Elisabeth Moss

Elisabeth Moss’s portrayal of a naïve secretary who became a savvy advertising copywriter in Mad Men gained her international fame and numerous Emmy, Golden Globe and SAG Award nominations. She subsequently appeared in several movies and the Jane Campion TV series Top of the Lake before starring in the TV adaptation of Margaret Atwood’s novel The Handmaid’s Tale, about a theocratic totalitarian republic called Gilead. Her performance as Offred, a young woman forced to bear children for infertile women, earned her an Emmy win for best actress in a drama series. The MGM-produced show for Hulu also scored the Emmy for best drama series, as well as wins in the writing and directing categories, among others. Hulu has renewed the show for a second season, which is set to roll out in 2018.

WS: How did you hear about The Handmaid’s Tale, and what appealed to you about the project?
MOSS: The script for the pilot was offered to me when I was in Australia doing the second season of Top of the Lake. It was one of the best pilot scripts I’ve ever read. I was most interested in how [the writers] were going to continue to adapt the story, so I asked to see the second script. And the second script was, in my opinion, even better than the first. Both made me cry and made me extremely entertained. When someone gives you something like that, where you’re carrying the show in a lead role, it’s exciting, and it’s also really scary and very flattering. I was flattered that they thought I could do it, and I couldn’t get it off my mind. I took quite a while to say yes because I put a lot of thought into anything that I do, and when you’re doing a series, you’re signing up for, potentially, a longer involvement. So I took a lot of time to think about it, but I just couldn’t imagine not doing it, and I couldn’t stand the idea of anyone else doing it! [Laughs] So I had to [accept] because I just could not get it off my mind.

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.

WS: Is there a difference in your approach to a character that exists in a book, compared to a new character?
MOSS: In a way it’s a lot easier when you’re creating a character from scratch. All you have are the scripts in front of you. But with The Handmaid’s Tale, I had this incredible novel to refer to that is so inspiring. Anything that I needed to know about the character, how she felt or who she was, was there in the book, right down to certain scenes. [The book] has been like a bible for me. I’ve got this copy that my friend gave me years ago, and I’ve read it everywhere, even in the bathtub, and it’s been in so many different bags! [Laughs] It’s very worn and highlighted and earmarked. It’s my reference for everything. If there’s a moment when I need to be inspired, I go back to the book and I’ll read a passage from it. So, in a way, it’s a lot easier because somebody already thought in such depth about a character. At the same time, you’re bringing something to life that hasn’t been brought to life before, so there is that challenge. But for me, [the book] was a great, great gift, and it really made my job a lot easier.

WS: You often play characters that are multilayered.
MOSS: That is what I find interesting and challenging. Anything else is boring. And Offred has that in spades, given that she is playing the role of a handmaid, and she’s not allowed to speak her mind. When she does speak, it has to be certain things that she says. So there’s a giant inner life, there’s a person there that she’s not allowed to be. In the show we have flashbacks, so we show who she was before she became a handmaid. [She was a person] who had a good life and a family. I also played her three years later, as Offred, a person who’s had her child taken away and has been abused, physically and mentally. Being able to play both has been the most exciting part.

WS: You have done films, television and theater. Do you have a favorite, or do you enjoy them all?
MOSS: I do enjoy them all. They each have good things and bad things about them. With theater, the thing that you’re exercising that you don’t in film and TV is your stamina and your ability to repeat something over and over and over again and not get bored. I get bored easily, so that’s my challenge, in doing something eight times a week and finding new things about it and making it interesting. Film and TV are where I grew up, and [they are] much more comfortable. I love doing five scenes a day. There’s always a joke on set that if we spend too long on a scene, I’ll start announcing that I’m bored! [Laughs] Keeping it fresh is just what I’m used to. Even from take to take, I always like trying different things. But, obviously, the positive aspect of theater is that live feedback, that live interaction with the audience. Being able to perform for a group of people who are in a room watching you is thrilling.