Elisabeth Moss Opens Up About Scientology and Resisting Trump: ‘The Only Place I Can Speak From Is My Own’
The acclaimed actress talks to Marlow Stern about her award-worthy turn as a punk rocker in ‘Her Smell,’ her controversial faith, and why ‘The Handmaid’s Tale’ is so resonant.
She’s been branded “The Queen of Peak TV,” with treasured roles in the series The West Wing, Mad Men and The Handmaid’s Tale (not to mention her Golden Globe-winning performance in Top of the Lake), and this year Elisabeth Moss is poised to conquer the big screen as well.
First came her face-carving, rosé-swilling turn in Us, Jordan Peele’s stylish satire of Reagan-era negligence, which has grossed over $200 million worldwide and counting; and later this year she’ll join Melissa McCarthy and Tiffany Haddish in the ‘70s-set crime drama The Kitchen, and portray celebrated mystery author Shirley Jackson in Shirley, Josephine Decker’s anticipated follow-up to Madeline’s Madeline.
But it will be hard for any of those roles to top Her Smell.
Her Becky Something, lead singer of the world-renowned all-female punk-rock group Something She, is a hair-trigger-tempered hellraiser whose drug-induced mood swings petrify those around her, from her bandmates (Agyness Deyn, Gayle Rankin) to her estranged husband (Dan Stevens) to her doting mother (Virginia Madsen). She is an undeniable musical talent, yes, but one whose mind is unraveling, causing her to push away or even endanger those she loves most—including her baby girl. And Moss is an absolute force of nature, throwing herself fully into the role of a thrashing, eyeliner-bleeding, devil-may-care rock goddess.
Her Smell marks the third collaboration between Moss and filmmaker Alex Ross Perry, following Listen Up Philip and Queen of Earth, and is far and away their best—a madcap monument to Moss’ singular acting ability.
I sat down with Moss during SXSW in Austin, Texas, where we discussed her long, winding road to movie stardom—and much more.
How did you and Alex come up with the idea of capturing this rocker in the Courtney Love or Kathleen Hanna mold spiraling out of control?
[Alex] had come up with this very basic idea a couple of years ago about a female rock star at the height of her career but had a baby and was an addict. He was fascinated by the image of a woman being an addict, high on drugs, holding a baby. That’s where it came from, and he said, “I’m going to write this movie and it’s mainly going to be you in a hotel room.” It was going to be really small and intimate, a lot of locked-off shots. We had this idea of putting a camera there and just letting it run.
Similar to Queen of Earth.
Exactly. Very Queen of Earth-ish. And I got the script months later and it was this five-act structure with two bands spanning many years with a gigantic cast, and I was like, “This is very different. I love it. Let’s do it.”
Speaking of the baby, those early scenes where Becky snatches the baby and disappears backstage are incredibly nerve-racking.
That baby is actually Adam’s [Piotrowicz]—our producer’s—son Clive, and he is the most intelligent, coolest child I’ve ever met in my life. The kid is a champion and absolutely adorable, so shout-out to Clive! But that was the germ of the idea that sparked the movie: this idea of a woman who loves her child so much but is in no condition to handle it, in no condition to take care of a child but has had a child anyway, and who hasn’t stopped using. Loving something and being able to take care of it are two very different things. Becky loves her child so much but because of her addiction is not able to be the mother that she needs to be for her.
Did you listen to any punk music growing up—any Hole or Bikini Kill?
Not at all. I grew up listening to classical, jazz, blues, country. I remember hearing about Nirvana but not really understanding what it was, not really listening to it. It was on the radio but not really getting it and it just wasn’t my thing at all. And so with this movie, it was a real deep dive into Bikini Kill, the Riot Grrrl movement, Kathleen Hanna, and all that.
Did you watch The Punk Singer?
Of course! Several times.
There’s an interesting six-degrees here, since Kathleen’s husband Adam Horovitz—or Ad-Rock—starred in Alex’s Golden Exits.
Oh! Well, there you go. For me, understanding where that music came from was very important, and I actually had a conversation with my friend Beck who was extremely helpful to me in telling me where that music came from. That was really helpful, because I wanted to understand where the music came from, why these kids were so depressed, and why they were so unhappy and angry, and he talked to me a lot about that and how that generation felt—that they felt abandoned by their parents and teachers, everyone hated them, and they were mad and didn’t have anyone to talk to about it. They didn’t have this culture we have now of talking about your feelings, so they put it into music.
I understand you were into ballet, which is a very regimented lifestyle, but did you ever have a period of teenage rebellion?
I was already acting, so for me, I stopped dancing when I was 15 or 16—you had to go either way at that point, and if I went with ballet I knew I wouldn’t be able to act, and if I acted I could still possibly dance—so I went with the acting. I could imagine not dancing but I couldn’t imagine not acting. And being in a musical is my dream. But no, I didn’t really have a rebellious period because I moved to New York when I was 18, and I started West Wing when I was 17.
So did you go to Kim’s Video while Alex was working there?
Yes! But I don’t remember him. We talk about how he probably recommended some things for me, because I was there all the time and lived in the East Village for 13 years. Although I was the girl they probably hated for going in there and renting Bridget Jones’s Diary or something … but I also rented my share of foreign films!
Her Smell’s five-act structure is interesting because each act mirrors Becky’s state of mind.
The acts almost reflect the different drugs that she’s on, and the different highs that she’s experiencing. In Act I she’s probably on the basics, and then Act II is getting into meth, Act III is everything … so they do mirror her experience, and they go as slowly or as quickly as she’s feeling. I know people always say “this was a challenge,” but this actually was pretty hard. We shot this in a month and a week after we’d wrapped The Handmaid’s Tale—because we pushed The Handmaid’s Tale back—so it was challenging. And with every act being one scene, you’re shooting 10 pages of it at a time and then moving on to the next 10. Plus I didn’t want to feel like I’d left anything on the dance floor. I wanted to feel like I’d gone all the way, so I pushed myself as far as I could go.
You and Alex have become such a formidable director-star pair. Why do you think you gel so well?
We’re very different in a lot of ways but we both want to make the same thing: films that are referential and have been inspired by previous work but that aren’t like anything else out there right now. And these are not lovable characters necessarily—characters that are extremely flawed. Alex reminds me a lot of a foreign filmmaker. I feel there are very few of them in America that are auteurs, that are making movies that are what they want to say artistically and aren’t about making money or breaking box-office records. We love pushing the envelope and have a very high threshold for that. And we have no desire to make people like us, or make them like the character. We don’t care. In fact, the more disgusted you are with the character, the more we feel we’ve done our job.
And then in the final acts of Her Smell you pull it back, and make us feel empathy for Becky.
He likes to push and I like to push but it’s my job to, regardless of how abhorrent this character is, regardless of how much you want to judge her, make you like her and understand her. That’s why this combination of the two of us works really well.
You’ve been branded “The Queen of Peak TV” but I’m curious why you think you’ve been able to be on three iconic shows—in The West Wing, Mad Men, and The Handmaid’s Tale—and still managed to avoid being typecast. When people play just one memorable TV character, audiences can have a hard time seeing them as anything but.
I take that as such a huge compliment, because to me that is just so important. I look back on actors of yesteryear, and we live in a world now that’s so different—with social media, how you have to do press for a movie because the market is so flooded—and I think that an actor should not be identified as themself; I think that an actor should be able to melt into any role. So me having autonomy is very valuable to me, because I want people to be able to see me as the character I’m playing, and I don’t want them to see me as myself. I’ve approached everything from such a character standpoint that it’s so boring to me to do the same thing. I don’t even like to do the same thing from take-to-take. I’ve done takes and had the director come up to me and say, “Oh, you did something the last time that I really liked … can you do it again?” and my response invariably is, “Well, didn’t you get it? We have that one then. I’m going to do something else now.” It’s only interesting for me to find something different. And I’ve been so lucky to be able to do that.
Being on Mad Men and The Handmaid’s Tale and playing these fiercely feminist characters, people have criticized you for being a Scientologist, which some see as being at odds with the themes of those shows—particularly Handmaid’s. I’m sure you’ve heard those criticisms before, but what do you say to those criticisms?
Listen, it’s a complicated thing because the things that I believe in, I can only speak to my personal experience and my personal beliefs. One of the things I believe in is freedom of speech. I believe we as humans should be able to critique things. I believe in freedom of the press. I believe in people being able to speak their own opinions. I don’t ever want to take that away from anybody, because that actually is very important to me. At the same time, I should hope that people educate themselves for themselves and form their own opinion, as I have. The things that I believe in personally, for me, The Handmaid’s Tale, and the ability to do something that is artistically fulfilling but is also personally fulfilling, I’ve never had that. The Handmaid’s Tale lines up so perfectly parallel with my own beliefs in freedom of speech, freedom of religion, and the things that this country was actually built on.
I once spoke with Neil deGrasse Tyson about Scientology and he argued that much of the criticism it receives is because it’s newer and weirder. But I’m sure you’ve heard the criticisms of Scientology—from “disconnection” to the sums of money some adherents have been forced to fork over to it. Is the argument, then, that what it’s doing is not worse than, say, what the Catholic Church has done with its systematic abuse of children? I’m curious where you stand.
Right. It’s funny, there’s two things you’re never supposed to talk about at a dinner—politics or religion—and of course I’m doing The Handmaid’s Tale, which is politics and religion, so it’s a strange situation where you’re going to be asked about these topics. I choose to express myself in my work and my art. I don’t choose to express myself about it in interviews. I don’t choose to talk about not just religion, but my personal life—who I’m dating and that kind of thing. So for me, it’s so hard to unpack in a sound bite or an interview, but I will say that the things that I truly believe in are the things that I’ve mentioned, and I think that they’re very important. I think people should be allowed to talk about what they want to talk about and believe what they want to believe and you can’t take that away—and when you start to take that away, when you start to say “you can’t think that,” “you can’t believe that,” “you can’t say that,” then you get into trouble. Then you get into Gilead. So whatever happens, I’m never going to take away your right to talk about something or believe something, and you can’t take away mine.
Scientology—especially in L. Ron Hubbard’s writings—has a history of being quite anti-LGBT.
Which is not where I stand. It’s like, it’s a lot to get into and unpack that I can’t do. But that is not my bag. I am obviously a huge feminist and huge supporter of the LGBTQ community and believe so strongly—I can’t even tell you—in people being able to do what they want to do, to love who they want to love, to be the person that they want to be—whoever that is. To me, it’s a huge reason why I love doing the show. That’s all I can say. I can’t speak to what other people believe, I can’t speak to what other people’s experiences have been. That’s where I stand and the only place I can speak from is my own.
The Handmaid’s Tale does seem remarkably in tune with the times. Just last week there was the case of an Alabama man suing an abortion clinic on behalf of an aborted fetus, as well as Georgia’s controversial “heartbeat bill.” And that powerful Super Bowl ad really brought home how much the show is seen by many as an act of resistance against this administration, and the assault on reproductive rights.
It’s an honor. We went to D.C. and shot at the Lincoln Memorial, and I find it incredibly moving what Lincoln stood for, what’s written on the walls, what those monuments stand for. The principles that this country was built on are important and we’re losing them—and perhaps we’ve already lost them. You feel a sense of responsibility and you feel honored telling this story at this time. When you’re kneeling on the steps in front of the Lincoln Memorial, you’re looking at where MLK gave his ‘I Have a Dream’ speech, you’re in the outfit of complete lack of freedom, and your president is a few blocks away arguing about putting up a wall, you can’t help but feel that you have the responsibility to tell this story, and I feel honored to be able to express what I think, what I feel, and what a lot of other people feel through what I love doing. For me, it’s an unfortunate thing. I wish this was crazy, and I wish Handmaid’s Tale was insane Game of Thrones shit and pure fantasy. I wish that were true. But it’s not.
And you’re the face of the show, which in and of itself is a tremendous responsibility.
I’m not a politician—I’m just a person, and a woman. I believe that June stands for any person—man, woman, whatever you want to identify as, whoever you want to love, whoever you want to believe—who’s had their human rights taken away, who’s been abused, or who’s felt like they didn’t have a choice, or felt like they couldn’t live the life they wanted to live. You can take the personal and make it political very quickly, and that’s my job: to put a face to the people who don’t have that, and to give a voice to the people who don’t have a voice. What’s really gratifying to me is when someone in another country—that’s far closer to Gilead than we are—who’s gay comes up to me and says, “I feel like I’ve watched the show and it’s given me hope; I feel like I’m not alone.” That, to me, is what I value. That’s important to me.
You were brilliant on Mad Men. Have you thought about how the show’s aged, amid #MeToo, Time’s Up and our current cultural climate?
It wouldn’t be so cute now, would it?
It seemed there were different camps of Mad Men viewers. There were people like myself who watched the show and respected these courageous women pushing back against this patriarchal system, and there were people who watched it as some sort of cultural wish-fulfillment fantasy, and wished America could return to those times where men behaved badly with impunity.
Totally—except I think the thing that Mad Men did is we actually did show the consequences of that behavior. We did show the consequences of drinking, smoking, infidelity, and harassing women. I think Mad Men lines up perfectly with the #MeToo movement and Time’s Up because it’s a feminist show, and if you watch the entire thing, Don starts out as the hero, the sex symbol, the guy on top, the guy you want to be, and near the end, he’s broken, he’s alone and he’s miserable. And it’s Peggy who has it all. So for me, there was a way to go with that show which is what you just said, which was like, “Oh god, that’s not very feminist!” but I think the way that Matt [Weiner] did it was brilliant because he told the story accurately and he gave the women the power.
I need to re-watch it now and see how it’s aged, but I agree.
Same with Joan, too—Christina Hendricks’ character. It’s one of the most powerful female characters ever written and one of the most harassed. That’s something that will make that show timeless, and I’m so glad it went that way. And that’s the truth: women fought back, women started to demand equal pay, women started to say “you can’t do that anymore.” Women did that. So we just followed history.