Elisabeth Moss and Alex Ross Perry challenge themselves and the audience with ‘Her Smell’
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Elisabeth Moss and Alex Ross Perry challenge themselves and the audience with ‘Her Smell’

LA Times

This year’s Toronto International Film Festival has an unexpected onslaught of movies centered around female singers. There’s the splashy “A Star Is Born,” starring Lady Gaga, the headier “Vox Lux” with Natalie Portman, the rootsy “Wild Rose” featuring a breakout turn by Jessie Buckley and the yearning “Teen Spirit,” with Elle Fanning.

And then there is “Her Smell,” a wild, churning character study like no other starring Elisabeth Moss as Becky Something, the leader of a fictional ’90s rock group called Something She.

Just like its lead character, the film is aggressive and purposefully obnoxious. It more or less dares an audience to live through its forceful, unrelenting energy — and the self-destructive, pushy pitch of Moss’ performance — for most of the two-hour-plus running time to ultimately get to a place of serenity, self-knowledge and grace.

The movie is the third collaboration between Moss and writer-director Alex Ross Perry, following the literary romantic roundelays of “Listen Up Philip” and the female-centric psychodrama of “Queen of Earth.” The award-winning star of “Mad Men” and “The Handmaid’s Tale” may seem an unlikely fit with a low-budget filmmaker specializing in caustic examinations of discontent, but they have forged one of the most energizing partnerships on the current indie scene.

It just kind of works for some reason,Moss said. “Obviously there’s a really basic thing which is like we both want to make not only good films but films that haven’t been done before — films that we haven’t done before. We both really wanted to challenge ourselves, particularly with this movie.”

Her Smell” had its world premiere Sunday night as part of the Toronto festival’s Platform section. Perry’s film brings an outsized ensemble into Becky’s vortex of bad vibes, including Becky’s bandmates played by Agyness Deyn and Gayle Rankin, a younger band played by Cara Delevingne, Ashley Benson and Dylan Gelula, a pop-star rival by Amber Heard, a record executive by Eric Stoltz, an ex by Dan Stevens and Becky’s mother by Virginia Madsen.

And though the inspiration for Becky Something in “Her Smell” would presumably be the world of ’90s rock figures such Courtney Love of Hole, Kim and Kelley Deal of the Breeders or riot grrrl-era bands such as Bikini Kill, L7 or Sleater-Kinney, according to Perry, the film instead found its main impetus in the recent Guns N’ Roses reunion tour — and in the structure of Shakespeare.

If you can make it so I’m a little bit struggling, just on the edge of being like, ‘I don’t know if I can do this,’ that’s what I want.

In summer 2016, Perry saw a Guns N’ Roses reunion concert, a production of “The Merchant of Venice” featuring his “Listen Up Philip” actor Jonathan Pryce, and Kenneth Branagh’s four-hour screen adaptation of “Hamlet.” Something clicked watching the rise and fall of Shakespeare’s characters.

 “I can see how it would seem unusual,” admitted Perry, who also co-wrote this summer’s Disney hit “Christopher Robin,” in an interview alongside Moss here this week.

I’d been kind of promising Lizzie this script for a while just saying I have this character and I know her name and then a year passed and then this month happened. At the end of it I said, I know this movie now,” said Perry. “And then six months later I had a script.

Moss ended up with only a week between the end of shooting the second season of “Handmaid’s Tale” — for which she has subsequently been nominated for two Emmys ahead of next week’s ceremony — and the start of production for “Her Smell.”

Becky speaks in a wild, nonstop patois all her own, a raging torrent of words, which combined with an abrasive demeanor made the character uniquely difficult even for a performer as experienced as Moss

It was hard. It was one of the only things I’ve done that wasn’t always fun,Moss said.

Because I do a lot of really dark, challenging material, if you can challenge me at this point, you get such a really big gold star from me,” she said before pausing. “I’m trying to word it without sounding egotistical, but if you can make it so I’m a little bit struggling, just on the edge of being like, ‘I don’t know if I can do this,’ that’s what I want. I want you to put me in a place where I’m not sure if I can do it. That’s interesting to me.

In preparing for the role, Moss tried to borrow from a range of inspirations, so that the character couldn’t be too closely tied to any one person. She watched documentaries on Marilyn Monroe, and studied people across the spectrum of fame for how they grappled with addiction.

And just as there are multiple female pop-star movies at TIFF this year, there are also numerous films dealing with addiction, including “Ben Is Back,” starring Julia Roberts and Lucas Hedges, and “Beautiful Boy,” with Steve Carell and Timothée Chalamet. Yet despite Becky’s appetites for any substance she can get her hands on, Perry says his film is not a story of addiction.

Honestly, if I’m being serious, the thing I say is the movie is about identity,” said Perry. “It’s not about nineties music. It’s not about the dynamics of a band. It’s not about celebrity and not about motherhood, it’s not about addiction, it’s about identity. Simply put, this is a movie that has nine characters, all of whom live their lives with a name that is not their name. And that, to me, is the movie.

The style of the movie is deliberately extreme — from the churning, disorienting sound design to Becky’s abhorrent behavior. A negative review in the Hollywood Reporter called the film “excruciatingly self-indulgent” as well as “ugly and off-putting.” Even a positive notice in IndieWire referred to it as “obscenely unpleasant.”

For Perry, delivering the first three acts as a full-on whirlwind is purely intentional, designed to take people well past a conventional breaking point.

I think in a punk movie about punk women, you want that adrenaline,” Perry said. “The characters give you license to make a movie that just goes and goes and goes and goes. It goes like cocaine. It goes like electricity plugged into an amp. It goes like a neon sign buzzing for three acts. And to me it’s an appropriate thing based on what the movie’s about and what the characters are.

“It’s also just a gigantic challenge that I wanted to do both on the page and then an even bigger challenge on set,” Perry said. “I, as someone who’s very low-key and fairly lazy — can I make something that has a relentlessness to it?

Moss herself had a revelation about the movie while watching it for the first time on a big screen in Toronto.

This film is not her point of view. It’s from the point of view of the other people,” said Moss. “It puts you through what Becky put those people around her through. It is in-your-face. She is annoying. It can be off-putting. It’s a lot. You just want to take a … break. You’re also kind of drawn to her and want to know where she is. You’re looking for her when she’s not there. It puts you through what the people around her go through.”

Late in the movie, Moss performs a spare, heartfelt rendition of Bryan Adams’ “Heaven” at a piano for just her young daughter in a startling, single unbroken take. After all that Becky and the movie have put audiences through, both Moss and Perry say that reaching that catharsis is the point.

I felt like that’s the movie,” Perry said. “If we can get people there — it’s literally the last thing in the world you would expect to happen in this movie after the first hour. So therefore we’ve got to do it.

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Elisabeth Moss on a Decade of Critical Acclaim & Becoming a Top Halloween Costume
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Elisabeth Moss on a Decade of Critical Acclaim & Becoming a Top Halloween Costume

L.A. Confidential 

Amid Emmys season madness, Elisabeth Moss surveys her glittering domain as the Queen of Peak TV.

This time of year is always pleasantly surreal for Elisabeth Moss. Hardly a September passes without her navigating the red-carpeted run-up to the Emmy Awards (she finally won in 2017 after nearly a decade of nominations); and then, in October, come the Halloween costumes.

For a while, it was all about Peggy in a tight ’60s dress carrying a martini glass,Moss says with a smile. Peggy Olson was the determined copywriter she played on Mad Men for seven seasons. This was after she spent seven seasons as Martin Sheen’s daughter on The West Wing. Now the trick-or-treat pick is Offred, the dystopian protagonist Moss portrays on the Hulu drama The Handmaid’s Tale, which earned her dual Emmys last year for acting and producing. “Honestly, I didn’t see it coming, this fascination with the long red robe and the white bonnet,” she says.

It is not lost on Moss that these tributes—high, low and fashionable—add up to validation both about her exemplary decision-making and her ability to totally rock a period frock. “When people all over are dressing up like you, it’s definitely flattering and also kinda bizarre,” she says. “You realize how much of this work is beyond your control.

That’s certainly the case lately for Moss. With television hit after hit after hit after hit (the 2013 miniseries Top of the Lake landed her a Golden Globe, a Critics’ Choice Award and an Emmy nod), she’s been dubbed “The Queen of Peak TV.” But now with two seasons of The Handmaid’s Tale streaming to universal acclaim, and a third on its way in 2019, Moss, 36, is an unwitting icon in a culture waking up to #MeToo, the treatment of immigrants and the battle over women’s bodies. The drama, based on Margaret Atwood’s dark classic, is set in an authoritarian alternate present that many say mirrors the far-right extremism of current-day politics. Radical Muslims are blamed for government problems, and women are stripped of basic rights and sexually violated. Much of what draws people to the series is Moss’ unflinching portrayal of Offred, a woman who submits to ritualized rape on a regular basis as part of her duty to male masters. It makes sense that the character’s gown-and-hood look is a staple alongside pink hats at women’s rights rallies.

We never intended to copy what’s happening in the world, but like most other people, I feel that things on the show are way too close to home,Moss says. “It’s this sense of, ‘Hey, if we don’t pay attention, if we stop listening, if we fail to take action against injustice, we’re getting pretty close to the dystopia we see on-screen.’”

Lizzie Moss didn’t set out to become a feminist meme. Growing up in Laurel Canyon in Los Angeles, the older of two kids to musicians Ron and Linda Moss, she was on track for a career in dance, having studied ballet as a teen at The School of American Ballet in New York City and The Kennedy Center in Washington, D.C., while pursuing an acting career. But when her side passion of acting began paying off, Moss made the decision at 15 to commit to show business full time. “I could imagine not dancing, but I couldn’t imagine not acting for the rest of my life,” she says. At 17, she won the recurring part of first daughter Zoey Bartlet on The West Wing and has worked steadily and to great acclaim ever since. “I’ve been doing this long enough to see how fortunate I’ve been, and I never take it for granted,” she says. “It’s unusual as an actor to feel that sense of security, so I sometimes just kinda pinch myself.

Moss, who can be slightly imposing despite being only 5 feet, 3 inches tall, lives in Manhattan now and stays mostly quiet about her personal life. A few details are well-known: She and actor Fred Armisen were married in 2009 and separated the following year. Also, she was born and raised a Scientologist. Moss has said the church helps “[make you] a better you, not necessarily changing who you are,” and with “empowerment and respecting yourself as an individual.” On this particular day, with meetings and fittings, cats to be fed and laundry to be done, along with filming Her Smell, out next year, Moss laughs and says, “My spiritual life consists mostly of trying to watch a little TV and get enough sleep.” Pressed further about her religion and the increasing focus on it, she says, “It’s an odd feeling. I put myself emotionally into my work. Beyond that, I have to keep something for myself.

It’s hard to find an actor more emotionally all-in. The second season of The Handmaid’s Tale opens with Moss stripped bare in an intense sex romp with costar Max Minghella. Another scene has her lopping off her hair along with a chunk of her GPS-tagged left ear to avoid being tracked by the menaces from Red Center. The brutality has been a sticking point for some viewers. Does showing women being mistreated on-screen ever cross a line for Moss?

The guiding principle is honesty,” she says. “Whatever you see in terms of violence or sex is an accurate representation of the world we’re in, which is why it never feels false or gratuitous. I think that’s a common thread in all my work. The question is always: ‘Does this feel real? Are we being true? Because it’s only by being accurate to reality that audiences can escape from it for a little while.

Moss escapes whenever she can. She’s an avid traveler and especially loves Italy and New Zealand. In the infinitesimal spaces between jobs, she’s learning to play piano and guitar for her upcoming role as lead singer of a punk rock band in Her Smell and spends quality time with her cats, Lucy and Ethel, who were found on the street in Brooklyn when she was making Listen Up Philip. “They’re quite famous,” Moss says, arching an eyebrow. “Lucy’s kind of private but Ethel is kind of a big deal, at least on social media.” (A recent Instagram post on @elisabethmossofficial that showed the feline lounging luxuriously in Moss’ Upper West Side apartment—it was slugged “Current mood. #ethel”—got more than 15,000 likes.)

Chalk it up as one more fascinating side effect of being Elisabeth Moss. In a way, having a celebrity pet is no more unreal than Oprah walking over to say she loves The Handmaid’s Tale (“Totally crazy!Moss says) or Hillary Clinton praising the “amazing” series in front of 10,000 middle and high school girls, as she did at Los Angeles Convention Center last year (“I was like, ‘Holy shit!’”). And who knows what will happen this year on Halloween? “I was shooting last year, so I missed it,” she says, “but if I need a costume, I know where I can get one.

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“It’s a Revolution”: The Hollywood Reporter Drama Actress Roundtable

Six top TV stars — Angela Bassett, Claire Foy, Maggie Gyllenhaal, Elisabeth Moss, Thandie Newton and Sandra Oh — unload on the power of producing, onscreen nudity (male and female), learning to say no and the better-late-than-never push for gender pay parity: “There was so much talk, and where was the action?”

The Hollywood Reporter‘s annual Drama Actress Roundtable conversation veers into the subject of pay parity. It is a hot-button issue that the Crown star has been unable to avoid since March, when a producer on her acclaimed Netflix drama disclosed that Foy, who has played Queen Elizabeth for two seasons, was paid less than her male co-star Matt Smith. Going forward, however, the producer noted, “No one gets paid more than the queen.” The admission ignited fury and was quickly followed by an apology for dragging Foy and Smith to “the center of a media storm.” But the saga was not without a silver lining: HBO stars Thandie Newton (Westworld) and Maggie Gyllenhaal (The Deuce) quickly saw their own salaries boosted to match their male counterparts’, as they reveal to their compatriots at the Hollywood gathering.

Over the course of an hour at Line 204 Studios on April 29, Foy, 34, Newton, 45, and Gyllenhaal, 40, were joined by Elisabeth Moss, 35 (Hulu’s The Handmaid’s Tale and SundanceTV’s Top of the Lake: China Girl); Sandra Oh, 46 (BBC America’s Killing Eve); and Angela Bassett, 59 (Fox’s 9-1-1) for a wide-ranging discussion that also hit on the politics of sex scenes, the power in producing and the parts that have warranted an easy and immediate “no.” But first and foremost — as is increasingly the case in today’s Hollywood — they talked money.

Claire, one of the conversations that you got unwittingly pulled into was one about pay parity.

CLAIRE FOY Here we go … (Laughs.)

How much did you know about the pay disparity between you and your co-star before the world knew, and what did it feel like to be at the center of that?

FOY I [could have] kept my mouth shut and said, “I have nothing to say, I’m a robot.” I was part of a really incredible show that I’m really proud of and grateful for, but that shouldn’t stop me from having an opinion about something that I have been brought into the center of. It would be very different if it was something that I didn’t have an opinion on, but it’s something that I feel really strongly about and that I had a suspicion of …

THANDIE NEWTON Is that why it got talked about? Because you had a suspicion?

FOY No, no, no. It came about purely because the producers brought it up [at a conference] as a way of saying, “This is a good thing because in the first two [seasons] this is what happened, but we’ll never do that again.”

SANDRA OH Oh, whoops!

NEWTON That’s what’s happened with HBO now because of what [happened on your] show. They’re now having all the men and women [making] equal pay. It’s a revolution.

MAGGIE GYLLENHAAL It’s true. That’s a place where honestly there was so much talk, and where was the action? And then I just get a call going over the bridge to Brooklyn saying my salary now is way higher than I ever considered it would be, and it’s because of these conversations. At first, I was like, “Wait, this is not fair. Why do I get to win the lottery?” And then I went, “No, it’s been unfair to the point where I’ve digested it and accepted it without ever considering that it could or should be equal.”

FOY Looking back now at the conversations you have at the beginning of doing a deal and all that, and this may be a cultural thing, but in the United Kingdom we don’t talk about money.

GYLLENHAAL We don’t talk about it here either.

But will you now?

FOY No. (Laughter.) But the point is I don’t have to now.

NEWTON It’s going to set a precedent.

FOY Yeah. And the thing is, at the beginning of the deal when they’re saying, “This is gonna happen and you’re gonna get paid this and blah, blah, blah,” I have never felt that I would ever be in a position where I could ask [for more] and I would know what was happening and I would know what decisions were being made. But they used that to their favor, [the fact] that you can’t, and they’d all say, “But you’re not worth that.” And you go, “You’re right, I’m not.” Because that’s what you say to yourself when someone tells you that, and you absorb it.

ALL Yeah.

For those of you who are producers, do you feel compelled or empowered to start having those conversations and speaking up about pay on your shows now?

ANGELA BASSETT I’m probably feeling a little bit more empowered to do so, but for so long it’s just been about wanting to work. And wanting to be paid fairly, sure, and not having a frame of reference of what someone else is getting or the fear of, if you over-reach you’re going to lose the job.

NEWTON And that’s used against us all the time.

BASSETT You hear, “We’re gonna move on if you say no.”

NEWTON But then you say no, and suddenly they say, “Oh, actually would you reconsider?” That’s a tactic I’ve used.

BASSETT Good for you. (Clapping.)

ELISABETH MOSS When you’re leading the show and you’re the face of the show and a lot of people are making a lot of money off of that face and your work, it does put you in an empowered position. It’s not just financial, it’s about other ways of having control and a say, which frankly no one is used to. You start asking for something, and they’re like, “Oh right, I guess you could have that. No one has ever asked.”

FOY I can’t imagine being an executive producer on a show and me saying something and them not just going, “But you’re just an actor.”

You’ve heard that?

FOY That’s what’s understood. And that you’re difficult when you say, “Could we just push my pickup time by 25 minutes?”

MOSS Oh yeah.

GYLLENHAAL I asked to be a producer on my show because I’d never done this thing before where you get three scripts and the season is 10 scripts and then you might go on for three years. And I’m playing a sex worker, and of course I have to take my clothes off all the time, and I’m like, “Wait, I have to be able to know that I will be included in the conversation.” But, actually, I wouldn’t feel comfortable saying, “Could you please push my call time 25 minutes?” (Laughs.)

MOSS Really? I do that all the time.

FOY All the time. I’m like, “I need to sleep.”

What are you asking for with that producer hat on, Maggie?

GYLLENHAAL Well, for example, in our show there is lots of prostitution, lots of transactional sex, lots of fake orgasms. They’re not called fake orgasms, but you cut in on the end of a sex act between a sex worker and a John and you hear this loud orgasm, and I said to David Simon, the man running our show, “I think you need to see a real feminine orgasm in order to show the contrast and to show that these are performative. It will illuminate the misogyny and the performance and all that stuff.” When I first said it to him, he pretended to spit his water back in his cup. But then he wrote a scene where my character is sleeping with somebody whom she actually wants to sleep with. He doesn’t make her come, and so she turns over and makes herself come.

NEWTON That’s amazing.

GYLLENHAAL And I was like, “This orgasm needs to be the realest orgasm ever. This needs to be one that takes 30 seconds, that’s very quiet, that’s just about her.” I thought about it, and then I went in and did that on TV. And that’s way more vulnerable than the orgasm that’s the performance.

OH How empowering to be able to have an artistic say in what your character is doing.

GYLLENHAAL But then I see the cut, and they cut the orgasm.

ALL No! (Laughter.)

GYLLENHAAL I wrote a dissertation by email, and then I woke up at 6 o’clock in the morning to see if they [read] it. And the second I got to set, I was like, “Where is the orgasm?” I explained to them again why they needed it in. And they put it in.

BASSETT You fought for it.

OH That’s fantastic. Such a great win.

MOSS I know that dissertation email so well. (Laughs.)

When you’re considering roles, you’re all at a point in your careers where you can afford to be picky. How do you decide what’s a yes versus a no?

OH It takes a while to get to a point in your career where you can actually make a choice. And after a decade of my life on a show [Grey’s Anatomy], I had enough economic power to be able to say no. Those four years were like active waiting. I was not not working really in here (motions to her gut) to be able to figure out what the right thing is and what it is to say no and what it is to say yes. It’s like falling in love. Now, what I realize is I have a little bit more awareness, a little more consciousness, I want this out of a relationship and I’m just going to wait until they show up because I feel like they’ll show up.

You’ve talked about reading the initial pilot script for Killing Eve and scrolling through quite a bit of it before you realized you were being asked to play the central storyteller. Why do you think that is, and what did you learn from that realization?

OH That moment was a real punch in the gut for me because the internalization [that I couldn’t be seen as the lead] was really deep. I get the script, I’m on the phone with my agent, I remember exactly where I was, right by BAM in Brooklyn, and I’m going, “Scrolling, scrolling” (scans her phone). I’m just like, “I don’t know, who am I playing? What’s the part?” [My agent] goes, “Eve! You’re playing Eve.” Something happened to me in that moment where I couldn’t even see myself [as the central character].

NEWTON You hadn’t given yourself permission.

OH Right. Why didn’t I?

FOY That makes me want to cry.

OH So the fact that [creator] Phoebe Waller-Bridge, BBC America and Sally Woodward Gentle, our producer, said, “Yes, why not this [for me]?” I felt slightly ashamed — and if I can’t see myself in that moment, then other people have that weight as well. And so we need to hold these things up for other people to see.

NEWTON Oh my God, yes.

OH And that’s one of the reasons why I said, “I’m going to take this. I’m gonna leave my life here — I’m going to do everything to make this.”

So that was your big yes. For the rest of you, are there types of roles that you just say, “Mmm, not gonna do that”?

NEWTON Oh my God, yeah. Ninety-five percent [of them].

What’s an easy no?

NEWTON Well, for a start, it’s how a character is described in a script. For years, I’d be called up and they’d say, “Thandie, they want to go exotic with the role, so get excited.” (Laughter.) Or they want to go “ethnic” with the role. And I would just have to brace myself because it was so deeply offensive, but I wanted to work. And then I’d read the script and I’d transform it out of this bizarre objectification. I’d think, like, “How can I help make this more progressive?” I’d spend a lot of time trying to give more dimension to these women’s roles. And oftentimes — well, always — they would be written by men, and I’d find myself desperately trying to stop these characters from being demonized, and that happens [because] you don’t have enough lines or screen time to actually try and humanize these characters. So, I’ve found I’ve had to rise above the initial hurt that I feel that a man has written a role that is objectifying this person, whether it’s their ethnicity or [a description like], “She turns up, she’s beautiful, she’s sexy without giving too much away …”

FOY Oh God, that’s an awful description. (Laughter.)

NEWTON Or you turn up at a photo shoot, and it’ll say, “The idea behind this shoot is strong, powerful, sexy.” And as soon as I read sexy, I’m like, “Really? Do we have to be sexy in order to be powerful?” Let’s start looking at the way things are described because they have ramifications. I have daughters. I don’t want her thinking you have to be sexy to be powerful.

BASSETT Well, at least you stay in the conversation. If I look at something and I feel that way about it, or offended, then it’s like, “Well, it’s not for me, but it’s for someone else, perhaps.”

NEWTON But we have influence and we can help them because very often people have no idea that they’ve done it. I’ve heard unbelievable statistics about how many men are writing our roles, and of course they’re going to get it wrong. How can they be in our shoes? How can they really understand how we feel? We have to correct that. And we have the opportunity.

GYLLENHAAL I’ve worked with a lot of men who are actually interested in and curious about women. Even if, of course, it’s impossible for a man to entirely understand a feminine experience, there are men who are interested in exploring it with you and in correcting it if you’re like, “Mmm, no, it’s actually more like this.”

NEWTON Sure. It’s scary, though, to be the one to say, “Hang on a sec, guys, can we try this?”

GYLLENHAAL My show is actually about this: sex as a way into having an actual interesting conversation. And when I look back with a little objectivity on the work I’ve done in my life, I don’t think I was conscious of this but I do think sex and sex scenes and sexuality has been a way to get people’s attention and then go, “OK, are you listening now? Here’s what I actually really want to talk about.” That’s what was available to me, so that’s what I used.


GYLLENHAAL I’m really interested in sex, like everybody else, and I’m interested in sex scenes. But in my show, my character has access to filmmaking but only in porn and only with her body. That’s how she can get in and start having the conversation where she’s like, “What does that light do?” — while she’s got her clothes off. But I kind of relate to that as an actress. I don’t know if you all feel this way, but it has felt like a prerequisite that, yes, you can be smart and powerful and all these things, but you also have to throw a little sexiness in there. And I don’t know if it’s going to stay that way, but it certainly has been that way for most of my career.

NEWTON [It’s one thing] when you’re in control and empowered to be able to dial up and down however much sexiness you want to use, but what worries me is when you’re a young person coming into this industry and you’re encouraged to use your sexuality and you haven’t made decisions about that.

GYLLENHAAL But haven’t we all been …?

BASSETT Mmmm, no, not really. (Laughter.) I’ve not been asked to use my sexuality in my career.


BASSETT Not as a black woman, no.


NEWTON I wonder why?

OH I’ll echo Angela’s experience. For me, I don’t think I’ve ever gotten any job based on bum bum bum … (motions to her body). As fabulous as it is. (Laughter.)

FOY That’s really interesting and alarming.

OH But it’s also complicated in lots of ways if you are the person [for whom] that’s not at the forefront of your toolbox. And there’s a lot of different feelings that we have when people are not interested in your [sexuality]. I have realized in a lot of this awakening that there are a lot of times where I have felt left out, ignored, not seen, but now I see I’ve been protected.


FOY If people didn’t see you that way, you don’t get sent those parts?

OH It’s not so much that, it’s the compromises. I have not necessarily been in the situations where I have had to compromise in those ways. Other ways I have — but my ability to continue the integrity of my work has not, I don’t think, been as weighted as it has for a lot of other actresses I know.

FOY What really pisses me off is that there is one idea of what is sexy. And now because I’m doing more and more photo shoots and things like that that are required of me and I’m expected to be a certain way …

What way is that?

FOY (Gives mock sexy poses.)

NEWTON Yeah, yeah, yeah, the sexy thing. (Laughter.)

FOY I just don’t have it. I don’t have it in me to be sexy as someone else. I don’t know why I would be sexy or in what way I’m sexy, and I don’t know whether I can play up my sexiness.

GYLLENHAAL But I’m not talking about that kind of sexy. I’ve been told I’m not sexy enough or beautiful enough so many more times than I can even remember from the time I was 22 years old. I’m talking about what you’re saying (looks to Oh), which is: I figured out at some point that one of the things in my toolbox was the way I feel that I’m sexy. And for us as women, we have to use whatever’s in our toolbox. I’m not interested in the pretend sexy thing and I’m not interested in seeing it in other people, either.

FOY That’s the fallacy of it. I don’t think anybody really is.


GYLLENHAAL I know. (Laughter.)

How do the conversation and tone on set change as you start to see more male nudity?

GYLLENHAAL Oh, I’ve had like three prosthetic penises put in front of a group of people to figure out which one went best with which man.

OH Wow.

And what does that feel like, having always been the one who’s had to strip down?

GYLLENHAAL I don’t know how to compare that to anything! (Laughs.)

NEWTON I do. With the season premiere, [my co-star] Simon Quarterman was completely naked and he was terrified. There was no prosthetic penis there. He decided to go for it. And just being aware of his vulnerability … What I love about Westworld is that it’s showing the vulnerability and the objectification of a person, and if you see a person naked and not in a sexual context, suddenly you don’t want to look. Well, maybe some people do want to jerk off to what I was doing in season one, but that’s really weird and they should check into a hospital.

ALL Mm, hmm. (Laughter.)

NEWTON But that’s why I took the show. I’ve been objectified, I’ve had directors lie to me when I’m in a naked situation on a movie and been told that they’re cutting here (motions to her bust line and up) when in fact they’re shooting from here (motions to whole body), so you see everything. I’ve had terrible things happen, so to be able to say to the showrunners of Westworld, “I am willing to stand for 75 percent of this season totally naked” because it wasn’t a sexual context [is powerful]. And then to see this man terrified of being naked when Evan Rachel Wood and I have grown accustomed to it, sitting there, having a chat, a glass of water, totally naked, it was very touching. And he’s learned that it’s really tough, and the more men that do it. … And men are also really worried about how their bodies look. So much more worried than us. Like these guys on Westworld are all, “How does my bum look? I’m really scared, can you do some shading here and there?” And we’re like, “Really?’ (Laughter.)

For those of you who are producers, when have you decided to weigh in as a female voice?

MOSS Luckily, I work in a really incredibly collaborative atmosphere on my show that I’ve never experienced before — and I’ve been around for a while. As one of the only female executive producers, obviously there’s a weight there. I have a perspective that nobody else will have, and that’s so respected and appreciated. That shouldn’t be crazy that it’s appreciated, it should be appreciated. As far as the nudity and the sex, I was lucky in the sense that five years ago I worked with Jane Campion [on Top of the Lake] and it was my first nude scene, and she gave me 100 percent approval without me asking.

NEWTON Oh, that’s incredible.

MOSS I was like, “I don’t know, I don’t know,” and she was like, “Listen …”

GYLLENHAAL I have that, too.

MOSS Everyone should have it.

What does 100 percent approval over nude scenes entail?

MOSS It means I have 100 percent approval over all the footage and I can literally say, “You cannot use that scene.”

GYLLENHAAL And it means instead of having to negotiate [ahead of time] — which I think is really strange — “You can show a right nipple but not this (motions to her rear) …”

MOSS Instead it’s [seeing the footage and saying], “Oh, I’m comfortable with this but I’m not comfortable with that.”

GYLLENHAAL I’ve been doing a lot of nudity all my career and I’ve had it for 15 years, and I’ve actually never taken anything out.

MOSS You’ve got to get it. I have it on everything now. They can’t send out a cut that has something in it without me approving it.

NEWTON I wish I’d known that. That’s why we all need to talk.

The Hollywood Reporter

Filed in Articles Elisabeth Gallery Interviews News Photoshoots

Elisabeth Moss talks about #MeToo, Dating and wanting to be a mother

Elisabeth Moss is on the cover of next month’s issue of Marie Claire UK talking everything from #MeToo to her dating life.

The Handmaid’s Tale was the most timely drama series of 2017. Now it’s back for a second season, and its inimitable star Elisabeth Moss tells Jane Mulkerrins why the conversation around gender inequality and sexual abuse is set to get louder

‘I’ve always considered myself a feminist. But, like a lot of women of my generation, I didn’t think we had to fight for it. I thought it was all done. I took so much for granted.’ Elisabeth Moss shakes her head, in regret at her – at all of our – folly. ‘We’ve had to take ownership of feminism in a way that we didn’t know we’d have to, and that’s changed me.’

It’s Saturday evening in a subterranean wine bar in Manhattan, and this is the same conversation I’ve been having with friends and colleagues on an almost daily basis since the 2016 election of Donald Trump, and, subsequently, the downfall of Harvey Weinstein and the rise of the #MeToo movement.

The only difference tonight is that, thanks to her role in the TV adaptation of The Handmaid’s Tale, the woman I’m discussing it with has become a symbol for the new resistance. As Offred, the protagonist of Margaret Atwood’s seminal feminist story, Moss plays a sexual slave in Gilead, a dystopian world in which women are not permitted to read or write, and in which their fertility – the ultimate currency – has been hijacked and commodified by a far-right, fundamentalist ruling elite.
‘I’ve never told a story that so closely paralleled life as it was happening around me, especially life as a 35-year-old woman in America,’ she says. ‘So the lines have gotten much more blurry than with any other role I’ve ever done. But it’s also really cathartic to take some of the anger and frustration that I feel as a citizen, and be able to tell a story that I believe in.’

Moss was, until last year, best known as Mad Men’s Peggy Olson, herself an unwitting feminist icon, who smashed through the misogyny and glass ceilings of the 60s advertising industry. We’ve met multiple times now, first for successive seasons of Mad Men, then her role in Ben Wheatley’s 2015 film High-Rise, and, last spring, for the explosive launch of The Handmaid’s Tale. In other interviews, with other actors, it might be tricky to find something new to talk about. Not this year, not with Elisabeth Moss (or Lizzie, as she is known to all).

Arriving casually dressed, all in black with a cap and rucksack, she hugs me and apologises for her exhaustion. She flew in this morning from Toronto, where the show is filmed, and has spent all day at a photo shoot. Tomorrow, she’ll be at Marie Claire’s shoot before getting straight back on a plane to return to Toronto. On Monday morning, she’ll begin filming the season finale. She’s hungry, and she is ‘definitely getting a drink’.

It’s impossible to overstate the impact of The Handmaid’s Tale in Trump’s America, where freedoms for women, immigrants and transgender people, among others, are being radically curtailed. The uniform of the handmaids – blood-red capes and white bonnets – has even been co-opted by protesters at state senate houses across the US, where legislators have attempted to defund organisations such as Planned Parenthood (for whom Moss is a long-time advocate), which support reproductive rights. When she won the Golden Globe award for Best Actress in January, she dedicated it to the women of the #MeToo movement.

‘I have been fortunate not to have experienced some of the terrible things that so many women have talked about,’ she says. ‘But, when #MeToo and #Time’sUp really hit, I would talk to my girlfriends, and we all stepped back and looked at every encounter we’d ever had, and went, wait… was that OK? We’ve been conditioned to think it’s OK, and that’s the wake-up moment that we are having.’

One of the many high-profile men standing accused of sexual harassment is Moss’s former boss, Matthew Weiner, the creator of Mad Men. Kater Gordon, a former writer on the show, alleges that one night when they were working late, Weiner told her that she ‘owed it to him’ to let him see her naked – an allegation Weiner strongly denies.

Moss is far too diplomatic to publicly take sides, but she believes that, ‘unequivocally, women have to be allowed to have a voice.’ She continues: ‘Women need to be able to speak out if they are uncomfortable, or something happened in the past that they were not comfortable with. And the minute we start telling them that they can’t, you wind up in a fucking red dress, with a fucking white cap on.’

She is equally firm about freedom of speech when it comes to attacks on her, too. Raised as a scientologist, Moss was accused by some of hypocrisy in her Golden Globes speech, as the religion – pretty much the only subject that Moss ever declines to discuss – has been accused of covering up sexual abuse.

‘You cannot take away a person’s right to speak, and to have a voice,’ she says, firmly, when I raise the matter. ‘I’m not going to tell you that you can’t say what you think. Because if I do, then am I not a hypocrite?’ She scoops up a chunk of burrata and pauses. ‘I fundamentally believe in freedom and human rights. And, if I was not thick-skinned enough to handle criticism, I would not have been in this business for 29 years.’

A few weeks before we meet in New York, I visited the set of The Handmaid’s Tale, (amid jokes from friends about whether I’ll make it back with both my eyes). Much of the action is filmed in a vast studio space outside Toronto, which houses Offred’s austere cell-like room, and the Commander’s study, with its now-iconic Scrabble set.

On the day I visit, Moss is filming outdoors, in front of the real, bricks-and-mortar Waterford house, with Serena Joy, the Commander’s wife (Yvonne Strahovski) and Nick, the ‘eye’/driver/lover (Max Minghella). It’s February, and well below zero, but Moss, in spite of nursing a cold, is cheerful as the crew films take after take after take. More than cheerful, in fact – when the three actors run through the scene, they banter hilariously, replacing the show’s dialogue with their own feelings about the interaction.

‘Weird’ is used a lot. As is a liberal amount of swearing. For a show with such dark, brutal themes, the atmosphere is surprisingly light. ‘Oh yes,’ grins Moss, when I find her during a break, ‘it’s not serious… could you hear Max and I singing Taylor Swift songs?’

That’s not to say, however, that Moss, who is also producer on the show, doesn’t command authority or respect. Everyone I speak to in the cast and crew mentions the example she sets, with her dedication and commitment. ‘Producing is a shitload more work,’ she tells me, back in New York. ‘It’s round the clock. If I’m not acting, I’m watching cuts and making phone calls. But it’s so much more fulfilling as well. And I love it, I really do.’

As soon as Moss wraps filming on The Handmaid’s Tale, she’ll go straight into production on two films back-to-back. First up is Her Smell, written and directed by Alex Ross Perry, with whom she has worked twice before. In a cast that includes Agyness Deyn and Cara Delevingne, Moss plays Becky Something, the lead singer of a successful all-girl punk rock band, ‘as if Nirvana were all women’. Moss is practising the acoustic and electric guitar, ‘madly, every day’. She presents the tips of her fingers for examination. ‘I’m proud of these callouses,’ she beams.

 Then she’ll star alongside Tiffany Haddish and Melissa McCarthy in The Kitchen, a comedic tale of Irish mob wives in 70s Hell’s Kitchen, written and directed by Andrea Berloff, who co-wrote hip-hop biopic Straight Outta Compton. Aside from being a dramatic departure in tone from the bleakness and brutality of her current TV gig, both will be filmed in New York, and Moss is over the moon. ‘I’m going to be in my apartment,’ she whoops. ‘I might buy a rug! Do you understand? I might actually buy a rug. And be there when it’s delivered.’

A bohemian upbringing probably prepared her better than most for the nomadic life she now leads. Born and raised in Los Angeles, Moss’s parents were both musicians – her father, Ron, originally from Birmingham, played the trombone in jazz bands, while her mother, Linda, played blues harmonica. ‘We were always travelling, it was a very unusual upbringing,’ she says. ‘Everyone was always up late, and slept late. We’d go out to dinner. It was a great upbringing.’

Her parents split up, ‘some time between me being 15 and 30. It’s complicated,’ she shrugs. Her father now lives in Florida, her younger brother, Derek, in LA, where he is a writer and editor, while her mother is in New York. On the rare times Moss is home, they have dinner together twice a week, and it was Linda who she took to the Golden Globes this year.

Motherhood is, Moss reveals, an important theme of the second season of The Handmaid’s Tale. Offred is pregnant, ‘but she is having a baby, potentially, in this world that she may not want to bring it into,’ says Moss. ‘And if she does have it, the baby gets taken away from her.’ Does she see children on the horizon in her own life? ‘I do want to be a mother,’ she says, thoughtfully. ‘I like the idea of passing on what my mother passed on to me. It’s not for everybody, and I didn’t know if it was going to be for me, but lately, I think it is.’ She throws her hands up. ‘I have no idea how I want to do it though or what the plan is.’

She freely admits she has no time for dating. ‘It’s actually a problem,’ she sighs. ‘But I’m very focused on my work… so it’s difficult to find the time to give yourself to somebody.’ In what must seem like another lifetime ago, Moss was married, at 27, to actor and comedian Fred Armisen, but it lasted less than a year.

‘I have nothing against getting married again, but what I value even more now is the relationship itself,’ she says, jabbing her fork in the air to emphasise her point.  ‘It’s been eight years. I’m older, and hopefully wiser. I’m a romantic, so I love weddings, but I also don’t think you need [a wedding] to have a long-lasting, healthy relationship. Some of the relationships I know that have lasted the longest are the ones that didn’t [get married].’

Running late for a dinner date, Moss starts readying to leave and admits that, in all honesty, she’d really rather just go home and crash out. The next day, she posts an Instagram shot of her on a sofa, having her toenails painted while she plays the guitar. ‘When you’re at a photo shoot, apparently need a pedicure, shooting The Handmaid’s Tale, and also prepping for a movie,’ the caption reads, ‘#multitasking’. She couldn’t look happier.

Photoshoots & Portraits > 2018 > Marie Claire 

Magazine & Scans > 2018 > Marie Claire