Elisabeth Moss has been working as an actor since she was a child. At the age of 9, she had a tiny role in 1991’s “Suburban Commando,” and she had a recurring role on CBS’ “Picket Fences” at 10, but it wasn’t until the advent of “Mad Men,” with her indomitable turn as Peggy Olson and several deserved Emmy nominations, that Moss started to crystallize in the cultural consciousness as a riveting, must-watch actress. She further dazzled in Jane Campion’s critically acclaimed mini-series “Top Of The Lake” which earned her a further Emmy nod, a SAG nomination and a Golden Globe win. But “Mad Men” duties mostly precluded her from lead roles in movies. That should change now that the AMC drama is finished, and one director who is taking full advantage as such is indie filmmaker Alex Ross Perry.
Perry’s found a darker, even more unvarnished aspect to Moss, which was first discovered in his hilarious but bleak “Listen Up Philip.” Seemingly because he only scratched the surface with Moss in that movie (hers was a supporting role), Perry cast her as the lead in “Queen Of Earth,” his latest picture about damaged, angry people behaving at their worst. But if “Listen Up Philip” was more Philip Roth meets Woody Allen, “Queen Of Earth” is more in the vein of the hysterical, paranoid woman on the verge of a nervous breakdown genre like Robert Altman’s “Images” and “Three Women,” Roman Polanski’s “Repulsion” and several Rainer Werner Fassbinder movies. Moss performance is deeply vulnerable and raw in the film concerning a female friendship that has disintegrated. We recently spoke to Moss in the IFC/AMC offices and discussed “Queen Of Earth,” working with Perry, “Mad Men” and what exactly is up with a second season of “Top Of The Lake.”
You’ve worked with Perry before on “Listen Up Philip.” He creates compelling, challenging characters. Some would call them ugly and unlikeable. Are his thorny characters the appeal of working with him?
For me, it’s always about the material and the interesting role. I like to do things that are different or that challenge me, but I don’t necessarily look for that first. It’s more about the script as a whole. This one was very enticing because it was extremely dramatic and emotional. I think a lot of actors would agree with me: that’s the stuff you look for. If everything is going fine, it’s boring. It’s definitely more interesting to play towards conflict and complexity. For me, that was definitely a huge draw.
You don’t see these kinds of female dynamics onscreen that much, but I suppose that’s starting to change.
Yes, although it’s less and less are we able to say that. I remember we used to say it about TV a lot, and now you can’t say it anymore. There’s so many TV shows that are led by a female who is number one on the call sheet on network television. “The Good Wife,” “Nurse Jackie,” “Scandal.”
I feel like we’ve always read about the character that can’t get past their vanity. The character is too ugly, mean spirited, toxic, whatever, it’s—
No, it’s not like that for me at all. For me, it’s about the honesty of the character: if there’s a reason for her to behaving in an ugly way or if there’s a reason for her to be speaking in a toxic way, or if it makes sense, then fantastic. For me, it’s all about the honesty of the material.
You know, I like to dress up and look pretty and I’ll do that in my everyday life, so I’ll get my hair and makeup done do it for stuff like this. That’s fun for me —I’m a girly-girl but I don’t consider that part of my job.
When I’m acting, it’s about what’s the best and most honest way to portray the character. Take the first scene of the film: it’s her going through an ugly breakup literally in that moment, and I wanted her to be as “unattractive” or as in your face as possible, with the mascara running and the wet hair like she just got out of the shower. I’m wearing this ugly bathrobe we bought at Walmart. I wanted her to be at her most vulnerable, most unattractive state.
I was going to ask about that scene. It’s such a striking way to start the movie. It’s so raw.
Exactly, because it’s so striking right off the bat. It absolutely sets the tone of what you’re going to get into and what you’re about to see.
Did Perry write the role for you after “Listen Up Philip”?
I think he did, but I always say that I guess if I didn’t do it, he probably would have gotten somebody else. I think he wrote it for me. I think that he knew that I would love the emotionally challenging part of it and I would love to go to those dark, crazy places.
Are there types of roles you haven’t had yet that you’d like to tackle?
Well, I’ve started to dip my hand into producing a little bit, and there’s a couple things that I’m working on, but it’s too early to talk about them. But this was the first one that I really got to have that kind of role. I was there from the very, very, very beginning. I was there from when there was nothing else but the script, and being involved in something from the beginning like that is awesome and addictive.
You’ve taken an ownership in the overall story that you might not normally have as an actor.
Yes. I’ve been doing this for a long time, and while I don’t think that I know everything, I do think that I know some things. To be able to use my knowledge as an actor to help to tell the story and to be able to say things that I wouldn’t be able to say before is really cool for me after 20-something years in this business. “Listen Up Philip” was very collaborative —obviously, it’s not like it was a $100 million dollar film, but this was extremely collaborative and extremely small. It was very much a labor of love of for everyone involved in it.
I assume it was super DIY and much more low-budget than most films; it’s all set in one location. I imagine it was like summer camp.
Yeah, it was one location, at that house. There were no walkie-talkies, no call sheets. There was a schedule, but at the end of the day it was very much “all right, what are we shooting tomorrow? What’s on the schedule?” We all stayed at the same crappy motel and I very much enjoyed my stay there, but… It certainly wasn’t fancy [laughs].
It’s so weird how that happens, but cutting out all those middle men makes you realize how few people it actually takes to make a movie, and how many people there are on set that you usually don’t need.
It sounds like you caught the producer bug. You sound excited.
Does it? Oh my God! That’s awesome. Thank you! Having been in this business for so long, you meet so many great people that you want to work with at some point, and if you wait for everybody else to do it, it’ll never happen.
What I love about producing is being able to go, “okay, I’m going to buy this book because I love it, and then I’ve always wanted to work with this director, so let’s see if he wants to do it,” and then you find a writer you love. I feel like that’s true creatively, because you end up using your friends. You end up using people you admire and that’s really fun to me. I have no interest in writing or directing: to me, producing is my fun thing.
People tend to forget that producing is its own form of creative collaboration.
Absolutely. I’m a good fixer. I could never write: I could never start from scratch with a blank page, but I can go in and help later.
Speaking of a great complex, female character: your character Robin Griffin in “Top Of The Lake” and season two. I love Jane Campion too. When will we see that?
That’s right. I cannot confirm that…
I will say this though: the trades did mention that Jane and I have been talking ever since the Emmys. She never intended on doing a second season, and then she came to me and said “so if we did, would you want to do it?” I said “of course I would be open to it.” Besides “Mad Men,” which doesn’t really count because that’s it’s own thing, Robin is my favorite character I’ve ever played. I don’t feel like I’m quite done playing her, but I think it was very important to the both of us to make sure that we were doing it because we had something to say and not just because, “oh, it was popular so we should do a second season.” For the past couple of years, she’s been writing and sending me things and I’ve been looking and everything’s looking really great and I’m loving it. It’s not something that I can officially confirm, but it’s definitely a work in progress.
Huh, interesting. I thought it was shooting really soon.
No, not at all. What’s really cool is when the second season came up, people’s reaction to it have been so enthusiastic, and people have been asking me “are you doing a second season?” That alone feels awesome and makes me excited about it.
I’ll ask you this briefly, but there was talk of a “Mad Men” spin-off and I thought that’s not going to happen. Is it?
Not that I know of. Sitting in the AMC offices here is hilarious because we can just go ask someone: “Excuse me, I’m so sorry, just one second, just want to bother you …” The first I ever heard of that was when Matthew Weiner said something about that in Variety or Hollywood Reporter or whatever they were thinking of, maybe doing a Peggy spin-off as one of the ideas. I had never heard anything about it, nobody ever asked me about it. I think he nixed it, which is totally fine so no, not that I know of.
You would be open to that if it did happen?
Well, that’s something that you never say never to. I’m not sure if it’s the best idea, but you never know. I do think that there is something to leaving the party while people still want you to be there, so that’s my general strategy.
So that was probably the first thought that went through your head with more “Top Of The Lake”?
Yes, exactly. Then, if you find a story that you want to tell, as in with “Top Of The Lake,” it’s difficult… to resist.
“Queen Of Earth” opens in limited release via IFC Films and is available on VOD, iTunes and all digital platforms on Wednesday, August 26th.