While filmmaking often makes families of its cast and crew, the lead actors in Lisa Cholodenko’s comedy The Kids Are All Right found a special bond of respect and admiration that allowed them to play a family as well. Two-time Oscar-nominated Julianne Moore and three-time Oscar-nominated Annette Bening play the two moms, Jules and Nic. Up-and-coming stars Josh Hutcherson (Bridge to Terabithia, Journey to the Center of the Earth) and Mia Wasikowska (Alice in Wonderland, Jane Eyre) play their two kids, Laser and Joni. Mark Ruffalo plays their sperm-donor dad. Together they create a touching, hilarious family (both on- and off-screen) whose evolution and exploits the five actors talk about in the following interview.
Annette Bening [plays Nic in the movie]: With movies, everything follows from the writing. To me, The Kids Are All Right is a great and poignant story about a family who very much love each other, and who are going through what a lot of families go through – things that we all share and can relate to. There’s so much heart in it, so much genuine feeling – and it’s not saccharine, or earnest; earnest is boring.
Julianne Moore [plays Jules in the movie]: One of the reasons that I really responded to the wonderfully funny script is that it’s about where you are when you’ve been in a relationship for a long time and you have children. Annette and I have both been married long-term, have children and know what it’s like to parent. When you have a child that’s leaving home, it’s a big transitional time for everybody.
Mia Wasikowska [plays Joni in the movie]: Family dynamics change when people grow up and start living their own lives.
Annette Bening: All the characters in the story have their journeys. Nic and Jules are really good moms; they have brought up their children in a loving, supportive environment. They’re human, like all the rest of us with our families.
The two women are very different from each other; I liked that in the writing, that they’re each such distinct people.
Julianne Moore: My character has tried different jobs; she was in architecture school, had a business, and now is trying to be a landscape designer. But she’s been more the stay-at-home parent, and for her the idea that Joni is leaving home now is major. Because her whole life has pretty much been about staying home with the kids.
It makes for a complicated dynamic. In movies, characters generally have a clear idea of where they’re going. In life, I’ve seen a lot of people who don’t. So I wanted to play that with Jules; her predicament is that she doesn’t feel like she can go forward or backward, she feels stuck – and Nic has to deal with that, they have to work it out together. I loved that Jules is at such an amorphous place in her life, and that seemed to be a compelling thing to play.
Annette Bening: I felt like I understood Nic; I saw her as a sane, stable, smart woman. The dilemma that she gets in, going through a hard thing – one of the joys of acting is trying to put yourself as much as you possibly can into the shoes of another person, and to look at the world through their eyes.
Mia Wasikowska: Nic and Jules bring out different things in Joni’s personality. To me, Joni always came off as a fiercely driven person; very ambitious, and wanting to achieve in school. She’s more involved in the life of the mind than, say, fashion.
Josh Hutcherson [plays Laser in the movie]: Laser gets along great with his moms, but when he meets Paul it’s that, he hasn’t really had any male influences in his life. At the beginning of the story, he’s the one who wants to contact his biological father.
Lisa, Julianne, Annette, Mia, and I all talked about, “What would you do if it was your kid? Would you let him meet him?”
Mark Ruffalo [plays Paul in the movie]: Paul is kind of interested in the idea of picking up where the moms have left off a little.
I feel that Laser expects more of a traditional dad, but Paul is much more eclectic. Paul doesn’t totally give up on him, but goes to where he’s getting the most responsiveness, which is from Joni.
Josh Hutcherson: Laser keeps his guard up, but Joni is more outgoing, with Paul.
Mia Wasikowska: At first, she’s very apprehensive, as it’s an unexpected relationship she finds herself in.
Mark Ruffalo: Paul has never really learned to make any real emotional connections to women, other than as f—k buddies. When he gets the call and this newfound information that he has kids from having given sperm so many years ago, I think he’s a little proud. There’s the fantasy; “Maybe I’ll start being a dad now.” He won’t have to take care of a baby.
Julianne Moore: At the core of a family, there is a primary relationship between the parents. The most interesting thing about the relationship is how very normal it is. In the script, it’s mentioned that Nic was a resident at UCLA and Jules came in; she was probably in college at the time. They met and had a family right away.
Annette Bening: These two parents have been together their whole adult lives, which is a very familiar family story; this story is never self-conscious about it being two women, which I love [about it]. That’s just part of the mix of this particular family.
Mark Ruffalo: For Paul, Jules is like the ultimate conquest; not only is she married, but she’s also a lesbian. [laughs] Forbidden fruit, kind of taboo. They have an immediate intimacy and connection because they share a child.
I had worked with Julianne before [on Blindness], so we had this rapport that we’d already developed. Having some sexy scenes together was made easier by our friendship, and [laughs] she’s friends with my wife, so that helps a lot.
Julianne Moore: I was grateful that we knew each other so well [prior], that made everything less weird.
The whole cast is tremendous, and it’s the strength of the script that attracted them to The Kids Are All Right. I first met Lisa years ago at a Women In Film event. I’d seen High Art, and thought it was brilliant. I actually said to her, “Why didn’t I see that script!?” I think she’s a wonderful writer and director, and we stayed in touch and were looking for things to do. She sent me the script she and Stuart had written, I said yes [to being in it], and then it was a long process of actually bringing the film to fruition. I stuck with it because I believed in Lisa as a filmmaker, and I believed in the beautiful script as a movie.
Josh Hutcherson: I was a fan of [Lisa’s second feature] Laurel Canyon. I thought this script had a very similar feel with the vibe and the pacing. When I was reading it, my heart was pounding when Nic found the hair in the drain. I was thinking, “No, stop, don’t!”
As an actor there was a lot in the story to sink your teeth into, to get emotional and really personal with.
Mia Wasikowska: When I read the script, there was a lot that I could identify with. I formed an image of Joni in my head. Preparing to play the character, I imitated the image that was already in my head; I read the script over and over again and then I wrote about anything that came to mind.
Mark Ruffalo: Lisa and Stuart’s script was so well-written; there was a lot of direction on the page. Lisa understands actors really well, and I had such a good time with her. On this size film, we were shooting 6-7 pages a day. But it was a mellow set; Lisa exudes this confidence in all aspects.
Julianne Moore: Lisa was very well-prepared; after waiting so long to make this, she was really enjoying herself and using every single moment to the best of her abilities.
Annette Bening: The Joni Mitchell/dinner party sequence had been written perfectly, and Lisa knew in advance how to dramatize that [one particular] moment [for Nic]; she knew where she was going to put the camera and when the music was [going to be in] there. It’s like a novelist revealing a story to you.
There’s something about the way she runs a set that is very sane. She’s very chill, and receptive to what’s happening. Good directors understand that they’ve made the biggest decisions already by casting, and can go with what people’s instincts are while making their own decisions about changes during shooting. She will come up and whisper in your ear, “Try this…”
Josh Hutcherson: Lisa is collaborative, but she has a vision and keeps it consistent throughout.
Mia Wasikowska: Lisa’s cool and calm radiated throughout the whole cast and crew. Some sets can be tense but she definitely keeps it light, which is a real achievement.
Julianne Moore: The crew was fantastic, and the whole process was delightful. This was a 21-day shoot, but we had a few days in a room [beforehand] with everybody just to read through.
Annette Bening: We had discussed their relationship and their history in detail, and some of those pieces of their history had ended up in the script and some of them – for me, as an actor, I do need to put a history together in my head, and no one else ever knows; it’s not important that everyone share everything.
Lisa and Stuart were attentive, continuing to work on the script all the way through, which is for me a great thing, because there can be so much that’s being learned while you’re shooting. At that point in the process, small details can make a huge difference in a movie, whether it’s the angle of a shot or the way one chooses to play a scene.
You try to become attuned to the other actors so that what is happening feels natural, which it did immediately [on this movie]. Again, that’s because of Lisa; she knows how to create an atmosphere where people can behave, rather than act. I felt very comfortable shooting the picture.
Julianne Moore: It was very easy for us to feel like a family. Mia and Josh have been working [as professional actors] for years; it was a pleasure to work with young actors who were so experienced and enthusiastic.
Annette Bening: Both Mia and Josh understood that being good with the camera is listening and receiving, and letting the story work; moments that a lot of us remember in movies are when people are reacting – and, when you’re giving your performance you don’t know what’s going to end up in the movie, so all you can do is fully invest your in the moments that you’re in. Yes, it’s not you, you are pretending, it is a scene. Yet, you want – as much as possible – to be surprised. That knife edge is where you are all day long when you’re shooting.
Mia Wasikowska: To be able to be on set with Julianne Moore and Annette Bening, and to watch them and see their process and learn from how they work was an awesome experience.
Josh Hutcherson: It was amazing. When I started acting, I never thought I’d be doing a scene with actors who have seven Academy Award nominations [between them]. Look at their careers and how much they’ve done — and they were everything and more that I could have wanted them to be.
Mark Ruffalo: With not a lot of ego, you enter into an ensemble and so there is a real give-and-take quality. It’s always like a homecoming to walk onto a set with someone like Annette. They take it seriously; it’s about serving the material.
Annette Bening: I was so impressed with Mark’s generosity; he spoke to me on the phone before the first day of shooting, [knowing that] it was when I had to do a scene and talk about him [referencing a sequence that had yet to be filmed]. Mark plays the genuineness of Paul, which makes everything more pungent in the story because he’s sympathetic.
I think that people will see themselves in these characters. The Kids Are All Right has the feel of real life; complications, joys, disappointments, neuroses, intimacies.
Julianne Moore: The Kids Are All Right tells a very universal story in a unique way. It speaks to what it is to be in a family; that is something we all have a real understanding of, no matter what culture we live in, no matter what generation we’re part of.
Mark Ruffalo: I’m really proud of this movie. It’s a beautiful way to show a family – and, it’s funny.