Elisabeth Moss Can Do Whatever She Wants

A man cuts through the bustling crew and stands in the center of the room, a bottle of champagne held aloft.

“Let’s hear it for our nominees,” he shouts, and everyone stops what they are doing to gather around. Elisabeth Moss has just been nominated for a Golden Globe, as has Yvonne Strahovski, her co-star in the Hulu series The Handmaid’s Tale, which they are filming here this afternoon on a soundstage on the far west side of Toronto. Corks pop; a P.A. has brought more bottles. Applause thunders. There is much cheering and whistling, plastic party cups filled and passed from hand to hand. Amid the commotion Moss slips away—out into the December cold, a heavy winter coat thrown over her shoulders.

She invites me into her trailer and sits by the entrance with the door propped open. I can see her breath. She lights a cigarette, rests her elbows on her knees. “Let’s talk,” she says, smiling in a flamboyant costume of dystopian-future garb.

Elisabeth Moss is a television actor. There was a time, not long ago, when saying that would have been an insult—the same insult Sean Penn once whispered to a furious Michael J. Fox on the set of Casualties of War, by the standards of 1989 an unforgivable cruelty. But television has changed. It is no longer true that the stars of network sitcoms and cable dramas lament their sorry luck as they aspire to the glory of the silver screen, languishing in the ghetto of undignified prime-time. This is the golden age of TV, an age of prestige whose light has cast countless faces into the firmament. Moss has helped redefine what it means to be on television, what level of regard is accorded a TV star, what sort of reputation. A role on a hit series is not a stopgap anymore. Thanks in part to Moss, it’s a coveted prize, an achievement worthy of a career.

I’ve come to see Moss on the set of her latest TV sensation, the acclaimed, much-decorated adaptation of the famous Margaret Atwood novel. But we are not here to talk about television. We are here to talk about her new movie: Her Smell, an abrasive and acerbic Riot grrrl rock drama by writer-director Alex Ross Perry, which premiered at the 2018 Toronto International Film Festival this past September. The irony of us meeting under these conditions is that significantly fewer people will ever see Her Smell than tune in to any episode of The Handmaid’s Tale. This fact lays bare one of the most fascinating things about Moss and her unique brand of modern celebrity—and about the state of American independent film, as well. The TV shows she stars in are ubiquitous. The movies are strikingly small.

The present configuration—lead a popular series over multiple seasons most months of the year and shoot as many indie films as possible while on hiatus—occupies every minute of Moss’ time. Over the summer, from the moment production on Handmaid’s Tale wrapped, she shot four features back to back: a crime picture based on a comic book called The Kitchen, directed by Straight Outta Compton writer Andrea Berloff; Light of My Life, a drama by and starring Casey Affleck; the hugely anticipated new thriller Us from Get Out’s Jordan Peele; and an eccentric biopic about author Shirley Jackson by Madeline’s Madeline director Josephine Decker. In the fall she somehow found time to promote Her Smell at TIFF and at the New York Film Festival, where it played the illustrious main slate. And in between it all she’s developing original work as a producer, including Paul Harrill’s Light From Light, set to premiere at Sundance.

Gold Maid: Moss ducked out of a rowdy celebration of her latest Golden Globe nomination to meet us on the chilly Toronto set of The Handmaid’s Tale. Image courtesy of Hulu

This is like week six of the seemingly endless shoot of The Handmaid’s Tale’s third season. Because she not only stars as the lead character but also serves as producer, Moss’ work does not end as it would for most actors, when she is not obliged to be on screen. On set, she seems hands-on and fastidious, slaving over her lines and blocking, conversing at length with directors about the intentions of a scene. She suggests new ideas, proposes alternatives to ones that aren’t working; what if she tries this next take backwards, she’ll ask, or enters from this side instead of that way? She approaches every shot as if she’s Orson Welles and this is her Citizen Kane. This attitude makes for good TV. It also, as you might expect, makes Moss extraordinarily busy.

In her trailer, a stream of cigarette smoke rising into the bitter sky, Moss fields my questions with the patience of someone more relaxed than she has any right to be. I complain, jokingly, that the circumstances of our interview make my job as journalist more difficult: I can’t add the usual color about the interesting outfit she’s wearing or the cool café where we’ve met. She’s just in a trailer, beside a soundstage, in a costume from the wardrobe department. “I think this gives an honest insight into my life,” she says, in mock sympathy but in truth. “I don’t have time to go to cafés. That’s not my life right now. If we talk, we have to do it at work, because that’s what I do—I work.”

On cue, Diane, Moss’ assistant, points to her watch. It is time to return to set—some five minutes after we left it, according to my watch. Moss exhales a plume of smoke with comic resignation. “That’s so sad,” she laughs. “Maybe let’s stay five more minutes?” She fires up another cigarette and asks me to roll.

“Slow Burn” to Stardom

Elisabeth Moss has been busy for almost 30 years. Born in Los Angeles to parents in the music industry, she studied ballet as a child at a school in the San Fernando Valley and aspired to be a professional dancer. When she was seven, her school mounted a production, strangely, of The Sound of Music—“that classic ballet,” she jokes about it now. Moss was Gretl, the youngest of the Von Trapps. An agent in the audience approached her mother after the performance and suggested little Elisabeth attend a few auditions. “My mom asked me if I wanted to and I was like, ‘Yeah,’” she remembers. “So I just started going to auditions and I really liked it.”

There is some debate about her first role. IMDb lists a pilot for an NBC drama about female lawyers that was never picked up. “What was that called? Not L.A. Law, but, like … fuck.” I consult my notes: It was called Bar Girls. “Bar Girls! Yes!” She laughs at the hazy memory. She was only a kid, after all. “I don’t think that was the first thing I did. I think the first thing I did was for Lifetime. It was based on a Jackie whatshername book, you know who I mean.” (She means Jackie Collins.) “It was called… why am I blanking on this? But Sandra Bullock played my mom. I had to find her dead in a pool— that was my big scene. Started out really light really early. Sort of set the trajectory for my career.” Minutes later, the title strikes her like a thunderclap. She bolts up. “Lucky Chances!”

No Sympathy For The Devil: Her Smell‘s Becky Something (Moss) adds to Perry’s list of vile characters he dares audiences to endure. Photograph by Don Stahl

As it turned out, playing Sandra Bullock’s daughter would be her luckiest chance for a while. The early years of Moss’ filmography teem with bit parts and guest appearances, with made-for-TV films and voiceover jobs on children’s cartoons. She was in the Harvey Keitel movie Imaginary Crimes, the Steven Spielberg-produced kids show Animaniacs, the ABC remake of Escape to Witch Mountain—not nothing, and gainful employment all the same, but hardly the kind of arrival that heralds a future star. It was in 1999 that Moss started to show real promise. That year she appeared in a small but memorable role in Girl, Interrupted as the disfigured burn victim who befriends Winona Ryder, and on Aaron Sorkin’s The West Wing, as Martin Sheen’s teen daughter Zoey, involved, in West Wing fashion, in an assassination attempt and a kidnapping.

Of course, this was Hollywood, where landing two enviable parts in succession is no guarantee of a lasting career. That summer Moss was so strapped for cash she had to take a part-time job at a local movie theater to pay the bills, even though she was the daughter of the president on network TV. “I was a recurring character,” she says, laughing. “You don’t make any money.” She liked the job. But when she was offered a promotion, she knew it was time to quit. “The manager asked me to be assistant manager. And I was like, ‘Huh… No. I don’t think this is my career path.’” So she quit, packed her things, and fled to New York.

Square Peg: To avoid type-casting, Moss had to shake assumptions from casting directors who had her pegged as Mad Men‘s Peggy Olson. Image courtesy of ABC

The expression Moss uses to describe her ascent to fame is “slow burn.” After The West Wing, Moss wasn’t in much of note besides Law and Order episodes until she landed Mad Men in 2007, a decade later. “I know some people have overnight success but it’s just never been like that for me,” she explains. “It’s been so many tiny, little steps.”

In 2003, Moss starred in a low-budget feature called Virgin, by a first time director named Deborah Kampmeier. Moss plays Jessie, a teenager who after being drugged and raped believes she must be pregnant with the child of God. The critic Dave Kehr, reviewing the movie in The New York Times, praised Moss’ “convincing, undistanced performance” as a woman in extremis, and Moss was nominated for an Independent Spirit Award for Best Female Lead. Moss looks back at the movie and her work in it as an important moment in her career. “It was fucking crazy. Nuts,” she says. “It was the first time that I got to do the kind of work that I wanted to do. And that was the first time that I was like, ‘Oh. I can do crazy shit and people might like it. I can go to those dark places and it might actually go over well.’”

Frequent Collaborator

If there is an easy way to account for her collaboration with Alex Ross Perry, this is it. In his films—Her Smell is now the second she’s produced and the third in which she’s starred—Moss gets to do the kind of work that she wants to do, amplified to the nth degree. She wants to do “crazy shit”? Perry is the man to furnish her the platform from which to do it. Their affinity, an incredibly fruitful creative relationship that brings to mind Gena Rowlands and John Cassavetes, is founded on a mutual desire: to see Elisabeth Moss do radical, arduous, often totally insane work on screen. Her Smell is that for two and a half hours.

Moss stars in Her Smell as Becky Something, the half-deranged, heroin-addicted, alcoholic lead singer and guitarist
of Something She, a legendary Riot grrrl three-piece who have a platinum record to their name… or did, until they got wasted and smashed it. Becky has an infant daughter, a wary ex-husband, and a shaman mystic on retainer, and a full European tour’s worth of unbreakable dates on the horizon. She’s the kind of person you wouldn’t trust to watch your laptop while you used the restroom at the coffee shop—and she’s the kind of person so popular, beloved, and indispensable to a lucrative creative enterprise that her well-being hangs in the balance next to the livelihoods of a dozen other people. “She is terrible and toxic and magnetic and a hurricane,” Moss puts it. “She does not deserve your sympathy.”

Coupled Up: Moss’ (L) role in Perry’s 2014 feature Listen Up Philip as Philip Lewis Friedman’s (Jason Schwartzman, R) girlfriend Ashley Kane marks her first pairing with the writer-director. Image courtesy of Tribeca Film Festival

This is familiar material for Perry, who is renowned for creating characters as loathsome as they are perversely likeable. “Becky is the definition of a troubled, immature, impossible brat whom people will tolerate being around only because they benefit from her creatively and financially,” The Hollywood Reporter grumbled in its review of the film out of TIFF. “Moss indisputably makes her real, even when she’s insufferable company.” Insufferable is, if not the objective, then at least a necessary consequence of a movie so intensively aggressive. Every time Perry makes a film, and especially when he makes one with Moss, critics can’t help but complain that he hasn’t made one about nicer people. Maybe the two get along because they both prefer films about fuck-ups.

Perry met Moss in 2013, when he was casting Listen Up Philip, his third feature but the first with a real budget and professional actors. She was at the height of her success with Mad Men, and had just earned effusive praise for her work in Jane Campion’s mini-series Top of the Lake—Perry could scarcely believe she was considering work in movies as small as his own, given her runaway fame. The two talked on Skype, and hit it off; she loved the mordant, literary screenplay, and though she was not the lead, her character, the girlfriend of Jason Schwartzman’s Philip Lewis Friedman, had one long, digressive sequence built around her in the middle of the picture, as the plot digresses from its obnoxious hero and for some time follows his more compelling female counterpart. It culminates in a moment virtually every review of Listen Up Philip singled out as its highlight: a sustained, unbroken long take of Moss’ face, cycling through fear, wonder, and pleasure as she takes control of her life.

Ready For Her Close-Up: Perry says his 2015 feature Queen of Earth fulfilled his mission to make a “70-minute close-up” of Moss’ face. Image courtesy of IFC FIlms

The moment was all Moss. The long take, Perry tells me, was “one of these things that was spontaneously executed and never really discussed or planned that became just a perfect 60-second take that you could put intact in the movie.” He describes it as revelatory, from a moviemaking perspective—“so much so that the only thing I could do, because of the excitement I felt and the response to it, was immediately make an entire movie for her to exercise those impulses over and over again.” So, he conceived of another film for Moss to star in. It would be the Listen Up Philip long take expanded to feature length. “If people liked a shot that’s just a 70-second close up of Elisabeth Moss’ face,” he explains, “I’m gonna make a movie that’s a 70-minute close up of her face.”

He called it Queen of Earth, and Moss consented to star as soon as he proposed it. This time, though, Moss would be involved much more intimately with the production—both on a creative level, helping to develop the character and determine how best to have her move through the film, and on a logistical one, as Moss hoped to learn more about how independent features are made. She took what Perry characterizes as an unusually serious interest in the details and particulars of the shoot: He would send her photos of potential locations for her to look over, casting submissions for her to peruse, script pages for her to annotate or revise. “Some actors could get a bunch of money and start a bogus production company and option a bunch of articles or books and do nothing,” he says. “But she delivered. To me that was pretty exciting.”

Pitching Her Smell

In early 2015, Perry sent Moss a text message: “Next character: rock star mother. What do you think?” She wrote back: “I’m in.” Over the next two years Perry wrote the script for what would become Her Smell, the rock star mother drama that had tantalized Moss enough for her to commit to it sight unseen. So expressly for her was the character written, Perry says, that it was less liking writing original dialogue and more “like I was writing closed captioning beneath a performance I was already watching.” He knew, after making two films with her, what to put on the page to maximize her interest. “My one challenge was to write a part she had never done before. That’s what she needs to get excited. That’s how you guarantee she’ll make your movie.”

Moss was excited by the pitch. But the screenplay Perry ultimately delivered, she enthuses, was “a hundred times better,” full of “theater and Shakespeare and Steve Jobs and all this amazing stuff.” (Her Smell has a structure based around five standalone, real-time scenes, which has earned it comparisons to the Danny Boyle movie about the head of Apple.) Moss is open about her research and inspirations. She cites Amy Winehouse (“different emotionally, but same life trajectory”), Axl Rose, Marilyn Monroe, Kurt Cobain. She watched videos on YouTube of people filming themselves high on heroin and meth: “That was weird and disturbing, but so important to learn the mannerisms.” And after all of that she stuck to what was written. “In the end I just forgot the research,” she says. “It was all in the script.”

Setting the Stage: Moss (L) and Perry (R) prepare to shoot a live performance scene on the set of Her Smell. Photograph by Don Stahl

This combination of diligence and intuition is typical of Moss’ approach to acting, an approach cultivated over her 30-year career. It’s the technique of someone who has been doing this too long to be precious or fussy about theory. Back on the Handmaid’s Tale set, Moss is whisked away from me and on camera, and within literally seconds they have begun rolling and called action. Moss switches into character like someone switching on a light. When the director cuts, Moss and I return to the trailer for another break. I remark that the transformation is remarkable. Does she consider herself a method actor? “Noooooo,” she says, drawing out the syllable as if dragging on a smoke. “Oh my God, no. Far from it. I am so not method. Occasionally I’ll be like, ‘Maybe I should go method on this one!’ But no. I can’t. I just can’t. It’s not how I’m built.”

It doesn’t get any easier, acting. Moss doesn’t want it to: She wants to challenge herself, not only on each new movie, but even on television, in each new episode, in every new scene. This is the motivation that guides her. It’s like Perry says—give her something new to try, some role she’s never done before. That will get Moss excited.

Top of the Lake

Between the fifth and sixth seasons of Mad Men—at the apex of the show’s popularity, after she’d been nominated for Emmys and Golden Globes—Moss met with a casting director who was looking for the lead of a new miniseries for the BBC, a grim procedural called Top of the Lake. The writer and director of the series, Jane Campion, did not think Moss was right for the part. “She only knew me from Mad Men,” she remembers. In common with most of the world, Campion saw Elisabeth Moss as Peggy Olson: plucky, resilient, a little dweeby. Detective Robin Griffin was… not that. She was the kind of woman who could stab a man in the belly with a broken beer bottle. “It was totally understandable. If you see Peggy and then you see Robin, it is not a logical choice.”

Moss fought for the part anyhow. Her audition persuaded Campion straight away. Now that we have all seen Moss as Robin Griffin, the casting seems not only logical but perfect: Moss is terrific in the show, and takes as naturally to the role as Daniel Craig to James Bond. But doing Top of the Lake while Mad Men was still on air had an unexpected effect, besides universal acclaim. It did something that most of her colleagues on Mad Men are still, several years after the finale, figuring out how to do: it made Elisabeth Moss exist as a concept independent of Peggy Olson. In other words, it simply and cleanly divided a great actor from a character she might otherwise have been associated with forever. Doomed to type-casting as Peggy Olson, Moss would never have the career she does now.

Top of the Lake convinced the world that Moss could do more than Peggy. Moreover, it convinced Moss that she could do more than Peggy. “That was really important for me,” she confesses. “I didn’t know if I could do anything else. I needed to prove to myself that I could.” It was hard going at first. “I remember getting to New Zealand and talking to my mom for hours on the phone. Like, literally, I remember saying to her, ‘I don’t know what I’m doing, I don’t know if I can do this.’ I was doing an Australian accent. I was working with Jane Campion. I was in New Zealand! By myself! For six months!” But, as she says, in the end she “figured it out.” And she figured out something else: She can do whatever she wants. She never has to repeat herself again.

That is now the guiding principle. No repetition. It’s what puts her in mind of moviemakers who are known for the boldness of their visions: Ruben Östlund, David Lowery, Ben Wheatley, all of whom she worked with after they intrigued her with interesting films. It’s what attracts her to produce new movies she knows have the potential to be original, to help usher those projects into the world unspoiled. It’s what makes her continue to work with Perry, who, by his own admission, knows “the best way to get her attention is to say, ‘Here’s a challenging thing you’ve never done.’” “You just can’t do that much with something that isn’t challenging you,” she tells me. “If I know I’ve done something before, and I know I’m just gonna pull up some trick I did last time that worked, then that’s shitty.”

The kinds of films that allow Moss the latitude to get crazy are by nature small films. And although she is comfortable working at that level—she is adamant that the industry “maintain the space for movies made by auteur moviemakers that are different and not necessarily popular”—a true desire to do everything must also include a willingness to do something huge. As much as Moss had never played a drug-addicted rock-star mother before she set out to make Her Smell, she has, as of this writing, never played an Avenger or the lead in a Nancy Meyers comedy. So why not those in her future, as well?

She’s always liked the kitchens in Meyers movies. And as for superheroes, she could give it a shot. Maybe. “I don’t think I’m good at the whole green screen thing,” she jokes. “But I’m not averse to trying it out.” Still, she says, she is probably more inclined to lean dark and small than massive and colorful. She’ll try anything once, but the heart has its wants. “I’m more into, like, a weird concentration camp miniseries,” she laughs, stubbing out a cigarette and grabbing a stick of gum. “That’s a sure path to my own Marvel movie.” MM

Her Smell opened in theaters April 12, 2019, courtesy of Gunpowder & Sky. This article appears in MovieMaker’s Winter 2019 issue. Featured image: Elisabeth Moss (R), Gayle Rankin (C), and Agyness Deyn light up writer-director Alex Ross Perry’s Her Smell as the members of Something She, a riot grrrl-esque punk band.

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