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Elisabeth Moss has a new tale to tell

The Weekly Review – Elisabeth Moss is not much different from her former Mad Men alter ego, Peggy Olson. She’s smart, earnest, curious, and even a little daring. She’s also very good at her job and admits to already being a “feminist” when she was a young girl who learned to stand up for herself. Moss certainly brings plenty of inner strength as well as a piercing gaze to her various screen personae, whether it’s Robin, the relentless police detective in Top of the Lake, or Offred in The Handmaid’s Tale, whose second season she has just completed filming.

She’s appearing in The Square, a searing Swedish satire directed by Ruben Ostlund (Force Majeure). Moss plays Anne, an American journalist who travels to Sweden to interview Christian (Claes Bang), the arrogant curator of a Stockholm museum, with whom she forms a curious relationship. A scathing and, at times, hilarious critique of bourgeois society, the film’s stylistic conceits range from the pet monkey that suddenly appears at Anne’s flat to a vigorous, post-coital tug-of-war between her and Christian over a condom.

The 35-year-old Moss is single and lives in New York City. In person she comes across as highly articulate and intelligent. She has a serious side, which is leavened by a sharp sense of humour. Her performance in The Handmaid’s Tale won her the Emmy for best actress in September followed by a Golden Globe award in January.

Your character, Anne, becomes fixated with Christian. What was your take on her behaviour?

She’s weird and a bit crazy and not afraid to be confrontational. She has this huge crush on him and begins to stalk him and pretty much tries to make his life miserable. (Laughs) I thought she was a lot of fun to play. I loved the fact that you don’t really understand her and that audiences will see her as a mysterious figure.

We all know people like that who try to get too close or invade our personal space in ways that are very disturbing and make us uncomfortable. That’s how she behaves with Christian.

Does her dark side appeal to the actor in you?

It’s always stimulating to be able to explore human behaviour that is difficult to explain. I enjoyed being able to get inside those strange psychological sides to her because I could never behave that way. If I met someone and that person gave me certain signs that they didn’t share my interest, I would back off

How did Ostlund go about directing the scene involving the condom tug-of-war?

He wanted us to play as serious and to be very present in the kind of conflict they were having in that moment. We shot many takes and there are a lot of different versions of that scene, which are much more over-the-top and more like screwball comedy, which Ruben (Ostlund) decided not to use.

It’s only the audience that is going to find it funny and that’s mainly because the characters are taking the moment so seriously. It was important to maintain a consistent tone where you’re constantly guessing about what’s going on with the characters.

Did you follow a script very closely or was there a lot of improvisation?

Most of the scenes are improvised. Ruben didn’t even want me to study the script that closely because he knows that he’s going to explore a lot of different possibilities when we shoot the scenes. We really only followed basic structure of the script and the rest was created on the set as we went along.

I’ve never worked that way before and we would spend eight or nine hours a day shooting just one scene and doing about 70 or so takes. It was exhausting but exhilarating, because you have to remain concentrated on the work. I love the raw aspect to working that way.

What is your view of women’s crusade in Hollywood for pay equality and creating more opportunities?

It’s a very important battle that’s being fought and I do think that things are improving. We’re seeing more women leading the way, like Jessica Chastain or Reese Witherspoon, who developed Big Little Lies. The best thing that can happen is that you need more women in positions of authority, either as producers, directors, or studio executives who insist on hiring more women.

That happened on The Handmaid’s Tale, for example, and I hope that continues until we reach a point where women are given their just recognition at every level of our industry, just the way it should be in society as a whole. But there’s long way to go. I remember when Cannes had its 70th anniversary celebration and I discovered that Jane Campion is the only female director who has ever won the Palme d’Or. It’s shocking.