Todd Haynes on Finding the Tone and Assembling the Cast of ‘May December’

Actors flock to work with Todd Haynes, a filmmaker with an impeccable track record who has made a habit of drawing some of the greatest performances out of actors who already boast impressive credits, but also for discovering newer talent. In films like “Far From Heaven,” “I’m Not There” and “Carol,” he’s guided Julianne Moore, Cate Blanchett and Rooney Mara to Oscar nominations. He was actually the first director to cast Moore in her first leading film role in 1995’s “Safe,” and discovered Millicent Simmonds for “Wonderstruck” before her star turn in “A Quiet Place.”

In his new film “May December,” now in theaters, Haynes once again assembles an impressive ensemble. Natalie Portman plays Elizabeth, an actor who infiltrates the lives of Gracie (Moore) and Joe (Charles Melton) in order to portray the former in an upcoming movie. Though the pair are seemingly happily married they caused a scandal decades earlier when the 30something Gracie began an affair with Joe, then in the seventh grade. (Writer Samy Burch’s script draws inspiration from the real-life Mary Kay Letourneau saga.)

Moore and Portman are stunning to watch as the characters face off. And though Melton spent seven seasons on “Riverdale,” his performance opposite the two Oscar-winners is a true revelation — complex and empathetic as a man raising teenage children who never truly experienced his own teen years.

Can you talk about casting Charles Melton in this pivotal role?
I’ve worked with Laura Rosenthal, my casting director, for many years. And I’ve learned there are certain roles that demand discovery. Although Charles has been out there, I didn’t know his work; I had never seen “Riverdale” when he auditioned for us. There was something about his audition tape that was different from what other actors were doing with the role and I could see he really, really knew this character. In fact, I started to see other aspects of the character based on what Charles had intuited.

I love the idea that “roles demand discovery.You have these veterans mixed in with some relative newcomers.
Gabriel [Chung], who plays the son Charlie, was a kid who created all these amusing, very smart homemade videos and developed a following on Tik Tok. He got an agent, but he had never even auditioned for a role before. Laura also found him and he really, truly had never acted before.

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Was there a chemistry read with Julianne or Natalie for the role of Joe?
We had our final selections for the role of Joe read with Julianne, though only Charles was in the room for it — the others were over Zoom. There were some very fine actors who tested for the part but again, Charles was just so true to who Joe was. He also transformed for the role — he put on 30 pounds so that he really looked and felt like this suburban man who had been raising his family.

Julianne has an interesting speech affection in this film — her voice sounds very young and there’s a bit of a lisp. Was that in the script?

That was not in the script. We needed to find aspects of how Gracie speaks and moves and her cadence and posture that were specific and identifiable. Not just to build her character but for Natalie’s character to start adopting and imitating. We had no rehearsal time on this movie but it was something Julianne and I began discussing early on. 

It seems like it tells you so much about her character.
It helped us understand the kind of condition under which this relationship began and the ways that she saw herself. How she first met Joe and the role he would play in “rescuing” her from a life that was not happy. These all played into this idea of this little girl who needed to be rescued.

When you’re working with a cast that includes everyone from Oscar-winners to people who have never acted before, how do you unite them all on the same page — especially when the tone of your movie is so specific?

I’ve learned that a director needs to be flexible and really listen to each person and what their own methods are. It’s going to be a different process with each [person], even when you’re all sharing the same set and the same schedule. Some want to be as autonomous as possible while others prefer a lot of guidance.

When on set, did you shoot scenes different ways to give you options in editing?
Honestly, we didn’t have time to do it many different ways. It was just not built into the strategy — we were basically flying without a net.

The movie tackles some serious topics but it’s also very, very funny. Does it take people a while to realize it’s OK to laugh at some of the darkly comic moments?
I think there are some stylistic components of the film — like the music — help to alert you that there’s a space between the viewer and the material on screen that is almost demanding interpretation and scrutiny and reading. And I hoped it would be an invitation  — whether you literally laugh out loud or not — to be in a state of suspense of what this film is about and how you feel about the characters. And I love that about the script.

We played that music while we were shooting the film. So actors and crew — everybody — was living this thing together in real time. I’d never really done that with an existing score. A lot of the score [by Marcelo Zarvos] comes from an existing score by Michel Legrand from a 1971 film called “The Go-Between.”

How much of that tone is perfected in editing?

Editing is so essential, it’s like the final version of writing what you’ve collected. And in this film, there’s relatively little cutting — the shots are held for a long time. So when we do cut, it places great emphasis on the moment. For this film, I really wanted to hold back and let the cuts be almost be percussion or a sense of punctuation to the moment.

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