When it comes to getting stuck into complex and disturbing characters, Elisabeth Moss clearly doesn't bat an eyelid. Whether skulking around the patriarchal dystopia of Gilead, subverting gender roles in the offices of Sterling Cooper or dodging time-bending serial killers in the latest Apple TV+ hit Shining Girls, the compelling actor makes the unsettling and ominous seem effortless.
It's a sentiment echoed by Melissa McCarthy, comedian of Bridesmaids fame, who revealed that she was terrified about working with Moss on the film The Kitchen, thinking she'd be “intense and surrounded by flames and Chaucer books”. Yet the LA-born star is exemplary in her ability to substitute and subvert reality in equal measure.
“I'm not a dark and serious person,” she begins. “I love to have fun in life and try to have as interesting a life as I can.
“When I first started working on Mad Men, I was very insecure and uncertain of myself… the way a lot of young women can be. Yet I was lucky to be able to play a character like Peggy who underwent such a profound evolution. And that evolution was such that it impacted me in a really positive way.”
She continues: “I was able to grow with her and become so much more self-assured. I learned that having such a sense of confidence enables you to be so much more open and able to enjoy everything about life. One truth permeates into another.”
A body of work
Despite having only just ticked over into her fourth decade, Moss's career has already been exceptional. She began acting aged just six and landed her first major television role at 17 as the wild-child daughter of the US president in Aaron Sorkin's The West Wing. No wonder then, that she comes across with such self-assuredness and fortitude.
So enduring is her television legacy that she is often dubbed the “queen of peak-time TV”; but Moss has also had some choice film roles over the years, most notably in Listen Up Philip and Her Smell, both created by offbeat auteur director Alex Ross Perry, for whom the actor has become something of a muse.
When asked what she prefers, however, Moss is characteristically considerate and balanced in her answer, saying: “I like the fact that doing TV allows you to develop a character over a period of several years – you have so many more scenes and so much more time to add layers as you go along.
“Yet there's also something more intense about making a film because you have a much more limited time to tell the story, and that means all your scenes have to count.”
One distinct thread in her work is playing women who, at first, seem fragile and faulty, yet go on to become fearless and, in the case of June in the television adaption of Margaret Attwood's The Handmaid's Tale, outright terrifying. “It's always stimulating to be able to explore human behaviour that is difficult to explain,” she says. “I enjoyed being able to get inside those strange psychological sides to people because I could never behave that way in real life.”
Trailblazing female roles
“If I met someone and that person gave me certain signs that they didn't share my interest I would back off immediately. Drama gives you the opportunity to live a different life… for a while at least!”
Not only are these characters trailblazers who seek to defeat the systems that suppress them, but there is also a theme of female persecution which often manifests in literal violence. Moss never baulks from such visceral action, instead embracing any role she can really get her teeth into.
“Again, it's about assuming an alter ego – a separate identity that you might deem fantasy, or necessity. Perhaps I am as content in my normal life because I am able to play out all the aggression and frustration in my job…
“When it comes to drama, dark characters are always much more interesting,” says Moss. “I also think that bad relationships are more interesting to watch than good ones. And it's fascinating to explore stories where you see a strong and intelligent woman who is attracted to a certain type of man who is not the best choice because there are certain emotional needs inside her.
“Again, that's not me in real life, so the escapism is an alluring part. Speaking personally, I'm much more attracted to nice men,” she reveals with a laugh. “Most of us are!”
This juxtaposition between light and dark, mistruths and truth, is perhaps a direct consequence of an unusual upbringing.
Born and raised in Hollywood, Moss's childhood was bohemian and influenced by art from the get-go. Her mother, Linda Moss, played the harmonica alongside such blues greats as BB King, while her British dad, Ron Moss, managed jazz musicians. Moss's younger brother Derek is a filmmaker.
So far, it's the kind of household you would expect to produce a child actor who landed roles in commercials and straight-to-TV movies throughout her formative years; yet besides their careers in showbusiness, Moss's parents were also members of the controversial Church of Scientology and subsequently raised their children in the faith.
Moss rarely speaks about her beliefs, but given how outspoken she is on other subjects close to her heart, such as feminism and gay rights, it is clear her personal views do not entirely align with those preached by Scientology founder L Ron Hubbard.
“We are the sum of all our influences and all our experiences,” she says. “Some are positive, some are negative.
“I think it's always important to align ourselves with what we agree with, and what we don't agree with. You can disagree with a concept yet still respect the viewpoint.”
When a fan on Instagram compared the Republic of Gilead's oppressive regime in The Handmaid's Tale to Hubbard's, Moss responded: “Religious freedom and tolerance and understanding the truth and equal rights for every race, religion and creed are extremely important to me. The most important things to me, probably. And so Gilead and THT [The Handmaid's Tale] hit me on a very personal level”.
Searching for insights
Unlike stars such as Tom Cruise and John Travolta, who found themselves drawn to Scientology as consenting adults, it makes sense that Moss has more complex feelings about the movement. And arguably her attraction to such complex female characters is somehow linked to the teachings of it which insist that human beings possess capabilities.
Moss admits that so much of the drama she loves is based on a desire to further comprehend societal behaviour – religion included – saying: “One of the wonderful things about this job is that you're constantly trying to understand your characters. You're always gaining an insight and growing an appreciation of human psychology, yet you know a lifetime in this industry will only connect you with the smallest piece of knowledge, because the subject is so vast.
“Regardless, acting gives me a way of learning about myself and the world in general and that's what makes it exciting to keep finding new characters and new stories that give you a much deeper appreciation of humanity. That's also the function of art.
“I'm mainly looking for good scripts and the opportunity to work with interesting people who are more talented than me so that I can learn from them and grow as an artist. I don't really focus so much on the characters I'm playing as much as the quality of the writing.”
The rise of female-driven stories
In recent years, Moss has expanded her talents into both directing and producing. During the pandemic, she launched a production company called Love & Squalor Pictures with Lindsey McManus, a former agent with the WME talent agency. Its first project, Shining Girls, is based on a 2013 novel by Lauren Beukes and stars Moss as a newspaper archivist in early 1990s Chicago.
In the first episode we discover that her character Kirby has survived a near-fatal assault, which triggers a slew of mysterious incidents where time and space seem to shift at will. The result is utterly unsettling and leaves the viewer as perplexed as Kirby when trying to decipher what is reality and what may be a mental disorder. Trauma and its impact are a profoundly interesting topic for the star, who considers herself to be a feminist and advocate against violence towards women.
“We've got to have our backs and look out for each other,” she offers. “One of the great observations that Margaret Atwood explored was how women treat each other and how things can go very wrong when women are pitted against each other instead of uniting.
“I was lucky to start my career at a time when more good roles were opening up for women. That's even more true now and I think series like Top of the Lake and The Handmaid's Tale are great examples of how you can tell female-driven stories and find an audience.
“People want to see stories that reflect complex female characters, so it's important for women in the industry to keep pushing to have not only good roles, but creative roles that offer opportunities for women to direct and get involved in every aspect of the industry.”
Though best-known for her projects on screen, Moss admits that she revels in the work that takes place behind the scenes. McManus, her producing partner, calls her “an absolute workhorse” – the actor herself confesses to being fastidious in her prep work when producing or directing – while taking a more laissez-faire approach to acting – and says she has very little interest in nurturing a life outside of her work.
Despite this, Moss doesn't take herself too seriously…
“I love the work, but I don't delude myself by thinking that I'm out to save the world or that I'm doing something courageous by discovering the feelings I may need to play a particular role.
“I sometimes wish that I was very serious and tormented, but I'm not the kind of person who needs to torment myself for the sake of a character. I don't need to think about my dead dog to make myself cry.
“Ultimately, I want to continue working with directors and actors who are going to expose me to new ideas and who are going to help me grow both professionally and personally.”
Flipping who we are
In the meantime, the accomplished nature with which Moss can distort reality with a flick of mascara or by donning a pair of sunglasses, will continue to win her roles.
“A lot of acting is about having the confidence to believe you are that person, or you should be in that place; and you can carry that whole concept across to any other job, any other situation in life.
“In every actor's toolkit is that feeling where you believe you are the character; and this subversion of reality is extremely powerful.
“What's more enlightening is the fact that it's not something that's restricted just to those who stand up and act. We can all be that person – we can all take confidence and optimism from flipping who we are; from changing our persona, whether we be hiding behind the veil or ripping off the suit.
“In this brave new world we all need to feel free to be whoever we want to be. I truly believe that.”