Elisabeth Moss has been working as an actor since she was a child. She has appeared in numerous feature films and TV series, including Girl, Interrupted and The West Wing, but it was her role as Peggy Olson in Mad Men that earned her international attention and multiple award nominations. This year, she headlines the adaptation of Margaret Atwood’s novel The Handmaid’s Tale, produced by MGM Television for Hulu, and returns for a second season of Top of the Lake. She talks to World Screen about the complex, layered characters that she is portraying.
WS: In The Handmaid’s Tale, your character, Offred, keeps so much bottled up inside of her. How did you prepare for the role and get into Offred’s mind and her emotions?
MOSS: In a way, I feel more connected to this character than anyone I’ve ever played, probably just circumstantially, because she’s a woman in her 30s who is having her rights taken away. I wanted to play her as if I, or you, or my friends, were going through that experience. I wanted to play her as somebody that was extremely identifiable; not a heroine but a real person. That’s how I always try to get in with any character, by finding what is real and true about them and what is identifiable. At the same time, when we pick up [the story] in the pilot, she’s been in this world for about three years and she’s had terrible things happen to her. In the totalitarian Republic of Gilead, Offred is not allowed to talk or express her feelings, so my job is to figure out how to express something on the outside without saying anything. That was not only the challenge but also the most fun. You’ll see as the series progresses that she obviously starts to break out of that and express more and start to fall apart and also gain strength in many ways.
WS: Do you look for characters that have interesting personality dualities?
MOSS: Yes, that is what I look for. I think it’s very true to life. We all have a public persona that we project to the world, and then we have an inner life and inner thoughts that we keep to ourselves. My job is to show both; that is what I find both interesting and challenging.
WS: The subject matter is pretty dark and some scenes are rather gruesome. How do you disconnect at the end of the filming day, or do you take that with you?
MOSS: I’m very, very good at letting go and at disconnecting, both on and off set. I’m not a method actor at all, and to remain in that dark space isn’t helpful because it just becomes all you know. It’s important to be able to reconnect with reality so that you can be intelligent and objective about your work. It sounds crazy, but we have so much fun on set. Because Gilead is such a dark place, we’ve consciously tried to bring some levity—dark humor, perhaps, but humor. The voiceover is a huge part of [creating some distance] because the voiceover [functions as] the audience. It allows the viewer to step back for a second and go, OK, someone else also thinks that this is crazy and dark and messed up. [Laughs] When you’re dealing with a dark subject matter, it’s important not to take yourself too seriously because otherwise it just feels like it’s a morality lesson or a history lesson. The way that the book is written is very darkly humorous and we’ve tried to capture that tone.
WS: You also have a producer’s credit on the show. What added responsibilities do you have?
MOSS: I watch all the cuts, I give notes, I’m involved in the larger picture—ideas as far as marketing and scripts—and the smaller ideas, down to a particular prop or piece of costume. It has been a lot more work than I expected, but it’s also been a lot more gratifying than I expected. To have been doing this as long as I’ve been doing it, it is an incredible experience for me to be able to have a say and a voice. I have to give credit to the people I work with because not only do they give me a voice but they also listen to it, and we are all about making the best show possible.
WS: You also have season two of Top of the Lake coming out. What can you tell us about that?
MOSS: As crazy as it might sound, I think that the second season is a lot darker than the first, and more complex. The crime [in the second season] is based a bit more in reality, and the scripts, in my opinion, are next-level compared to the first season. It’s much more interior. It’s in Sydney, and all the sets, the space, the light, everything is so different in Australia compared to New Zealand. Four years have gone by, and the character I play has been through a lot. Jane [Campion, creator and writer] approached me about doing a second season when we were at the Emmys for the first season. I said to her, I would love to; my only requirement is that it be darker, more challenging and more messed up than the first one. You have to give me something more to do. And she did in spades! [Laughs]