Elisabeth Moss: “Now is not the time for fear - it’s the time for cold, hard action”

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Helen Bownass
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Elisabeth Moss is angry. Not with me, thankfully. Rather, about the challenges we are facing as global citizens. “I get angry, but it’s very cold – it’s a cold, calm anger,” she says, slowly, thoughtfully. “Now is not the time for fear. It’s not the time for violence. It’s the time for cold, hard action.” This exchange, which so perfectly elucidates what so many of us are feeling right now as our freedoms and rights are challenged and terrorised, comes as part of a wider discussion around her role in The Handmaid’s Tale.

The show is the breathtaking 10-part adaptation of Margaret Atwood’s 1985 dystopian novel about a society that controls women’s bodies and reproductive rights. To put it bluntly, it’s some of the most important TV that will be on screen this year. It’s a project Moss feels immensely passionate about – she is a producer on the show too and will also be in the second series, which is due to start filming later this year. During our conversation on a sofa that envelops us both, she’s wearing a necklace that says “Nolite te bastardes carborundorum,” a Latin phrase found in the book meaning “Don’t let the bastards grind you down”. God, I want that necklace.

What’s particularly thrilling about my encounter with Moss is that she doesn’t just have one incredible project to discuss, she has two. We all know there’s still a paucity of well-rounded roles for actresses, but next month Moss will also reprise her role as Detective Robin Griffin in Top Of The Lake. The hard-hitting detective drama by Jane Campion moves to Sydney as Griffin investigates a washed-up suitcase containing the body of an Asian girl.

Nicole Kidman and Gwendoline Christie, both brilliant, round out the cast in a show that prickles with atmosphere, mystery and candour, earning Moss, who grew up in Los Angeles with her brother and was raised as a Scientologist by her musician parents, is one of a handful of actors who has proved that if she is involved in a project it’ll be eminently watchable – and when you get your first major break in The West Wing, finding projects that keep bearing testament to that takes some doing.

She has made a name for herself playing meaningful, complex, vital parts, never more so than as the spirited Peggy Olsen in Mad Men and, more recently, in satire The Square, which won the prestigious Palme d’Or in Cannes. Despite her rather serious acting CV, there is also a lightness to Moss.

She has a huge smile that appears frequently despite the fact she’s feeling poorly – she is fascinated by the Berocca I’ve bought her: “This is very exciting what’s happening right now!” she says, watching it fizz. We spend one of the happiest five minutes of my 2017 trying to name the members of teenage book series The Baby- Sitters Club.

“Kristy, Claudia, Stacey – f**k there’s one more,” she laughs. “Stacey was like the tomboy, Claudia was fashion-y, right? Or was Kristy the tomboy?” She’s also holding out for the end of our interview so she can have a Moscow mule. “It’s 4.30pm. I try not to drink before 5pm. That’s my one rule!”

It’s a rule we wouldn’t blame her for flexing right now…

We can’t talk about The Handmaid’s Tale without talking about its resonance. Why do you think it’s such a gut punch right now?
The ideas of patriarchy, sexism, sexual slavery, human trafficking, human rights, women’s rights, ideas of segregation and people being divided – all of these ideas are things that are relevant everywhere. Those are things that I really connected to reading those first scripts. Then obviously, what happened was things moved a lot closer to home. These things have been happening for a long time and are still happening all around the world. Of course, something is going to feel more important to you when it happens in your own country. Are we in a time now where the relevance of it is un-ignorable? Absolutely.

Is it also that we are having these conversations more now? You can no longer be quiet…
Whether you’re a feminist, whatever you are, you can’t be quiet any more. We live in a time where you can’t stand in the middle. You can’t be silent.

The Handmaid’s Tale is such a seminal book, have you felt the weight of responsibility in bringing it to life?
I’m a big believer as an artist that you cannot operate from fear. I’m very considerate in what I choose and I take a while to make a decision. I took six weeks to say yes to The Handmaid’s Tale, but that’s because if I say yes, I’m in 100%.

Were you asking other people for advice when making that decision?
I was asking the milkman practically! I have people who I trust and who I have worked with for a long time. My mum is a huge influence, I talked to Gwendoline [Christie], to Jane [Campion]. I spoke to Hulu [the TV service that made the show], I spoke to MGM. When it came down to them needing a decision, I was on the phone with my mum, and emailed them saying, “I’m talking to my mother. When I decide, you will have my answer, but for now I’m talking to my mum.”

Is that something that comes quite easily to you? To be able to push back…
It’s something that has become easier as I’ve gotten older and had more practice in speaking up. Working on the show, being a producer on it, having to voice my opinion – it strengthens you like a muscle.

It can be tricky for women as it’s often tied up with an idea of being likeable. But really does that matter?
No, it doesn’t. Because who cares about being liked? People will respect you more for having an opinion you believe in, and for voicing it. The first few times that I spoke up about something, it was scary. But you do it, you realise you’re still there, and it’s OK. You still have a job, people don’t actually hate you, and the next time it’s a little bit easier. Before you know it you’re just f**king ballsy and you don’t give a s**t any more. The women that I admire are opinionated and ballsy. That’s something that I aspire to.

At Cannes last month Jessica Chastain spoke very passionately about the need for more female storytellers. Is that something you feel equally strongly about?
I love what she said and totally agree. One of my goals as a producer is to make stories for women and about women. Until we have equality in this industry, it’s important to take action and not let it be just a pipe dream. We need to consciously hire women behind the camera.

What is it that makes you want to take a stand against something?
I feel angry, and a bit confused sometimes. For me, growing up in my generation, I never thought that Roe vs. Wade was a thing that would ever be overturned. It’s one thing for me, but I think it’s very important to get angry and fight for the younger generation. They’re the ones who are going to have to f**king clean up this mess. I would like to have a child. [But] I very much support the right for women to not, if they don’t want to. I don’t understand the concept of a woman not having ownership over her body. It’s a slow erosion isn’t it? It’s a slow breaking-down. Like how in a gradually heating bathtub you’d be boiled to death before you knew it. This didn’t start last year.

When you travel somewhere like the UK or France how aware are you of what’s happening politically?
That’s the thing. It’s not just America. You go to France, go to Cannes, and because of what happened in Nice there are men walking around with machine guns. You come to London, and with what just happened, there’s a feeling of… what would be the word?

Fear, exactly.

And defiance too, I think.
Same in America. It doesn’t feel like it’s limited to one country at this point, does it? We are all in it together, and that’s important to realise.

Do you take a lot of time to educate yourself?
As much as I can. It’s also very important for me to read different viewpoints. To not just read what’s fed to me on the news. There are often two sides to something – then there’s something like Planned Parenthood, which I’ve been working with for a few years, where I think there’s pretty much just one side, and I’m on that one. There’s that quote from Margaret [Atwood] – “Ignoring isn’t the same as ignorance. You have to work at it”. I’m very much trying, along with a lot of other people, not to ignore.

One of the things that’s really struck me about the show is how beautifully it’s shot. Was that important to you?
I was obsessed with the idea that it had to look amazing. The word ‘painterly’ was used quite a bit. Sometimes I would walk into rooms on set, and I’d take pictures of the room with nothing in it.

Are you a visual person? 
I’m very visual. I have almost a photographic memory. When I’m remembering lines, I think about what they look like on the page. If I need to remember somebody’s name, it’s best for me to look at it.

Is that how you learnt at school?
I didn’t really care about school that much [laughs]. I cared a lot about reading. I was that little girl who carried a book around. I was really into The Baby-Sitters Club! Little House On The Prairie, Nancy Drew – then when I got older, Jane Austen.

Alongside The Handmaid’s Tale, you’re back in Top Of The Lake. It goes into even darker territory, was that part of the appeal?
Yeah! I requested that it be darker. I didn’t see the point of doing it again if we didn’t. Darker is a bit of a general term, it’s also about being more complicated, more challenging, to do things that were a bit more f**ked up.

How was filming in Sydney?
I didn’t get to see much of it. I was working and I’m not a very social person – I’m not the person who’s going to go out for dinner with a bunch of people at the end of the day. I need to have that time to myself.

Do you enjoy travelling generally?
I do. I’m a bit of a nomad. I get bored pretty easily. First of all, I love hotels. I would live in a hotel.

What would be your dream hotel to live in?
The Sunset Tower [in Hollywood], but in New York!

Why do you like that idea?
I don’t know what it is. I don’t care too much about things having to be mine. I do love room service! And the beds are always better… I love travelling and going to places I’ve never been. I got to go to Japan a couple of years ago, it’s mind-blowing. It’s not necessarily a place I’d want to live but man, that’s like a different planet.

You’ve been doing back-to-back interviews – where do you draw your energy from?
I am very driven, and I love what I do. When I’m having those moments where I have to write one more email before I go to sleep, or do that eighth interview, sometimes I have little discussions with myself in my head about the fact that this is actually what I love to do. I have been doing this for 28 years and I love it! There were many times when I didn’t have a job; many times when nobody really wanted to talk to me.

People might be surprised to know that. Your career seems perfectly crafted…
For the last 10 years it’s been pretty good. But I was acting for many years before that and those years were very up and down.

You’ve obviously moved into producing too. Is it possible to read a book for fun without thinking about making it into a film?
Yeah, for sure. I’m reading Big Little Lies right now. So clearly, I’m not reading it for work: “Guys I’ve found an amazing book, that I think… really weirdly Nicole Kidman and Reese Witherspoon are on the cover… I think that’s just a casting suggestion?” I enjoy beach reads, I love stuff like The Girl On The Train. I enjoy escapist TV.

What sort of TV shows?
I love the Real Housewives. Beverly Hills and NYC are my favourites. I love Shonda Rhimes’ projects. I love Scandal, I’ve seen most of Grey’s Anatomy.

Because so many of the roles you have done have been very intense, do people expect you to be equally serious?
Yeah, I think so. Am I? [laughs]… I don’t know what it is. I don’t think you have to be a dark person to do dark material. In fact, I think it’s your ability to perhaps step outside of yourself and not look at the world through a dark prism that actually makes you able to see things about it.

The Handmaid’s Tale is on Sunday nights on Channel 4 at 9pm; Top Of The Lake is on BBC2 later this summer.