
People can relate to the movie: in terms of what it means to be in a family, the naturalness of the intimacy, the familiarity of that relationship. Marriage is interesting—you can’t get closer to somebody, really, but you’re also individuals. That idea of “two becoming one” is kind of baloney—nor should it be a goal. But you’re going to co-exist, you have a partner, in your life, and that’s a big thing.
Q: In light of Prop 8 in California, do you think this film has a chance—because it is so human, and so simply about family—of enlightening people?
Julianne Moore: I do. I certainly don’t think that was Lisa’s intention—she’s the first person to say she’s not making a political movie—but there was an article on the front page of TheNew York Times a couple of months ago about Don’t Ask, Don’t Tell, and about why it’s important that it be repealed. Because, basically, the more you know about the other soldier in your unit, the less scary it is. What really changes people’s opinion is proximity, and knowledge. People coming out, and people being public—that kind of knowledge is what naturally changes people. So I think that in a sense, film can be one of those unifying things, where something is presented, and people see it and it’s no longer so alienating.
Q: It’s not so much about a lesbian relationship—it could be any relationship at all.
Julianne Moore: I love the scene where they talk about how they met, the silly stuff—every couple has that, everyone has that moment. These people met, they fell in love…
Q: How did Lisa work with the cast to create the intimacy within the family?
Julianne Moore: I think it’s present in the script. It’s what she and Stuart wrote. If you look at her movies, you realize she’s very interested in nuance. She doesn’t like a broad stroke, she likes things to play out on people’s faces.
Q: There’s also a lot of comedy in this. Along with your stint on 30 Rock, is comedy becoming more appealing to you as an actor?
Julianne Moore: As I said to someone earlier this year, “The older you get, the less appealing tragedy becomes.” [laughs] So, you know, that’s where I find myself these days.
Q: You’ve become an A-list actress by playing offbeat characters, non-conventional women. How did that happen?
Julianne Moore: First of all, I’ve been super fortunate. When I started my advent into film, it was the beginning of the independent film movement. And that changed everything. I mean, I auditioned for films in the 80s; I just didn’t get them! Suddenly, with independent film, there was all this work. There were these interesting things that I felt compelled to do—when I first saw [the script for] Safe, I didn’t understand why it wasn’t going to a famous person! “Nobody’s playing this?” So it ended up being kind of lucky.
And there’s been some stuff I’ve done that’s been just way outside of taste—that people just hate. But I love Savage Grace—I don’t care! [smiles] I loved it, I still love it, and when it came out, people said, “That’s disgusting.” So some stuff has succeeded, some hasn’t.
Q: What kind of director are you?
Lisa Cholodenko: We worked on the script for a really long time. So I felt like the material was really there, and I knew that they got it, and that made my job as a director a lot easier. I’d also spent a lot of time casting—being really, really careful. So once that cast was pulled together, and the script was in the right spot, I really hung back. I felt very confident, and would just have to nudge people here and there. There was not a lot of time to walk off the set and have a big analysis, or rethink things.
Q: How long was the shoot?
Lisa Cholodenko: 23 days, so we really had to dig in. It’s like having a serious fire under your butt.
Q: Why this story?
Lisa Cholodenko: The impetus to write this was my own domesticating. My girlfriend and I were trying to figure out how to have a family, to have a kid, and we decided to go with an anonymous sperm donor. And I got pregnant, had a kid, and all the while we kept coming back to this script and developing it. So that was going on in my personal life.
Q: Once you had a kid, did the script resonate even more for you?
Lisa Cholodenko: Yeah, I think that all the tensions that come up with the Moms—that in some way have to do with the children—I can really identify with. I think a lot of the tensions that happen in a marriage are because of this kind of over-involvement, and love and concern, whatever, about the kids. It’s a complicated dance—to preserve your marriage, and let your kids kind of do their thing, and be involved in helping them grow.
Q: What was the biggest obstacle you faced in making this film?
Lisa Cholodenko: The obstacles were the obvious ones: it doesn’t matter what shape your script is in if it’s outside the box, or it hasn’t had a predecessor in the marketplace that they can crunch the numbers and say, “We know that this film did this, so we can bet that this film will do that”— it’s going to be hard to get money. It just is. And it was harder than I thought, having a track record, having a script that I thought was in really good shape, having really excellent actresses, etc., etc. It’s really disappointing, but that’s the truth of it.
Q: There was a massive bidding war for it at Sundance. Were you involved in it at all?
Lisa Cholodenko: “Massive bidding wars” aren’t what they used to be. They used to throw many, many millions of dollars around, and it was like, “Woo hoo!” maybe 10-15 years ago. Our film sold for under $5 million, so it was great—it was the only film at Sundance this year that sold like that—but I mean, it didn’t put any money in my pocket. But [my team] consulted with me along the way—and at the end of the day, I said, “Focus might not be the biggest bidder, but they are going to do the most with this film, and that’s the right home for it.” We all agreed, and here we are.
Q: What’s been the reaction around Jules and Paul getting together?
Lisa Cholodenko: I don’t think there has been a lot of judgment, per se, but there’s been a lot of questioning. I just come back to the same thing—that’s that character, and she happens to be in that space in time, where she’s kind of weak and vulnerable, and [is ripe for an] affair. And it happens to be that person who comes into the mix, and they have kind of a chemistry because, well, they have a child together, and he’s pretty cute, and she’s somewhere in the middle on the Kinsey scale, and she’s obviously kind of curious about men, so…
It all makes sense to me; it feels organic. It’s probably going to bug people who have a political agenda for the film, but it resonates as truthful, and as emotionally grounded to me as anything else would.
Q: What is the main message you want mainstream audiences to take away from the film?
Lisa Cholodenko: I feel like we really tried hard to make a movie that was about the value of family—and not in a soapboxy, stick-with-it-no-matter-what kind of way—but, like, you know what? It’s messy, and it gets broken, and you have to glue it back together. If there’s a will and there’s a commitment, then there’s a way to muscle through difficult times—both in longtime marriages and between family members.