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With ‘The Glorias,’ Julie Taymor makes a road-trip movie about Gloria Steinem

Gloria Steinem, left, and Julie Taymor on the set of "The Glorias."
Gloria Steinem, left, and Julie Taymor on the set of "The Glorias."Dan McFadden/LD Entertainment and Roadside Attractions

Before Julie Taymor made her mark as a stage and screen director with works like the Broadway version of “The Lion King” (1997) and the Oscar-winning “Frida” (2002), the Newton native had a front-row seat in the political world next to her mother, Betty. A long-time activist and politician in the Democratic Party, Betty Taymor was her daughter’s introduction to what a woman leader looks like –– not just running for office, but also how she opened doors for other women to get into public office, starting programs at Boston College and the University of Massachusetts.

Before Taymor, 67, adapted Gloria Steinem’s memoir “My Life on the Road” into the film “The Glorias,” the famous activist knew Taymor’s mother and her work. Now Taymor has dramatized the story of Steinem’s life as a road movie with stops along the way for important life events, groundbreaking historical moments, and touching personal anecdotes and dedicated “The Glorias” to her mother. Taymor said the 99-year-old has already seen the movie five times, “It’s her favorite of all my movies.”

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“Even though I went into the arts, there is a connection,” said Taymor. “I have it in my blood. This is my way to be able to tell the story of these women.”

To achieve the effect of telling Steinem’s story, Taymor turned to four actresses –– Julianne Moore, Alicia Vikander, Lulu Wilson, and Ryan Kiera Armstrong –– to play the activist at different stages of her life. Along the way, she will work alongside fellow trailblazing women like Dorothy Pitman Hughes (Janelle Monáe), Flo Kennedy (Lorraine Toussaint), Bella Abzug (Bette Midler), Wilma Mankiller (Kimberly Guerrero) and Dolores Huerta (Monica Sanchez).

Taymor shared more about her process of bringing Steinem’s storied career to the big screen in a recent telephone interview ahead of the film’s Sept. 30 release.

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From left: Ryan Kiera Armstrong, Lulu Wilson, Alicia Vikander, Julianne Moore, Gloria Steinem, and director Julie Taymor
From left: Ryan Kiera Armstrong, Lulu Wilson, Alicia Vikander, Julianne Moore, Gloria Steinem, and director Julie TaymorDan McFadden/LD Entertainment and Roadside Attractions

Q. How did you first get involved with the project?

A. Well, the book was given to me by one of my great friends to read on the beach. I knew Gloria ahead of time, but I didn’t know her well. The book is a road book, you know, it has no dramatic structure. It’s honestly cinematic, but I didn’t think about it as a movie. It wouldn’t have been something I would’ve necessarily been interested in, but I was so taken with her childhood, with the story. I felt it even played a little bit like “Paper Moon” [1973] with the father. I was moved by the relationships with all of the women that she went out on the road with, and I wanted to find a way to make a movie.

So, I called her and asked if I could adapt the book. She said, “How the hell can you adapt it? Well, whatever you want to do, go ahead.” It’s 80 years of a person’s life from the late ’30s, right up to the present. I knew I would need a number of actresses, and the first one I chose even before we had a script was Julianne Moore. She loved Gloria, and she is an activist.

Q. How did you decide which parts of Steinem’s memoir to keep in or leave out?

A. You know how many road films there are of women? Not that many! As Gloria says, we have to look at the upside and the downside, and that positive energy carries her through to this day. She dedicated her book to the doctor who had to sign off to get her an abortion [in 1957]. I thought that was so bold. That scene definitely had to be in there. [As well as] the scenes with her mother –– taking care of her mother, how her mother didn’t get to fulfill her life as a journalist –– and this really untenable relationship between her mother and father and how as a child she loved her crazy, unsuccessful father. But it was her father who taught her travel was the best education. Lo and behold, that’s what Gloria did her entire life: travel.

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Cinematographer Rodrigo Prieto and director Julie Taymor on the set of "The Glorias."
Cinematographer Rodrigo Prieto and director Julie Taymor on the set of "The Glorias."Kerry Monteen/LD Entertainment and Roadside Attractions

Q. “The Glorias” isn’t a straightforward biopic. How did you come up with some of the fantasy sequences?

A. I’d rather watch a documentary if I was supposed to do that. I’d want the real thing. What I tried to do is multiple levels of reality. So you have the dramatic actors, Bette Midler, Julianne, and Alicia acting in these very dramatic scenes, but [also the] freedom where the paintings come alive. How do you get to the inner reality? How do you get to their dreams, their wishes, their unspoken thoughts? In the scene with the TV interviewer who asked her what she feels about being considered a sex object, the exterior Gloria doesn’t say anything. I allow two or three seconds of a thought of this outrageous scene, where all the Glorias comment, what do you think of this uniform? Is this a sex object? I very greatly go with the “Wizard of Oz,” the three witches of “Macbeth,” and the whole history of women thought of as witches. It’s in her imagination. What the journalist sees is a woman who doesn’t answer him.

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I remember looking at a passage from the book where she talks about how around age 50, she felt that she was on a treadmill that she couldn’t get off. And I thought, wow, what a great image. So using those concepts, I put her right at that point in her life on literally a highway that were treadmills with her world of activism going by quickly and her really feeling as if she’s going in all these directions and maybe not getting anywhere.

Alicia Vikander, Monica Sanchez, and Janelle Monáe in "The Glorias."
Alicia Vikander, Monica Sanchez, and Janelle Monáe in "The Glorias."Dan McFadden/LD Entertainment and Roadside Attractions

Q. How closely did you consult with Steinem?

A. During the script writing, definitely. I wanted to know things –– like the barbershop scene isn’t in any book. She told me the story. She was telling me stories. She’d come over to my apartment, I to hers, or we’d go out to dinner. She gave me as much as I asked for. And then when Alicia and Julianne signed on, she came to the apartment and we all got to talk to her, and they had free access to her. She was extremely generous. We had her, unlike Frida [Kahlo], you know, where I’m pulling off of things that were written about her and my own imagination from her paintings.

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Interview was edited and condensed. Monica Castillo can be reached at mcastimovies@gmail.com.