The Year Elisabeth Moss Became the Best Actress on TV
Talking with the Emmy nominee about ‘The Handmaid’s Tale,’ the new season of ‘Top of the Lake,’ and Oprah.
Few actresses boast a TV series track record as successful as Elisabeth Moss’—nor, as it were, one so intense: The West Wing’s first daughter Zoey Bartlett (kidnapped for ransom), Mad Men’s Peggy Olson (secretly gave baby up for adoption), The Handmaid’s Tale Offred (separated from family and forced into child-bearing slavery), and Top of the Lake’s Robin Griffin (rape victim-turned-murder detective).
But as we sit down to talk about her work in Top of the Lake: China Girl—the second season of Jane Campion’s limited series, coming four years after the first—the Elisabeth Moss we meet isn’t intense at all but, well, goofy. Actually, incredibly so.
She’s sarcastic, but not mean, and she laughs a lot. Cackles, really. Her voice adopts a sunny sing-song pattern as she apologizes for being slightly late, the kind of delivery that makes any sort of bitching immediately relatable. “Sorry, it took like 25 minutes to get here as opposed to the 15 as advertised,” she groans. “I fucking hate L.A. It’s the worst.”
Between The Handmaid’s Tale’s release in April and Top of the Lake: China Girl premiering this Sunday, and also her campaign for what she hopes will be her first Emmy Award after nine nominations for the Hulu series, Moss has pretty much incessantly been giving interviews in 2017.
It’s cultivated an intriguing breeziness and ease with which she discusses matters ranging from feminism to the election to the power of working with Jane Campion, to the point where she can transition with fascinating agility from discussing the mechanics of perfecting an Australian accent to play Robin in Top of the Lake—“Just to even try it requires some balls”—to erupting into a fit of laughter when a muddy-looking, viscous, greenish-grayish smoothie is placed in front of her.
“Wow,” she says, interrupting her own train of thought. “That looks like a fucking nightmare. This looks not like something anyone should consume. It’s a lot going on. It’s not a good color. I’m not sure what happened. I think it’s a mix of the strawberry and the spinach.”
She then fumbles through her purse and pulls out her phone. “I have to take a picture of this.” Satisfied, it’s back to the underlying themes of motherhood in Top of the Lake.
What we’re trying to say is that while there’s a lot of focus on the headier, meatier topics that arise from a chillingly resonant series in which a patriarchal regime strips women of their reproductive rights, or one in which rape and murder investigations guide season-long storylines—necessary points of focus, sure, and Moss has spoken eloquently about all of it—it seems prudent to make clear that, for all that intensity, Moss is really quite fun.
She’s practically giddy when talking about the opportunity to revisit Robin in Top of the Lake, a role she thought she was done with when she left the New Zealand set of the first series in 2013. It was a frustrating farewell as she had just gotten the knack of the role’s tricky accent, not to mention the emotional difficulty of playing a woman who, a decade after giving up for adoption the baby she had after being raped, is investigating the disappearance of a teenage girl who was also impregnated by her rapist.
“By the end of the first one, I remember saying to Jane, ‘I can’t believe we’re finishing…’” she says. “In the last month I really remember saying to her, ‘I wish we could go back to the beginning and start again. So the opportunity to revisit the character like that is such a dream, you know? And revisit it four years later with the character having had experiences and me having had experiences.”
For the character, those experiences include moving back to Sydney from New Zealand following the dramatic conclusion of her investigation, the end of her engagement, the death of her mother, and the decision to contact the daughter she gave up.
For Moss, the changes are significantly less dramatic, though still profound.
“I just got older!” she laughs. She was 29 when she started filming the first Top of the Lake, and is 35 now. “There’s a difference between those ages. I did two, three more years on Mad Men after that, a fair share of films. You have a little bit more under your belt to bring to it. A little more awareness of your own craft, awareness of who you are as an actor. A little more bravery, maybe. Robin requires quite a bit of confidence and bravery to play her.”
It should go without saying that filming a seven-hour epic series filmed in New Zealand and written and directed by Jane Campion alters how an actress might view the industry and what she wants from it in the future. But Moss is still surprised by just how much the series changed her life and her career.
“I wasn’t sure if I could do this character,” she says. “I had played Peggy on Mad Men for a few years, and I sort of needed to prove to myself that I could do something else besides Peggy. That helped to do it for me. Just to give me that confidence that I could play more than that character, that it wasn’t going to be my only calling card. That, I think, set me off on a trajectory for sure. The feeling that, yes, it’s going to be OK. There’s going to be life after Mad Men. There’s life after Peggy. That that wasn’t going to be the only thing I ever did.”
She starts laughing at herself as she hears what she’s saying: “Which, by the way, would’ve been fine. Like, more than fine.”
The amount that Moss giggles at herself throughout the interview is endearing. While quietly becoming TV’s most prolific dramatic actress, she hasn’t, apparently, lost her self-awareness.
In fact, as we compare thoughts about what changes in your life when you turn 30 and mutually boast about being Leos—“Leos are the best and we knoooow it,” she coos—it becomes clear she’s more relatable than you might expect an actress who’s worked since she was 10 years old (and, as the press has mentioned more and more lately, is a Scientologist) to be. And never more relatable than when she is freaking out about Oprah.
We’re at the point in our conversation where we’re marveling at the year that the women behind Top of the Lake: China Girl have had.
This installment of the series co-stars Gwendoline Christie, Game of Thrones’ Brienne of Tarth, as Miranda, a police officer with a puppy-dog enthusiasm and obsession with Robin, who is assigned to investigate with her the murder of a dead woman whose body was found in a suitcase that washed up on the beach.
Nicole Kidman boarded a plane immediately after wrapping Big Little Lies to start rehearsals for her role as Julia, the adoptive mother of the now 18-year-old girl that Robin gave up for adoption. Then there’s Moss, who will have The Handmaid’s Tale and Top of the Lake: China Girl on TV screens in the same calendar year.
Big Little Lies, The Handmaid’s Tale, and Top of the Lake are like the Holy Trinity of female-powered TV series this year. “You can’t help but look at that and go, wow, this is great,” Moss says. “There should be more of it, and we’ve got to make sure there’s more of it, but it is different than it was. Women want to see themselves on the screen, and they’re very interesting stories and it’s what we want to watch and [networks are] finally catching on to that.”
Suddenly she lets out an excited yelp and reaches for her phone again, scrolling past the photo of the smoothie to find a picture she took of the weekend’s Calendar section of The Los Angeles Times. “I was the only white person out of four actors on the cover. I was like, that’s fucking fantastic. That is exactly what I want to see, and I think it’s also a sign of things shifting a little bit,” she says, pointing out the other actors with her on the cover: Sterling K. Brown, Donald Glover, and Oprah Winfrey.
“Of course I took a photo of it, as you do when you’re on the cover of something with Oprah,” she says, fanning herself. “But I mean this is awesome. Four people, one white person, and she’s a woman.” Then in a mock grandiose, dramatic voice: “Now continue on, industry!”
As she gets up to leave, I shoot another glance at the smoothie, which she has surprisingly, given her initial reaction to its appearance, nearly finished. “It’s actually not bad,” she shrugs. “It kind of just tastes like strawberries.”