The Mad Men star talks about how she nailed an Australian accent, carried the star’s responsibility on her shoulders, and other tough aspects of filming her Emmy-nominated performance in the crime drama Top of the Lake.
In addition to her Mad Men recognition, Elisabeth Moss also received a best-actress Emmy nomination for her haunting turn as Robin Griffin, a detective investigating a missing pregnant girl in the magnificent Sundance Channel miniseries Top of the Lake. She explains how she pulled off four of the role’s most daunting aspects.
The Australian Accent
For six months, to anybody that would listen, I was like, if we don’t get it right, no matter how good [the rest of the miniseries] is, I’m going to get creamed for this accent! In the end, it actually helped, because it made me work hard on it, to the point where Jane [Campion, the director] and my dialect coach would say, “It’s going to be OK. You can do it. Don’t worry.” They were trying to calm me down, and I was saying, “No, you guys, this is serious. I have to get this perfectly.” And I also felt an allegiance and a responsibility to the project, because I didn’t want to let anybody down.
I had to do a little bit of the accent to get the part, so I saw a dialect coach in L.A., Carla Meyer, who’s wonderful, and she helped me for a couple sessions so that I could do a little bit and put it on tape and send it to them. I got it, and then I had a different dialect coach who worked with me on the project. Her name is Victoria Mielewska and she was incredible. She worked with Kate Winslet on Holy Smoke and Nicole Kidman. She’s like the Australian dialect coach de rigueur. She was very calm and relaxed and was saying, “You can do this. It’s going to be OK.” I continued to stress about it and worked on it every day for three months before I got to New Zealand. Then when I got to New Zealand, for a month I met with the dialect coach almost every day and just practiced, practiced, practiced. I would talk in the accent, she would make me describe things around me and point things out and do it in the accent, and then we moved on to doing specific lines.
But it never stopped. She wasn’t able to be on set the whole time, which was really hard, but the night before she would send me a recording of every scene, saying every one of my lines. Then I would bring that to the set the next day and hand my phone to the script supervisor and have her listen to it. So she was my watchdog. I had the sound department on it; they were also my watchdogs. It was a group effort.
When [it aired and] nobody said anything, I was so over the moon. I couldn’t have asked for anything more, because that’s all me and Victoria were trying to do. We weren’t trying to impress anybody; I didn’t want anybody to say, “Wow, Elisabeth Moss is doing an amazing Australian accent!” We wanted nobody to notice. We wanted her to sound like she existed in that world, and we wanted you to get wrapped up in the story. So the fact that nobody said anything was the best thing that could have possibly happened.
Carrying a Big Project Squarely on Her Shoulders
I felt that in spades, and that’s part of why it was so scary. I’d never been No. 1 on the call sheet in such a big thing before, let alone something that is with a prolific filmmaker who’s won an Oscar [like Campion]. And I had auditioned for it by tape with the casting director, so she’d only seen me do three scenes. How did they know I could do anything else except for these three scenes? So yeah, I felt quite a bit of pressure!
Jon [Hamm] was a big help to me in that situation, because he had the same experience with Mad Men, coming in where nobody really knew who he was, and he was No. 1 on the call sheet, and the show rested on his shoulders. And he felt the pressure of that at that time. So he definitely helped me in understanding what that was and what your role was as No. 1, and also just telling me that it was going to be OK and that I could do it.
Her Toughest Scene: Where Robin Opens Up to Her Mentor Al in Episode 4 About Being Raped as a Teenager
Obviously there are a lot of good scenes, but the scene that is my favorite is the one where she goes over to Al’s house and has that long speech about what happened the night of her rape. We always called it “the dinner scene.” It was one of my audition scenes, so I was studying it from the beginning. It was beautifully written, and the scene that made me fall in love with the character and with the project. I’ve played characters that have been through a similar experience, that have been pregnant and have lost the baby or given the baby away. But this concept of why would you go through the experience and turn your back on that child, and trying to explain it. I don’t think I side either way, but it was an interesting explanation, this idea of because it’s all that she had to give her child: [the gift of] her not knowing what happened and where she came from. It’s such a cool speech, too, and when she ends it by saying “Fuck the truth!” it really summed up what she was going through.
I did it the same way that I did it in the audition. Sometimes scenes just click and they make sense to you. For some reason, you don’t feel like there’s any other way to do that scene. So I did in the audition, and obviously they liked it, I guess. Then we did a lot of rehearsal, improv, and a lot of talking about the script and everything, but never ever touched that scene. Because there was a sense of, we understood it, and sometimes you don’t want to fuck with it too much. You’ve really got to be careful, so we never talked about it and never rehearsed it. From the audition to filming the scene, I never said those words.
Because I knew it was a big scene, and there was pressure put on it, because we never talked about it. It got built up a little bit. I found myself thinking, I hope this goes OK. I hope I haven’t exceeded my expectations here of what’s going to happen! The only thing I felt like I could do in that moment was to go the opposite way: not make a big deal out of it and pretend like it was every other day. That was the only way that I could take the pressure off myself.
When we filmed it, I knew I just needed to be by myself for a little bit beforehand. Music for me is really big when I’m working. I listen to a lot of music, and it obviously changes depending on what the scene is. Normally if it’s a sad scene, you’d think you would listen to sad, emotional music. This scene, all I wanted to listen to was hard-core hip-hop! There was so much anger in the scene, I didn’t feel like it was a sad scene, I felt like it was angry. So I went off between every setup and would listen to Eminem and Jay Z and all of this hip-hop, and got myself into the place I needed to be. We did it a couple of times, a few different ways, and tried a couple of different things, and then for the last take, the director, Garth Davis—who I just adore and is so good—said, “OK, just do whatever you want,” which is a great thing to say to an actor. And I did, and that’s the one that’s pretty much in the final product. He just let me play with it and do things that were maybe a little bit strange, and it worked.
I would be remiss not to mention David Wenham, who played Al. As an actor, when you’re doing a scene that you both know is primarily one character’s scene, it takes a great actor to actually sit there and listen to you and not get bored. He was aware of the headspace that I needed to be in, and he just sat there and listened. He was like a therapist and was totally there every single time that we did it. I really needed him to be there for me, and he was amazing.
The Isolation of Filming in New Zealand
It actually worked out really well, because a lot of the stuff that we shot in the beginning was a little more of me being on the outside of that world. We cross-boarded the whole thing, so we shot all the episodes out of order. But we were lucky that a lot of the more dramatic, emotional stuff took place later, like talking about the rape and getting more of her psychology. So by that time I felt more comfortable and much more at ease.
My first scene I shot was walking into the women’s camp and meeting Holly Hunter’s character, GJ, for the first time. It was the first time I was doing the accent in front of the crew, who were all from Australia and New Zealand! They’re like, “Who’s this little fucking ditz coming in trying to do our accent?” I was terrified, and it really helped me a lot in trying to act tough and build up those walls, and act a little bit tougher than Robin really is, which is what she’s doing. So yeah, the isolation definitely helped me, and it also helped me to be distracted. There wasn’t anything else to do but work on Top of the Lake. So I was very focused.
As told to Jason Lynch
On Monday, Moss discussed her other Emmy-nominated performance this year, sharing her favorite Peggy Olson moments from six seasons of Mad Men.