Interview: Demi Moore, actress

She was a wild child who became Hollywood's highest paid actress then gave it all up to raise her family. Now Demi Moore is returning to the big screen and talks to Jennifer Steinhauer about fame and failure at 47

THE biceps are smaller. The tabloid tales of excessive salary demands, followed by those of rural seclusion, have been replaced with a running commentary about her tweets, many of them concerning her activism against human trafficking. Her signature raspy voice and striking green eyes are unchanged, her only concessions to age a single strand of grey and a pair of reading glasses tucked discreetly on a coffee table next to her designer sunglasses.

Time and circumstances have transformed Demi Moore, 47, from a box-office superstar consumed with one-arm push-ups into this small-film actress, sitting in the lotus position.

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Her breakout performance was in the 1985 film St Elmo's Fire. Then came the date movies (About Last Night), the steamy provocations (Indecent Proposal, Disclosure) and the blockbusters (Ghost, A Few Good Men), which begot the overexposed flops (Striptease) and, in the final body blow to the once-highest-paid actress in Hollywood, G.I. Jane, released in 1997.

Now Moore – aka Mrs Ashton Kutcher, her biggest role of the past few years – is back on the scene, quietly and no less eclectically, adding a period heist movie (Flawless), an ensemble piece (Bobby), a family angst picture (Happy Tears) and now The Joneses, an indie satire that opened on Friday. In it she plays the matriarch of a fake family, sent to suburbia to hawk face creams and golf clubs and other totems of conspicuous consumption. Her successes and limitations limn that curious piece of geography in Hollywood where the over-40 actress can encounter bounty (Sandra Bullock) or a spectacularly barren landscape (Michelle Pfeiffer).

She's also been cast as Miley Cyrus's mother in the forthcoming LOL, and cites as her proudest achievement her ability to endure fame and come out on the other side the mum and wife in psychic bliss.

"The thing I am most proud of is the relationship I have with my children, with my husband, with my ex-husband, with his wife, with my friends," Moore says during an hour-long chat at a brasserie in West Hollywood. "And within that, with myself, I am most proud of my willingness – well, not my willingness, but the grace in which I have dealt with and continue to deal with my obstacles and challenges, and my continued desire and ability to embrace my failings and to appreciate that which is imperfect."

Moore has been, at various times, less performer than cultural Rorschach test. Did you love her when she bared her naked pregnancy on the cover of Vanity Fair, demanding real Hollywood money and snagging a hot, successful husband 15 years her junior? Or were you more impressed with her for ditching the scene for nearly a decade in favour of car-pooling and grocery shopping in Hailey, Idaho, and for having a highly civilised divorce?

Or have you never forgiven her for her entourage during the early 1990s, hate her for stripping it down, taking it off all together and remaining uncommonly gorgeous in a city where many women sport a face that seems to stay the same for decades, thanks to modern science?

Either way, you know her and her quintessential Hollywood narrative. Born in Roswell, New Mexico, Moore escaped a chaotic and tragic childhood that included her father's abandonment and the suicide of her alcoholic adopted father, who dragged the family from city to city before settling in Los Angeles in 1976, where she attended Fairfax High School.

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After quitting school to act, she landed her first big role on the soap opera General Hospital, and her film career was sparked by what could be described as Brat Pack serendipity. Joel Schumacher, the director and co-writer of St Elmo's Fire, a tale of 20-something angst, worked in an office across the hall from John Hughes – the creator of 1980s teenage touchstones like Pretty In Pink and Ferris Bueller's Day Off – who died last year. Moore had gone to audition for Hughes, Schumacher says, and had got tired of waiting.

He had been trying to cast the role of Jules, the vexed drama queen who botches her own suicide attempt, and had been frustrated in his efforts. Schumacher peered down the hall of his floor one day and spotted the young actress leaving.

"Literally as I walked out my door, I saw this flash of hair," Schumacher says in a telephone interview. "Run after her!" he said to his co-writer, Carl Kurlander. "After five minutes he came back panting and said her name is Demi Moore, and she's on General Hospital. So she came in. She rode a motorcycle those days without a helmet. She was, I think it would be appropriate to call her, a very wild child.

"She took that role, and she made it her own. And it was at that point that she really started disciplining herself to not be the wild child."

As Moore's career exploded, she became known throughout Hollywood as one of its most disciplined, if demanding, performers. Her zeal for trappings like the private jet and the bevy of weird outfits, and for demanding box-office gender parity, brought her the moniker Gimme Moore and unflattering press coverage even as she churned out hits.

"There was a real misperception," Moore says. "Part of it was the times we were living in. They were very excessive times." In trying to make the money she thought she deserved and to keep her family around her, she says, "you have to be willing to take the brunt of some judgment and criticism if you are seeking to create an opportunity of change that will not just affect you".

She takes a sip from her Starbucks cup, which no one in the restaurant seems to mind. She's a regular. "At the same time, I have to step back – and not in a way that is in any way a victim – and say: 'OK, what was it that I was doing? What was it that I was putting out that also created that?' And take responsibility."

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Her day of reckoning was nigh. In 1998, following the box-office flop of G.I. Jane, Moore made her shift from box-office star to small-town mum. Her mother died, her marriage with Bruce Willis hit the skids. She sat on the set of Passion Of Mind in Paris and felt things coming apart.

"While I was there, I realised that my children weren't getting the best of me, the film wasn't getting the best of me, and I didn't even know where I was in the mix," she says. "As a product of divorced parents I realised I needed to just be in one place and allow my children to regain their equilibrium, to ground and find another centre, and I didn't feel that was something that I could do while being off on location and running around."

It was not that she retired, as was widely reported, she says; she was just resting. Her three children became "my entire focus," she says, "and without a time frame that I could say, 'All right, in a year or two years.' It was all just an instinct of knowing that it would be revealed." So there were several years of volunteering in classrooms, and going on field trips.

And then, she says, her kids had had enough. Enter Kutcher, whom she met at a dinner party in New York in 2003. "My kids really got to a point after living in a small town," she says, "when they really felt they needed something bigger, something with more diversity. They really pushed me to come back here. Then I met my husband and had my own motivations."

Back in Los Angeles, where she and Kutcher married in a 2005 kabbalah ceremony – she has practised that movement of Judaism for eight years – she seems to spend as much time on Twitter dispensing paediatric recommendations to strangers ("dr jay Gordon was my Pediatrician for all 3 of my girls and he was truly one of the best Hope he can help") and lobbying senators on behalf of her foundation to end sex slavery as she does reading scripts.

Moore's re-emergence in Hollywood came in 2003, as the spectacularly in-shape villain of Charlie's Angels: Full Throttle. But the big-budget mainstream entertainments are mostly gone.

Moore – who wears tiny-checked trousers, jazz shoes and a black sweater to our interview – is looking for roles that are "creatively satisfying," she says. "There are limited opportunities just because not as many films are being made, and so you combine that with the fact that women have always spoken out about the struggle for good quality roles, and then you add into it that we are a very youth-driven society, and that brings other challenges. And I feel in a certain way I didn't really fit in a box they could navigate."

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Moore's situation is both odd and typical, Schumacher says. "Middle-aged women can have huge careers on television but not as much in movies. It's like they celebrate you when you're the pretty young thing, then there is a dead zone until menopause, when they rediscover you and give you an Academy Award."

Her latest film, The Joneses, co-starring David Duchovny, explores the notion of hyperconsumption, which Moore says fascinates her. "I love the message that ultimately while stuff is great and there's nothing wrong with wanting a nice bag or a nice car or a nice house or nice clothes it ultimately is not the answer to our happiness or fulfilment, that it's our human connection with one another, that without that none of the other stuff matters anyway."

Derrick Borte, the writer and director of The Joneses, says: "She has this hard shell, a professional, driven exterior that she shows so well on camera, but she shows cracks in such a brilliant way."

For now, it seems, Moore is comfortable with her cracks – both real and fictionalised – for the big screen. She has a husband who she is "absolutely" confident will be at her side when she is 70. She is dedicated to her foundation. Movies are now the icing, not the cake.

2010 New York Times

The Joneses is on general release now

• This article was first published in Scotland On Sunday, April 25, 2010