Why Todd Haynes Made a Version of Mary Kay Letourneau’s Story With Natalie Portman and Julianne Moore

Photo Illustration by Thomas Levinson/The Daily Beast/Getty/May December Productions
Photo Illustration by Thomas Levinson/The Daily Beast/Getty/May December Productions

After making the beloved Carol, the queer period romance starring Rooney Mara and Cate Blanchett, the filmmaker Todd Haynes swerved. He tried his hand at a children’s film in Wonderstruck and a legal drama in Dark Waters. Then he made a documentary, The Velvet Underground.

But with May December, which premiered this week at the Cannes Film Festival, Haynes is back once again directing two actresses operating at their peak powers. This time it’s Natalie Portman and Julianne Moore, in a movie that riffs on the Mary Kay Letourneau case in alternately disturbing and funny ways.

May December, written by Samy Burch, casts Portman as Elizabeth Berry, an actress set to play the part of Gracie Atherton-Yoo, Moore’s Letourneau figure, in a movie based on her story. Gracie is now married to Joe (Charles Melton), who she began a sexual relationship with when he was in the seventh grade, and they exist in seemingly pleasant suburbia with their twins. Their other child, who Gracie gave birth to in jail, is away at college. When Elizabeth enters Gracie’s life, the actress thinks she’s on a mission to get to the truth of the saga, but she’s also feeding her own Juilliard-trained ego and causing havoc in her wake.

When I met up with Haynes two days after the premiere on a rooftop overlooking the French Riviera, he was still basking in the reception the film received here. (A day later it was announced that Netflix bought the film for $11 million.) He was also happy to dive into how he approached the ripped-from-the-headlines aspect of the project, casting Riverdale hunk Charles Melton, and how he found the right tone for this “uncomfortable” tale.

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What was your path to this project?

It was really the good fortune and great luck of having Natalie think of me right away when she read it. We were doing an interview yesterday and she just said, “Oh yeah, I read it and a week later or two weeks later, I sent it to you.” I didn’t know it was all that rapid. Immediately, I read it and I was like, “Wow, this is so interesting. It makes me so uncomfortable. But I’m so enjoying the discomfort, and I'm so enjoying navigating and feeling destabilized as I read and having to rethink this character against that character as things unfold.” I thought that could be so fascinating as a movie.

It definitely is.

And then we just started to talk, and all of those same things about it were apparently the things she dug about it. She also was so almost mischievously interested in playing around or fucking around with people’s expectations about her as an actor, thinking, “Oh, this is really the real Natalie Portman in the movie.” And she’s going to mess you up with those expectations, and really go for it, right? Because you think she’s likable and cool, and she's the one you can count on and rely on as a narrator initially. And then it’s like, “No way.” She starts to really freak you out. And so, that was so ballsy and cool, and I just thought, “Gee, who does this remind me of? What actor?” And then, the other character was this woman who was Julianne Moore’s age.

You’ve worked with Julianne before, but it must have been exciting to work with her in a movie like this.

Completely. And that they’d never worked together before. But that really, talking to Natalie, reminded me of Julianne: Their humor, their unbelievable genius, but their instinct to really defy conventional ways of reading characters and reading stories, and push back against the kind of comfort that we often expect in characters.

<div class="inline-image__credit">May December Productions</div>
May December Productions

I wanted to ask about that discomfort because the movie takes inspiration from tabloid stories, like Mary Kay Letourneau, but also adds all these layers on top of it. How did you want to tackle the ripped-from-the-headlines aspect of it, within the context of these games you’re playing with these actresses and the perceptions of them?

It was, again, so well-conceived on the page, because it was all in the past. So it was a process of excavation, and it was a discovery process driven by the actor [played by Portman] who had her ambitions to tell the truth and uncover the truth. You think, “Oh wow, OK. Right. Great. We're going to get to the truth here.” Through those webs of history, and also a history in lockdown.

By necessity, the choices that were made by Gracie and Joe so many years ago, they were living kind of in bunker mode to defend themselves and to hold off criticism and assault from the culture, and boxes of shit being dropped on their porch. So it’s a much more crazily extreme version of the way we all are resistant to looking at ourselves and questioning our choices in our lives. It felt both extreme and exotic, and also incredibly familiar and human.

Were you even thinking at all about Mary Kay or any of those stories, or were you pushing that to the side and mostly focusing on the script?

I really started by pushing that to the side and just being like, OK, let’s bear down on the specific choices and the distinctions that Samy Burch’s script makes from the Mary Kay Letourneau story. But there was no way ultimately to not. In some ways, there were places where I was like, “Oh, I’ll think about that later,” how this relationship really started, and what Joe looked like, and who Joe was.

[Charles] wasn’t how I pictured Joe when I read it the first time, but the way he first read the character for me was so locked up and so held in and restrained. He couldn't really speak or move. It was so thoroughly believable. He helped me be able to imagine the past, and even imagine how that sexual relationship might have started and that took those steps to help me fill in myself in the choices that you make.

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I thought the casting of Charles was so interesting too because people know him as this CW heartthrob, and in that you can see the man that Joe might have become if all of this hadn’t happened. How did you work on the look of Joe with Charles?

I mean, again, it started in his own instincts so thoroughly. And Laura Rosenthal, the casting director, and I were just like, “What?” We kept going back to his auditions and watching them again, and then introduced him to Julianne, and Julianne was like, “This guy's amazing.” He interpreted this character this way, and he drew from, I think, things in his own knowledge and experience and family life, but he also created a physicality that was utterly unique to Joe. He was sort of like a child and an old man combined, the way he moves. And he's just like somebody who has been in a cage, basically.

I saw some picture of Charles on the beach on Google or whatever, and he had a little more weight on him in the shot. And I was like, “Ah, awesome. That’s great. Let’s go in this direction." And I said, “Charles, would you consider putting on some weight for Joe?” And he was like, “Yeah.” So, he put on 35 pounds for the character. He had little love handles, and he just filled out, and he just looked more like a suburban body. Those physical things really help an actor.

Can you talk about the tone you wanted to create? There are some lines that are so funny, but you mash it up with the disturbing reality of what these people have lived.

It really emerged very in tandem because I wanted to find a visual language for that observant, slightly removed observational tone that the script conveyed. And so, I knew I wanted to just be a little bit outside of it and have the audience watch it. But I wanted that somehow to be fun, to be a little bit pushed out, but be excited by the reading against the grain of the story as you watch it unfold.

<div class="inline-image__credit">May December Productions</div>
May December Productions

Did you think about the language of trashier pop culture as well? There’s a shot of Natalie watching the shitty TV movie version of Gracie's story. You also see the tabloids she has clipped.

It wasn’t our actual visual style of the film, which is actually pretty austere and not lurid, and not trashy. It’s actually quite cool and elegant, and it owes more to Bergman and Godard than it does to tabloid television in almost every regard. And I thought, “OK, if the movie ends up being a little bit brainy and chilly, but I have all these amazing actors in this crazy content to deal with, fine.” What was remarkable when we started to show cuts of the movie is no one even mentioned how long we’re holding on a shot. You need impeccable performances, as Bergman did, in that austerity, to keep you absolutely on the edge of your seat. And I had that with these actors.

How did you and Julianne land on some of your character choices for Gracie, including her little lisp?

Mary Kay Letourneau has this fascinating sort of lazy tongue. That’s the source of the lisp. So, there were things that were really helpful about the specificity of Mary Kay Letourneau, who was quite a different character than Gracie.

How did you think about the meta aspects of the story? It’s about an artist trying to make art based on a true story, while also being art based on a true story.

I mean, it got played out in a literal sense, where it’s not just the mirroring and the doubling of the women and in curious ways. So there’s that, but then there’s also all of these crazy additions of Joes through the movie. There’s Charles now. There’s Charles as a teenager in the tabloid images. There’s the boy in the TV movie. There’s the boy who ultimately gets cast in the Natalie version of the movie. There’s Charlie, the son, who’s a version of Joe. But we had to cast all those roles, navigating these really uncomfortable places that were just part of the perversity of this film about the act of representation.

What do you hope for the release of the film and the conversation that might unfold, once it reaches a wider audience?

What’s really been great is that so far, here at Cannes, is that the conversation is really about the film as a film, and the actors within a film, playing actors and the layers of all of that. The moral questions are couched within the film. They’re also part of the past, and you have to hold them up against the fact that this relationship has endured for 20 years, and they’ve committed to a marriage, and they produced these three really special kids, and you actually have hope for the future of the kids.

The thing that’s the most satisfying to me, and sort of surprising, is that people are enjoying it. It’s funny. It’s invigorating. It’s a two-hour movie that really kind of whips by you. And you’re just kind of in a state of uncertainty throughout it. But it’s enjoyable.

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