Elisabeth Moss talks The Invisible Man, her friendship with Margaret Atwood and why she wants to play a bad guy

Posted by for People

In an interview with Stylist, the star of The Handmaid’s Tale digs deep into her love of the dark side and shares the reason why her latest film The Invisible Man will strike such a chord with horror fans. 

Directors, as a general rule, tend not to be the type to be easily phased. It’s a necessary skill to have as a filmmaker, especially one like Leigh Whannel, the man who helped craft the Saw and Insidious horror franchises.

But while directing his latest horror film, a retelling of the classic The Invisible Man, told from the perspective of a woman named Cecilia terrorised by a man no-one else can see, Whannell had to marvel at the skill of his star Elisabeth Moss. He would watch her gasp, sob and scream, wringing the emotion out of every scene. He would yell: ‘Cut’. And then he would watch Moss immediately sit back, pick up her iPhone, and scroll through Instagram.

“I don’t know why but it’s just how I am,” Moss says, with a smile. We’re speaking in a London hotel room on the eve of the release of The Invisible Man. “I find it really easy to pop in and out. I don’t get too in my head about it.”

It’s just work, right? “Yeah, and I love it,” she adds. “And I enjoy it, so I don’t look at it as something that is labour. Like, oh god, I have to do this thing and it’s so hard. You know? It’s an elective field. No one has forced me into this.” 

The Invisible Man: Elisabeth Moss with director Leigh Whannel.
The Invisible Man: Elisabeth Moss with director Leigh Whannel.

But is Elisabeth Moss, two time Emmy Award-winning star of The Handmaid’s Tale, the woman who made a devastating dystopian television series utterly compelling viewing, really spending all her downtime in the mindless pit of social media? “I spend way too much time on Instagram,” she admits. “I set a limit on my phone, you know how you can do that? It’s like, I have to live my life. I have work to do. I can’t just be on Instagram.”

Moss is far too busy for that. The actor is about to have a year that seems manifested from a Film Twitter fever dream. She’s just been at the Sundance Film Festival where her Shirley Jackson biopic was one of the week’s best received movies. Later this year she will star in Wes Anderson’s The French Dispatch, then it’s Next Goal Wins, Taika Waititi’s new comedy. Afterwards, Moss is hoping to find something comedic to produce for her “friend Gwen Christie”. “She is the most brilliant, brilliant actress and she’s really funny… people don’t know that,” Moss enthuses. And then, somewhere in the middle of all this, she will squeeze in production on season four of The Handmaid’s Tale

See? Busy. Hence the need for that Instagram blockout. And hence the reason why, despite her best efforts, Moss still hasn’t finished watching Netflix’s Cheer. (“I’m not done yet,” she says. “Don’t spoil it. I love Jerry. I haven’t seen the end, but that episode that focuses on him… Tears! I was just a mess.”)

Moss turns to Netflix and Instagram and books – she’s about a “third-ish” of the way through Margaret Atwood’s The Testaments – when she needs to unwind. Which is becoming more frequent, thanks to her preference for consuming roles in projects such as Top Of The Lake, Us and, now, The Invisible Man

The Invisible Man: Elisabeth Moss in a scary scene from the film.

“I’m attracted to dark material,” Moss muses. “There’s something about horror… You can be dark and weird and do challenging things… You’re allowed to put the character in extreme situations. And it’s justified.” 

For her next trick, Moss would like to channel that energy in the opposite direction. “I’d love to be a villain,” she says. Over the course of her career, it’s the one thing she’s never done. “I’ve been playing a lot of heroines, and I would love to be the bad guy. I’d love to explore that.”

As a teenager, Moss held sleepovers with her friends and screened scary movies like The Shining, The Exorcist and It. But these are films that feel one step removed from the everyday experience, horror movies about killer clowns and demon parasites and weird, freaky twins. The Invisible Man is, for better and for worse, grounded in reality. What if your boyfriend was a controlling sociopath, who also happened to be a tech genius who had figured out a way to render himself invisible? And what if nobody, not your sister or your friend or the legal authorities, believed you when you tried to tell them about him?

“A monster that isn’t visible is universally terrifying,” explains Moss. “But we really wanted it to be – this is a real man, with a real way of becoming invisible, this is a real relationship with a real woman fighting against this thing. When you ground a story like this in reality it becomes all the more terrifying. You can really see that this could happen to you. When you watch a horror film and you think, ‘Oh my god. I could be that girl in the house. I could be that girl in the woods. That could be a real killer who is after me.’ That’s when it gets really scary.” 

Elisabeth Moss and Oliver Jackson-Cohen in The Invisible Man
Elisabeth Moss and Oliver Jackson-Cohen in The Invisible Man

It was Whannel’s idea to flip the script on the original HG Wells The Invisible Man and tell the story from the perspective of a female victim, adding in the theme of gaslighting. “The whole thing can be used as a metaphor for coming out of an abusive relationship,” explains Moss. “It is a dark movie, it’s scary. I hope people are entertained and that afterwards you have a conversation about what happens when you silence a woman’s voice. If we have both [responses], I think we’ve won.”

The Invisible Man: Elisabeth Moss says horror allows you to put characters in extreme situations.
The Invisible Man: Elisabeth Moss says horror allows you to put characters in extreme situations.

Moss is about to start work on the fourth season of The Handmaid’s Tale, in which she both stars and produces. 

“What can I say,” she muses. “It’s pretty big, it’s pretty epic. We’re on the move and we’re definitely stretching our limits, production wise. We keep doing this thing where we’re like, well, the first episode is big. The second episode is big. Well, the third one is huge… When are we gonna have the episode that’s just like in one room? And I just don’t know if it’s gonna happen this season.”

The Handmaid’s Tale is the thread that runs through Moss’ life right now. She sees similarities between the characters of June and The Invisible Man’s Cecilia. “I think Cecilia is like what June would be if she had got out of Gilead,” Moss muses. The actor is also in the “surreal” position of calling Atwood a friend, even if they’re not in constant contact. 

“She’s a very, very busy woman,” Moss explains. “I do feel like if and when I see her, I give her a hug and we’re friends, and that’s really cool. I am so in awe of her and so I have trouble being normal around her. Like, oh, it’s just my friend Margaret!”

Margaret Atwood makes a cameo appearance in The Handmaid's Tale
Margaret Atwood makes a cameo appearance alongside Elisabeth Moss in The Handmaid's Tale.

Moss uses the word ‘surreal’ a lot. It’s the way she describes being on the set of The French Dispatch, director Wes Anderson’s new, aesthetically harmonious film about a group of journalists stationed in France. The trailer featured a clip of Timothée Chalamet in a bath. The Internet broke, very prettily.

“I love Wes Anderson so much and I’d always wanted to be in a movie of his. But it’s also so weird being in a Wes Anderson film,” Moss jokes. “It’s like the most wonderful, cool thing. Bill Murray is there, and Jason Schwartzman, and Owen Wilson. Like, this is incredible! I’m in a Wes Anderson film! You’re dressed like you’re in a Wes Anderson film, and Wes Anderson looks like he’s in a Wes Anderson movie. It’s really, really cool.”

She pauses. “I feel like I always say, ‘This is surreal, this is surreal’,” she says. “But I feel like this is true for a lot of my life. It is surreal.”

The Invisible Man is in cinemas on 28 February. 

Images: Getty, Universal, Hulu

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Hannah-Rose Yee

Hannah-Rose Yee is a writer based in London. You can find her on the internet talking about movies, television and Chris Pine.

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