Meet Elisabeth Moss
A colleague of mine once told me that Elisabeth Moss is a difficult interviewee, that she doesn’t want to talk and never says anything worth quoting. That is simply not true. Moss sits in a sunny hotel garden in Cannes, dressed in a floral summer dress, and is funny, quick-witted and very eloquent. This, combined with the fact that she now has the reputation of being one of the finest young actresses in the world and that 2017 marks her international breakthrough, is something she seems to have taken in her stride.
Lives: Apartment on the Upper West Side, New York
Family: Father who lives in Florida, mother who lives in New York, younger brother. Briefly married to comedian Fred Armisen.
Currently: Starring in Palm d’Or winning movie The Square and TV series Top of the Lake: China Girl. Previous films and TV series: The West Wing, Mad Men, Top of the Lake, The Handmaid’s Tale, High Rise
“I don’t take my job that seriously,” says the 34-year-old. “I sometimes wish that I was very serious and tormented. I look at my fellow actors and think they’re so cool and interesting. I love my job, but I don’t delude myself by thinking that I’m out to save the world or that I’m doing something courageous by discovering the feelings I may need to play a particular role.”
Her reputation of being unwilling to say anything probably stems from her not making tabloid headlines, refraining from participating in “at home with” interviews and avoiding answering prying questions about her private life (which can easily upset some tabloid journalists). One example of this is that her unwillingness to talk about the fact she is an active scientologist. She knows it is a controversial topic and made it clear she didn’t want to openly discuss it in an interview a few years ago.
“I get curious and fascinated about things I have nothing to do with. I may also be fascinated when someone breaks up with their partner. I’m interested in what people wear and things like that, but at the same time, everyone’s entitled to a certain degree of privacy.”
Despite this, after the 2017 edition of the Cannes Film Festival, it feels as though I have gotten to know her a bit. I run into her so many times that our meetings become something of a standing joke during the festival weeks. She has one of the leading roles in Ruben Östlund’s The Square, which was competing for a prize this year. Because it’s a Swedish film, it has attracted much more attention from Swedish reporters, which means many meetings with Moss, male lead Claes Bang, Östlund and other people involved in the movie. Moss also has the lead role in Jane Campion’s TV series Top of the Lake: China Girl, which is being shown in its entirety at the festival, and she is also giving interviews to publicize the project.
‘I don’t take my job that seriously’
If we add The Square together with Top of the Lake and this year’s HBO hit The Handmaid’s Tale, in which she also plays the lead role, the conclusion must inevitably be that she’s working all the time. Isn’t she? She laughs.
“I’ve spent more than a year literally working 24/7 and everything’s now coming out all at once. We filmed all around the world. Sweden, Australia, Canada. I didn’t work on anything at all in the US during 2016,” she says.
“It’s not something you dwell on. You never know when a movie will be released. The important thing is to look for a good script and good people to work with. When I’m looking for a role, the script comes first and the director a very close second. But, without a good script, you can’t have a good film. I’ve got a lot of experience and now only want to work with people I feel can teach me something and take me out of my comfort zone. I read all scripts myself. You never know, you may uncover a hidden gem.”
A gem like the TV series The Handmaid’s Tale, a dystopian vision of a US under the control of a dictator that is frighteningly similar to the current state of affairs under Donald Trump.
“Yes, and to think that the book on which the series is based was written in 1985. Margaret Atwood was a real visionary.”
Moss particularly wanted to work with Ruben Östlund having seen his film Force Majeure, and when she found herself working on another job in York, England, and heard that he wanted to meet her, she traveled to London to see him.
“I thought it was just going to be a quick meeting, but it turned into a one-hour audition. I didn’t think anything would come of it. I just thought it was cool to have had the opportunity to meet Ruben Östlund. So when I was given the role, I was both surprised and delighted.”
In The Square, Moss plays a journalist who comes to Stockholm to interview a museum curator (played by Danish actor Claes Bang). The museum is housed in what used to be Stockholm Castle. The curator talks about his new installation, “The Square.” If anyone needs assistance, they only have to enter the square, then it is the duty of the surroundings to help. But what about our empathy and our willingness to help our nearest and dearest? This is what Östlund’s film is about while also being a biting and often hilarious satire of the art world.
One scene in the film was shot in the Grand Hotel in Stockholm, where people dressed for a party get to see how a show where a man imitates a gorilla gets out of hand and ends in a fight. As a humble journalist, I was allowed to be involved in the shoot and noticed the thoroughness that permeated Östlund’s directorial work. He is able to re-shoot a scene several times, although he says that the claim that certain scenes were shot 60-70 times is somewhat exaggerated. Bang has said that “while Ruben is very demanding, he also gives actors a great deal of room for self-expression.”
Moss agrees. “It was incredibly challenging, much more than I thought it would be. Ruben looks for the truth in each scene. This approach is incredibly hard and tiring for the cast, but it’s worth the effort in the end.”
Born in Los Angeles in 1982, Moss grew up in hippie circles, with a mother who played harmonica in a blues band and a father who worked as a manager for different bands and was always out on tour, and she talks about how musicians were always coming over to the family apartment for jam sessions. Jazz was her music of choice, not rock or pop.
It’s not surprising, then, that music has continued to play a big role in her life. She particularly likes to listen to Icelandic band Sigur Ros, and between takes she likes to put on some headphones, partly to listen to music, but also to get some peace and quiet.
Moss initially wanted to be a dancer, but her studies increasingly led her to develop acting aspirations. Although she got her first role in 1990, her first big role came in 1999, when she played the daughter of president Jed Barlett in the TV series The West Wing. It was a role she had for seven years. The following year, she won the part of secretary Peggy Olsen in the TV series Mad Men, managing to secure no fewer than five Emmy nominations.
There were more than 90 episodes of Mad Men, and she says that the public seemed to take the cancellation of the series harder than she did. She moved on to other work, not least Jane Campion’s TV series Top of the Lake, which was set in New Zealand and sees Moss play a police officer who returns to her hometown to solve a disappearance, getting involved in some increasingly dark intrigue along the way. The series became an international hit, Moss received yet another Emmy nomination and won a Golden Globe, so it was little surprise that discussions began about making a follow-up.
“While we were shooting Top of the Lake, we joked about what a follow-up series might look like. Jane said that she and Gerard Lee would start writing, but she wanted to know whether I was really interested, so they didn’t have to do any unnecessary work. I said ‘if you think it’s good, of course I’ll be on board.’”
The follow-up, which is set to hit screens around the world in the fall, is called Top of the Lake: China Girl. Set in Sydney it’s a dark tale of trafficking and murder. Moss’ character Robin not only has to solve the case, but also deal with her own demons and her relationship with the daughter she gave up for adoption.
“I wanted her to begin from a really dark place in her life. It was the reason to go back, to find a challenge, to go from the darkness – that’s what makes it so enjoyable. A lot of the story is about how people are forced to address the personal problems they really don’t want to deal with, and by doing so, are forced to confront themselves.”
In the first series, Robin was confronted by Peter Mullan’s brutal clan leader character. In the second, it is Danish/Swedish actor David Denick who plays the insidious bad guy. Moss laughs.
“Personally, I like nice men. But when it comes to drama, dark characters are always much more interesting. I think there’s great scope when a story deals with how a strong and intelligent woman who attracts a certain type of man needs to be taken care of, and such relationships are interesting to see on the big screen. Bad relationships are always more interesting to watch than good ones.”
Text: Gunnar Rehlin