READ MORE: Review: Katherine Waterston and Elisabeth Moss Triumph in Alex Ross Perry’s ‘Queen of Earth’
For her second go-round with filmmaker Alex Ross Perry, Elisabeth Moss wanted to do something a little different. So did Perry.
Moss and Perry previously worked together on Perry’s 2014 satire “Listen Up Philip,” which cast Moss as the beleaguered girlfriend of Jason Schwartzman’s titular Philip. The pair’s latest project, “Queen of Earth,” not only offered Moss the chance to lead a Perry joint, but for the filmmaker to branch out into new territory. The new feature is a moody drama shot like a thriller, and one that takes advantage of shifting loyalties (and perspectives) to keep its audience on their toes. In the film, Moss plays Catherine, a woman recently devastated by a break-up with her long-term boyfriend, who heads up to her old friend Virginia’s (Ginny, if you’re nice) lake house for some relaxation.
What she finds there isn’t very soothing, and the film charts her steady breakdown as Ginny (Katherine Waterston) tries to make sense of the situation (and either helps it or hurts it, depending on the film’s shifting mood).
If “Queen of Earth” sounds a bit like a throwback, that’s entirely intentional, and exactly what Moss and Perry wanted for their new feature, as the actress recently told Indiewire.
Crafting a New Throwback
“Alex wanted to do a nod to [Roman] Polanski, and specifically ‘Repulsion,'” Moss said, referring to the 1965 thriller in which Catherine Deneuve loses her mind over the course of a weekend alone. “He’s a huge cinephile, and he wanted to do a sort of ode to Polanski, and I loved that idea because I’ve never done those kinds of films.” She was motivated by Perry’s confidence in her. “I think he just knew, given some of my previous work, that I could handle the drama of it,” she said.
As the steadily-unwinding Catherine, Moss is allowed to unleash a series of powerful (and often terrifying) emotions on the big screen, and while that may sound exhausting, Moss and Perry both viewed it as a fun exercise they could undertake together. “It wasn’t really any sort of specific, I want to play somebody who goes crazy,” Moss said, “it just was, ‘Let’s make a film that we would want to see that enables me to have a little bit of fun, do things I don’t normally get to do.'”
Moss said she was inspired by Perry’s decision to shift gears following their previous collaboration.
“He really wanted to do something different from ‘Listen Up Philip,’ which is really admirable,” Moss said. “I think he will always be interested in challenging himself, and doing something he hasn’t done before, which is, I think, very rare.”
She added that his attitude was infectious. “He was like, ‘Fuck that, I want to do something totally different. I don’t want to do the same thing over and over again.'”
Although their working relationship is still young, Moss and Perry hit things off almost immediately. “I got offered ‘Listen Up Philip,’ and I usually, before Skyping with a director, will try to dig up some of their previous work, so I know what I’m talking about,” Moss said. She soon found Perry’s 2011 feature, “The Color Wheel,” and dove right into the film, a cringe-worthy comedy that is — to put it delicately — not for everyone. But it worked for Moss.
“I bought it online, watched it, thought it was super cool and super weird,” she said, adding that “it was so ballsy.”
A Professional Relationship That Really Works
That assessment was one of the first things Moss told Perry during their first Skype session. She also found the time to rib his taste, however. “I made fun of his ‘Brown Bunny’ poster,” she said. “I was like, ‘That’s such a cliche. You’re such a cliche indie filmmaker.’ It looked like it had been art directed,” Moss said.
The seeds for their professional relationship were sown then, and the pair continue to get along well. “We’re so different and we have a lot of differences, but we have sort of odd similarities as well,” she said. “We complement each other, our strengths and weaknesses complement each other. It just ends up being a really good working relationship.”
One thing that Moss continues to spark to — “Brown Bunny” poster and all — is Perry’s reverence for other films and other directors. It’s part of what make the Polanski nods in the “Queen of Earth” work so well. “You sometimes see films that feel referential, or feel like copying,” Moss said. “With Alex, you know that there is a deep respect and love for his forefathers. If he references something, or if he does something that’s a tip of the hat, it is out of such passion and love and from that place, and so it feels sincere.”
Still, their solid working partnership doesn’t mean that the duo always agree — in fact, it’s probably for the best that they don’t see eye to eye on everything, including the relationship at the heart of “Queen of Earth.”
“As with any Alex Ross Perry film, there’s a certain amount of pessimism that comes with it,” Moss said. “Alex would say that they’re best friends. I would probably say that they have a horrible friendship. Just like with ‘Listen Up Phillip,’ we would have so many times when Jason’s character and my character would be fighting and we’d be like, ‘This is a horrible relationship, they should not be together,’ and Alex was like, ‘This is a Tuesday!’ We have different perspectives on that kind of thing.”
For Moss, the relationship between Catherine and Ginny is one that has far outstayed its welcome. “I think that it’s one of those friendships where you grow up with somebody, you summer with them, your families are friends, you probably wouldn’t choose to be friends with them as an adult, but you’re stuck with that,” she said. “It’s been too long. There are great things about the friendship, and there are things that you would really rather lose…But for one reason or another, you’re still friends.”
Moss, however, doesn’t mince words when it comes to her own character’s part in the fracturing friendship: “I don’t think that they’re very good friends or that they have a very good friendship, but I do think it’s my character’s fault a lot.”
Shifting Perspectives (And Loyalties)
Viewers of the film will likely find their sympathies swayed as Perry cleverly moves between shifting perspectives, allowing his audience to see the situation from both Catherine’s and Ginny’s respective sides, but Moss is much more firm on her take.
“I do think that my character goes crazy, and is totally illogical and insane,” Moss said. “I think that Ginny is trying to help her. I don’t know if she’s doing the best job of it, but she’s not a doctor, she’s not necessarily supposed to, she’s not her mother. It’s an impossible situation.”
Although the role of “crazy” Catherine is something of a departure for Moss, it does tie into the actress’ overall resume, which includes plenty of compelling and complex characters, from Peggy Olson to the titular character of the Broadway production of “The Heidi Chronicles.”
Moss is still figuring out the rhythm for how she selects projects, but so far, it’s a mixture of opportunities that come her way and a few others that she seeks out. “I think it’s a weird combination of looking for it, like that’s really what interests me the most and I find the most interesting, and also I don’t think I’m very good at the other kind,” she said.
It’s not as if Moss didn’t try to do “the other kind,” as she puts it, but those roles just never suited her. “When I was growing up, I would audition for WB shows and stuff, when I was a teenager, and I sucked at it. I was never good, and I knew it,” Moss said.
She added that a lot of roles seemed to put her talents into a box. “I would go into these stupid auditions and I knew I was like, never going to get cast as the girlfriend or the cheerleader, and I loved those shows,” she said. “I just don’t know if that’s the kind of actor I am. It’s a little bit of a combo of what I actually do like to do and what interests me and what I’m not bored by, and also just I don’t know if I’m very good at that other thing.”
The Peggy Chronicles
Television did, of course, end up playing home to Moss’ most recognizable character, “Mad Men’s” own Peggy Olson, a part that Moss suspects will follow her for years to come. It’s certainly the one that generates reactions when she goes out in public, even if Moss remains a touch mystified by the response.
“People get really excited about seeing Peggy, and they’re really thrown off,” she said. “I often have to be like, ‘it’s okay, we’re okay. Everyone’s fine here, let’s all just calm down.'” She’s still adapting to it in a post-“Mad Men” age. “To me, it’s bizarre, it’s not something you get used to,” she said. “It’s not a bad thing, people coming up to you and telling you that they love you is not a bad thing. It’s super-nice. But it is bizarre to me, because I am just me, and I do not think of myself in those terms.”
Still, she said she understood the impulse based on her own relationship to fame. “If I saw Kyle Chandler on the street, I would totally flip out,” she said. “I would totally be like, ‘Oh, my god, Coach Taylor, tell me what to do with my life. Give me a speech, help me pull it together.’ I do understand it for other people.”
As Moss embarks on life after Peggy, she’s especially grateful for the opportunity to share her projects more widely (and quickly) with her fans. The actress is currently active on Instagram, where she routinely shares inside snaps from current projects, like Jason Lew’s recently-wrapped “The Free World.”
She found the opportunity liberating after escaping the cone of silence surrounding the plot of “Mad Men.” “I’ve spent so many years not being able to share things on the show,” she said. “In a way, I’m a big believer in not spoiling things and preserving the show’s integrity, so I totally respect it, but when you’re doing an indie film which requires people to go watch it, it helps to get the word out about it.” Plus, it’s fun. “When you’re bored on set, you’re like, ‘Oh, Instagram.'”
But she doesn’t need her Instagram feed to ensure plenty of people will be watching whatever she does next.
“Queen of Earth” will be in limited release on Wednesday, August 26, with a national rollout to follow.