One thing eagle-eared Todd Haynes fans might have noticed in the trailer for his new film “May December“? Julianne Moore‘s lisp.

The actress, who previously starred in Haynes’ films like “Safe” and “Far from Heaven,” plays Gracie Atherton-Yoo, a predatory woman married to a man (Joe, played by Charles Melton) with whom she started a relationship when he was a young teenager years ago. Now, in the present day, Natalie Portman plays an actress, Elizabeth Berry, studying Gracie to play her in an upcoming movie. That includes mimicking Gracie’s mannerisms, including a slight speech impediment.

As Haynes explained at a Friday morning press conference ahead of the campy melodrama‘s opening night premiere at the New York Film Festival on Friday, Moore’s character is based on Mary Kay Letourneau. She’s the since-deceased teacher who went viral in the mid-1990s for having an affair with a 12-year-old boy, whom she ended up marrying after her release from prison. It was Letourneau’s own “lazy tongue” (as Haynes has previously said) that inspired Moore’s lispy turn.

“I did not create the lisp. There are some people who are missing who could speak so beautifully about how they built these characters,” Haynes said, referencing how the onscreen talent is unable to attend NYFF due to the ongoing SAG-AFTRA strike. “We shot this movie in 23 days in Savannah on very limited resources, and that meant there was no rehearsal time. … It meant that the burden was on Julianne to completely come up with the specificity of Gracie, [which] was enormous. … Down to the cadence and her manner of speech, there were things in the loose upper palate that we did find interesting in Mary Kay Letourneau’s speech that was a kickoff for [Julianne Moore], and she took it further.”

Throughout the film, there are also numerous visual references to Letourneau, as Portman’s character often reads old magazines and tabloids that followed Gracie and Joe’s case at the time it was first revealed, and Moore is often styled to look just like Letourneau in pictures.

Haynes added that there’s “also this idea of, how does this relationship occur? What is the myth these people tell each other about the roles they play? She’s not a pedophile, this woman. She doesn’t have a history of going after every teenage boy that walks by.”

The release of the film will probably inspire newfound interest in the Letourneau case. She pleaded guilty in 1997 to two counts of felony second-degree rape of a child. Letourneau and the student she had the affair with, Vili Fualaau, separated legally in 2019. She died of cancer in July 2020.

“There’s something very specific that happened to these two people, but it’s enshrouded in a fantasy, which is that she’s the princess that needs to be rescued from the domestic tower, and he’s the young virile knight, almost like a Greco-Roman young knight,” Haynes said. “She plays the little girl, and that inspired aspects of the clothes and the manner of the speech and the color palette, all these things that help us understand how this happened or the delusions that helped produce it.”

“May December” premieres at the New York Film Festival on Friday night. Netflix will open it in theaters on November 17 followed by a streaming premiere on December 1.

Additional reporting by Samantha Bergeson.

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