How does Elisabeth Moss match up to the trailblazing women she's played? Chrissy Iley meets the actor to talk religion, love and female empowerment
Before she was Peggy Olson, the trailblazing secretary who makes it all the way to chief copywriter in Mad Men — and long before she became Offred, the subversive insider in The Handmaid's Tale — Elisabeth Moss' breakout role was in The West Wing. Aged 17, she played Zoey, the President's non-conformist daughter. There has to be something special about a woman who has held fiery female roles in not just one but three era-defining series of television's golden age.
I'm waiting for Moss in a hotel bar in Beverley Hills, wondering if she will be the intelligent, sensitive feminist hero of her on-screen characters. She is mesmeric in The Handmaid's Tale, Margaret Atwood's vision of a dystopian future, in which women are enslaved for their wombs. Even when she is not saying anything, she is emotionally porous. You feel it all with her.
Moss, 37, arrives wearing a white T-shirt, cut-off denim shorts and a bomber jacket with a palm tree motif. She says she couldn't decide what to wear as she's in "vacay" mode. Her hair is blonder and thicker than I was expecting and her eyes have a powerful inner sparkle.
She notices my diary on the table, covered in hand-painted cats. She has two moggies of her own — Ethel and Lucy, the latter named after actor Lucille Ball. Then she shows me a picture that would break the internet: Ethel dressed in a handmaid's outfit — the red cape and white bonnet — fashioned by the show's costume designer, Ane Crabtree. It's a uniform that has become a global symbol of female repression, worn by protesters on the streets of Ireland, the United States and South America. Even on her cat it feels like a loaded image — a clawed feline, feisty and wilful, wearing the ultimate submissive costume.
"I wouldn't be a cat person if I didn't have pictures. My cat-sitter just sent me a couple of videos. They're my babies, I love them."
How does she consistently pick such compelling women to play? "My guiding principle is the writing, whether it's a film, television or play. If it's not well written there's nothing you can do, no matter how good the director is or the actor is.
"I always try to make my characters end up being heroines and representing feminism," she continues. "I try to make them real, whether it's representing a woman in the workplace or a mother. They're just like you and me — not special, not perfect. Nobody is 100 per cent good all of the time. We don't have special powers. We're women and we're human. But real women who are not perfect can find their strength, whether that's getting out of a bad relationship, telling your boss you want a pay rise or marching on the capital in a red costume."
I feel like Mad Men's Peggy has just given me a pep talk.
Her latest film, The Kitchen , is set in 1970s New York, in Hell's Kitchen. When three mobsters are arrested by the FBI, their wives take over operations. Moss' character, Claire, is subjected to physical abuse at the beginning of the film but later channels that into becoming a killer. As with Mad Men and The Handmaid's Tale, her character's trajectory takes her from victimhood to self-empowerment.
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"I thought it was a very compelling storyline. The idea of this woman, who was so abused and such a 'victim', trying to understand her instinct to take back her life in an extreme way, and her thinking, 'I'm actually going to own this.'"
She had movie-assassin training from her co-star and on-screen lover, Domhnall Gleeson. "This isn't a crazy character arc in that all of a sudden she's a hit-woman. Even when she's abused, she's not meek. Maybe because of the violence she's received, she can accept acting violently towards someone else. Of course, she's had a lot of emotional pain and we learn that she lost a baby when she was abused."
Her characters are always losing babies — or giving them up. Peggy in Mad Men, Offred in The Handmaid's Tale and Robin, the character Moss plays in the Jane Campion/BBC drama Top of the Lake , all give up their children.
"It's a theme and so weird," she nods. "In one of the first films I did, Virgin, a tiny independent movie, I play a woman who is raped while she's unconscious, gets pregnant and thinks it's the second coming. And Peggy in Mad Men, of course, gave her baby away. June [Offred's real name in The Handmaid's Tale] lost two of them. It's really weird. I don't know what it is."
Is she attracted to these roles because she wants to have a baby herself?
"No, I don't think so. It's more that I seem to be drawn to a character that has conflict — and it's the ultimate conflict for a woman. I don't think it's a conscious thing, but it's a theme I've been aware of for a while. I always try my hardest to keep hold of those babies." She shakes her head.
"If I ever have a baby, though, I'm going to hold on to that thing for dear f***ing life," she continues. "I'll have it chained to me. It'll be a 50-year-old kid and I'll be, 'No, you're staying with me.'"
Don't you think that child might rebel? "Probably, but I don't care," she says. "I know what happens when you let them out of your sight."
Does she have a close bond with her own mother? "Yes, pretty much so. Maybe it's manifesting that. We are very close and not in a 'best friends' kind of way. You know how some people say, 'I'm best friends with my mum'? No, that's not us. She's still my mum and I'm her daughter. We're very, very close and she's been incredible."
A tall, tanned blond woman arrives and hugs her. It turns out she's a rep for Dior and Moss is taking her mother to a catwalk show. "What a dream come true to take my mother to a Dior couture show in Paris. That's definitely, like, a wow. I never thought I'd get to do that."
Moss grew up in Los Angeles. Her mother, Linda, is a harmonica player who has played with blues superstars such as B.B. King. "She's really good. She started when she was 15, in Chicago."
Her father, Ron, manages musicians and she has one younger brother. As a child she was home-schooled. Her parents are both Scientologists and she has referred to her belief in "the Church", though I'm not sure how embedded she is within the organisation. Unlike many of her Hollywood counterparts, she was raised in the religion rather than finding it herself. She likes to drink Moscow mules and rosé wine, even though boozing is frowned upon by Scientology and her feminist views are certainly not in line with the teachings of L. Ron Hubbard.
I remind Moss of something she posted on Instagram in response to a fan who compared the oppressive Republic of Gilead in The Handmaid's Tale with the Church of Scientology.
"That's actually not true at all about Scientology," she wrote. "Religious freedom and tolerance and understanding the truth and equal rights for every race, religion and creed are extremely important to me … And so Gilead hit me on a very personal level." As I read out the quote she nods approvingly. I ask if she would like to add anything but she says that it sums up her views well. Her answers are short and heartfelt — there's no defensiveness or weird atmosphere.
As a young girl she had ambitions to be a dancer and spent two summers studying at the School of American Ballet in New York. These days, she has an apartment in the city's Upper West Side.
"I lived in the East Village for about 13 years. Then I moved because I got a little bit older and I thought. 'It's too noisy and there are too many bars. I need to go uptown with [all the] children and dogs.'"
The move coincided with her getting married — and unmarried — to the Saturday Night Live actor and comedian Fred Armisen. The pair met in October 2008, married in October 2009 and in September 2010 filed for divorce. Did it feel as though it all happened in five minutes? "Probably, but it does seem like a long time ago." I'd read that for a long time after their break-up she was so busy acting and producing that she didn't have time for dating. Now she is dating again but has decided not to name the person.
"Well, that [was] true, but I now think who cares? His name is John. We've been together for over a year and he's by the pool right now. In a way, you want to preserve your privacy but in another way, I don't care. I love him, I'm playing it by ear. He's lovely and I'm happy."
Earlier this summer there was a tabloid frenzy suggesting Moss had started dating Tom Cruise, also a Scientologist, — and that he wanted to marry her and have babies. "Not as far as I know. It would be awful for me and my boyfriend," she jokes. "I'm sure he's perfectly nice but I've never met him."
"I have literally never met him," she repeats.
It's hard to imagine that television acting used to be dismissed by "proper" actors, who were only interested in film roles. Now it's the TV actors who rule.
"I did a play called The Heidi Chronicles, written by Wendy Wasserstein in the 1980s and there's a line that goes, 'Meryl Streep would never do television.' And [now] one of the biggest posters on Sunset Boulevard is for Meryl in Big Little Lies, along with some of the other biggest movie stars [Nicole Kidman and Reese Witherspoon]. So that's the end of that. The line that used to exist between film and television, I've lived through it. It's done. And that's a wonderful thing because now there are so many great opportunities in all fields."
Does she think more interesting roles are finally being written for women?
"I do think they are being written. The industry has realised that women go to see things, and we are getting more and more opportunities to put women at the forefront. We are a huge audience and we want to see ourselves represented."
Is that because women are now more powerful in the industry?
"Absolutely - but that's not to say they are equal yet. I was reading some numbers on the percentage of women who are behind the camera and it's still really low. It's not equal yet, but it's 100 times better."
As well as starring in The Handmaid's Tale, Moss worked as a producer on the first series and as an executive producer since.
"On The Handmaid's Tale we try to hire mostly female directors. There are so many out there who are talented and we don't have space for them all. It's the same with cinematographers. They are out there. I think there's an awakening and a realisation of the inequality and a necessity rising in people to fix that, which is good."
The Handmaid's Tale and Big Little Lies have been pioneers in this respect. What does she like to watch on television when she's not working?
"I just watched Fleabag, and Phoebe Waller-Bridge is genius. She's literally the Second Coming. I've also enjoyed After Life, with Ricky Gervais. The Office was one of my favourite shows."
In a way, the handmaids' red capes can be seen as costumes for a new wave of feminist superheroes. "Yes. When I put that on, I feel proud. I feel there's a responsibility in that costume. It's red. It represents blood, it represents fertility and it can also represent adultery. It's evocative. There's a good reason why Margaret Atwood made the handmaids' dress red. We feel something when we see that colour.
"There's something about my generation where feminism woke back up," she continues. "When I was a teenager and in my early 20s, there was no concept that something like Roe v Wade [America's landmark ruling that introduced a legal right to obtain an abortion] could be reversed. I didn't know they could take that away. So, there's something about the work I gravitate towards that's important to me and my generation, and it's coincided in this perfect storm."
We discuss how women's abortion rights in the US are being reduced. Although women may have gained a little power professionally, that power has been grabbed away in other areas of their lives. She nods. "It's weird, right."
Working and juggling so much may mean that Moss' red cape does indeed have superpowers. Atwood has written a sequel (The Testaments, published this week) , so another Handmaid series is anticipated. "I hope so. I hope I'm involved. There's a gap between the current Handmaid and the new book, which means we can finish our story and do whatever we want with it and it won't have an effect on the book that's been written."
At the end of series two, there was a moment when Offred could escape, but she decided to go back to fight from the inside. "There was no way she was gonna leave her daughter there and she has to be on the inside," Moss says.
She's currently filming a remake of the horror movie The Invisible Man. "It's the lead, but it's not what you think. It's a story of female empowerment, not an invisible woman but a woman going from a victimised position to a powerful one."
She worries that her face is shining so she touches up with powder and a slash of super-red lip colour. "I'm interested in exploring the duality in characters," she says as we look again at her cat in the handmaid's outfit.
Ethel stares out at the camera, both vulnerable and fierce — just like Moss.
The Kitchen is in NZ cinemas now; The Testaments by Margaret Atwood (Chatto & Windus, $48) is out now.
Written by: Chrissy Illey
© The Times of London