‘May December’: Julianne Moore, Natalie Portman and Charles Melton Talk The Movie Inspired By a ’90s Tabloid Scandal

May December

Julianne Moore as Gracie Atherton-Yoo and Charles Melton as Joe Yoo in 'May December,’ a dramatization of the real-life Mary Kay Letourneau scandal. Photo: Courtesy of Netflix

At 62, Julianne Moore still doesn’t set goals for herself as an actor. 

“I don’t, you know. Sometimes I say to myself, ‘You should set some goals,’” she laughs modestly during a recent interview in Los Angeles, when I ask about her reasons for choosing projects like her most recent turn in director Todd Haynes’ May December. 

Moore says that despite her disinclination to come up with concrete action plans, interesting projects like May December (which premieres on Netflix on Dec. 1) always seem to drop into her lap – “completely out of the blue.”

In the movie, she plays Gracie Atherton-Yoo, a 36-year-old pet shop worker who seduces 13-year-old Joe Yoo (Charles Melton), her son’s friend, on her way to becoming a tabloid sensation.

She becomes pregnant with Joe’s child, is sent to prison and then resumes her relationship with Joe after being released. Now, at 59, she is married to Joe and has three kids – one in college and a set of twins about to graduate high school.

May December (a term that describes a romantic relationship where there is a significant age difference) takes some inspiration from the real-life ’90s tabloid scandal around Mary Kay Letourneau, a second-grade teacher in her 30s from suburban Seattle, Wash., who sexually abused a former student when he was 12, became pregnant with his child and then married him after serving a prison sentence.

The drama heightens when television actress Elizabeth Berry (Natalie Portman) who is preparing to play Gracie in an upcoming movie, comes to town and wants to shadow Gracie to learn her mannerisms and understand her psyche.

Portman, who also serves as producer on the film, gives a brilliantly hypnotic, layered performance. The 42-year-old has always been interested in pushing her character – and the audience – to uncomfortable places, and wants viewers to squirm and ask questions, especially as this film gets deeply uncomfortable at times (though is often upended with dark humour to keep the entertainment going).


May December
Natalie Portman is not only a producer of May December but also plays TV star Elizabeth Berry. Photo: François Duhamel/Courtesy of Netflix


Alongside Moore in Los Angeles, the Oscar-winning actress (Black Swan) tells me of her desire to explore stories that provoke.

“I think that it’s about the desire to engage people’s minds and emotions in what has to involve them. It’s like, we make a movie, but that’s half the conversation,” she says. “The other half of the conversation is who’s engaging with. The best way to do that is to provoke someone to feel something. This is exactly that kind of movie where nothing is what it seems and everything will make you want to talk about it after.”

When playing Gracie, Moore – who also won an Oscar for her role in Still Alice – brings all the complexity and controlling nature of a neurotic woman. But she refused to cast Gracie as either a hero or villain. “When you work on a character, you don’t come from a place of sympathy. You always want to come from a place of empathy, because you are trying to put yourself in that person’s position.”


May December
Portman (left) says she marvelled at how Moore (right) was able “to capture the very nuanced character while doing very complex things.” Photo: Francois Duhamel/Courtesy of Netflix


Director Todd Haynes, meanwhile, says he understands that the film’s subject matter is complicated on many levels. 

“In our society, we always expect men to be the ones to sexually transgress, and we almost build it into our lowered expectations about how men might behave and how men might put their family in peril as a result of their stuff,” the 62-year-old explains. “When a woman does it, it’s a different situation.”  

He continues, “There’s a bigger condemnation that’s laid down on them and she was arrested and she served her time. She then paid her debt back to society and she married that man and raised a family with him. Not to say that she didn’t transgress and abuse her power when he was at that age, but they’d done everything right ever since. It doesn’t mean that relationship is healthy for both people, but I still think the woman gets more of a burden of condemnation as a result.”

One of the standout performances in the film comes from breakout star Charles Melton, 32, whose sincerity shines through playing Joe, as he struggles between lost innocence and forced adulthood. To share the screen with Moore and Portman and still turn in a notable performance is no small feat. He has already been recognized for the film with a Gotham Award for Outstanding Supporting Performance, and is being honoured with a Breakthrough Performance Award by the Critics Choice Association – possible harbingers of future stardom.


May December
Portman, Moore and Charles Melton at Netflix’s May December Los Angeles premiere Nov., 2023. Photo: Natasha Campos/Getty Images for Netflix


“I think each and every day Joe was evolving, I was evolving with him and understanding who he was,” Melton explains. I was learning little anecdotes from my own personal life and just with our days of filming, I discovered new things about him. The rooftop scene we were on the roof when Joe was smoking pot with his son for the first time. We did 14 takes. I learned that that’s my job, to tell Joe’s story, not mine … he’s acknowledging something for the first time, there’s this restraint.”  

Moore and Portman take up most of the screen space as they appear as two sides of the same coin. And during our interview, the actresses shared their obvious admiration for each others’ efforts in the film.


May December
Moore (left) praised Portman (right) for her “sense of calm on the set.” Photo: Francois Duhamel/Courtesy of Netflix


“How she was able to capture the very nuanced character while doing very complex things,” Portman says. “Like, she baked a very complicated upside-down cake in real time doing all of the actual steps in a real kitchen while doing this really hard scene. I was just, like, jaw on the floor from from how she was able to juggle all of these different tasks at once.”  

Moore is quick to reciprocate: “Her receptivity, her equanimity, her sense of calm on a set and and her encouragement to me, all of that was just a wonderful gift.”