She may have just won the best actress Oscar for her new film, Still Alice, about a professor diagnosed with early-onset Alzheimer’s, but Julianne Moore is as down-to-earth as ever. She chats about her life, acting and the importance of family with Heather Hodson.

Julianne Moore suggests we meet at an organic restaurant inside an interior design studio in Lower Manhattan. The eatery is a favourite spot of the actress, who is an architecture and design nut and who lives in nearby Greenwich Village, in an 1839 house she renovated herself.

Moore, who is dressed in a downtown yummy-mummy ensemble of blush-pink feather cropped jacket, black yoga-cum-harem pants, black wool hat, black clogs and sparkling blue nail varnish that looks as if her daughter applied it, insists that she order our coffees and gamely joins the crush at the bar. Her face is instantly recognisable, even if the dark auburn hair is dishevelled and the porcelain skin bare of makeup.

At 54, she still possesses a singular Pre-Raphaelite beauty which, harnessed to her rare professional skill, literally shimmers on screen, as if she is lit from within. The staff, however, are obviously used to movie stars around here because after 10 minutes the barman still hasn't clocked her and I find myself fighting the urge to hiss, "Don't you know who this is? It's Julianne Moore."

But Moore is completely unbothered, smiling serenely and looking as if of all the things she could be doing on a busy morning, standing in line to order a latte for a journalist is one of them.

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Moore is this relaxed most of the time.

"There's no diva thing with Julianne," says Wash Westmoreland, her friend and the co-director of Moore's latest film Still Alice, in which Moore plays a college professor suffering from early-onset Alzheimer's, and for which she this week won Best Actress Oscar, following her Bafta win earlier this month. "She's extraordinarily laid-back and easygoing. She chats with everyone on the crew, she has fun, she enjoys herself. She is very involved in her family," he adds. "She has these two great kids, who she's raising in a very normal environment."

As Moore and I perch on bar stools, coffee now in hand, she radiates congeniality, chatting openly about everything from house makeovers (she and her husband, the writer/director Bart Freundlich, spent two years renovating their Greek Revival-style house with the help of her architect brother-in-law) to schools (her 12-year-old, Liv, has just started at the prestigious girls-only Chapin on the Upper East Side and Moore can't contain her delight.

"All girls! I love it! Let me tell you it's fantastic; she has just blossomed."

She whips out her iPhone and shows me a picture of Freundlich and their 17-year-old son, Caleb, both grinning for the camera on a fishing trip out in Montauk, a village on the tip of Long Island where they own a beach house. "My son's a giant," she sighs. "I'll show you my daughter too. I'll find one of her in her school uniform." A picture appears of a mini-Julianne with freckles and long red hair, dressed all in green. "I rotate screen savers so that nobody gets upset. They're like, 'Wait a minute, what about meeee?'" She gives a big throaty laugh, flips through the images. "And here's what they used to look like! They were so little. I can't bear it! I just can't stand it. And look at them now!"

Spending time with Moore is like hanging out with the warmest, most affable of girlfriends. It is easy to forget that in her work life she belongs to that elite club of the world's best actresses.

A versatile performer, over the past three decades she has netted two Emmys, two Golden Globes, one Bafta and five Academy Award nominations - resulting in her first Oscar win on Monday. If all the characters she has played were together in one room - Amber Waves, the maternal porn star (in 1997's Boogie Nights), the grieving wife in 1999's Magnolia, the desperate 1940s housewife Laura Brown (in 2002's The Hours), the decorous 1950s housewife roiled by unforeseen events (in 2002's Far From Heaven), the dissolute rock star Susanna (in 2012's What Maisie Knew), Sarah Palin (in the HBO film Game Change) - you would have an extraordinary study in contrasting characters.

What all her performances have in common is believability; not one strays into stereotype. "She's the queen of realism," says Westmoreland, who, along with his directing and writing partner (and husband), Richard Glatzer, jumped at the chance to cast Moore as the lead of Still Alice. "She was one of the only people who had the range to go on this intense journey without a false beat."

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Based on the neuroscientist Lisa Genova's 2007 best-selling novel of the same name, Still Alice is the story of Alice Howland, a happily married linguistics professor who is diagnosed, aged 50, with Alzheimer's and who contends with the rapid decline of her cognitive functioning while her family, including a conflicted Alec Baldwin as her husband and a wonderfully subtle Kristen Stewart as the prodigal daughter, recalibrate their relationships with her.

For a small indie film, Still Alice carries great cultural resonance; with America and Western Europe facing a surge in dementia as the baby-boom generation ages, Alzheimer's has become the most feared disease of the 21st century.

"It's terrifying," Moore says, "because the thing we're taught to believe about ourselves is that who we are on the inside is what matters. Who we believe we are, all those things are who our core essential selves are. When you don't have that, then who are you?"

Her greatest concern was getting the disease right. "I really worked from top to bottom," she says of her research for the role. "The head of the national Alzheimer's Association set me up with several women across the country who had been diagnosed with early-onset Alzheimer's, which means younger than 65. I spoke to them about their experiences, how they felt. The youngest of them, Sandy Oltz, was diagnosed at 45. I stayed in touch with Sandy a long time; she spent her 50th birthday on set."

Moore also met Professor Mary Sano, the head of Alzheimer's research at Mount Sinai Hospital in New York. "I had a neuroscientist administer the cognitive tests, which are quite extensive. That was pretty illuminating," Moore says.

She met carers and patients through the New York branch of the Alzheimer's Association too, and finally she visited a long-term care facility where people were in the late stages of the disease. "Everything that you see in the movie, all the physical behaviours, the emotional behaviours, those are all things I had seen people do or they had spoken about to me directly."

Julianne Moore after receiving her Oscar on Monday. Photo / Getty Images
Julianne Moore after receiving her Oscar on Monday. Photo / Getty Images

The filming of Still Alice was made even more poignant by the fact that Glatzer had been diagnosed with motor neurone disease in 2011 and, by the time of filming, could communicate only with the use of an iPad. "It was very rapid and, of course, heartbreaking," Moore says. "What [Westmoreland and Glatzer] were experiencing as a couple was kind of a parallel story to what was happening in the film, which is: how do you live your life when you are dealing with a progressive degenerative disease? What's valuable to you, how do you deal with your friends, your loved ones, your job?"

As Alice, Moore carries the film on her shoulders. Her performance, often without dialogue, is an acute and unforgettably moving study of a woman fighting the inexorable dimming of the light, and several of her scenes leave you emotionally floored. Though Moore had previously received four Oscar nominations Still Alice finally saw the actress deservedly gain her statuette.

Moore excels at playing women washed up on the shores of chaos or despair. For someone so conspicuously normal, who revels in what she has referred to as her "very, very pedestrian life", where, one wonders, does all this complexity spring from?

"There's a mystery to Julianne," Westmoreland acknowledges. "She comes on set very normal and friendly, then when the camera starts rolling this magic happens. She drops into the role with such a completeness everyone is inspired. There's total immersion."

One clue to her depths as an actress is her peripatetic childhood. She was born Julie Anne Smith in Fort Bragg, the army installation in North Carolina, but the family was there only for six months because her father, Peter Moore Smith, was a helicopter pilot and paratrooper in the 82nd Airborne Division. The family - her mother, Anne; her sister, Valerie (a year younger); and her brother, the New York novelist Peter (four years younger) - spent years following their father from place to place, state to state. After serving in Vietnam he left the army and the family headed to Nebraska so that he could attend law school. Then the family went to Alaska, where he worked as a lawyer in aviation law. Next, they were uprooted again for New York, after which he became an attorney then a military judge.

Between the ages of 5 and 18 Moore attended nine different schools. All the upheaval made it hard to maintain friendships but it also gave the young Moore ample opportunity to study human nature. "When you move around you realise that behaviour's not character, that behaviour is mutable and has a lot to do with where you live and what the cultural standards are and what the mores of that place are," she says. "So you're always looking for clues, you're always looking for what the median behaviour is."

Added to which, Anne Moore was a psychologist and social worker, so the conversation around the breakfast table very often revolved around questions of people's natures and motivations. "There was a lot of discussion about behaviour," she recalls. "My father would talk about cases and my mother was fascinated by behaviour and mental health too, and that idea that there are various states of being and feeling and experiencing, and there are ways to make yourself better and all of that stuff. It's endlessly fascinating to me."

The fact that her mother was Scottish, Moore tells me, is another reason she has given so much thought to identity. "I wrote this book, My Mom Is a Foreigner, But Not To Me,' she says of her 2013 children's work. "It's about that idea that what seems foreign or alien to your friends is the most familiar person in the world to you. I was always aware that my mother had very strong cultural differences, a different accent, but she was my mother. So all those ideas of what differentiates you from others fascinate me, but I also know that they are mutable." Her 2007 children's best-seller, Freckleface Strawberry, was about a little red-haired girl contending with a sea of blondes and brunettes, and was so popular it has become a musical. Moore now has a five-book contract with Random House, all children's fiction, with the first, Backpacks, due out in July.

When Moore was 16 the family moved to Frankfurt in West Germany, where she attended Frankfurt American High School, appeared in several school plays and caught the acting bug. With the encouragement of her English teacher, she decided to pursue a career in theatre, leaving home at 18 to study for a BA in theatre at Boston University.

Julianne Moore with Kristen Stewart in Still Alice. Photo / AP
Julianne Moore with Kristen Stewart in Still Alice. Photo / AP

For three decades - from the moment, really, that she left university in 1983 - she has done well as an actor. After a stint in regional theatre, she was cast in the American television soap opera As The World Turns, for which she won a Daytime Emmy Award. Then she worked with the stage director Andre Gregory on his legendary workshop-theatre production of Chekhov's Uncle Vanya (it was later turned into Louis Malle's 1994 film, Vanya On 42nd Street). Her theatre performance caught the eye of Robert Altman, who cast her in his 1993 film Short Cuts, in which she delivers a magnificent monologue, naked from the waist down. Moore's movie career has been in continual flight since. She has deftly combined commercial work such as two Hunger Games films with independent features including David Cronenberg's Maps To The Stars (2014), and has proved immune to the truism in Hollywood that an actress is finished at 40.

"I feel lucky," she says, refusing to take any of it as her due. "My dad said to me the other day, 'You've been doing this for 30 years!' I thought, oh my God, I feel lucky that it's gone on for that long and that I've had the experiences that I've had."

If Moore's career path has been straightforward, her personal life has been less so. After a failed marriage in her mid-20s to the actor-director John Gould Rubin, in her early 30s she found herself marooned in Los Angeles, successful but single and lonely, with a yearning for the white picket fence and all that entails. She went into therapy, the takeaway of which, she has said, was, "You have to make your personal life happen as much as your career."

Her mother, to whom she was very close and whose death from septic shock in 2009 left her devastated, gave her the same advice. "She always told me that you can have both [career and family]," Moore says. "I think that it was important to realise what I valued, what I wanted, and to find a way to make them both happen."

In 1996 she became involved with Bart Freundlich, a director nine years her junior, while working with him on his movie, The Myth Of Fingerprints. Caleb was born a year later, when Moore was 37, and Liv in 2002. In 2003 Moore and Freundlich wed.

"I really wanted a family, I really wanted children and I didn't want to compromise on that," she says. "This wasn't a thing that I thought, 'oh God, kids!' [laughs]. I was like, this is a goal. I've loved every minute of it and continue to love it. It's been really wonderful to experience it."

In studied contrast to the constantly shifting scenery of her own upbringing, Moore has created a life for her children that is rooted in one place, surrounded by cousins and aunts and uncles, with big family Thanksgivings and holidays. "My father's in Marion, that's not too far away, my sister's in Virginia, and my brother's in Manhattan," she says happily. "And then Bart's entire family - his brothers, his parents - live in Brooklyn. It's nice to have that and I think our kids feel very rooted in New York."

She is very much the matriarch of the two clans. "I'm going to see if I can keep everybody close! That's my aim." She and Freundlich have kept the children close to home. Until this year both attended school around the corner at Friends Seminary, a prestigious Quaker School and Freundlich's alma mater.

"It was very important to him that the children go there, and there were teachers who taught my husband, my husband's brother, my son and then my daughter. In a big city like this it's great to have that kind of continuity."

She is an instinctive and nurturing homemaker with a natural eye for decorating. "My mother always really cared about where we lived and made it look beautiful, and that's something that I got from her and now I can see it in my daughter. I'm always fascinated by the urge to decorate. It doesn't seem to be a necessity and yet we've done it for centuries."

She was even charged with choosing the furniture and decor for the backstage green room at the Oscars.

Family, home, health, identity: these are subjects of infinite interest to Moore. We discuss the challenges of combining work and motherhood. "One of the things people talk about is how to create flexibility, because otherwise it's hell - hell if your kid gets sick and you can't leave [work]. I'm married to somebody who's got the same kind of flexibility, who also is a co-parent, so we've been really fortunate."

We also discuss how the years with our children seem to be rushing past. "Oh you have no idea, man, it's awful." And we talk about choosing a meaningful working life. "My son is going to be deciding what he wants to do, that you have to figure out a way to support yourself financially but also find something that you really enjoy doing. How do you do both? It's hard but it's worth the exploration."

Still Alice is at cinemas now