When I meet Julianne Moore, I immediately fall in love with what she is wearing (a gauzy black-and-white Isabel Marant dress), especially her shoes -- a funky pair of black rubber gladiators by Kirna Zabête ("My kids hate them") -- and I make a point of telling her. A week later, Moore appeared in People magazine wearing the very same outfit I'd admired (the photograph dated the day of our meeting), with the words "What was she thinking?" splayed across her picture. We both had a good laugh about it (I told her in a subsequent phone conversation; Moore doesn't read People), but that single-sentence judgment speaks volumes about how anti-individual Hollywood is, and what an extraordinary achievement it is to cultivate your own personal style in an industry where individuality and a subway token will get you a job at Coffee Shop in Union Square ... maybe.

"I like a big shoe," Moore says, adding after I concur, "I think it has to do with being small women -- we need that base." It's heartening to hear this from such a misleadingly delicate woman, who stands all of 5'5," and it also somehow makes instant sense, as if her enormous range and bold, otherworldly talent as an actress really just comes down to a big shoe that serves as the base from which she deploys her mighty skill.

We're here to talk about her new film Blindness, based on the achingly bleak, deeply austere novel by José Saramago, in which an entire city goes blind save for one woman, played in the film by Moore. The New York-based actress has appeared in well over a dozen book-to-film adaptations, including The End of the Affair, The Hours (which earned her one of her four Oscar nominations), and Children of Men. It's a medium that suits her -- an avid reader and lover of words, Moore says she feels lucky to have done what she considers some of her finest work in films that have been adapted from books. And although she goes through several books and scripts a week, she actually wasn't familiar with Blindness when the script first came her way. "I didn't know the book," says Moore, "which was kind of unusual for me." She found the script dark but refreshing: "It wasn't another one of those fucking coming-of-age stories, which I can't bear anymore." Drawn to the unclear boundaries and nontraditional structure of the plot, Moore happily signed on.

Dress by Calvin Klein and necklace by Lanvin.

Makeup: M.A.C Multi-Purpose Glitter, CoverGirl Lash Blast Mascara in Very Black and Chanel Rouge Double Intensité Ultra-Wear Lipcolor in Nude Topaz. Fragrance: Dsquared2 She Wood.

Helmed by Brazilian director Fernando Meirelles (City of God), Blindness was shot in Canada, Brazil and Uruguay in an attempt to create a sort of anywhere-and-nowhere feel to the backdrop. "It's a fable, an allegory," Moore explains. "There are all these different ethnicities and languages, and you just get the feeling of people being in this huge, anonymous, urban environment." Meirelles certainly succeeds in making you feel like a stranger in a strange place, and as you watch these people fumble over one another both literally and figuratively, audience voyeurism turns slowly from passive empathy to a kind of symbiotic sightlessness. Moore's character -- for which she dyed her hair blond and wore extra padding underneath her clothes ("I think you should be a little fat," Meirelles instructed her) -- the wife of a doctor (played by Mark Ruffalo), becomes guide, custodian and matriarch to the afflicted, who are quarantined in an old abandoned hospital while the government tries to figure out what's causing the blindness epidemic.

It's a gloomy film, to be sure, but Moore delivers a ferociously elegant performance that yields a familiar visceral impact -- the characters she plays differ from film to film, but their emotional clairvoyance is the same. In Blindness, you find yourself wishing that Moore's character would put that power to better and faster use, as the more aligned you become with those who can't see, the more invested you become in the immediacy of her altruistic intentions. "Most of the time in movies, people act very quickly -- you identify the hero, and the hero says, 'I'm going to solve this problem,'" says Moore. "But in real life, it doesn't work that way. I tried very much in this film to not try to understand her; to react constantly, not act, to not make a decision about anything before it happened, because in life we don't plan the way we think we do."

The film as a whole paints a revealing portrait of the human condition and our overall behavior as a species: We are not cute in survival mode. "We have an inability to see anything clearly, ever. I read something about disaster preparedness, I think it was in the Times, and it said that even though we examine the effects of natural disasters and what is likely to happen, we refuse to be prepared," Moore recalls. "People don't have that emergency kit. No one has them. I have a Red Cross backpack. That makes me feel good. I think it has a couple of Power Bars in it. But we can't visualize anything bad happening, we always lean in a monopolistic fashion."

I mention that I've also recently seen Savage Grace, Tom Kalin's gorgeously intense film (another adaptation) in which Moore plays Barbara Baekeland, wife of Bakelite-plastics heir Brooks Baekeland. Barbara as a character is pretty tough-going -- she's demanding and desperate and mean and utterly, almost pathologically, narcissistic. And on top of that, she has sex with her son. Whereas in Blindness, it's the cinematic structure that abandons the rules, in Savage Grace, based on a true story rather than fiction, it's the characters. Says Moore: "Because of mental health issues and an incredible sense of entitlement [the Baekelands] chose not to be responsible for anything and to dispense with rules entirely, to unbelievably destructive ends." Did playing these two women back-to-back take a negative toll? "No, no! I loved them both -- there was so much to do!"

Considering the zeal with which Moore goes headlong into her work, it's no surprise that she is a fan of structure -- indeed, it seems she would have to be in order to so fearlessly enter and exit these risky worlds without losing her mind. A set framework allows you to bounce off the walls during the day and make supper for your kids at night. It also serves as a facilitating backdrop to try to maintain some measure of personal integrity, which I think it's fair to say, not everyone in Hollywood or celebrity culture has quite gotten the hang of yet. Moore refers to her place in that world as “a life that doesn't exist for me." I read off some of the recent headlines from the gossip newswires: "Quitting Smoking Made Moore a Better Person," "Moore's Husband Okay with Film Nudity," "Moore Happy to Embarrass Kids." It's only the last one that sends her reeling. "Don't tell me that! See? I would never say that. What I probably said was that my kids don't see my movies, why would they? They're kids."

If an adherence to structure is Moore's ethos, the mutability of human behavior is her fascination: "We think, 'I am who I am' -- there is this idea that somehow there is this true self, this authentic self that is going to be a certain way and stay that way," she ruminates, with nary an ounce of pretense. "Our behavior changes all the time and it changes in certain circumstances in terms of cultures and communities. Behavior is mutable, it's not stuck." It's a theory perhaps influenced by the constant moving around Moore did throughout her childhood -- her father was a military judge, her mother a social worker -- and the corresponding necessity of adapting anew again and again.

With such well-developed insights into behavior, one might assume Moore would be very precious about her "process" as an actress. Not so. "There is a culture of actors who will say, 'Oh my gosh, this is so hard.' And I'm like, 'No, it's not' -- you have to remember, we are pretending," she says, with bracing candor. Our conversation dips back into the appeal of books and words as Moore talks about her approach to a character and what draws her to a project. "I'm primarily interested in the story. As an actor you are inside the story, so it's not like me and my character are alone battling it out." Although clearly she takes her work seriously, one thing she does not do is take it home with her. Both the characters she plays and the films in which they live are part of her history, but that’s where it ends. When a project wraps, she punches out. "I'm a parent. I can't be like, 'Mommy is so upset.' It's finished. It's done. I have to put [the character] in a box and move on. If you have other people in your life you are caring for, you have a responsibility to be present for them."

Among Moore's upcoming projects is her friend writer-director Rebecca Miller's film, The Private Lives of Pippa Lee, in which she plays Kat, another woman-on-the-verge (a sociopathic lesbian novelist). Miller describes her friend in an email as "a sunny person with an intuitive sense of the dark side of life. She has a big, big engine inside her, and whatever she does she turns her whole self on it, and it gets done, big-time." The two women bonded over their sons, who are the same age and play together often. Miller, who Moore calls "wonderful, so talented, and completely normal," is married to Daniel Day-Lewis, an actor Moore includes on her wish list of actors she'd like to work with in the future. "I think Daniel is a very gifted actor, and very much somebody who immerses himself in a different way than I do," she says. "You find that you either work with actors who are very similar or those who are very different from you, and that's exciting."

When I ask her to name some of the actors who fall under the Very Similar category, I am surprised to hear her say Samuel L. Jackson, with whom she co-starred in the little-seen, racially-charged film Freedomland. "You would never believe it, right?" says Moore, with a short, knowing smile, her eyes lit up with delight at the randomness of it. "But we have a very similar energy, and work in almost the same way. We have the best time together." The feeling is mutual. In an email Jackson expressed similar sentiments about working with Moore: "[The director] Joe [Roth] would just say 'Go' and on a moment's notice, we could go from talking about a Knicks game into an emotionally heavy scene, and we would just click."

My conversation with Moore thus far has at times drifted this way and that about culture, politics and race, but when we start talking about Freedomland, another book-to-film adaptation, this one based on the novel by Richard Price (Clockers, Lush Life), the subject of race comes into sharper relief. In the film, Moore plays a poor, white trash mother whose child disappears, and when the police target a black project development to look for the boy, Jackson's character is the black detective who helps her navigate the cultural terrain. Naturally, the attention given to the case and the predictable assumption that a black man was responsible incites racial tension in the film, and Moore tells a story of how Jackson, off camera one day, made a remark that both lightened the mood and summed up the current state of race in America: "He said about my character, 'She ugly, she skinny, but she white!'" In other words, this hopeless, seemingly undesirable character with otherwise no social agency whatsoever still matters, because she is white.

As I sit across from this lovely woman, the signature red hair unkempt but beautiful, eyes warm and engaged, at a corner table in Pastis (where she often does her press interviews), it's hard not to marvel at her intelligence, complete and remarkable regular-ness, the stunning breadth of her career and the ease with which she talks about balancing it with her family life. "Her commitment to her kids is total, as is her commitment to her work," says Miller. "It's sort of deeper than ambition with Julianne. She is a seeker." A seeker who enjoys a big shoe.

Makeup by Linda Hay * Hair by Miki * Manicurist: Elisa Ferri * Assistant to stylist: Jamie Granoff * Fashion coordinator: Diane Drennan-Lewis

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