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Julianne Moore at the "Freeheld" Press Conference on September 12, 2015 in Toronto.Vera Anderson

Julianne Moore is showing me pictures of her kids. It's the middle of September's Toronto International Film Festival. She's wearing a chic black print dress, her hair is a red satin sheet, and she's grinning at her phone.

In the first photo, her two children – son, Cal, 17, and daughter, Liv, 13 – sit on the stoop of their Greenwich Village brownstone.

"They're enormous," Moore trills, crowding close to look with me.

"And wait, I'm going to show you how tall they are standing up, because when they stand up, it's even worse." Her peals of laughter echo down the hotel hallway.

Moore, 54, has a lot: a 19-year relationship to director Bart Freundlich. An Oscar, for last year's Alzheimer's drama Still Alice. An Emmy, for playing Sarah Palin in the telefilm Game Change, plus assorted other awards. Her pick of scripts. So what is she still looking for?

Based on conversations we've had over the years, her answer seems to be "a way in." A detail that gives her insight into a character. A story that unlocks some corner of the human condition. Digging around in the muck of life makes her happy; she's a legend among actors for her ability to be chatting about a restaurant one minute before "Action!" and deep into the truth of a scene a minute after. Based on the dramas for which she's best known – Far From Heaven, The Hours, Maps to the Stars – you might expect her fallback emotion to be angst. But it's joy.

"I'm always looking for something innately human that I can connect to," she says.

In Game Change, the key scene for Moore was this: To their horror, Palin's team are realizing how unready their candidate is to debate her rival, Joe Biden. She's expected to deliver a knockout punch; instead, she's melting down and zoning out.

"We talked to eight different people who were in that room with Palin, who told us, 'She shut down,'" recalls Jay Roach, Game Change's director. "Julianne said to them, 'Act it out.' They'd go like this." He makes his face blank. "Julianne said, 'No, don't exaggerate. Tell me exactly what it was like.' She was so thorough. She made sure she got it down."

That scene was the most controversial in the film, Roach says, because pro-Palin people didn't want her depicted as weak.

"But to Julianne, it was the thing that made Palin human. Then friends of ours on the [political] left said to us, 'You made us like her too much!' But Julianne and I both felt, 'Come on, she's a human being, that's what you're supposed to feel.'"

For the upcoming film Maggie's Plan, written and directed by Rebecca Miller, Moore found a key to her character in a simple comment. She plays a brilliant Danish academic in New York whose writer husband (Ethan Hawke) is having an affair with a younger free spirit (Greta Gerwig). Until Gerwig decides she doesn't want Hawke after all, and schemes to get Moore to take him back. Moore juggles a lot of balls in this role: a deadpan Danish accent, a murderous wardrobe of leather and fur, arch lines crammed with erudite jargon.

"We had over a year to work on the script, because we were looking for financing," Miller says.

"We'd sit in Julianne's kitchen or a café and go through it, pretty intensely. Writing a screenplay, the story has certain needs. But Julianne was helpful in saying, 'Why is she doing this?' Sticking up for her character. I'd have to go back in and figure out answers that were plausible. That's how you get something real, as opposed to using characters as puppets."

"It's a very big performance for me," Moore says (meaning broad).

"Everyone calls my character monstrous, but she's just a person, she loves her husband and she's trying to deal with the situation. I really got her when Ethan says, 'You burned my book!' and she scoffs back, 'I burned a copy of your book.' She's not going to let him get away with that."

For her latest film, Freeheld, which opens in Canada next week, Moore's way in was … a hairstyle. It's based on the true story of Laurel Hester (Moore), a New Jersey police officer diagnosed with terminal cancer who fought the Ocean County Board of Chosen Freeholders so she could leave her pension to her girlfriend, Stacie Andree (Ellen Page). A documentary short about it, with the same title, won an Oscar in 2008.

"I had pictures from the doc of Laurel with short hair after chemotherapy, and I had an idea of her in the script, but I couldn't make the connection," Moore says. "I was really struggling."

As part of her research, she contacted Dane Wells, Hester's former police partner (Michael Shannon in the film).

"I got Dane on his cellphone, and he was at a car show with Stacie," Moore says (clearly delighted by that). She drove to New Jersey, where Andree still lives in the house she shared with Hester, and Andree and Wells brought out boxes of pictures, letters and documents. "It was really moving to me, that they were so willing to share it," Moore says.

In most of the photos, Hester's hair was styled in a late-seventies Farrah Fawcett flip. "Dane and Stacie were like, 'Oh, yeah, her hair was her thing.' But no one had known that," Moore says. Her voice rises in hilarity. "We all had that hair in high school! We all looked like that! But here was this cool, beautiful woman with this crazy hair that she never changed. Then you see her lose it. Something clicked. It all came together for me there."

Moore never knows what makes her say yes to a script until she sees it.

"Freeheld is a big story," she says.

"It's a police story, a love story. It's about justice, and civil rights. But it's also this idea that something small is big. What it means to have a family, to be in love, to be alive. That's why I like stories, and why I'm attracted to acting."

She's looking for that in life too. "Sometimes it's hard to keep things in perspective, like it is for all of us," she says. "I want to finish all the stuff my kids need me to finish. I don't want to neglect my relationship, even though we're both busy and tired. I try to remember that we've constructed most of this ourselves. Every time I think, 'Crap, I have to –' I stop myself. No. It's an elaborate thing we've built because we enjoy it, and it's our way to put food on the table. That really helps me.

"I'm also a real believer in 'There's no there there,'" Moore continues.

"You can't say, 'I want to be something, or somewhere.' You have to just be. I want to get to a place where I'm just being, and inhabit that fully, and know it's enough." She laughs again. "It's not easy." But she makes trying look fun.