If Oscars were handed out for exertion, Julianne Moore would have just picked one up–not for her exquisitely controlled performance in Still Alice but for the far wilder Maps to the Stars. Moore won the Best Actress Oscar and wide acclaim for her tasteful role as an Alzheimer’s sufferer, but she shows off a taste for mania in director David Cronenberg’s new film, which, after an awards-qualifying run last year, opens nationally Feb. 27. The star plays a perpetually panicked actor whose bad behavior includes celebrating a competitor’s tragic misfortune with a dance to “Na Na Hey Hey Kiss Him Goodbye.” It’s the latest iteration of an established pattern: Cronenberg showing us a familiar performer’s dark side.
The Canadian director, 71, has spent an entire career working outside the Hollywood system (Maps to the Stars is the first film he has shot partly within the U.S.) and has elicited defining performances from several stars by moving them past the recognizable. “Once you’re on set with the actor,” Cronenberg says, “it’s as if you’ve never seen this person before.”
Moore, whose work in Maps won her the Best Actress prize at the Cannes Film Festival last year, is untethered from her past personas and from reality. Her character, Havana Segrand, is a second-generation actor desperate to land the leading role in a remake of her late mother’s signature film, all while being haunted by her mother’s ghost (played by Sarah Gadon). Havana’s frantic mental state reflects the precariousness of her fame. “After the age of 40, they’re gone,” Cronenberg says of actresses in mainstream cinema. “The phone stops ringing. And for them, it’s kind of a pre-death.” (Moore is an exception: her win at the Oscars made her one of just two women in their 50s ever to be named Best Actress.)
Cronenberg, who began his career in horror, with creature features like Shivers and The Fly, is the go-to director for stars who want to push themselves almost too far. He turned Viggo Mortensen into a terse Russian gangster, a role that earned him an Oscar nomination, in Eastern Promises (2007) and took Keira Knightley to the brink of madness onscreen in A Dangerous Method (2011). But for all the accolades he’s brought his actors, Cronenberg has stayed out of the limelight. The director, who turned down opportunities to direct Flashdance and Top Gun, has lived in Toronto his entire life. In Canada, he says, “you’re not in the flood. You’re in a creek coming off the flood.”
Saturday Night Live producer Lorne Michaels and Ghostbusters director Ivan Reitman were among Cronenberg’s friends in the 1970s Toronto scene, and both eventually found massive success by heading south. But staying outside Hollywood has allowed Cronenberg something perhaps more precious–the ability to indulge his taste for extremity and to amass a cult of fans while doing so. Those fans include Josh Trank, the director of the forthcoming adaptation of Fantastic Four, who has said his film will be influenced by Cronenberg’s themes. Cronenberg is unimpressed. Comic-book films, he says, are “very limited as to what they can say as creative endeavors.”
With Maps to the Stars, Cronenberg has proved his mastery at shifting between horror, social commentary and a laugh or two. The Oscars may not have honored Maps, but Moore’s hairpin turns between emotions will endure. “I like it,” the director says, “when all the tones you’ve put out there are heard, and heard the way they should be.”
This appears in the March 09, 2015 issue of TIME.