An actress with chameleon-like versatility

Consider the case of Sharon Stone, who comes to the Cannes Film Festival and causes near-pandemonium every time her fans discover she's left her hotel suite for a stroll.

Now consider the case of Julianne Moore, who's one of today's most gifted actresses, but not the sort of superstar who makes paparazzi pop. While she's certainly recognized here, she can arrive for a midday interview to talk about "An Ideal Husband," her sparkling new comedy, free of the tensions that front-page celebrities can't escape.

Moore is pleased to be on the "character actress" rather than the "superstar" list. Not that glitz and glamour are bad to have in the image-conscious movie world. "You need a certain level [of fame] for people to be interested enough to come to your movie," she observes. "And there are some actors - John Wayne was one of them - who are really iconic, and we go to see them for that reason."

But too much fame can interfere with the chameleon-like versatility that a character actress needs to cultivate. "It's not good if you're so well known that [audiences] can't see beyond your persona," she notes. "I don't want my personality to define my roles."

Moore has avoided this pitfall by playing a variety of parts in movies of every size and sensibility. She earned an Oscar nomination in "Boogie Nights," blitzed the box office in "The Lost World," dazzled art-film buffs in "Safe," and lent a touch of class to the "Psycho" remake.

Moore enjoys the challenges involved in swinging between such diverse projects, even when the movies are as different as two she recently did: "An Ideal Husband," with its clipped British diction and crisp Victorian irony, and "Cookie's Fortune," with its gentle Southern drawls and Gothic story.

"My choices [of roles] are often defined by what I've just done," Moore muses. "After a movie like 'Cookie's Fortune,' I didn't want to play another person who's in arrested development. So I did 'An Ideal Husband,' and now the last thing in the world I'd want to do is more of Oscar Wilde."

Moore studied acting at Boston University, then developed her craft in New York plays, nightclub appearances, and a TV soap opera. Although practical experience has enormous value, she says she strongly believes in informal education, which "broadens your perspectives."

It also brings doses of reality to a potentially self-indulgent art, as she discovered while studying the emotion-based techniques of "Method" acting. "I remember doing a monologue from a William Inge play," she recalls. "I sobbed and sobbed through the whole thing. Then my teacher said, 'Now do it again so I can understand you!' "

Thanks to her training, her personality, or both, Moore has a clear sense of proportion about her work. "People don't go to movies to see me," she says with conviction, "they go to movies to see themselves. The actor is a conduit between the audience and the writing. The audience needs to identify with you. They project themselves into you, they become you ... as you are in that story."

She even acknowledges a letdown when she sees herself on screen. "Ralph Fiennes and I were talking about the incredible disappointment you have every time you see the rushes," she says, referring to her costar in "The End of the Affair," not yet released.

"You're feeling all good [about the performance] and you think you've really nailed it. In your head, you think you've almost become somebody else. Then you see yourself, and you look just the same. It's just me - my nose, my hair, my height. It's so disappointing to see you're just the same person."

Disappointing to Moore, perhaps, but not to her admirers.

"An Ideal Husband" is in theaters now, and she'll soon be seen in "The Map of the World," with Sigourney Weaver and Gabriel Byrne, and "Magnolia," directed by Paul Thomas Anderson of "Boogie Nights" fame.

Not bad for an articulate "character actress" who cares more about excellence than celebrity.

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